Jim Curtis. Decoding Dylan: Making Sense of the Songs That Changed Modern Culture. North Carolina: McFarland, 2019. 177 pp.

REVIEW BY John H. Serembus, Widener University

Whenever I read a review of a book I may be interested in, I like to know something about the reviewer so that I can put the review into context.  It is only fair, then, that I give you some details about my perspective on Dylan and my background.

First off, I am not a Dylan scholar.  Yet, at the same time, I am not merely a fan. I do possess all his albums in some form or other, I have attended twenty or so Dylan concerts over the years, and I have read a fair amount of books about and by Dylan. The relationship is more intimate than merely a fan though certainly less than a scholar. As a friend and colleague said to me in the 1980s, Bob Dylan has provided “the soundtrack for our lives.”

Secondly, I am a professor of Philosophy with a specialization in Logic and an abiding interest in its dark side — paradox. The former informs my review of the book. The latter explains my interest in Dylan.

The author, Jim Curtis, is an accomplished scholar and academician. One of the great strengths of the book is his Renaissance-like command of the materials of which he speaks as well as all things Dylan. Another great strength is that the author is literally a contemporary of Dylan. Born less than a year before Dylan, he grew up within the same cultural milieu as Dylan with similar influences and experiences. The rest of us (me, just barely) can only imagine what it was like to come of age in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Decoding Dylan runs 169 pages, which includes copious chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and an extremely thorough index. It obviously is not intended to give a complete account of Dylan’s life and works but rather focus primarily on his output during the 1960s. Interestingly, it begins with an original poem (song lyrics?) by the author: “Songs for Passersby,” which is an homage to Dylan spun from biographical strands used by the author to support his claims. This is then followed in the customary way by a preface and introduction.

The body of the text contains eight chapters divided into two sections and a conclusion.  Section I, “Theories and Practices” contains three chapters offering: a biography, an account of Dylan’s early years in New York, and Dylan’s affinities with Franz Kafka, T. S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso. Section II, “Songs and Songwriting” contains fives chapters which: detail what Curtis calls “Songs of Transcendence” from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, “Songs of Assimilation” from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, tables of rhyme forms from Dylan’s songs of the 1960s as well as those of some Tin Pan Alley and other American Songs, a comparison of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and a chronological comparison of the early successes of Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen. Curtis concludes his account with a discussion of the paradoxes of Dylan.

The very first sentence of the introduction tells us that his purpose in writing the book “is to help the reader understand the often puzzling, confusing songs that Bob Dylan wrote during the 1960s” (p. 4). Hence, the need to decode Dylan. There are three things to unpack here: there is a message in these songs, the messages are hidden, and that a key exists to unlock the messages. But in some sense the key itself is hidden, or, at the very least, it is not as straightforward as a cryptogram where there is a one-to-one correspondence between letters in the message and letters in the key. The message connects to what Curtis calls the “markers of creativity.” In particular, the four major markers of: cultural marginality, ethnicity, relationship to father, and birth order (10). If one can understand these markers with respect to Dylan, then one can then decipher the messages of his songs. Given the space constraints on this review, I will focus on just two of the four markers — ethnicity and birth order.

The author attempts to account for these markers in Dylan by looking at “other major figures in cultural history” (10). I will focus on just one of those figures — Pablo Picasso. Curtis goes to great lengths to establish that Dylan had read or had an opportunity to read Picasso’s Picassos, Picasso: An American Tribute (58) and Life with Picasso. He notes that Dylan’s own words in Chronicles acknowledge a familiarity with Picasso and the impact he had on the art world with Dylan wanting to “be like that” (57).  He goes on to claim that Dylan and Picasso “have a remarkable series of affinities” (64).  He then lists no fewer than seventeen affinities between the two men! To this reviewer there is less here than what meets the eye. It may be interesting to note these affinities, but they can’t serve as proof for any claim. One can find coincidences between any two people.

Frankly speaking, using ethnicity as one of the “markers of creativity” is fraught with difficulty. The author wants to claim that Dylan has Jewish ethnicity, and this helps explain his genius and his affinity to others who also have the same ethnicity. Therefore, for example, the author compares Dylan with Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen. Yet how does one determine ethnicity? There are no real objective markers, and assuming there are leads to stereotyping. If it is a matter of self-identifying, then how can one be sure that any two people identify as a certain ethnicity for the same reasons?  

The first-born marker, though less controversial, also has major failings. If it is intended as a psychological theory, it runs counter to the hallmark of every scientific theory — falsifiability. Curtis talks about Dylan, Streisand, and Allen as being first-born. But there is a problem: Streisand was born second. Rather than questioning the merits of the claim of the theory, the author points out that though she was born second, she was born six years after her older sibling and that fact makes her, in effect, first-born. This ad hoc revision of the criterion does not pass the smell test. In addition, this account lumps first born and only children together without any proof that the experiences of the two are sufficiently similar. I have no problems with the first-born account being a useful fiction. I do have a problem with it being used as part of a proof of someone’s creativity.

The final point that the author makes in his conclusion is worth emphasizing. It is “Dylan’s refusal to choose between high culture and popular culture that makes him a man in the middle” (148-149). The man is the middle has a foot in both worlds, sprinkling high culture references into popular culture songs. He is a participant in both without an affinity to either. This allows the author to justly claim that Dylan is paradoxical. His lyrics are strewn with paradoxes resulting from his two-culture habitation, such as “I was so much older then / I am younger than that now.”

Given some of the preceding paragraphs, you may think this reviewer would not look favorably upon the book. But the truth is, I found it to be an interesting and enjoyable read. The book is a lot like the Dylan songs of the 1960s that Curtis noted may be “puzzling and confusing,” but are nonetheless worth listening to. It may not stand up to rational scrutiny, but it is certainly a useful fiction.