Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019)

REVIEW BY William Luhr, Saint Peter’s University

Re-Invention                                                 

I

Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019) celebrates the Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour of 1975-76. It centers on performance and backstage footage, featuring Dylan and other participants, including Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The film situates the tour within a cultural/historical context, referencing nationally resonant touchstones of the mid-1970s such as the American Bicentennial, the resignation in disgrace of President Richard M. Nixon, the end of the Vietnam War, the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by a member of the notorious Manson family, and the popularity as well as political influence of the American evangelist, Billy Graham. Echoing this complex temporal interface, the film presents a prophetic image of the iconic Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. At the time of the tour, the buildings had recently (in 1973) been completed with great fanfare; but prior to the making of this film, they had been obliterated in a 2001 terrorist attack and their image has subsequently become associated with dark threats to America. While invoking diverse perspectives upon the American Dream, the film celebrates the vitality of a musical community and of small town American life. Dylan drives the bus.

Mixing archival footage and interviews from the tour itself (including outtakes from Dylan’s 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara), footage shot forty years later for this film, and footage gathered from the intervening decades, the movie presents Dylan’s ragtag group as the counter-culture at its most vital. With Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the soundtrack registering a yearning to follow a charismatic musician (“Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me / In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you / Take me on a trip . . .”), the group radiates a sense of carefree troubadours embracing the romance of the open road. Yet not all participants are musicians. The poet Allen Ginsberg declares that they started out on the tour trying to discover America but ended up discovering themselves. Described in the film’s credits as “The Oracle of Delphi,” he evokes the memory of the then (1969) recently deceased Jack Kerouac, most famous for his 1957 novel On the Road, which celebrates road travel as a way of discovering not only one’s self but also America. Kerouac’s book, which includes characters based on himself as well as Ginsberg and other Beat Generation figures, became something of a Bible for the counter-culture, and in the film we see Dylan and Ginsberg reverentially visit Kerouac’s grave. The playwright and screenwriter Sam Shepard, whose works explore mythic resonances of the American West, discusses his involvement, as does singer/actress Ronee Blakley who describes how Ginsberg and fellow poet, Peter Orlovsky, gradually became so marginalized during the tour that they were relegated to little more than baggage handlers. Sharon Stone also describes her experiences on the tour.

Sharon Stone?

The movie appeared in 2019 when a number of events coalesced around Dylan’s public image, including:

  • The release of a 14-CD box set of material from the tour as well as the November 2019 release of the three-CD package, Bob Dylan (Featuring Johnny Cash) — Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15.

  • The October 2016 announcement of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Dylan, which became a complicated event that outraged some when Dylan, citing his touring schedule, announced that he would not appear at the awards ceremony, although he did accept the award at a private ceremony in April 2017 and, that June, posted his Nobel Lecture in order to qualify for the $900,000 stipend.

  • The opening of the Bob Dylan exhibition at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in conjunction with a symposium on Dylan’s work, along with the official Bob Dylan Archive at the University of Tulsa’s Helmerich Center for American Research at the Gilcrease Museum.

  • The August 2019 death of the prestigious documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, whose obituaries noted his influential 1967 Don’t Look Back, which chronicled Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.

  • The high-profile announcement of the 2020 Broadway premiere of the musical, Girl from the North Country, written and directed by the award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson and featuring Dylan’s music.

  • The announcement that Dylan’s 2019 tour would conclude with a ten-night run at New York City’s Beacon Theater, making it his longest stand at a New York venue since 1962 when he played at folk clubs like Gerde’s Folk City for weeks at a time.

The movie toggles between tour footage and more recent commentary. While doing so, the film often reconceptualizes the nature and significance of the decades-old events, broaching the question of what continuity might exist between the two eras. Both Dylan and Scorsese, in their distinctive and inventive ways, interrogate the meaning of America. The film pursues this interrogation while engaging some avant-garde and transgressive recent trends in narration, representation, and genre.

II

Martin Scorsese is a prolific and innovative American filmmaker who, in addition to his widely respected feature films, has long been involved with music documentaries, going back to his work as an editor on Woodstock (1970). He has also made movies with and about Dylan: The Last Waltz (1978) which chronicles The Band’s final concert and includes Dylan, and the 2005 American Masters TV documentary, No Direction Home, about Dylan’s development between 1961 and 1966.

Scorsese is best known for his gritty, violent features dealing with twentieth-century urban, criminal American life. They include Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019). His Gangs of New York (2002) depicts nineteenth-century national and ethnic conflicts that underpin the development of modern Manhattan. But his output is extensive and diverse. He explored an independent woman’s struggle in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974); he made New York, New York (1977) about post World War II musicians, Raging Bull (1980) which is a biopic about the boxer Jake LaMotta, and grimly comic films like The King of Comedy (1982) and After Hours (1985). Some of his movies have courted dialogue with earlier films and filmmakers, such as The Hustler sequel, The Color of Money (1986); a remake of Cape Fear (1991); and his Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004). He has made films engaging religious topics like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), and Silence (2010). When some critics expressed surprise at the gentility of his The Age of Innocence (1993), a nuanced study of the privileged classes in Gilded Age America, Scorsese responded that he did not see it as a deviation at all, that he considered all of his films to be studies of manners among social groups, whether about violent conflicts among Italian American gangsters or the behaviors of the moneyed elite of the late nineteenth century. He has also devoted considerable energy to film preservation projects.

Scorsese’s projects often challenge normative practices of the film industry. In Shutter Island (2010), the protagonist, Teddy Daniels, is a United States Marshall hunting a demented killer. Daniels’ search leads him to Boston’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. Ultimately, he turns out to be the demented killer that he has been ostensibly hunting, destabilizing the reliability of his narrative perspective. At the end, Daniels appears to cooperate with his own imminent lobotomization, in effect erasing the very source of the film’s narration.

