No Bob picture this month (I’m at
my parents’ for Easter, and as at Christmas, my Dad’s computer won’t
allow itself to be defiled with pictures of a seedy rockstar), but two
book reviews, to make up for it...
First, though, wasn’t The John Green Day (or weekend, as it is to many
of us) great? I really enjoyed myself, and it was lovely to meet up with
so many people. Richard and I are getting to be dab hands at the
reception desk, if I say so myself, and it is an excellent way to meet
everyone coming in (and flog them some books...). Despite the weariness
of negotiating a series of engineering works on the train system on the
return journey, it was a super weekend, and really made me smile. Thank
you, friends, as Bob might say. I may even, at some distant point in the
future, recover from the excitement of being shown the Freewheelin'
handshake... A very big Well Done to everyone involved with the
organizing, which went (or appeared to go, which is the most important
thing), like clockwork. And there wasn’t even a fire alarm in the middle
of the night.
So, onto the books...Is it me, or are they coming thicker and faster
than ever before at the moment? Perhaps it just seems that way because I
have spent all my money on a holiday in Hibbing in August, and have very
little left for the deluge of books with which we are being assailed at
the moment...Still, these two were worth their price:
A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks,
by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard.
There are so very many books about Dylan nowadays that it has become
difficult to see, lately, how anyone could find an unexplored angle
about which to write. The ever-increasing tide of biographies and
critical analyses sweeps over the bookcases, and the completist reader
begins to doubt that there are many original thoughts left out there...
Andy Gill's book not only covers (and uncovers) original ground, but
allows us a sustained look at a critical part of Dylan's creative
process - his work in the recording studio. It has a wholly novel focus
for a Dylan book, in the day-to-day, song-to-song, process of recording
an album, in the interactions between the musicians, and in the
technical details of the engineering, all fascinating stuff.
The story of the evolution of Blood on the Tracks is a fascinating one,
and one of which we were largely unaware, and the beauty and usefulness
of this book lies in its access to the memories of those who were there
(except for Dylan, naturally). Most musicians who have worked with Dylan
remain shy of talking in detail about the man, for fear of offending
him, one often thinks, and jeopardising any chances - however slim - of
working with him again. These musicians, and especially the Minneapolis
ones, don't have the same reluctance: their involvement with Blood on
the Tracks was of lightening-strike improbability, and after years of
going without credit for their work they appear only too eager to put
their memories and achievement on record, to great effect.
The picture of Dylan which emerges is not always a very flattering one,
but it is one which allows us to see how he - in a setting in which he
is not always very comfortable - gets the best from himself and others
around him. The extent of Dylan's musicianship impresses even the
virtuoso musicians around him; his unwillingness to compromise
spontaneity for explanation leaves some bewildered and frustrated, some
exhilarated; the music is what - always - matters most.
The least convincing sections of the book - and the least comfortable -
are those which seek to explore Dylan's relationship with his brother
David, who was chiefly responsible for the re-recording of the Blood on
the Tracks songs with Minnesotan musicians. Who can really say what goes
on within family relationships? A lot of the time, not even family
members themselves know the whole truth about the ways in which they
react to the ties that bind them. And the evidence here for the nature
of David and Bob’s relationship is very slight: a few remembered
instances of childhood teasing and cruelty; a few reminiscences from
David's friends (with their own biases); a lot of - wholly unhelpful -
analogies with sibling relationships in the Old Testament. Nothing
first-hand, of course, from either of the brothers. A few
quickly-passed-over thoughts on the matter would have been more than
sufficient: the attempt to turn these scraps into a fuller investigation
of the dynamics between the superstar and his overshadowed brother (as
the book would have it) is not successful, and perhaps unworthy in the
light of the gems in the rest of the book.
Tangled Up in the Bible: Bob Dylan and Scripture, by Michael J. Gilmour
I had it as my New Year’s Resolution last year to read the Bible from
cover to cover, on the basis that what's good enough for Bob is good
enough for me, but I must confess that I didn't get through it. I know
now that I bought the wrong edition: perhaps I will try again with a
King James one, as it's obviously the version that Bob best responds to,
as this book clearly argues.
It's always been amazing to me, from earlier books that have examined
the impact of Scriptural writing on Dylan - most notably and sagely, of
course, the late Bert Cartwright’s great study The Bible in the Lyrics
of Bob Dylan - just how strongly biblical language resonates through
Dylan songs. Gilmour's book follows modestly where Cartwright trod the
path, in identifying some of the instances where the influence is most
discernible, and there are many interesting revelations on a textual
level, for example the biblical precedents (in Proverbs) of the “strange
woman” who recurs in Dylan songs (for example in I and I - the “strange
woman sleeping in my bed”), which I, certainly, and I suspect many
others, would not have come to independently.
