Back To Reality

by Paula Radice




After the excitement of the Summer (see last issue), it's full-steam ahead on the Anti-Climax Express, in other words, back to Hastings, and back to school. I keep wondering if I might be able to persuade the elementary school in Hibbing to have me on secondment for six months or a year: I'm dying to get back there for a longer visit. Perhaps, if I save my pennies, I'll be able to go again in a year or two. 

Till then, I thought to console myself with reading a new novel that's out, set in 1966, in - completely coincidentally - a little place called Hibbing, Minnesota... 

It's called One Summer in Flyoverland, and is by Mark Reps. The title isn't explained, but I guess that it is a reference that Americans, or perhaps just Mid-Westerners, would recognize: the book's front cover shows a map of America with New York and Los Angeles (the twin poles of American culture) marked, with Hibbing and Minnesota marked in solitary isolation in the middle, so presumably "Flyoverland"  refers to a part of the nation that touches most Americans' consciousness - if at all - only as an area they pass over in a plane bound between coasts. 

Disappointingly, it's a) not a very good novel, and b) has no real relationship to Hibbing, even though the main character, thirteen-year-old Max, says he lives in Bob Dylan's old house. The house is never described, neither is the street, nor Howard Street (called here, rather unoriginally, "High Street"), nor the High School, nor the Androy Hotel  - in other words, nothing is described that is a real, meaningful landmark in Hibbing, or that distinguishes it from any other small town in America. The iron ore mine is mentioned, but no attempt is made to convey its vastness or beauty, and it doesn't feature in the plot much. In fact, the whole book is very short on detailed description and rather long on the vague and the general. As a "coming-of-age" story, posited as a murder mystery, it goes almost nowhere: whatever growth may have occurred in Max or his best friend Charlie is left undefined, and the "twist" in the mystery of the murders is neither surprising nor entertaining. A disappointment. 

Of much more relevance and interest is, of course, Paul Williams' latest volume in the Performing Artist series, covering the years 1986-1990 (the "and Beyond" of the book's title refers to two essays at the end, on Time Out of Mind and "Love and Theft"). I am not at all sure that I can write a properly objective review of anything by Paul Williams. I have loved his writing for as long as I've known about Bob Dylan, and meeting him some years ago only confirmed for me that he stands head and shoulders above most other Dylan commentators because of his sensitivity to both Dylan's cultural context and the ways that his creativity works. He was the first to make a convincing argument for Dylan's performances to be viewed as the peaks of his achievement, rather than the lyrics as written on the page (Dylan as "poet") or the studio recordings (Dylan as "protest singer" or "pop star"), and this approach has allowed Williams, I believe, to get closer than anyone else to an understanding of whatever creative urges really drive Bob Dylan. 

Above all,  Williams is a writer who takes risks and puts himself on the line, in the same way that Dylan does on stage (he talks about Dylan's "subtle and heroic risk-taking", absolutely spot-on). He is not afraid to expose his own feelings and foibles as part of the process of discovering Dylan's emotional truths. Greil Marcus does this, too, and Christopher Ricks exposed himself to howls of academic ridicule with the very personalized response to Dylan he unveiled in Visions of Sin,  but very few other Dylan writers have spanned the emotional distance between artist and audience so persuasively, and with so easily accessible an approach to writing. 

So I come to Mind Out of Time with a weight of expectations, no less than the weight of preconceptions and predictions I bring to the first hearing of a new Dylan album. I know the sorts of things I want to hear: will I be disappointed or delighted? 

From the start, it's clear that Williams has more of an uphill task with this third Performing Artist than with the previous two, because of the point in Dylan's career that it covers. I can wholly sympathise, because the mid-1980s were exactly the point at which I myself came to Bob Dylan, and, believe me, it wasn't a good time to nail Dylan colours to any mast. It was a real low point in Dylan's standing as an artist; whether that was fully deserved or not is a different matter, but the media perception of Dylan, following the débâcle of Live Aid in particular, was that he was washed-up and irrelevant, a '60s dinosaur who hadn't had the good grace to retire quietly. The British newspapers were savage each time they covered a concert, or a film, or an album.  Twenty years later, with Dylan fully ensconced in "Living Legend" status, it is easy to forget what an easy target for mockery he was in the '80s. 