The 2019 releases of both Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and The Irishman represent similar subversions of film genre. The Irishman generated considerable controversy even before its release, since it was largely financed by Netflix and runs three hours and 29 minutes long, generally considered an unmarketable length for a feature film. Although it was featured at the prestigious New York Film Festival and received largely rave reviews, it created a battle within the industry at a time when the very nature of film is undergoing fundamental change. Most movies are no longer shot and distributed on film but by means of digital technologies. Powerful streaming services like Netflix, which has also entered production, are challenging traditional studios and distribution outlets and often winning those battles. As a way of ensuring revenue, theater owners have traditionally demanded a roughly three-month window between a film’s theatrical opening and its airing on television, cable, or streaming services, after which the theatrical revenues have generally declined precipitously. The Irishman had a window of less than a month. Furthermore, much of that film is told in flashback and, like Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, it challenges the reliability of memory.

From the outset, Scorsese establishes Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story as more than simply a documentary record of a concert tour but as a film with its own cinematic integrity. Even though it was honored with the 2019 Visionaries Tribute Lifetime Achievement Award by DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, the movie never describes itself as a documentary. Scorsese opens by invoking the origins of cinema itself, showing scenes from Georges Melies’s 1896 The Vanishing Lady. That film concerns magic and illusion, which was the focus of much of Melies’s work with the then-new medium. (In fact, Melies appears as a major character played by Ben Kingsley in Scorsese’s 2011 3-D feature, Hugo). But what does a nineteenth-century trick film showcasing cinema’s ability to deceive and dazzle the spectator with illusions have to do with a twenty-first Century film about a concert tour?

III

Although at first Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story seems to present itself as an entertaining depiction of the tour, some things don’t add up. Since one target audience for this film is Dylan fans and obsessives, and since information about the Rolling Thunder Revue has been available to them for decades, they are likely to come to this movie expecting a fuller, more polished record of the tour than previously available. But from the outset, they are likely to notice inconsistencies in the film’s timeline. For instance, Sharon Stone nostalgically describes her experiences as a 19-year old-invited to join the tour, and particularly her jubilation when Dylan tells her that he wrote a song about her. Later, however, the musician T Bone Burnett informs her that she could not have been the inspiration for the song, since it was a decade old at the time. A cute story about a young woman’s naivete, when in reality, Stone was 17 and not 19 at the time, and there is no record that she was ever on the tour at all. Her amusing recollections are entirely and demonstrably fabricated—in what appears to be a documentary! Fabrications within fabrications. Why did Scorsese include this whimsical material in his celebration of the tour? Why did he expend the effort to create, script, and film it for this project?

More central to the narration are interviews with “Stefan von Dorp,” the filmmaker presented as responsible for much of the tour footage. But no such person ever existed—he is entirely invented, and played onscreen by Martin von Haselberg, a performance artist married to Bette Midler.

Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures, describes his challenges in promoting the tour, but Gianopulos never promoted the tour at all. He was in law school at the time.

Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner recounts how President Jimmy Carter got him into a performance of the Rolling Thunder Revue. But Tanner never existed and the event never happened. He is a fictional character played by the actor Michael Murphy, who appeared as Tanner in Robert Altman’s 1988 television campaign mockumentary, Tanner ’88, written by Garry Trudeau.

The fabrications are so numerous that in the very month of the film’s release, on June 12, 2019, Andy Green published an article enumerating many of them in Rolling Stone entitled, “A Guide to What’s Fake in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.”

What is happening here?

Traditional notions of documentary posit a genre that strives for an accurate, unmediated recording and recounting of the film’s topic, be it the life of an individual, the significance of an event, the historical plight of a people, or the development of a socio-cultural moment. At least from the 1920s on, the genre has often been associated with political activism and with the presentation of evidence documenting real-world injustice and arguments for social change. However, many contrasting schools of documentary filmmaking have emerged, often with different ideological stances involving the integrity of the image, the soundtrack, the narration, and the authorial presence or absence of the filmmaker. Some documentarians reject voice-over narration as intervening with the “truth” of the depicted events; comparably, many consider recreations of events to be betrayals of an implicit promise of unmediated “truth.” Furthermore, the very nature of the documentary has recently undergone widespread and extensive reformulation, particularly with the advent of digital technologies, and many works currently presenting themselves as documentaries bear little relation to past iterations of the genre.

Presumptions about venues have also changed. Traditionally, documentaries were shown in theaters or in auditoriums. After World War II, television became a major new venue. Currently, much of the energy in the field has shifted to art museums and various video installations, and these new venues have brought with them fundamental changes in narrational practices. Where many traditional documentaries presented closed narratives—a beginning, an end, a clearly focused argument—more recently many have presented open-ended, ongoing, multi-perspectives on their topics. Some of these films seek to immerse the spectator in a new kind of documentary experience, which can be “live” and constantly changing, as with live video feeds simultaneously showing war-torn areas. Those feeds depict what is happening at the very moment that the spectator is observing them and present a constantly changing NOW. Some manifest as “walk through” installations and, rather than presenting a fixed narrational experience, presume a mobile spectator who can focus on whatever they find compelling. Hence the same spectator can experience the “same” documentary presenting different data on successive days.

This disengagement from long-held notions of fixed narration also relates to current practices challenging traditional presumptions about the integrity of the cinematic image—about what we can believe about what we see. Traditional codes of representation are shifting, not only in the documentary genre, but also in fictional films. Dramatic examples appear in recent films by Quentin Tarantino such as Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019). Each is set in an identifiable historical time and place—the first in World War II Europe and the second in 1960s Los Angeles. It is nothing new to set films in past eras and present a mix of historical and fictional characters, but the convention has largely been to stick with what popular audiences know about history. In Inglorious Basterds, however, Tarantino depicts the slaughter of Adolf Hitler and his staff in a French movie theater a year before Hitler’s actual death in Germany. In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the infamous Manson family prepares to murder Sharon Tate and friends but, contrary to the historical record, the murder is averted.

