REVIEW OF SPENCER LEIGH’S OUTLAW BLUES
Spencer Leigh. Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues. Carmarthen, Wales, U.K.: McNidder and Grace, 2020. xi + 511 pp. $22.95.
REVIEW BY D. Quentin Miller, Suffolk University
Like Dylan himself, no label is going to contain this book. As it sat in the middle of our coffee table for the past few months (causing the legs to bow slightly), Dylan’s angelic eyes on the cover arresting the attention of anyone walking by, my bookmark traveling slowly toward the final pages, my wife asked, “What exactly is it?” Biography? Check. Analysis? Check. Overview? Yup. Anthology of pithy quotations culled from interviews? Certainly. Context-building historical and cultural study? That, too. Although I’d stop short of describing the book as an encyclopedia, I think it’s fair to describe it as encyclopedic. I honestly had to double-check on more than one occasion to make sure it was written by one person.
That one person is Spencer Leigh, a Liverpool-based radio personality who has hosted a show on BBC Radio for some thirty-five years and who has published books on Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Fury, Buddy Holly (two), and the Beatles (four), to name a few. It’s clear that he knows a hell of a lot about popular music in general and Dylan in particular, and it’s fair to say that Outlaw Blues is an extremely accomplished record of his considerable understanding. In addition to sheer knowledge, his passion for his subject is palpable. The book brims with energy (until the last couple of chapters, as I’ll discuss later). When I described my slow-moving bookmark earlier, it wasn’t to imply that the book was dull in any way, just big. Very big.
Have I mentioned it’s a big book? The 511 pages listed above don’t really tell the full story. These are 511 pages without margins, printed in a font that I dare say most of Dylan’s fans couldn’t make out without some pretty strong reading glasses. The bigness of the book can’t be overlooked, and I regard it as potentially both its chief strength and its chief weakness. First to the strengths, since I hold Leigh’s book in high esteem, and I want to lead by highlighting them.
Outlaw Blues is strikingly nonconventional, which Dylan aficionados should appreciate. The author describes it in the introduction as “the story of Bob Dylan” (x), but also acknowledges in no uncertain terms that Dylan is “mercurial” (ix), mysterious, unknowable, and evasive (though he balks at the word “enigmatic,” suggesting it indicates a failure to dig deep enough). Late in the book he describes Dylan’s “unpredictability” as the only thing that is predictable about him (397) and the thing Leigh loves most about him (414). In keeping with the spirit of that idea, the book is a little unpredictable, too. Leigh describes the structure in his introduction: each chapter essentially begins with thick context, which might involve Dylan’s most recent location, or one of his musical influences, or a certain dimension of history that framed his transformations. The second part of each chapter (which is always the most substantial) traces Dylan’s life with an emphasis on his creative output: primarily songwriting, recording, and touring, but also the side projects, such as Tarantula and other writing, painting, and film excursions. (As he says, “If you just want Bob’s story, then you can read the second sections on their own” [xi].) The third section of each chapter is the wild card in which the author might bring in a contemporary artifact, such as the recent Broadway adaptation of “Girl from the North Country” or the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis as a lens back into the time period that dominates the chapter, or as a demonstration of Dylan’s ongoing influence on music and on culture more generally.
In short, the book keeps readers on their toes, inviting them into the broad Dylan universe and encouraging them to linger in it, enjoying the journey for which the author acts as a tour guide. As he says late in the book, “If a reader is coming to Bob Dylan for the first time with this book, then I don’t think he or she could predict what would be on the next page” (414). Certainly true, but I really don’t imagine any reader of this book would be a neophyte. In fact, I imagine the reader of this book to be someone who knows Dylan more than just casually. You would have to be a fan or even a superfan to commit to this level of detail. Leigh knows this, too: on the same page, when he speculates about a first-time Dylan reader, he addresses the reader directly after summarizing Dylan’s interview style: “But you know all this” (414). Yes. We know it even better by this point in the book. I teach a course on Dylan, but by the book’s conclusion I felt like I’d taken one. That’s a high compliment.
