Freddy Cristobal Dominguez, Bob Dylan in the Attic: The Artist as Historian. Amherst
and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2022. 192 pp.
REVIEW BY Scott F. Parker, Montana State University
In his conclusion to Bob Dylan in the Attic: The Artist as Historian, Freddy Cristobal Dominguez asks a question that is central to his project: “If – and this is not accepted by all – we ‘traditional’ historians are the makers and perpetuators of myths, if we are, as one recent book puts it, ‘story-tellers, custodians of the past, repositories of collective memory, poetic interpreters of what it is to be human,’ why are Dylan’s songs rendered purely musical or sometimes poetic while the writerly, often stodgy, words of ‘proper’ historians claim legitimacy and superior import?” (137–138). It’s an important question, and one that Dominguez already knows the answer to: they shouldn’t be.
Bob Dylan in the Attic establishes Dylan’s bona fides as a historian, leaving its author in something of an awkward position. In ceding historiography to non-professionals, what does the professional leave for himself?
Dominguez begins the book by announcing his “noncultic relationship to [Dylan]” (ix). Dominguez approaches his subject, he assures the reader, as a scholar not as a fan. And yet, the fan in him will not stay in his place. While Dominguez recognizes the virtue of an academic’s critical distance, he admits (in his acknowledgments) that “There were times when I doubted that Bob Dylan in the Attic would ever be finished, or worse, when I was taking things too seriously and killing the fun” (xi). Intellectual humility is mandatory among Dylan scholars, fans, and disciples alike, who must always compare themselves to the truly devout – the kind of person who can rattle off every setlist of the Never Ending Tour – but there should be no need to apologize for fun or for fandom, no need to offer an “excuse for [a] book” (4). We devote ourselves (in whatever senses) to what we love, and Dominguez loves Dylan – enough to own all of his albums and many of his bootlegs, enough to have seen him in concert nine times on two continents, enough to have spent years writing a book about him. And yet, come the conclusion, he is still feeling the need to “confess” to being among Dylan’s admirers (135). He is writing, he reminds his readers, as a “professional historian,” which if it weren’t clear from the substance of the book would be abundantly clear from Dominguez’s irrepressible habits of qualifying his statements and introducing meticulous distinctions (see “scholar-fans” and “fan-scholars,” (136)). The instincts of an academic are everywhere in the Attic.
This in itself is no knock against Dominguez. It is understandable, even admirable, that a scholar would advance cautiously and make claims tentatively. In the punctilious world of scholarship, where any statement may come under scrutiny, it is better to be sober than impassioned, better to be not wrong than recklessly provocative, better for a position to be defensible than memorable. But as responsible as this kind of writing is, it must confront the fact that we pick up Bob Dylan in the Attic as we pick up any book – not to download its information but to read it.
And I hope we are (reading the book). Dominguez’s treatment of Dylan as historian is fascinating stuff to people who read journals like the Dylan Review. And beginning with the second chapter, Dominguez gets out of his own way and starts hitting his stride. He knows it takes him this long, too. The messy first chapter concludes with Dominguez saying ‘sorry-not-sorry’ for what has preceded: “I hope that the reader has arrived at this resting spot somewhat disoriented, perhaps a little dissatisfied, or, better yet, wanting more” (56). If he really wants his reader to be dissatisfied, he succeeds. The chapter is a hodgepodge of historical sources Dylan may have drawn from punctuated with exquisite Dylanisms such as this gem from a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone: “We can’t change the present or the future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time” (16). Much of this material, such as the connections between Dylan and The Odyssey, is interesting in its own right even if it fails to amount to more than a string of disparate riffs.
The subsequent two chapters, which treat Dylan as a historian and as a mythmaker, respectively, are the highlights of the book. Here Dominguez achieves his most focused and insightful analysis. Inferring from his (Dylan’s) appreciation of The Wasteland that Dylan was influenced by Eliot’s “ideological underpinnings” (60), Dominguez draws a line from Eliot’s “‘historical sense,’ which he defines as ‘a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’” (61) to Dylan’s practice of collaging his songs (not to mention his paintings, books, and speeches) from historical sources that feel contemporary to him and that he makes feel timeless to his audience. While the causal link between Eliot and Dylan is suspicious, from a Dylan-like angle, it hardly matters. “‘A songwriter,’ [Dylan] says, ‘doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth’” (94). In the same way that “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” seems like it was written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though it was first performed weeks prior to it, Dominguez is right that Dylan was influenced by Eliot, even if he wasn’t.
