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20lbs of Headlines

by MARK CARTER

There are two main subjects that we'll be looking at this month, both of which dominated the Dylan press during June and July 2004; the belated publication in the USA of Christopher Ricks' Visions Of Sin, published by Ecco ("Never heard of them," as Alan Partridge would say) and the press reaction to Dylan's mini Summer tour of Germany. 

Let's start with Ricks' book - will the American critics welcome it with wider arms than their English counterparts did? Well, let's see, shall we? Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix, who proudly admits to not reading the book, was not terribly impressed with a review in the New York Times, in which Charles McGrath wrote; "...At various points he compares Mr. Dylan to Marvell, Marlowe, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Yeats and Marlon Brando, to cite just a few of his references...Other chapters draw insightful and persuasive parallels between, say, Lay Lady Lay and John Donne's poem To His Mistress Going To Bed". Kennedy obviously views his Bob Dylan differently; "Whoa!" he cautions, "The problem with Ricks is the same as that of many academicians who are drawn to pop culture. By comparing Dylan to the Great Poets, Ricks both over praises and diminishes Dylan's gifts. Although Brando makes sense". Furthermore, it seems obvious that he would rather listen to Dylan's songs than read anything too deep and meaningful about them (good man!); "...Maybe a few of Dylan's songs can hold up on the page; Desolation Row, a Ricks favourite, certainly comes to mind. But Dylan isn't a poet so much as he is a singer/ songwriter/ musician/ kick-ass rock-and-roller. His genius flows from the combination of his lyrics, his music, and his uniquely urgent, idiosyncratic singing (never mind his voice; Dylan is among the greatest singers rock has produced)." Yay!! Let's give a big hand to Mr. Kennedy (or, to quote Mr. Partridge again; "Now you're making sense!"). 

In contrast, Newsday's John Jeremiah Sullivan did enjoy the book, even if it seems to be against all odds, since he begins his lengthy review by questioning  why we should tolerate Ricks at all; "...With his weakness for - no, defencelessness against - puns, his love of the half-buried allusion (sly, but never so sly as to risk having his reader fail to note the erudition involved) and delight in his own humour, his prose sometimes reminds me of a guy I worked with at a drugstore in Ohio who would simultaneously wink, cluck and fire a finger-pistol every time he passed me in the aisle. After six months, it was all I could do not to choke him." And yet, insists Sullivan, "Ricks is one of the best three or four living writers on English literature, if "best" means helpful, useful, and capable of shedding light." If there is a criticism to be made, suggests Sullivan, it's that Ricks will not hear - or write - one bad word against Dylan, and Sullivan is not convinced that Dylan is as great a poet as Milton and Keats (but let's not open that particular can of worms all over again), but his work "is able to reward the sustained attention of Ricks without turning to dust, and that's a virtue." 

Christopher Hitchens of The Weekly Standard can definitely be categorised as one of Ricks' lesser enthusiasts, and produces the lengthiest review of all to prove his point, beginning by questioning his need to be "matey, or hip, or cool". He takes Ricks to task for his take on practically every song (though there are, to be fair, a couple of exceptions) and here's what he has to say about Ricks on Most Of The Time; "...Unbelievably, he manages to go on for a half-dozen pages about this song, without ever achieving the realisation that it is one of the most vertiginous, knife-edge accounts of a post-love trauma ever penned. You should only listen to the song if you are not currently trying to persuade yourself that "it" is all over and that you are all over "it"." As an almost complete put-down of Visions Of Sin, Hitchens' review accomplishes it's aims, yet it is itself overly wordy and almost as pretentious as the book it seeks to attack. 

The New York Times' Jonathan Lethem had no such problems with the book, or with the concept of Dylan the Poet, and relished the chore of having to read all 500 pages for his review ( "...I did, with escalating ease and pleasure") because he can find no fault with Ricks' approach; "...Such clockwork analysis never seems to drain Dylan's work of it's vitality (a tribute to Ricks and Dylan both, I suspect), but rather renew a listener's amazement. For instance, by the end of one such disquisition Ricks may threaten to persuade you that rhyme, that corny tool, is the central receptacle not only for Dylan's wit but for the moral and emotional brilliance of his art." 

