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The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein.

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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