At the core of Bob Dylan in the Attic is Dominguez’s engagement with Dylan and myth, which he calls Dylan’s strongest historical register. Dylan’s music and his life (as he performs it publicly) are foremost mythical constructions. Dominguez isn’t the first to make this argument, but he makes it well. As Dylan himself has increasingly been telling us over the last several years – most emphatically in his new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song – and explicitly showing us for at least three decades, dating back to his cover albums Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, the American songbook is mythological to him, in the sense of being truer than the literal or the historically accurate. Dominguez quotes an unusually succinct and direct Dylan making this point in 1997 to David Gates of Newsweek: “‘I find religiosity and philosophy in music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light” – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists. . . . I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs’” (88–89).
Dylan’s listeners believe his songs, too. One consequence of “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “Hurricane” – to name a few songs that bore so deeply into their biographical subjects that they somehow elevate them from individuals to archetypes and that take less obvious poetic license than, say, “Tempest” – is that the historical liberties Dylan takes with them and the mythologies that result have effectively displaced the relevant facts in the cultural consciousness. Dylan is adept at turning what happened into what should have happened. The truth is often stranger than fiction, and, as Dylan demonstrates again and again, the mythological is often truer than the truth.
Yet Dylan’s mythologizing is often seen as a problem, with his loudest critics resorting to charges of fraud, fake, imposter, phony, and the like. These critics could possibly be right if their literal mindedness didn’t lead them to miss the point entirely. Dylan isn’t a valuable historian because he’s diligent in his evidence gathering. He’s a valuable historian because of his ear for the truth. In the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s foundational conception in On Bullshit, it is “indifference to how things really are” that constitutes “the essence of bullshit.” The bullshitter will say anything that is to his present advantage. But even at his most 1966-caustic, Dylan’s irony always gives the suggestion of pointing toward things (truths) that can’t (or shouldn’t) be put into direct language. If, technically, he lies when he invents an early autobiography that has him running away from home and joining carnivals or when he rewrites history to serve a song’s needs, he must be understood as Dominguez understands him: “Just like Homer, just like Thucydides (the rhetorician), the modern songster can produce a verisimilar past edging toward veracity itself” (18).
Dominguez is right when he tells us that Dylan’s “creative use of a classical textual tradition does not imply ignorance of that tradition; on the contrary, playfulness implies comfort” (10). But while Dylan’s fluid relationship with the past doesn’t expose him as a bullshitter or as someone for whom a little knowledge has proved to be a dangerous thing, he nevertheless presents a slippery case for a scholar.
What distinguishes Dylan’s rewriting of history for the sake of the present from Big Brother’s, if not something like the goodness in his soul? And what harder thing ever was there to locate in the history of American culture than the essence and soul of Bob Dylan? One problem with the accusations of fraudulence pointed at Dylan is that they assume an essential self that is being deceptively misrepresented for personal gain (fame? money? really? at this point?). But Dominguez joins the likes of Greil Marcus and Todd Haynes in challenging this simple assumption, writing, “what if the so-called masks worn by Dylan are not mere costumes? What if, in fact, these masks can be something more akin to embodiments?” (56). To put this another way, recognizing that Dylan is a performer doesn’t indicate that he isn’t also a good one.
Part of the magic of listening to Dylan’s 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall (The Bootleg Series, Volume 6) is hearing a giddy Dylan tell his audience in the transition between “Gates of Eden” and “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night)” that “It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.” Dylan is widely thought to have been stoned during this performance and two songs later will forget the opening lyrics to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).” And maybe if he hadn’t been so stoned and so giddy he wouldn’t have revealed what wasn’t yet obvious to everyone: that whoever he “really” is, he is capable of becoming whoever the song needs him to be without a moment’s notice. Listen again to the lead-up and false start to, and then the flawless execution of, Bootleg 6’s “I Don’t Believe You.” Once two fans provide him with the lyrics he needs, Dylan is still laughing when he tries to start singing and sputters out. But the switch to singing the song with utter conviction happens instantaneously. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, it happens anew every time before you can realize it. In the time it takes him to say “now” (as in, “It’s the same song, same song, only we start it now.”) he is transformed from one person (the unmasked Dylan) to another (the singer, never unmasked). Don’t look back, indeed. This essence we insist on searching for, how will we know when we find it? As Greil Marcus writes in his new book, Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, “it may be that his true biography is his inhabiting of other lives” (211).
History, like Dylan, assumes the form its moment requires, and it belongs to whoever voices it best. Applying this pragmatic rendering of Dominguez’s to one lesson of Dylan’s music – that ideas are not distinct from their articulation – we can learn another: that it is better to be good than to be right if what you want is to be heard and maybe remembered.