These more recent examples differ from the common practice of altering character structure or the sequence of events in films engaging historical figures. John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) deals with Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight. Ford knew the historical Earp but his depiction of the fight differs wildly from the historical record. The actual fight lasted roughly half a minute but in Ford’s film it goes on for fifteen. Doc Holliday is killed although the historical character survived. When Ford made the film, those events had occurred in a previous century and were not well known. He tailored them to his notion for the film. But the Tarantino films engage widely known, relatively recent events. Most audience members are likely to see that something is off.

In Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese utilizes these new trends in filmmaking, and those trends pair well with many of the narrative strategies Dylan has employed throughout his career. Among these strategies is Dylan’s history of attracting and even encouraging diverse and contradictory perspectives about himself. Dylan speaks of the importance of masks in the interview portion of the film, saying, “We didn’t have enough masks on that tour. . . . When someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.” On the tour, when not wearing a mask, Dylan generally performed in whiteface. In the film, Joan Baez recounts how she once dressed in whiteface to imitate him, and no surprise, the film goes to lengths to suggest Dylan borrowed the idea from the rock band Kiss, who had yet to even adopt that practice at the time. Even before 1962, when he legally changed his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, Dylan had used numerous pseudonyms while performing and recording, and has continued to do so. The pseudonyms include Elston Gunn, Tedham Porterhouse, Blind Boy Grunt, Bob Landy, as well as Lucky Wilbury and Boo Wilbury on the Traveling Wilburys albums. His character in the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, calls himself “Alias.”

Dylan’s history of using pseudonyms and celebrating masks mirrors his career-long pattern of exploring new modes of creativity and even identity, whether shifting from traditional folk music to rock, or causing a stir within the industry by “going electric,” or embracing Judaism or Christianity. He has, in effect, repeatedly invented new Bob Dylans.

Dylan’s invocation of masks, of multiple and changeable personae, is also consonant with the image that many have of him as an American bard, a poet of the common folk attuned to the multifaceted spirit of their nation. Historically, bards have been associated with epic poetry and song as well as the creation and celebration of national myths. Their works, written in the vernacular and hence accessible to everyone, have functioned to celebrate a nation’s vitality and provide a collective sense of identity. The dominant recent tradition comes largely from Celtic-Anglo-Irish-Scottish-Welsh culture, but draws upon earlier traditions. While the stories bards tell may have some factual basis, what is important for them is how they fashion their content into nationally resonant myths. Whether or not Homer accurately portrayed the historical Trojan War is less significant than the image of it he presented in his epic poems. Shakespeare, likewise, has been called the Bard of Avon. In his poetry and songs, Robert Burns, who was called the Bard of Ayrshire, defiantly used the Scottish dialect instead of the standard eighteenth-century English of his era to celebrate the vitality of Scotland‘s disenfranchised classes. In the refashioning of factual data, accuracy is not nearly as significant to these bards as how the work coheres into a resonant myth that evokes a national identity.

A fountainhead figure in American letters for this kind of endeavor is the poet Walt Whitman, who called himself “The Bard of Democracy.” His Song of Myself (1892) celebrates his own individuality hand-in-hand with that of the “self” of America at large. Asserting solidarity between himself and the reader under the umbrella of “America,” he opens the poem, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In Part 51 of the poem, Whitman directly and unashamedly addresses the notion of his self-depiction as being so expansive as to contain contradictions. “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” With Whitman and Dylan, contradictions are no big deal; issues of self and national identity are at stake.

Dylan has long acknowledged his debt to the folk artists who preceded him, particularly Woody Guthrie. Upon agreeing to establish his archives at the Helmerich Center for American Research, alongside Woody Guthrie’s, Dylan said, “I’m glad that my archives, which have been collected all these years, have finally found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially alongside all the valuable artifacts from the Native American Nations. To me it makes a lot of sense and it’s a great honor.”

The figures cited above—Guthrie, Whitman, Kerouac, Dylan, and Ginsberg—as artists who present themselves as emblematic of the spirit of America, all continue the bardic tradition. These artists have also given diverse and at times contradictory accounts of themselves, with little concern about such contradictions being particularly significant in light of the breadth, ambition, and social agenda of their endeavors.

Todd Haynes’s 2007 film, I’m Not There, provides a gloss on Dylan’s various public selves. A highly unusual, quasi-biopic in which six actors play diverse personae based on aspects of Dylan’s life, the film describes itself as “inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.” Dylan himself only appears briefly in concert footage at the end, but manifests in fictional characters at various crossroads and metamorphic moments of personal development. The film’s very notion of character is fluid. Indifferent to traditional boundaries of gender, age, and race, the personae include a woman, a blues-singing African American child, and a burned-out cowboy. The actors include Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Richard Gere (who plays Billy McCarty or Billy the Kid, who rides a boxcar and finds Woody Guthrie’s guitar). Kris Kristofferson narrates the film and Bale’s character is presented as the son of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who was a part of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Despite his roots as the son of a Jewish doctor from Brooklyn, Elliott cultivated the image of a folksy, down home country boy and was known for telling rambling stories. One of his better known performances is “Pretty Boy Floyd” on his 1960 album Jack Elliott Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie, which presents Floyd as a Depression-Era Robin Hood character in solidarity with the common folk of the land, such as farmers. The song invokes the American fascination with freedom-loving outlaw figures like Floyd and Billy the Kid.

Elliott was a protege of Woody Guthrie. His mastery of Guthrie’s work strongly influenced Dylan’s early career, and the two developed an abiding friendship. In concert, Elliott has even referred to Dylan as “my son.” A useful referent for Todd Haynes’s splintered characterization strategies appears in Kris Kristofferson’s introduction to his 1971 song, “The Pilgrim,” which Kristofferson declares as being in part about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: “He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction.” This applies to depictions of Dylan as well.