Bill King of The Denver Post, who is, we are told, writing a series of radio shows on Dylan called Shakespeare In The Alley, also enjoyed the book, claiming that "Ricks' unique approach delights in it's eccentricity and produces fascinating results for the dedicated reader. He insists on both a sense of humour and careful attention to detail; he demands a wide range of interest and a long attention span...the irony of a book titled Dylan's Visions Of Sin by an atheist adds even more flavour to this tasty treat." 

Another reviewer who embraced the book wholeheartedly is The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Tony Brown, who realises that many people are going to consider it a worthless project. "But," he claims, "For those of us who have pored over Dylan's lyrics looking for clues to the poetry in the songs, Visions Of Sin will serve as a heaven-sent map and minutely detailed tour guide to the complex wordscape of a true literary giant." 

Here in the UK, the July issue of The Observer Music Monthly recommended it's ten music books for taking on holiday and selected Ricks' book as one of them; "...500 pages of stunning nutty professorship on Dylan in the context of Yeats, Pope and Coleridge, with positive indifference to the idea of Dylan in the context of Guthrie and Lennon." 

Charles McGrath of the Toronto Star interviewed Ricks briefly and learned that he actually signed a contract to write a book about Dylan twenty years ago, but only recently got around to writing it, even though it was some of Dylan's 25 year-old Christian lyrics that seemed to demand the theme. He reveals that not all of his family share his 100% enthusiasm/ obsession of all things Dylan ("My eldest child is 45, and I think he faintly pities me about this.") and even his wife didn't attend all of Dylan's recent three Boston concerts. Ricks considers all of his shows to have a certain sadness because Dylan is the one person who has to be there, and the one person who can't go to a Bob Dylan show. "It's sad," he says, "In the way it's sad that Jane Austen couldn't read a Jane Austen novel." If there's one thing about Dylan that he actually isn't keen on it's his Clarke Gable moustache; "I just don't think it looks good. Do you?" He admits that he considered getting up a petition to send to Dylan which read; "Mr. Dylan, please remove the stipple from your upper lip". "I didn’t send it," he admits, "because my students said that it might hurt Dylan's feelings. But "lip" and "stipple" - I quite liked that." 

An old student of Ricks', Alexandra Jacobs, now writes for The New York Observer, and he also interviewed Ricks, beginning with learning more about the time that the author and the object of his desire eventually met backstage after a Boston University gig a couple of years ago. Dylan apparently greeted him by saying; "Mr. Ricks, we meet at last" (which makes him sound like a James Bond baddie); a greeting that absolutely delights Ricks because he thinks that Dylan's words mean that he was up to something, though he won't reveal what, and, as Jacobs points out, in Ricks mind Dylan is always up to something.  When Jacobs presses him for information about what the two talked about, Ricks develops sudden amnesia; "I think I asked him if he'd read any good books lately". Not having seen it, Jacobs queries the Victoria's Secret advert, asking whether Dylan is actually in it himself or just his music. "He is in it," Ricks tells him, "A famous model, although she wasn't famous to me, is in it. I don't know her name; I'm not interested in that...I find him more beautiful. It's 30 seconds of seeing him prowling slightly and, I think, looking fine and good." Then, giving a glaring insight into how his mind works, he continues, "I, of course, know what Victoria's Secret is. Do you know what Victoria's secret is? Victoria's secret is John Brown - that is, the gillie with whom Queen Victoria was supposedly really in love...So is it just a coincidence that Dylan's lately been performing - as he did not for decades - his song John Brown?" It's hard to tell whether he's being serious or not, given that Ricks must know that Dylan first began performing it in 1988 and actually hasn't played it at all during the past few years. Then again, he doesn't appear to spend too much time here on Planet Earth, so who knows? He did enjoy Bob’s recent interview in the LA Times, especially when it reinforces ideas put forward in his book; "...He talks about what the poets meant to him when he was young, and how he read the poets as people now read Stephen King. So people who want to say; "Excuse me, I don't think he's ever heard of John Donne," they have some explaining to do." 

Presumably Ricks' still has the underwear-selling Bob Dylan in mind when he compares him to Shakespeare during an interview with Dean Schabner for ABCnews.com, implying that the Bard also aimed to get his work heard and seen to as great an audience as possible; "...One reason I keep mentioning Shakespeare is not because I think Dylan is a genius, which I do, but because I think that, like Shakespeare, he sought the widest possible constituency." As for putting Dylan up there with the great Poets, as far as Ricks is concerned there's no question of doubt; "...Are his good qualities as good as their good qualities? And is his quality anything like their good quality? Well, I think I've made the case for that." 

