Mix, Match, Move On
by Stuart Walton
Simon & Schuster, 390pp, ISBN 9781471195143, £20.00
The approach of Bob Dylan's 80th birthday has prompted the anticipated flurry of reassessments and revisitations, reflections on the cultural significance of American popular music's prickliest and most defiantly enduring troubadour, revisions of earlier revisionist biographies, another round of genuflections, heartfelt encomia, and the laboured raking of long memories, bitter and bad as well as warm and honeyed. There is more than enough Dylan to go around, and way more than enough Dylanology, and yet who would deny the old stager another moment in a more august limelight than the stuff they sell by the yard these days?
In 2020, Dylan sold the rights to his entire song catalogue to Universal for a figure hazily estimated in the give-or-take region of $300-400 million. Something about the rewards of persistence and the deathless myth of American self-construction is inscribed in those garlands of zeroes, a mighty torrent that would gush forth eventually from the $100 Dylan received as an advance against royalties in his first contract at the outset of the 1960s. Having only just turned up in time to deliver the requisite lecture as recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, its winner expatiated on a roadmap of western culture that stretched from Buddy Holly back to Homer's Odyssey, via a meditation on Moby Dick culled unblushingly from online student crib notes.
Self-invention and its vicissitudes are a running theme in Paul Morley's weighty birthday monograph for Dylan, its title drawn from the lyric of one of its subject's most austerely judgmental political songs of the mid-1960s, 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)'. 'We all take on a role until we find what we were born to do,' Morley suggests, having stated 50 pages earlier that 'we are what we pretend to be', and in truth there isn't really anything in music history to match the rapid trajectory that Dylan undertook in his first five recording years, from the fresh-faced young folkie with the prematurely wizened voice of the 'Song for Woody Guthrie' to the sniggering proto-hippie fronting a midnight Salvationist scratch band to utter what could well be the culture industry's eternal neon-lit edict, 'Everybody must get stoned!'
The teenage Robert Zimmerman emerged from the chrysalis of a conventional upbringing in Minnesota iron-mining country to an entrée on the New York club scene, where the Sixties were inaugurated in the mode of a folk music of sober gravity, a process closely traced in a sequence of chapters that only begins around three-quarters of the way through this book. Dylan's musical roots were not exclusively in the folk, country and blues idioms for which he would be celebrated early on. The evidence of reel-to-reel tape recordings of the boy at 17, fooling around on piano and guitar with a schoolmate, give evidence that he was at least as drawn to the pioneering rock-and-roll of Buddy Holly, whom Dylan saw in concert three days before that poorly piloted plane came down over an Iowa cornfield, and of Little Richard, the caterwauling Georgia fireball who, Dylan can be heard pontificating, anticipated much of the subsequent style of Elvis Presley.
It was Woody Guthrie, though, particularly via his 1943 memoir Bound for Glory, who provided the impetus for much of Dylan's early musicology. Before he had made his first album, he had sung privately at Guthrie's sickbed in 1961, where the veteran singer was wasting slowly away with Huntington's disease, and from whom Dylan received the kind of personal endorsement corporate money can't buy. By the time he had become one of the jostling crowd on the New York folk circuit, mythologising instinct suggested to Dylan that he constructively smudge the details of his background, efface his extant parents from the record in an act of self-orphaning, and allow the various origin stories to contradict each other in criss-cross. There is already a hint of a knowing smirk to the cover-image of the self-titled debut, the grifter's minutely raised eyebrow at the inquisitive rube, the invitation to try your luck. For all the early political ferocity, the ardency of which was unquestionable enough, what Dylan inherited from Little Richard's maniacal tutti-frutti-ism was a taste for the zany, an intermittent impulse to levity that leavened the moaning lamentations of the folk tradition.
The démarche that Dylan enacts at this transitional stage in American culture has been delineated with nimble clarity by Laurence Coupe, who in Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (2007) describes the lines of connection and exchange that run from the singer's reading of the Beat writers in the 1950s to his renewal of that tradition in the extravagantly inventive lyrical montages he spins during the first half of the Sixties: he 'does not so much repudiate the Beat cult of the visionary outsider as transmute it into terms of the collective idealism of the “folk revival” scene'. Mix, match, move on. Into the oneiric surrealism of the spontaneous writing method, Dylan blended a rhetorical mode that was entirely of his own coinage, a hard-edged note of venomous contempt that he deploys not just in what might conventionally be classified as protest songs, but in the songs of disappointed love, ill-advised trust, thwarted hope. Christopher Ricks once noted that Dylan turned the ruing of misplaced faith into a sub-genre of its own in the 1960s, nowhere better exemplified than on the bilious enumerations of personal scorn in 'Positively 4th Street’.