IV

Dylan’s celebration of outlaw figures extends beyond romanticized historical criminals. It includes contemporaneous victims of injustice like the Native Americans Dylan visits and plays for on the Tuscarora Reservation in New York, as well as the boxer, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. While the film often employs a cavalier mix of fact-based and invented figures and events, it also foregrounds the bracing engagement of an actual, contemporaneous case of social injustice. Dylan performs his 1975 song, “Hurricane,” in concert, and the film also shows recent footage of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter himself expressing gratitude for Dylan’s role in overturning his murder charges after nearly 20 years in prison. Abruptly, then, in the midst of the film’s fabricated and often whimsical stories, Dylan verifiably reengages his protest roots for real-world effect. This sequence comprises part of the whirling narrative mix that incorporates the film’s diverse, often contradictory, approaches to its subject.

Even so, Scorsese’s film does not aspire to present a documentary record of the tour. So what is it up to? A useful model for approaching that complex question comes from what lies at the very center of the film—music and performance. Many of the songs in the film are ones that Dylan and the others have performed hundreds of times. Each time they sing those songs they bring them to life once again, for the present moment. And the present-ness, the very NOW-ness of that performative moment, of necessity changes from concert to concert, and over the decades. The same song performed by the same artist can take on different meanings in different contexts. The artist, who is always performing in the present moment, in the audience’s NOW, knows that he or she needs to make the performance feel new each time, with each activation. Musical performance is neither archeology nor documentary but must always be a present-tense activity. The song might be decades or even centuries old, but each time an artist performs it, it must exist and resonate within and for that moment. That perspective is pertinent to the film’s evocation of the tour.

A further perspective is evident in Scorsese’s engagement with the question of cinematic “truth.” In engaging what appears to be a traditional type of film, a record of a concert tour, he employs a number of avant garde and cutting-edge filmmaking strategies. He presents what appears to be a revival of an old tour in ways attuned to the latest media practices.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story never declares itself to be a documentary record, although many might come to it expecting one. Its notion of what it is, is much more fluid and cued by its unabashed use of blatant fabrications. It is not presenting us with settled “fact” but rather creating its own reality for its own NOW, underscored at the outset by the footage of Dylan declaring that the tour “happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.” What did he mean? On one level, of course, he was simply joking—the film provides abundant evidence of his presence on the tour. But seen from a different perspective, that presence was one from decades in the past, and in the intervening years Dylan has assumed many different masks, different personae as his way of re-inventing himself for changing times and ever-shifting socio-cultural environments. In effect, the film is giving a contemporaneous riff on the long-ago tour, less concerned with traditional presumptions about “accuracy” than with a celebration of the idea of the tour, filtered through memory and the desire to celebrate its legacy (which at times includes impulses toward hagiography).

If Dylan and Scorsese place such little value in factual recreation, why should we? They present compelling performances in a mythic recreation of a past event, one whose significance is retooled for 2019 and beyond. While the tour itself has been described as a financial bust, it has developed a mythic stature, one linked at the film’s end with Dylan’s ongoing touring life, his “Never Ending Tour” since 1988. And he is still touring! The closing credits list his subsequent tours up to 2018—more than 3,000 shows over a 40-year period. They imply that the Rolling Thunder Revue is ongoing and is inseparable from Dylan himself, the artist, his many masks, and their place in the ever-changing myth of America.

 

Timothy Hampton. Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work. Zone Books. New York: 2019. 285 pages. ISBN 978-1-942130-15-4. $29.95.

REVIEW BY Robert Reginio, Alfred University

Bob Dylan’s Poetics, the main title of Timothy Hampton’s excellent exploration of form, suggests that the study will detail a theoretically informed analysis of Dylan’s corpus in an attempt to make an argument about the philosophy of poetic language underpinning the artist’s experiments. The subtitle, How the Songs Work, tamps down one’s expectation for such a speculative study, connoting a strictly formalist approach to the songs. Neither the main title nor the subtitle gives one a sense of the study that follows.

What Hampton provides the scholar and critic is a model of theoretical and methodological diversity perfectly suited for the present moment of Dylan Studies. Attuned to literary genealogy, the forms of popular music that make up the texture of Dylan’s art, and the implications for listeners excited by the uncanny strangeness of even Dylan’s most popular tunes, Hampton is uninterested in stabilizing this moving target.

In Hampton’s study, Dylan is paradoxically both a curator and an iconoclast, oftentimes in the very same song. For example, in Hampton’s first chapter “Containing Multitudes: Modern Folk Song and the Search for Style,” he pays close attention to the dialects and idioms Dylan strategically uses in the song “With God On Our Side”:

The “hobo” language of “I’s taught and brought up there” immediately gives way to the old-fashioned sounding phrase “the laws to abide” which is semantically vague [it could mean either “to tolerate” or “to obey”] . . . the phrase generates an alienating effect, as if the singer knew something about grammar that we don’t, as if this phrase actually “worked” grammatically in some sociolect somewhere, in some local tongue that we would recognize if we knew what the singer knows. (37)

Hampton links the singer’s alienation from the history he has inherited and his concomitant solitude to the way Dylan places Guthriesque “hobo” language against the “old-fashioned” language of law and tradition. The drama of the singer’s disillusionment unfolds in our ear. As careful curator, Hampton implies, Dylan incorporates, even in his early compositions, a wide variety of phrases, idioms, and dialects. As Hampton insists, this “collage” of discourses creates an aural environment that is strangely familiar. But the spark of familiarity fades quickly, and as listeners we are uprooted from those discursive communities that lend us a sense of being at home. As an iconoclast, especially in “With God On Our Side,” Dylan employs this “collage” of discourses to question the primacy of any dominant narrative. Hampton’s study moves chronologically through Dylan’s recorded work. Dylan’s songs are shown to recover and to reanimate an ever-increasing range of citations. The tensile way in which these citations are curated in the songs oftentimes serves iconoclastic ends.