The number of books about Dylan is growing all the time, and in addition to “who is this one for?” the crucial question is: “what does this one add?” Leigh is aware of the way others have told Dylan’s story or analyzed his work, and he nods toward previous publications when necessary without letting them interfere with his flow. There is a bibliography at the book’s conclusion that indicates what others have said, and he occasionally quotes from these works (especially Scaduto), but this is not an academic study: we shouldn’t expect a thorough review of the literature followed by a statement of how this work departs. The dominant genre is more journalism than literary/cultural criticism, and even more specifically radio journalism, I would argue. It reads a little like an extended radio program with the host frequently pivoting to include the words of Dylan’s fellow travelers and inner circle, naming them before letting their words do the talking. The effect is to give a rich multivocal context for Leigh’s core study. His is the central voice, but he is generous in letting others have a turn at the mic, including Dylan himself. What the book adds to the growing corpus of Dylanology is a living archive of opinions, analysis, and anecdotes, closer in nature in some ways to one of Scorsese’s recent documentaries than to the books listed in the bibliography.
The author knows music and musicians very, very well, and the book has the potential to expand our sense of Dylan’s influences, his milieu, and the next generation of musicians he influenced. There is, appropriately, a healthy amount of attention paid to Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Robbie Robertson, Peter Yarrow, and others we might expect, but also a good number of pages devoted to Phil Ochs, Kinky Friedman, Manfred Mann, and Kris Kristofferson, all of whom might have been diminished or overlooked in a different book. The author’s ability to deftly string together the voices of Dylan’s milieu constitutes the chief strength of Outlaw Blues.
In short, if you’re looking for a magic key that will unlock a mystical understanding of Bob Dylan, it’s not here, and probably not anywhere. Those who labor to interpret his work realize that. If you’re looking for a dense, thorough overview with plenty of anecdotes about Dylan’s development against the backdrop of the turbulent ‘60s, misunderstood ‘70s, best-forgotten ‘80s, and so on, right up almost through Rough and Rowdy Ways, you’re in luck. This one’s got all that and then some, and it has the advantage of an affable and knowledgeable host/author who is a clear writer and appreciator of Dylan, even as he insists that the book is “not hagiography” (x).
Those are the strengths, or some of them. So: what are the pitfalls of a big book about a protean subject written for a niche audience?
One, selection. In order to tell Dylan’s story in such a way that it appears as a story, I believe, you have to select a “pivotal moment” and build outward from there. Stories have an arc. If you were to write about Dylan’s relationship to the Bible, you might focus on his conversion to Christianity and back again as the climax of the story. If you were to write about Dylan’s fraught relationship with the public, you might begin with his motorcycle accident-fueled disappearance following the exhausting mid-‘60s tour, or perhaps his vanishing act after the Nobel announcement. If you were to write about Dylan’s contributions to the evolution of rock music, Newport. But if you’re tracing Dylan’s story from start to now, you have to choose that moment and emphasize it as the moment to lean on. In this book which doesn’t claim a single aspect of Dylan but rather tries to get them all in, there are multiple candidates for the pivotal moment, but one does seem more important than the others. That moment in this book is clearly Dylan’s polarizing tours of England, balancing like a mattress on a bottle of wine on that “Judas!” shout we have all come to know so well. If you want to know about Dylan, the book insists, start by scrutinizing that incident. Yes, it’s convincing. But also, it’s familiar.
Put differently, the Judas moment is well-recorded in Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back and deepened in Scorsese’s No Direction Home, to take only cinematic renditions of the infamous event. It’s the stuff of legend. Leigh is working with so much more material, and yet he locates the story’s climax in a familiar place, making us feel we’re walking a road other men have gone down. Leigh’s involvement in the mid-‘60s England tours, clearly a main reason he’s so fascinated by Dylan, is personal. He speaks (as Scorsese and Pennebaker never would or could have) of how the history of British football framed Dylan’s 1965 appearance in Liverpool (Liverpool! who had just beaten Leeds for the League, and the FA Cup!). As a soccer fan I found details such as this one amusing and charming, but . . . most American readers of this book wouldn’t know Leeds from Liverpool, and what’s an FA Cup? More, Leigh attends the concert with a girlfriend Diana who was not a Dylan fan. We get to hear about the disastrous date, how Diana called it a waste of two hours of her life, and how Leigh considered that she’d also wasted some of his precious time . . . but he promises to tell us later how they managed to get together for another try at long-lasting love, and part of the test of that love is another Dylan concert. Leigh puts it this way: “in 1966 we were again having a threesome with Bob Dylan” (175). [This reader: Facepalm.] Since she couldn’t appreciate Dylan, Leigh implies, he couldn’t tolerate her, calling her “hapless” the second time around (207). Their ill-fated relationship might be an interesting anecdote for a dinner party, but I don’t think it tells us anything about Dylan. I really wouldn’t have a problem with a memoir called Dylan and Me, and Girlfriend Makes Three, but this book isn’t that, and it’s so much more than that. The brief personal anecdotes intrude more than they illuminate.
