Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown

by David Yaffe
Yale University Press

Music critic and professor David Yaffe, who seems to have made a mini-career writing about Bob Dylan, has produced a carefully considered and basically fair-minded set of essays that offer some provocative perceptions and stylish writing. He apparently did not interview or even casually speak with Dylan or anyone else. So his insights and thematic narratives are derived from studying the texts—the music, films, books and so on.

This book is in four sections, offering perspectives from four different standpoints: “The Cawing, Derisive Voice” centers on Dylan’s singing, “Screen Test” examines movies by and about Dylan, “Not Dark Yet” is about Dylan’s relationship to African Americans and their music, and “Don’t Steal, Don’t Lift” is about the complicated questions of Dylan’s use of sources: appropriation, inspiration or plagiarism, depending.

The question of plagiarism, made public by Joni Mitchell in 2010, is also discussed in Lewis Hyde’s Common As Air. That Dylan’s first 70 recorded songs allegedly had clear predecessors and two-thirds of the melodies were directly lifted may be (as Dylan said) common to the “folk process.” But Yaffe also notes Dylan in his autobiography expressing feelings by using unacknowledged lines from Proust, and he derides Dylan’s recent “Modern Times” album as largely plagiarized, though from public domain sources.

It’s a complex subject (all musicians copy each other) as Yaffe affirms. But no matter how many melodies Dylan stole or lines he appropriated, his best songs arrived by grace to express (among other things) a spirit of the times. In his magic years of the 60s even a minor song like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” perfectly represents a certain segment of a generation. (The test of Dylan’s relationship to sources really will be how he enforces his copyrights when someone copies him.)

Yaffe makes much of Dylan’s elusiveness, his Masked and Anonymous “busy being born” changes, but also notes that at 70, Dylan has found a personae and a voice for a part of life few of his generation of stars have managed.

My Dylan was the early one--"Freewheelin'" to "Blood on the Tracks"-- when each new album was a revelation tied in memory to specific places, events and even people.  Yet Yaffe does add information as well as perspective to this period.  I know less about the years following, but though he has more to say about them than the typical treatment, I felt the frustration of his thematic method and sketchy history in the chronology.  In particular he deals with the Traveling Wilburys in only one tantalizing sentence, as exceptionally creative in a murky period.  I thought Dylan was unusually strong in those collaborations and would have liked to know more about why that might be, how it all happened and what lasting relationships or musical insights might have ensued.  (He did have a prior musical relationship with the late George Harrison, and if I'm not mistaken, he has worked since with at least one of the other surviving members: Tom Petty.)

The elegance of this small book is marred by repetitions that are either the product of sloppy editing or have some subtle functions that elude me. Though it’s smarter than most Dylanology, in the end the mysteries it explores tend to dissolve when actually listening to Dylan’s best, or watching the filmed performances in the Martin Scorsese film, No Direction Home, (none of which Scorsese actually shot, Yaffe says). For those of us who don’t know him as anything else, Dylan is his inimitable music and his voice—his “pillar of breath” as Allen Ginsberg said--and they are like a force of nature. The response is wonder.

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