As Hampton argues in the following chapter, “Ramblin’ Boy: ‘Protest’ and the Art of Adaptation,” Dylan invents a new type of Guthrie/hobo figure to inhabit. This figure stands between the world of his primary listeners (white, college-educated members of the folk revival) and that of his sources (Hampton singles out African-American blues). Dylan deploys a kind of semantic wandering in fashioning this “rambling” figure. “[T]he invention of a new type of hobo,” writes Hampton, “is linked to the collage style of writing”:

Indeed, the two phenomena—the performing identity and the style of the lyric—are two sides of the same coin. The rambling boy is the thematic embodiment of the poetic technique shaping Dylan’s lyric style. Dylan’s composite lyricism, drawing on both working-class American idioms and “exotic” imported song forms, is the manifestation, at the level of form, of his mercurial persona, and vice versa. It is impossible to say which one generates the other. (50-51)

His songs (that is, the words and the music) offer performative sites where affect can be mapped, historical perspectives can be challenged, and literature can make urgent demands upon an engaged listener. The method of Dylan’s “composite” poetics produces lyrical and musical fragments. The result of his songs’ interrogation of their own coming-into-being is a dedicated iconoclasm.

“Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth,” Dylan sings on 1983’s Infidels. The line figures as a typical pronouncement of the doubled nature of language and performance in Dylan’s allusive art, suggesting anything from the echt-Romantic trope of the artist as merely the Aeolian harp the Muse(s) might deign to plug into the PA system, to the eyeball-and-cigarette Cubist-portraiture smoked and punched into place by the railroad man in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” This disfiguration aligns with that song’s lament about the artist’s existence as one filled with endlessly unspooling tape reels onto which he repeats refrains and echoes and reconfigures words.

For this reader, the most important implication of Hampton’s formal study is the theoretical argument it implies. Hampton clearly describes the remarkable way marshalling only a few echoes from folk songs or literary traditions allows Dylan to create a compelling series of personae. Performing in the guise of a constructed persona has always been at the center of Dylan’s art, and these performances have allowed him to fashion a voice replete with overlapping discursive echoes. And yet, however much a few scraps of previously shaped (or stolen) language can express the self, this process simultaneously undoes the stasis of self-identity. In exploring how Dylan’s songs work, therefore, Hampton presents the reader with a compelling narrative of an artist reinforcing and undoing the notion that an individual identity draws its strength from tradition.

On Infidels, the refrain of “I and I” focuses on just this sort of self-reflective poetics: “I and I / In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.” The disorienting moment of self-reflection (“I and I”), of self-undoing, and the moment of “creation” seem linked in Dylan’s art: this is the implicit thesis of Hampton’s study, making Bob Dylan’s Poetics quite timely as scholars begin unearthing what the Bob Dylan Archive may tell us about how the songs work. In addition, Hampton is refreshingly polemical. Hampton insists, for example, that “Dylan’s own art, from its very first manifestations, has consistently questioned, taken apart, and criticized every feature of the very culture that made it possible” (13). In this statement, Hampton argues that a turn to sources is a critical act for Dylan. It is a recursive gesture, neither a recovery of the past nor an establishment of a link to the past that secures the singer’s sense of his place within a historical continuum.

Dylan expresses his fidelity to his sources by recreating, through allusion, the essentially disruptive effect those sources had upon him. Hampton’s framing of Dylan’s project in this way runs counter to critics who may read the performances’ multifarious cultural and historical contexts as grounding Dylan’s work in a variety of traditions. For Hampton, even Dylan’s earliest songs remain uncanny echo chambers. A tall order, then, for the twenty-first-century critic of Dylan’s art: one must carefully listen to the songs reverberate in the “memory palace” that makes Dylan’s art possible while attending to the cracks and fissures in the cultural foundations produced by the songs’ reverberations.

The resonant phrase “I and I“ is lifted without attribution from Rastafarian theology and twisted from its original theological emphasis on unity. Moreover, “I and I” is only a step away from Rimbaud’s infamous “Je est un autre” (“I is an other”). Hampton forcefully argues that for Dylan, informed by Rimbaud’s poetics of disintegration and visionary profusion, “[l]anguage . . . works through resonance, as much as through reference” (91). In a discussion of the visionary mode of Dylan’s mid-1960s work, Hampton steps beyond the by-now clichéd invocation of Rimbaud to illuminate the confusing, synesthetic labyrinths of epics like “Visions of Johanna” or “Chimes of Freedom.” He establishes Rimbaud as a writer for whom the dissolution of the cultural foundations of poetry energizes the act of creation.

One of the most valuable interventions offered by Hampton’s book occurs when the context offered by Rimbaud’s poetics is expanded to include the tradition of modernist poetics. Less interested in delineating precise lines of influence, Hampton identifies “the technical discoveries of modernist art” as the proper context for Dylan’s poetics (26-7). The most salient discoveries for his analyses of Dylan’s songs are:

the fragmentation of time and space, the vexed worrying about the past, about tradition and originality, the idea of culture as ruin, [and] the emphasis on artificial or invented objects and moments as bearers of peak or authentic experience within an increasingly unreal ‘real world.’ (27)

While one can sense the paradoxes to come in identifying “authentic experience” as the result of an encounter with the “artificial,” Hampton’s sketch of modernist art’s preoccupations supports his assertion that we read Dylan in the light of this specific literary tradition. Dylan’s recursive exploration of American popular music—from rock and roll to folk revivalism and back to rock again—is reflected in the powerful performance of the songs.