Two, tangents. A more streamlined book shaped by an editor with an eye on the page count would have let the author know where he was wandering. It’s not as though anything in this book is irrelevant, but a book ought to be intentional about its forward motion. We came for Dylan, and although context is important, I sometimes felt as though I wanted to interrupt the author to remind him who he was supposed to be talking about. This point is related to selection and emphasis, but a little different because I’m primarily talking about the context sections. Chapter one tells about Minnesota, starting with the way the ice age flattened out glaciers to make the prairie. Okay, I’m along for the ride here, I thought; I can handle a little geological history, and I forged on. Chapter two gave me 13 pages on the history of the blues and the Beat generation, and I remained cool with it. The history of cultural events “that caused a stir” that preceded Dylan’s Newport appearance, though, from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, to Coleridge and Byron’s drug experimentation, to Wagner, to Stravinsky, to Joyce, to Picasso, to . . . you get the idea. Such background could go on forever, and when I felt like it was, I got a touch impatient. I can imagine readers who aren’t as used to academic writing as I am would be even more impatient. Such points can be made effectively and economically, especially in a book about a figure who is complex enough on his own.
The longest tangent is easily the lengthy section on The Band. Obviously, The Band’s story is related to Dylan’s, but here it threatens to eclipse Dylan’s for the better part of a chapter. The Band’s story constitutes its own history and deserves a book of its own (and in fact recently got just that, albeit from the perspective of its central songwriter Robbie Robertson in a memoir entitled Testimony, tellingly included in the bibliography of Outlaw Blues).
Three, emphasis. In a book this ambitious, it’s clear that not everything will be treated equally, and part of my point about selection is that the author has chosen to include virtually all the information he has amassed about Dylan. That’s nearly true, but even in Dylan’s personal history, which is a key component of this book if not its main focus, there is a sometimes frustrating unevenness caused by an imperfect sense of emphasis. Dylan’s relationship with his first wife Sara is especially underwritten. She appears in the narrative mysteriously, without a clear indication of how she arrived in his life. She’s suddenly just there, though furtively, replacing Joan Baez (who gets a great deal of time on the mic, and who thus becomes three-dimensional in a way Sara does not). Sara disappears much more emphatically: we get to read about the messy divorce settlement, the amount of money she was awarded, her punching a teacher as she picks up the young Jakob from school. This is the only detailed description of her in the book, and she is somehow left out of the index at the back completely despite the fact that even Dylan’s girlfriends are listed there (and listed as such). Although this isn’t a straight-up biography and I don’t expect a thorough look at Sara, she is a major figure in Dylan’s personal story and this portrait of her is a mere outline of a sketch, and not a very flattering one even so.
I reached the point about three-fourths of the way through when I realized we’d only made it to 1980, which left forty years to cover. It’s clear and obvious that the 1960s and 1970s were Dylan’s great decades, and it’s not surprising that the author chooses to emphasize them: some of Dylan’s fans would prefer to pretend the ’80s and some of the ‘90s didn’t exist. And yet, if we’re looking for something new about Dylan, the last four decades are less explored than the first two, and one would think that a story of the complete Dylan would spend more time here. I will say that Leigh manages to get quite a bit into the last quarter of the book, and he is generous when it comes to some albums that critics dismissed, honest about the Live Aid performance and a couple of disastrous movie projects, and knowledgeable about possibly overlooked details from this period, including the Theme Time Radio Hour program Dylan hosted from 2006 through 2009 (and again in 2020). The Traveling Wilburys get a kind and expansive treatment here. But it’s undeniable that the energy of the book falters in the late chapters. There’s less enthusiasm for the late Dylan, less of an attempt to understand him and more of an attempt to catalog his various projects. The substance of the late chapters too often involves a reproduction of the set lists at the many concerts Dylan has given as part of the Never Ending Tour. Mildly interesting if you weren’t at a particular show. Actually, if I’m being honest, not interesting, not unless the patterns of what he played were interpreted.