I did wonder whether Williams, whose distinctive tone is nearly always one of chortling enthusiasm, would pull his punches when it came to some of the, ahem, less astute of Dylan's career decisions at this time, but thankfully he doesn't. Hearts of Fire is "a dreadfully bad movie" (yes, it is), and is pleasingly sceptical about the end results of Dylan's musical collaborations with The Grateful Dead: I loved his description of the "word salad" that Dylan reduced many of his songs' lyrics to when playing with the Dead. Williams fully appreciates and describes the lostness of Dylan in these years, his inability (as he himself admitted) to connect with his own lyrics and find in them the truths that would enable him to communicate them to an audience, and he goes on to explain the rôle that Jerry Garcia especially played in reconnecting Dylan with his songs, "so three cheers for Dylan and the Dead, even if the music they made together was mostly awful". (And a fourth, very heartfelt, cheer to the Dead for having the good sense not to allow Dylan to become, as he wanted, a member of the group). 

Where the strength of this book lies in its tying together what Dylan actually does in performance with the (surprisingly explicit) things Dylan has said in various interviews about his own song-writing and performing, and about how crucial to his performances is the meaning of each song  to him at different given times. At the heart of Williams' understanding of Dylan's work is the concept of "time-stopping" (as Dylan himself put it, "Songs are just thoughts. For the moment they stop time...Songs are supposed to be heroic enough to give the illusion of stopping time"). Dylan's time-stopping is a phenomenon that those of us who have been at "good"  shows (or watched Masked and Anonymous) will recognize. Dylan's best performances of songs open whole universes of time and meaning up within themselves, and allow the audience to experience collectively the truths which lie within, between and around the words and music. Williams says it better than I can: 

[A great performance is] not a product of deliberate intention. It's more like a moment of grace, a lot of different factors working together to create the circumstances whereby a feeling (a "message") can be collectively voiced with truth and frankness and genuine joy.


It's not like he thinks about it. It's like he takes a deep breath and opens himself up to the spirit of this night, this show, and lets it direct him and his band, like a skipper letting the wind fill his boat's sails. 

Above all, Williams' message is that Dylan's "task is not to meet the fans' or critics' expectations; it's to realize a felt, intuited vision, an assignment he has wordlessly given himself"; the evidence runs throughout Dylan's work, but Williams describes and defines it beautifully: 

Every moment is a fresh set of conditions and responses, and every subsequent moment of performance is affected, like a stack of dominoes falling one by one, except in this case there are many stacks falling at the same time, brushing against each other and setting off new chain reactions in a variety of directions. 

Williams' enthusiasm for Dylan's artistry is still the best reason (out of many reasons) for buying this book. Along with the enthusiasm comes questions I hadn't previously considered: he argues, for example, that the concert setlists as determined by Dylan have more inter-song resonances and dynamics than they have hitherto been allowed, and that they are constructed carefully to build mood and creative opportunities, and that the transitions between songs are also important. He has splendid sections discussing how Dylan works as a bandleader, using "the unwieldy gravitational pull of his presence to awaken the collective genius of a handful of musicians, in service to the music and the artist/bandleader's internal vision". 

There was also, for me, the pleasure of encountering issues on which Williams' views and mine diverge - a novel experience. I am one of those, I'm afraid who does feel that To Make You Feel My Love "breaks the spell" of Time Out Of Mind (I actually can't listen to it, it's so superficial and phoney, to my ears) and I spent a whole chapter disagreeing with Williams' appreciation of Under the Red Sky: I can see what he means about its playfulness and risk-taking, but am not (yet?) able to perceive it as "a sound sculpture...It is a rich and expressive, deeply satisfying sound sculpture...a wondrous invention". Maybe I need to listen to it differently (or maybe I'll never be able to get it the way Williams does, lacking some of his qualifications: of some of the lines in Born in Time, for example, he says, "This would sound like nonsense to me were it not for LSD trips I took many years ago"!). 

The two final chapters of the books depart from the chronological sequence of the rest of the text (1986-1990) to fast-forward to examinations of Time Out of Mind and "Love and Theft", in both cases being largely pieces that appeared first in Crawdaddy!  Although the structure of the book is thus rather undermined, both chapters are truly excellent, and could have done with being considerably lengthened.  I would have loved, for example to have an in-depth Williams assessment of Not Dark Yet, surely the best song that Dylan has written in the last twenty years, and the one that most utterly achieves the time-stopping effect (or" tarab" - enchantment - as defined in Arabic song) that Williams sees as the ability to "influence his listeners to hear a song with their hearts and instincts, not with their reasoning minds". 

So, the conclusion: another highly sensitive, highly intelligent, highly readable and stimulating book from Paul Williams, absolutely indispensable to anyone wanting to understand Dylan's creative instincts and drive. As with Dylan's audience, Williams' readers can feel that they too are participating in "the uncanny, brilliant reflection of something that emanates from their hearts as well as his".