For example, when reading “Tangled Up in Blue” as concerned with “the problem of generational identity as a problem of collective illusion” (i.e., as a fragmented, critical return to a time when “revolution was in the air”), Hampton argues that the song’s propulsive form inaugurates “the theme of performance,” a thematic concern that casts “his own song as a special type of illusion, as fragmented lyric insight, self-conscious, oblique, even difficult” (140). As the forms of Dylan’s 1960s “vision music” settled into a kind of mannerism, Hampton argues Dylan turned to the contrapuntal structure of the sonnet (as defined by Petrarch) to occupy, as performer, this oblique relation to the past. Hampton’s formal analysis of “Tangled Up in Blue” remains consistently linked to his figuration of Dylan as a modernist: “Dylan’s response [to stylistic mannerism] is to turn to older forms of representation, archaic models that can help power an ironic break with the recent past” (141). This gesture, of course, is a modernist one: in this quote Hampton could be describing the poetic theories of Ezra Pound, his infamous injunction to “make it new” invigorated by a fixation on the power of the fragments of Sappho to break the back of decorative Victorian verse.

Indeed, according to Hampton, Dylan is alive to Rimbaud’s provocations and the modernist poetry that followed, even in his earliest compositions. Dylan’s citation from Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” in “Song for Woody” (“Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men / Who come with the dust and are gone with the wind”) is, Hampton insists, a complex gesture. “Dylan cites these lines to evoke not the life of the migrant worker,” he explains, “but the wandering (and well-known) folk singers who were Guthrie’s friends” (55). Teasing out the implications of such a layered allusion, Hampton argues “at the very moment that Dylan cites Guthrie’s account of migratory labor experience, he turns that citation against itself. Those who wander nowadays are folksingers” (56). For a young Dylan introduced to Rimbaud’s poetics, “I is another” denotes perhaps his recognition of himself in the French provocateur. That would also be a doubled moment: in it, the artist discovers a resonant lineage while also realizing that he is (as we all are under the conditions of modernity) belated. The question thereby remains: how does it feel?

In terms of the songs’ powerful effects on how we feel, one must consider Hampton’s augmentation of his brilliant lyrical analyses with his exemplary musicological description. Like Alex Ross, Hampton remains scrupulously detailed in registering the changes in key and chord structure that undergird Dylan’s songs without discouraging a reader unfamiliar with musicological nomenclature. A riveting moment comes in Chapter Three: “Absolutely Modern: Electric Music and Visionary Song.” As he tells the story of Dylan’s development from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding, Hampton’s analysis of the musical structure of “All Along the Watchtower” sheds light on Dylan’s commitment to a thoroughgoing questioning of identity. “The density of figuration” (a wonderful phrase that could be applied to many songs on the album) in “All Along the Watchtower” is a result of the fact that “no narrative mediation links the Joker and the Thief” to the song’s “two riders.” Joker (an artist figure) and Thief (a marauder) “exist in equipoise,” thereby frustrating an attempt to pin down the artist as a marauder engaged in acts of love and theft (116). Hampton then explains that this “density of figuration” can be heard in the musical structure of the song. He notes that the chords which make up the harmony of the tune are “very close in sound” and “the only break in this dense structure is the one-beat passing chord, a B major, which, like a swimmer emerging for an instant to grab a breath renders perceptible the otherwise murky alternation” of the two linked chords that make up the basis of the tune (116). We hear, in this description, the song’s ability to suggest an apocalyptic conclusion while flashes of individual histories (like the conversation of Joker and Thief) break the surface. Even a reader unfamiliar with the technical language of musical notation can follow along, grasping the precipitous soundscape that links the fate of Joker and Thief. As Hampton’s analysis reveals, however, “All Along the Watchtower” contains a fleeting, energized interruption that tugs at the ear. This subtle inflection essentially questions the notion of fate. Such an effect underscores the song’s ambiguous conclusion. Blonde on Blonde’s phantasmagoric indeterminacies are pared back on John Wesley Harding, but Hampton uses his musicological analysis to nail down the essential continuities between these albums.

And yet, the scrupulous analyses of both lyric and music in this book seem hampered by a need on the author’s part to ground any speculative poetic theorizing on definitive sources (e.g., he assures us all too often about the relevance of Rimbaud’s proto-modernist poetics by alluding to Dylan’s own allusions to the French rebel in interviews and liner notes). Such strict bookkeeping cannot at all be faulted—this is an exceedingly erudite book in which every endnote counts, in which every proposition is slotted aptly into an apposite critical conversation, sometimes far afield of Dylan Studies. Hampton’s book registers that the most beautiful aspect of the music is when, inside these museums that make up Dylan’s songs, echoes sound familiar and estranged in the same moment. His study satisfies in the way that it offers several schemas for reading Dylan’s work, and he proves most adept at utilizing the work of writers known for their determined arguments about poetics (Rimbaud and Brecht, for example). But he leaves no schema in a fixed central position. This rhetorical move strengthens the book.

On the other hand, at times Hampton seems beholden to language used as a vehicle for moral argument. In such moments we lose sight of Dylan the iconoclast. For example, Hampton sometimes explains that Dylan’s songs “mediate” between phenomena. In commenting on Infidels’ critique of neoliberal capitalism, Hampton writes that the song “Jokerman,” because of its allegorical nature, “works to mediate between private experience and the public experience that was being retooled for the full onset of neoliberalism” (186, my emphasis). The verb “to mediate” is vague. It suggests there is a role the song plays between its affective power over its listener (its status as an artwork) and the social surround (the history it reflects). The vagueness of the verb holds back a potentially radical reading of literature itself. Rather than “mediator,” is it not that a song like “Jokerman,” in its ironic subversion of the putative ends of allegory, stands as (or in) the gap between commodifiable cultural products and history itself? Hampton gives voice to this potentiality when he writes of this song’s “self-consuming dimension,” how all the virtue imbued in the figure of the “Jokerman” “is revealed by the last lines to have been an illusion.” Hampton continues, “[t]he album may be full of infidels and idolaters, but we may be the biggest infidels of them all if we believed Jokerman could fix things” (185). Hampton’s insight can be brought to bear upon the song’s own enunciation of its various intertexts in a leveling list: “the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy / The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.” We begin with the Jewish scriptural roots of Dylan’s Christianity when he invokes some of the most proscriptive texts in the Torah. We then hear the everyday excuse for apathy in the face of exploitation (“it’s the [natural] law of the jungle”). “[T]he sea” suggests a kind of generic “poetic” setting. Listing—as it was for Joyce, and more corrosively for Beckett—is a de-essentializing, satiric gesture. Hampton’s arguments therefore shed light on the difficult “fixity” of the Dylan text when they stray from the tendency to see the songs as “mediators” of our experience in a history already mediated by texts and scriptures.