In an interview with Donald MacLeod for the UK's Guardian, Ricks admits that many of the negative British reviews may have been at least partly old scores being settled in public ("The dust has settled but have the scores?") and admits; "...Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn't... (and) in this he is not less the artist but more." 

Finally, whilst mentioning Ricks' book in passing in his New York Observer column, Ron Rosenbaum tackles the thorny subject of whether Dylan's songs have earned the right to be called poetry; "Of course they have earned the right, but we have the right to think of them as songs as well." Spot on, sir. 

Before we get onto the German reviews, there are a couple of odds and sods worth mentioning in passing.  Jeff Bridges gave an interview to Colin Covert of The Star Tribune in which he discusses his Masked And Anonymous  screen partner Bob Dylan ("I've always been impressed by his screen presence"). He reveals that Larry Charles asked him to give any acting tips that he could, since the schedule was so tight and the script so wordy; "...It was a lot of fun. We did a lot of improving with Bob. I can't think of another artist I admire more than Bob Dylan, so the chance to work with him was just something special." While on set, Bridges, an amateur musician himself, got the chance to jam with Dylan; "...We picked a bit," he chuckles, "I played him a tune of mine, and we played a tune that he sang on "Natural Born Killers", called "You Belong To Me". That's a memory." 

Live 1964  received a belated review in the June/July issue of The Electric Review by Paolo Carmassi and it was a good 'un from someone who has followed Bob's career since 1962; "...There have been many Bob Dylans. He is the chief chameleon. Very capricious. We all know this. The Philharmonic Concert presents my favourite Bob Dylan: the poet, the seer, the humorist, the social critic, the political observer, the wordsmith who assimilated and synthesised all the great existential themes found in history, philosophy, and literature, and crafted them into magnificent songs....(it) ultimately displays the immense humanity, dignity, poetic vision and reality of America's greatest 20th century songwriter." 

To commemorate Dylan's latest UK tour and Chrome Dreams release of The Weberman Tapes, Nigel Williamson of The Times ran a brief history of A.J. "Pig" Weberman, touching on all of the nutter's more notable Dylan activities and concluding - with heaps of irony - with Weberman's prison sentence during the late 1980s for supplying drugs, after being convicted on evidence found in his own dustbin. Lovely; what goes around comes around. 

Joan Baez was interviewed during June by Olaf Neumann for Germany's General-Anzeiger and talk turns to Dylan, especially his Victoria's Secret ad. Surprisingly, she seems quite pleased by the whole affair; "...Bob has put people's noses out of joint his whole life. This spot doesn't bother me at all. This man has given us so much great music. Even if he produced rubbish for the rest of his life it would be okay. I don't want a grumpy Dylan. I like to laugh about such things and I know he does as well. At least when he cashes his cheque." Does she ever run into her old partner whilst on tour nowadays? "Funnily enough, very rarely. If it happens, we say "Hello", talk for a while and laugh." 

Uncut's Nigel Wiliamson reappraised World Gone Wrong a decade on and decided that - here in the UK at least - it had been unfairly maligned at the time of it's release and is an essential part of Dylan's artistic rebirth; "...Listening to it more than a decade on, (it) is not only a vivid and authentic evocation of the roots of Dylan's own music. With hindsight, it also played an essential part in the resurrection of his muse...(it is) simply a breathtaking record, and although the world's greatest songwriter didn't write a single line on the album, it's as if all the hard-earned wisdom of his first half-century has been distilled within it's grooves." 

Onto the German tour now, beginning with a preview of the Worms gig by Susanne Muller for Wormser Zeitung, where she reveals that the promoters were extremely lucky to book Dylan; Munich and Hanover also wanted him on the same date. Dylan's management forwarded a 40-page rider before the show, which included bottles of still water (but no Evian), bilberries, blackberries, melon, a selection of muesli, grilled fish, exactly 3 bilberry muffins, vegetables, salads and Mousse au Chocolat. By the looks of all those berries and muesli, Bob's obviously determined to keep himself regular. 

A few days later Muller was at the show and discussing some members of the audience, which included a doctor who was hoping to get Dylan's autograph on a painting and my old mate Jens Winter, who was proud to announce that he has a life-size cardboard cut-out of Dylan standing in his house. One fan arrived ticketless all the way from Tokyo and was lucky to get a cancellation ticket at the very last minute. 