Teenage NME readers of the punk era might be a little jolted on their stiffening pins to learn that Paul Morley, once the ingenious scourge of music industry establishmentarianism, has been a Dylan babe since his own tender teens. Indeed, he broke into music journalism by posting a copy of a self-produced fanzine with Dylan on the cover to the New Musical Express, moments before the Sex Pistols cracked from the egg. You Lose Yourself You Reappear is neither biography nor conventional aesthetic critique — writing about songwriters comes ready-fraught with the insuperable cost of quote permissions, where these are even granted at all — but a postmodern meta-narrative that relates the writing of the book itself, opening with the frustration of its intended prelude, a front-row seat to see Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2020, by the onrush of the global pandemic. Morley pays the earth every year to see Dylan perform somewhere, usually positioned as near to the onstage inaction as possible, an annual devotional yatra that has allowed him to see the maestro ageing in slow motion, retreating to the back of the stage to pick out keyboard chords with hands sadly too arthritic now to wield a guitar.
Morley's written style has barely altered in 40 years. He favours an impressionistic, capacious, freewheelin' approach that allows him to spin sentences on for virtually half a page at a time, with participle clauses scattered in like Christmas glitter in endless skeins. At their least effective, these choke the air rather than raising the rafters, but an allusive precision often emerges from the flurries, most notably during a long chapter on the textures and mutations of Dylan's voice — or voices, since Morley identifies at least a dozen over the decades, one or two lasting for a single album only. The 'disdainful drawling, deranged honking and nasal wailing' he sometimes hears couldn't be anybody else, nor perhaps the 'raw edges, tart bite and fermented musicality' of the later recordings. There is no point whatever in warning of the dangers of the hagiography trap in a project like this. For all the occasional friendly barbs, Morley has jumped gleefully into its serrated jaws with eyes wide shut, so that what results, counter-intuitively, is a kind of rock theodicy of the old school, justifying the ways of Dylan to man. That rights deal with Universal, Morley assures us in a locution that might have you groping for the bucket, was a matter of 'co-partnering with the universe'.
Notwithstanding these fanboy adulations, Morley has produced a homage worth reading for its sensitivity to the entire arc of Dylan's career. He is excellent on the classic work of the 1960s, but also on the patient long interludes demanded by his last two albums of original material, Tempest (2012) and Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). The return to country roots after Blonde on Blonde is accorded its proper dignity, the trilogy of evangelical Christian albums between 1979 and 1981 is not dismissed, there turns out to be more still to say about Blood on the Tracks than one might have wagered, even the godawful Christmas record of 2009 bids fair to be his greatest album 'for one or two days a year at least, on the back of a good bottle of wine or two'. Extended analysis of individual songs, not always the most obvious selections, though always without recourse to the lyric-sheet other than by paraphrasing or slyly enfolding phrases into his own voice, is never less than robust and enlightening in equal measure.
The continuing enigma of Bob Dylan is that, just as you might think you have now had enough to last the rest of a dwindling lifetime, there is always another coda. That was already the case when Time Out Of Mind was released nearly 25 years ago. Then in the midst of the pandemic's first act in 2020, another album appeared, its longest composition, 'Murder Most Foul', accorded a second disc to itself. Its narrative of the Kennedy assassination unfolds into a panoptical retrospect in murmured recitative of the music and history of America's most recent century, where Wolfman Jack clinks glasses with Patsy Cline, before a phalanx of film stars, mobsters, jazzmen and chanteuses bodies forth, followed by the sometime radio DJ's proposed playlist of classic tunes. In the late late dark, mentally fortified against the raging plague out there with opioids and velvet Bordeaux, a solitary listener found the scarred voice gently engulfing him, as he edged ever nearer the speakers over the course of 17 rapt and timeless minutes.