It is a testament to Hampton’s sensitive, critical connection to his subject that the various forms of interpretation Dylan’s work has yielded are felt at every moment in his text. But it makes for a crowded book. Hampton seems prepared for a full-length study of Dylan’s work from 1997 to the present. For example, his chapter on “Late Style and the Politics of Citation” is a brilliant exploration of what Hampton insists has always been present in Dylan’s work: a radically leveling reincorporation of distinct discursive modes and traditions into new patterns of expression. His argument thereby steps beyond the commanding formal analyses of Christopher Ricks and their relative silence on the problem of history. Early on, Hampton argues

Dylan was able to seize [the] empty space in the structure of the folk music world, presenting himself as “authentic” yet not “traditional.” He was shrewd enough not to try to reinsert traditional songs back into their now distant contexts . . . [r]ather, he would invent the fiction of a new cultural space beyond the mainstream. (31)

The loaded distinction between “authentic” and “traditional” in this passage (i.e., between a cultural expression steeped in its past and one aware of the terminal nostalgia of “traditional” recreations) is incisive. Recognizing this distinction sets Hampton up to describe Dylan as aware of the patterning of the self through discursive streams whose sources remain counter-voices to the “homogeneous empty time” of modernity. As he insists about Dylan’s work: “The voices of the past are violently available to the imagination at any time. They ring through the present. A body on the street in Manhattan could be from Gettysburg. If Dylan is anything, he is a historical poet” (34). The adverb “violently” in this quotation carries with it a clear-eyed and convincing sense that Dylan’s borrowings, as much as they exploit textual indeterminacy to open up a space of expressive freedom, nevertheless carry with them a political and ethical charge.

This foundational definition of Dylan’s poetics as eminently historical, while not only furthering the argument that Dylan may be placed in a modernist context, establishes a theoretical leitmotif in the book that sheds new light on Dylan’s most recent compositions. Rather than trucking in universal categories of morality and judgment, Dylan is preoccupied with violence. On the one hand, he is drawn to the figurative violence of disruptive modernist poetics. These strategies can be found in Dylan’s meta-awareness of his audience in his mid-1960s work, which also comments on the violence of modernity’s appropriating cultural industries. On the other hand, Hampton insists Dylan is responsive to the traumas of historical violence and how these traumas define the American landscape.

Coming full-circle in the book’s later chapters, Hampton argues that Dylan’s work after Oh Mercy explores “the processes of cultural memory and the isolation of the individual cut off from past and community. . . . The answer to desolation seems to be self-conscious performance and the circulation of bits of cultural information [based on] a rhetoric of the fragment” (218). Perhaps one of the central questions of modernist poetics—is a fragment a recovery of a part of the past, a suturing of present and past in the name of justice, or an untimely presence testifying, in unending echo, to loss?—lingers over Hampton’s stunning analysis of “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Rather than figuring Dylan as an artist in exile, on his own among his storehouse of memories, Hampton uses the song’s Ovidian allusions to think deeply about exile itself. For Hampton, exile is not a transhistorical, existential fate for the poet cast from the realm of power, nor is it expressive of an artist’s contrarian agency, as it may be in the voluntary exile of James Joyce from the fair north country of Ireland. In the lives of Guthrie’s wandering hobos, as well as in Dylan’s early ruminations on the dark side of “wanderin’” in songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Don’t Think Twice,” and “One Too Many Mornings,” exile is a felt phenomenon. Hampton, however, makes a crucial distinction: “Whereas Guthrie sings about the rambling forced on him by the Dust Bowl, Dylan’s persona rambles to get songs that he can then sing . . . about his rambling to get songs” (46, ellipsis in the original). A footnote in Hampton’s text takes in Walter Benjamin’s theorization of the flâneur and Peter Doyle’s study of Jimmie Rodgers’ invention of the wandering American cowboy singer. The intersection of the footnote and Hampton’s reading of Dylan’s Guthrie persona spark manifold possibilities for reading Dylan as invested in the perpetuation of a series of stylized personae that simultaneously reflect and undermine an understanding of modernity as that which threatens authentic identifications. Both of the cityscape and removed from it, Benjamin’s flâneur is not so distinct from Jimmie Rodgers’ own “wandering” persona. Hampton’s critical survey of Dylan’s self-fashioning has the virtue, therefore, of remaining steadfastly equivocal on the status of popular culture and the cultural products we designate as “art.” While this mixing of high and low culture is a well-worn feature of most accounts of Dylan’s work, Hampton indicates avenues of critical speculation where Dylan doesn’t simply “mediate” between “high” and “low” culture. Rather, as in Benjamin, Dylan intermixes ways of reading “proper” to high culture with those affects that are “simply” the province of mass culture’s consumable products. To shift between these ways of reading leaves a listener informed by Hampton’s study in a virtual state of exile.

