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Shelter From the Storm

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday; 400 pages; $28.95)

Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is a top-notch, first-class synopsis of Bob Dylan’s career, contributions to popular music, status as a cultural icon, and – to a lesser extent – his place in the history of American commentators.

A person who is taking their first foray into the legend that is Bob Dylan would do well to start here, but the die-hard Dylan-junkies will have encountered much of this material in other familiar works.   In fact, Wilentz himself references as sources books, essays, and compilations that many Dylan fanatics will have already read such as Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name, Ratsko Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan, much of Marcus Greil’s work, David Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Bauldie’s Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, and, of course, a truly great book, Dylan’s own Chronicles.

In light of this, the natural question becomes, “What actually separates this book from the many other books about Dylan?”   First, it is extremely well written.   But beyond that, Wilentz only partially succeeds in trying to put Dylan’s work and persona in a historical perspective because he spends a great deal of energy recounting familiar territory, rather than, what a person familiar with Dylan’s work might be  led to expect by the title would be the primary focus of the book – the integration of Dylan’s musical genius into the collective consciousness of our shared American experience.

He succeeds to a vastly greater degree in placing Dylan’s music in the context of how it relates to our American musical heritage and traditions.   Somehow, in the process, he also manages to successfully accomplish an almost impossible task: evoking an understanding of how Dylan expands that very landscape and either consciously or subconsciously defines many of these American musical traditions as well as various poetic and literary movements though his steadfast commitment to performing his music live.   Wilentz’s continued reference to Dylan as the minstrel couldn’t be more appropriate.

Additionally, Wilentz manges to refer to Dylan’s music intellectually in context, without over-analyzing it – a trap that many other biographers fall into.   Another highlight is the unique treatment he gives to Dylan’s respects for his predecessors.

Dylan’s forays into art (painting) is discussed as well as his interest in movies and attempts at acting and producing films.   Dylan typically does not come across well in other mediums, but Wilentz rightfully points out that he is more articulate these days, and his movie Masked and Anonymous is a much stronger effort than many assumed it would be.

The more recent parts of Dylan’s career make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, perhaps because there has been less written of them, but the album Love and Theft is a masterpiece, his recent tours have been exceptionally strong as compared to his down period, and Dylan’s book, Chronicles, was extremely absorbing.

Wilentz addressed all of these in an interesting and enlightened manner.   He also emphasizes what many others have as well: the perplexing mystery of the songs that were left off of the 1983 album Infidels (e.g., “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”).

Wilentz also discusses Dylan’s ability to incorporate past, present, and future into one as he creates his stories and musical impressions.   Wilentz’s storytelling mimics this to a degree to accentuate the point rather effectively, but he often comes across as having some type of inner knowledge on a topic; only to leave the point unsubstantiated, which is at times both troubling and confusing.

The best advice is to read the primary source, Chronicles, or better yet, go see Dylan perform live.   Then, for a very interesting read for Dylan fans, music lovers, and pop devotees alike, turn to Wilentz.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a Well Recommended rating.

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I Still Miss Someone

Composed

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash (Viking, $26.95, 245 pages; Penguin Books, $17.00, 256 pages)

“It’s me.   They are all me, the good and the bad.”

Rosanne Cash’s memoir starts off flat and rather dull before it kicks into gear; it then becomes more engaging with every page.   Composed has the same type of non-chronological structure as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which perhaps is not an accident as Bob gets a lot of play in this account of the life of Johnny Cash’s daughter.   It almost goes without saying that this is also a first-hand tribute to her late father, the Man in Black.

“On Friday, September 12, air had still gone in and out of his lungs; he had moved his limbs and made sounds.   He had actually squeezed my hand and lifted his eyebrows.   It was a difficult day, the last day of my dad’s life, but not unbearable to me.   The next day, the beginning of my dad’s life in the past tense, was unbearable.”

Rosanne paints her father as a man with faults and addictions (brought on by a jaw broken during dental surgery), but also as a loving man who quietly gave guidance to his daughters.   She came to take him for granted during his life – always sharing him with the world – but has found life difficult without him.

Early in his career Bob Dylan wrote songs based on dreams, and here Rosanne points out that her life has been shaped by a series of remembered dreams.   One of them involved Linda Ronstadt and Cash’s realization that she had been faking it in her career to that point, afraid to take serious chances.   After having that momentous dream, Rosanne resolved to work harder, especially as a serious songwriter.

Another dream involved her father and her need to let him go:  “When I woke…  I felt relief.   It was no longer my job to take care of him, as he was being taken care of, wherever he was.   The legacy of his work was intact, in my dream preserved as carefully and conscientiously as if it had been in a museum.   Something settled…  I could let him move on now.”

One surprise about reading Composed is finding out that Johnny Cash’s daughter is far more a fan of rock musicians than country singer-songwriters.   Yes, she has her idols and heroes in the latter category but she was heavily influenced by Dylan, Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles.   All of these influences seem to have come together in her biggest hit single, “Seven Year Ache.”

As with the afore-mentioned Chronicles, Rosanne Cash writes in a style that is so unique it could not have been ghostwritten.   She has been a long-time student of words and she finds just the right ones to accompany each and every tale of her life told here.

“If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers.”

Composed paper

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to a memoir is to say that it enabled the reader to come to know the person who wrote it.   Having read Composed, I feel that I now know Rosanne Cash and I like her.   I look forward to hearing more of her music.   As a songwriter she’s joined her idols as one of the best.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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