Gilmour sets out his aims for this book clearly. It is not intended to
be a systematic treatment, but is “[In effect]...a collection of essays
on specific themes and texts, each exploring ways that the Bible is
present in the selected songs”, an approach which Gilmour concedes is
“admittedly myopic”. Unlike Cartwright, he does not affix songs to
phases in Dylan’s religiosity, or seek to use them to analyse where
Dylan was at any given time during his spiritual journeying. Where
others have been very literal in their treatment of lyrics, Gilmour
tends more to the Paul Williams style of emotional relationship with the
feel of the songs, seeking to identify patterns and themes within
Dylan’s approach to Scripture. The book is dedicated, for example, “To
Bob Dylan, my favourite theologian".
This does have its dangers. Reading the book as a non-theologian, it is
possible in many chapters to feel that links are becoming rather
fanciful and far-fetched. Gilmour’s argument, for example, that the
whole of Empire Burlesque stands as a commentary on the Sermon on the
Mount left me completely cold. There are, of course, themes within songs
like Tight Connection that have similarities with New Testament
passages, but aren't there always bound to be what Gilmour terms
“intertextualities” when different art forms discuss the same thing ie.
the nature of the human condition? Of much more relevance, it would seem
to me, is the discussion of what Dylan feels he means when he
specifically mentions the Sermon on the Mount, as he does in Up to Me,
about which Gilmour has some interesting things to say.
I would disagree, too, with much of Gilmour’s reading of "Love and
Theft". Describing it as “Dylan's retelling of the exodus story”,
Gilmour seems to have missed many of the album’s undertones and ironies.
He is particularly wrong, I think, about Moonlight, the “gentle”
protagonist of which he sees as “the voice of the Son of God”, and whose
appeals to the girl to meet him in the moonlight he describes as
“offering to help with the [exodus] journey”, ie. across the river/Red
Sea. The suggestion that the singer’s crooned blandishments might be an
enticement to help the girl on an altogether more sinister sort of
journey seems not to have occurred to Gilmour at all. (Of course, he
hadn't had a chance to see the Victoria’s Secret ad before he wrote this
book). Let’s hope that the girl herself is rather more cautious and
street-smart: her paramour is much more likely to be a maidens preyer
that the answer to a maiden’s prayer.(1)
The "Love and Theft” chapter, chapter 5, is full of similarly
wrong-footed attempts to fit a Mosaic reading to the songs. Perhaps the
most tenuous is the footnoted suggestion that the “Rosie's bed” line in
Mississippi is intended to sound like “Red Sea bed”!
I think one of the problems that Gilmour has is that his self-confessed
biblical myopia does not always allow him to see the depth of other
influences on Dylan. Yes, floods in songs will always have an echo of
Noah’s Great Flood, but the very real nineteenth- and twentieth- century
floods of the southern states left a deep imprint (tidemark?) on blues
songs, and their influence on Dylan cannot be ignored. It needn’t be a
question of which one or the other - Bible or Blues - is the predominant
influence (with Dylan it is always likely to be a mixture of the two,
with lots of other things in the mix as well, like Japanese gangster
novels!) but the influence of the latter is not given nearly enough
discussion here. Another example: Gilmour discusses which Biblical
Lazarus is likely to be the one that pops up in Tarantula - without
mentioning the Po' Lazarus of song fame, a real oversight when
discussing a piece of writing which is steeped in singers and songs.
I wouldn't like to give the impression that I didn't enjoy reading
Tangled Up in the Bible. It is very accessible, and nicely written, by
someone who clearly knows a great deal about his subject, and whose
respect and love for Dylan’s songs shines out very clearly. Nowhere does
Gilmour get bogged down in overly academic treatments of issues (indeed,
in more than a few places, I was left disappointed that he hadn’t
expanded on his reading of individual songs, for example, on the
“ancient footsteps” in Every Grain of Sand, his discussion of which only
takes two pages and could usefully have been much longer).
Accepted as a selective and subjective study, Tangled up in the Bible
has much to offer. It makes a nice change, above all, to read an author
who presents his views on Dylan humbly and self-critically. As he
himself says, “How can we ever know, and more importantly, does it
really matter? We can't escape ambiguity.” Amen to that, brother, Amen.
This pun is dedicated, with humility, to Christopher Ricks.