SUBMITTED BY Spencer Leigh, 12 April 2021
I thank Quentin Miller for reviewing my book, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues so thoroughly and the Dylan Review for publishing that review. Naturally, I would like to make a few comments, as Miller’s review raises several issues.
The book was never intended to be academic but that is not, ipso facto, a drawback: it is just a different type of book. I wanted to try and capture the general reader, maybe people who hadn’t read a Dylan book before. I didn’t want footnotes as they can interrupt the flow of a story.
Dylan is such a quirky individual that I knew I could make this a funny book and that generally goes against academic criteria. The story of him visiting John Lennon’s childhood home in Liverpool in 2009 is comedy gold.
I transcribed all my Dylan-related interviews and no one is misquoted or paraphrased. Most of them have been broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside over the years. If an academic wanted further details, I can supply the full transcripts and the dates and places of recording. Indeed, my lockdown job has been annotating my radio programs (about 3,000 of them) for Liverpool Central Library. My role model is John Gilliland’s interviews from the 60s/70s which are on the University of North Texas website.
There is a pattern in my biographies. I start with the artist’s connection to Merseyside and then to the UK in general and onto the US. This I suppose does imbalance the books. In the case of Dylan, I wrote at length about his appearances in Liverpool as they are the shows I attended.
I accept too that my books may be biased by the people I’ve met. I met Judy Collins and Joan Baez in Liverpool on UK tours. I haven’t interviewed Sara Dylan but I don’t think anyone else has either. Maybe her silence was a condition of the divorce settlement. She is a mystery lady but she is not missing from the index — Dylan’s family members are subsections under Dylan himself.
A significant factor about the key artists from the 60s is that they were listening to what other people were doing and the relationship between Bob Dylan and the Beatles is a strand in the book. I loved how Bob Dylan had taken a rock & roll band, the Hawks, and transformed them, mostly by osmosis. We wouldn’t have had The Band in that form without Dylan’s input, so they are an integral part of the story.
I also suspect that nobody works in a vacuum. When I was talking to the blues singer/songwriter Chris Smither, he said that Tim Hardin was unusual because he didn’t listen to anybody else.
One advantage of putting an artist into context is that it enables me to write about some of my favorite artists. In my world, John Stewart is up there with Bob Dylan and so by putting him into the text, I am hopefully introducing him to a few people who may like him.
Oddly enough, one of the great moments in my life was when I saw Richard Dreyfuss in a Neil Simon play in the West End. He had been on Desert Island Discs the previous Sunday. I went to the stage door after the play and proffered my program for a signature. I said, “You were excellent in the play but I’ve really come round to thank you for playing John Stewart on Desert Island Discs.” He said, “Come here” and gave me a big hug adding, “There aren’t many of us.” The track he chose: “Mother Country.” It was from the 1969 album, California Bloodlines, which despite its title was cut in Nashville and on the liner note, John Stewart refers to “Dylan across the street,” who was making Nashville Skyline.
The section on the New Dylan is, I hope, both enjoyable and informative as they all have their own idiosyncrasies — Loudon Wainwright and John Prine, for starters. Prine had the talent to rival Dylan except he was never prolific enough. Still, he did outclass Dylan in sheer quirkiness.
Over the years the great songwriters have known the importance of love songs and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Lennon and McCartney have given us standards. This is another factor that differentiates Dylan from his contemporaries. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull told me, “I would love to be able to write short, straight-to-the point love songs. They are the hardest to write because so many have been written.”
As well as writing songs like “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” Dylan is able to write succinct lyrics and get the whole world singing — “Lay Lady Lay,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “If Not For You,” and “Make You Feel My Love.” That Brill Building talent has served him well.
Bob Dylan has been elusive when it comes to discussing his songs and this has worked in his favor. He can be discussed forever as students grapple with their meaning. If he had given footnotes, it would have closed down the discussion. It remains to be seen what is in his archive in Tulsa. I thought that he would have covered his tracks, but it turns out he’s a hoarder.
No matter how thoroughly you read over your text, there is always something you miss and it irks you forever. The John Osborne play is called Look Back In Anger, so why did I give it the Oasis song title, “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and why didn’t I or anybody else spot it? I don’t know: it happens.
The key problem in discussing lyrics is copyright. I would love to attempt a full textual analysis of “Desolation Row,” but the cost would be prohibitive. Dylan’s work is protected by copyright and it could be several hundred pounds to quote from the lyric. The rule of thumb is you can quote up to 10 words without infringing copyright — at least, that is what the London-based publishers appear to work to.
In 1965, Bob Dylan alienated his audience at the Newport Folk Festival and the jury is out as to whether that was deliberate. What can’t be denied is that he went on a world tour with the same approach. When I saw him in Liverpool, I witnessed something I had never seen before, namely, the star turn being booed. When I wrote the book, I wondered about other musicians who had alienated audiences in the same way and found some examples, starting with Hector Berlioz, who, as luck would have it, could have been on similar drugs to the 60s rock stars. When I put the examples together, I thought it made surprising reading.
Once again, thank you very much for the attention. I appreciate it — and more to the point, so do my publishers.