Which leads me to my final complaint: a shakiness in the interpretive approach, or the book’s actual thesis, or mission, or through-line, or argument: call it what you will. I want to emphasize that Leigh isn’t an academic and I am, so it might seem unfair for me to critique his methodology and to expect some critical consistency. And yet, all books seek to advance understanding, so even those which aren’t all the way at the academic end of the spectrum have to be clear about their critical premises. I want to emphasize that the author knows so much about Dylan and the music that surrounds him that it dazzles and bewitches the reader, this reader included. What I’m grousing about is what he does (or sometimes doesn’t do) with that knowledge. There are times in the book—most of it, in fact—when the intent is clear: he is helping the reader get closer to an understanding of a figure who is unique, inscrutable, controversial, fascinating, etc., and he accomplishes this through gathering everything he can and binding it together. Sometimes, though, it feels like an attic full of boxes more than a curated exhibit. One way for an author to get readers closer to understanding Dylan is to do the tough work of interpreting the lyrics, or the music, or ideally (as Christopher Ricks has said) the two together. Here Leigh sometimes seems nervous. Occasionally he offers a close reading of the lyrics, and the resulting interpretation gives the reader something to hang onto. At other times, he seems to give up on such analysis. “Dylan will never provide footnotes for his songs,” he tells us in his introduction. (True, and we’d be fools to trust them if he did, knowing his tendency to toy with us.) Very late in the book, discussing the song “License to Kill,” he laments, “It’s only a song and doesn’t have to mean anything but it is still perplexing. Sometimes I wish Dylan’s songs came with footnotes” (345). But . . . that’s a job for critics, isn’t it? Like you?
And this is where the academic in me wants a little more. I certainly don’t expect a close interpretation of every song mentioned in a book this big by a songwriter as prolific as Dylan, but I don’t want the author to give up on the notion of interpretation altogether. He is more comfortable going through the albums and declaring which tracks are the best, and which aren’t so inspiring. That type of assessment is a form of criticism, of course, but it also requires a little more work than it’s sometimes given here. He calls “I Believe in You” from Slow Train Coming “one of Dylan’s greatest performances. The song is very good, but is it a love song or a song about Jesus? It can be taken either way” (335). Again, he’s leaving the interpretation to the reader, but I’m more interested in why the author considers this song one of Dylan’s greatest, or what he means by “very good.” Not arguing, just waiting to be convinced. He says of a performance in Tel Aviv from 1987, “He did well but not great” (368). Again, tell me more.
On one occasion the author argues that Dylan has encoded meaning in a kind of acronym game: “The album is called Under the Red Sky, UTRS—say that fast and you have Uterus, another indication that this is a children’s album” (389). So, yeah, no: in asking for more consistent interpretation, I’m not hoping for more of that, nor of the speculation that the title of Pennebaker’s film Dont Look Back “could also refer to John Osborne’s play, Don’t Look Back in Anger, which was at the forefront of the kitchen sink dramas” (178). The title of the play in question is Look Back in Anger, just the opposite. (Oasis added the “Don’t” as the title of their 1996 hit, which may explain the confusion, but sort it out before committing it to print.) These two moments—not in any way typical—are just a different way to suggest that a stronger editorial hand might have helped focus and streamline the book, and might have also scrubbed out speculative or inaccurate moments like these that can serve to distract. (Along those lines, I won’t groan here about the frequent puns, but I did groan when I read a few of them.)
For its ambition and its enthusiasm, for its passion and scope, and for its understanding of Dylan’s many dimensions and radical transformations, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues is a worthy addition to any fan’s bookshelf. As “the story of Bob Dylan,” it doesn’t fully arrive at the intent of a story—to lend focus and clarity to a subject, and to suggest a shape that takes the form of a narrative—partly because Dylan’s story refuses to cohere and partly because this lush garden could have used a little more pruning. The intent to try to approach Dylan’s story creatively as Leigh does here is reason enough to read it, appreciate it, learn from it, even while wishing for that elusive clarity, focus, and narrative form.