The earlier Bonn concert seems to have been a critical success, though several newspapers reported that fans were forced to queue up for ages before they could get in because security were thoroughly searching everyone for concealed cameras. Such is Bob's paranoia about being snapped for posterity nowadays that the security staff were warning punters that he may well stop the show if he noticed a flash bulb go off. 

Edo Reents of the Frankfurter Allgemeine certainly seems to have enjoyed himself at the show, calling "Honest With Me" a highlight that came down like a "hard rock thunderstorm".
Birgit Eckes
of Bonner Rundschau also enjoyed it, especially because it didn't sound anything like Dylan's Düsseldorf concert six months earlier. He also managed to get the names of Bob's band members wrong and even insists that he heard a saxophone playing on "It Ain't Me Babe".
Gunter Hochgurtel
of Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger wonders how someone can keep their audience on its toes for decade after decade, but that's what Bob's still doing; "...It shows that Dylan 2004 isn't a nostalgia act, he's still up to date."
Susanne Schramm
of Aachener Zeitung, on the other hand, insists that it is a nostalgia act, forever comparing the show to Greenwich Village, Woodstock, Newport, etc, and claiming that the bulk of the audience is growing old along with Dylan ("one rarely sees so many grey hairs at a rock concert"). For all that, his unique voice makes the fans feel young again and, for them, ""Dylanmania" isn't over yet."
Stuttgarter Zeitung
's Michael Werner praised Dylan's voice at Bonn, especially on "Don't Think Twice" and "Masters Of War" which was "a revelation". Bob even attempted a joke while introducing the band, proving that he was in a good mood at that particular show, at least.
Dietmar Kanthak
of General-Anzeiger also mourned the passing of time while watching Bob onstage; "...The man who formerly moved the world now rarely moves himself...He croaks like an old bird and it seems as though he's been on tour for 63 years already." Even so, "the longer the inspired concert lasted, the more relaxed Dylan became, sometimes even meditative." He votes "It's Alright Ma" as a highlight, along with the "unique" encore.
Der Tagesspiegal
's Rudiger Schaper was unsurprised that Dylan didn't mention Iraq or George Bush during the show, but decided to point it out in his review anyway. For him, Bonn was enjoyable but without surprises, except for "This Wheel's On Fire". 

Jorg-Peter Klotz, writing for Mannheimer Morgen,  enjoyed Worms, despite the absence of a "beloved" acoustic section this time around; "...After the last notes of a Hendrix-version "All Along The Watchtower" fade out, Bob Dylan accepts the ovations. Then he disappears the same way he arrives; without a word. We look back to a surprisingly virtuoso blues-rock concert." 

"...Despite never batting an eyelid, Bob Dylan played a great concert," reckons Wormser Zeitung's Jens Frederiksen, "...The arrangements are brilliant and Dylan's cracked voice is a vigorous contrast to it." The review includes, for once, a nice recent onstage photo. 

Thomas Bruckelmeier of Die Rheinpfalz also thought that Bob's ravaged voice brought a certain freshness to the old chestnuts, even if "his phrasing was almost absurd". He felt that only "All Along The Watchtower" failed to hit the spot and that "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is "one of his most beautiful songs". In conclusion, then, "...Bob Dylan remains what he is: an aloof man and an absolutely exceptional artist." 

Donakurier's Philipp Schmatloch commented on the advancing years of Bob and his audience, and of how the crowd's lack of mobility and excitement made "this beautiful evening look more like a funeral service than a rock concert." If he could have one wish, it would be to have the Worms concert in the same venue, but 20 years earlier.  Yes, I think I'd also trade anything that 2004 Bob Dylan can offer onstage for that of his 1984 counterpart (except the pub-rock "Highway 61" shit, Taylor's neverending guitar solos and Santana as support act, of course). 

In contrast, Die Tageszitung's Holga Pauler found the audience's insistence on singing along somewhat annoying during the quieter numbers, where they drowned out old Bob's vocals. He reckons that Dylan's voice is the best it's been for 20 years; "...he wheezes, croaks and speaks through his nose, but anyone who heard "All Along he Watchtower" in this new, ominous arrangement knows that it's the singer, not the song." 

And there we leave Bob Dylan for this month, either the best he's been for 20 years or the worst. You buys your newspaper, you takes your choice.
 

THANKS TO: EXPECTING RAIN and JENS WINTER

 
 
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