Hampton’s culminating reading of “Workingman’s Blues #2” exemplifies the study’s productive methodology. In his analysis, Hampton strategically unpicks the citational threads in the opening verse of the song. The reference to “the Proletariat” brings us back to Guthrie’s crowded union halls, while the line “They say low wages are a reality” sounds like a snippet of punditry echoing from a TV set. As Hampton argues, the line “is a secondhand thought, something picked up, perhaps, at a tavern like the one celebrated by [Merle] Haggard’s well-employed hero” (219). If there is a constant, Hampton argues, it is that exploitation, a founding aspect of neoliberal capitalism, has the power to surround us with a plethora of consumable goods, but its historical working out leaves us with only those (in this song, now scarce) products. Disconnection and dispersal, interwoven in the song’s lyrics, leaves us achingly nostalgic and empty. Moving from the song’s references to Ovid and his exile, Hampton argues that the entire point of this song “is that, in the world of globalized capital, everyone is an exile. Even if you are home, you are not at home” (220, emphasis in the original). Sensitive to the different registers of discourse juxtaposed in the opening verse, Hampton notes that “the break in history that I have highlighted throughout Dylan’s late work, the split between an empty present and some earlier moment of plenitude and meaning, is here intensified through the Ovid reference. Not even Ovid had it this bad” (220).

For Hampton, Dylan investigates the effects of formal experimentation. His experimentation—informed by the modernist preoccupation with the problem of history and the recursive play of citation against expression—takes us from “the dynamic blends of idioms that characterizes the early songs . . . to [the mid 1960’s] collage of images, names, and cultural references” (97). The literary equivalent of guitar feedback, his songs become “mosaics of cultural noise” (97). Dylan’s late style retains a fidelity to such restless innovation. For Hampton, Dylan’s allusive late style does not serve to veil an essential self: his late style presses blues lyricism (and the poetics of the resonant fragment) against the narrative coherence of the traditional ballad. “[T]he structural looseness of the late style dovetails with the conventions of the most archaic of forms, which lends itself perfectly to the disjointed postmodern world being painted,” Hampton writes. (204). We thereby find in Dylan’s art an unblinking focus on form as a means through which we can feel our own being in history: a time out of joint, a time out of mind.

 

Andrew Muir. The True Performing of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare. Red Planet Music Books: 2019. Pp. 368. Paperback UK £15.99. US $24.95. ISBN 978-1-9127-3395-8.

REVIEW BY Stuart Hampton-Reeves, University of Warwick

At one time it was fashionable to compare Dylan to John Keats, so it is a measure of how Dylan’s stature in Western culture has grown over the decades that he is now more likely to be compared to the greatest of all Western writers, William Shakespeare. What links a sixteenth-century Warwickshire playwright to a twentieth-century Minnesotan singer-songwriter? The answer, of course, is virtually nothing, and neither writer benefits particularly from the comparison. Dylan’s work owes more to Ginsberg, Eliot and Pound than it does to either Shakespeare or Keats. There is something mischievous in the way that the question tends to be posited. In the days of “Dylan and Keats”, the conjuring of names was meant as a way of starting a conversation about poetic excellence: quite simply, was Dylan as good a poet as Keats? “Dylan and Shakespeare,” on the other hand, tugs in a different direction. This comparison is more about cultural status: will future generations see Dylan as important as Shakespeare? Ennobled by a clutch of literary prizes, and possibly at the end of his career as a songwriter, Dylan may be our culture’s best offering to the ages.

I prefer “Dylan and Shakespeare.” Although as different as they can be as writers, they do share a similar place in their prevailing culture. Both started their careers as performers rather than writers—Shakespeare as an actor, Dylan as a folksinger. When they wrote, they were fiercely conscious of the live audiences they would be performing to. Although many of us encounter Shakespeare in books, he always wrote with performance in mind. Dylan never just sings his songs, he performs them, and he strives to find some new angle that makes the song unique to that moment. Bob and William share an investment in popular culture; they both care about their audiences enough to give them something of what they want. Yet while respecting and admiring popular entertainment, they both transcend it. In Shakespeare’s case, he started writing straight-forward plays and enjoyed a parallel career as a poet. His poem “Venus and Adonis” was the big hit of his early career, his “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At some point around 1595, perhaps less than five years into his writing career, Shakespeare seems to have had some kind of epiphany, because he starts bringing poetic language into his plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its companion play, Romeo and Juliet, have a poetic intensity missing from earlier plays, as if Shakespeare had decided to bring his skills as a poet to the then somewhat disreputable form of the common play. This is the closest Shakespeare came to “going electric.”

Andrew Muir’s The True Performing of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare is an admirably exhaustive study of the two writers. The ordering of the names on the title page suggests that Dylan has some kind of precedence, although Muir’s previous work was a fine study of Shakespeare and Cambridge. Muir and I share an admiration for the Cambridge schoolteacher H. Caldwell Cook, who is a central character in Shakespeare in Cambridge (Amberly Publishing, 2015), and who makes a somewhat implausible cameo in this study of Shakespeare and Dylan. Cook’s appearance is indicative of the level of detail that Muir marshals in his forensic, side-by-side dissection of the two corpuses. As Muir himself notes, “it is not difficult to build correspondences between any two artists” (9), particularly when their body of work is so large. Muir is acutely aware of the dissimilarities between Dylan and Shakespeare, but he does not want to write about those: instead, his interest is in the intersections between their “working practices.”

Indeed, this is where the comparison starts to get interesting. Few writers in history have been accused of plagiarism as much as Dylan and Shakespeare. Many of Dylan’s tunes are borrowed from folk songs, there are whole websites devoted to his selective “quoting” of (for example) Henry Timrod, and even his Nobel prize acceptance speech has since been exposed as riddled with “similarities” to other texts. Shakespeare, too, was an adapter. Despite what one may have seen in the film Shakespeare in Love, he did not invent the plot of Romeo and Juliet (he based it on a popular poem by Arthur Brookes). He drew heavily on Plutarch and Holinshed for his Roman and History plays, sometimes word-for-word; he raided Cinthio for Othello, Boccaccio for Cymbeline, Chaucer for Troilus and Cressida—and so on. There are few truly original plays in Shakespeare’s canon. As Muir points out, both the legal and cultural context for authorship was very different in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Adaptation and imitation were a respected part of the creative process in Shakespeare’s time, whereas Dylan has faced greater scrutiny and even mockery for his many borrowings. Here, it is useful to call Shakespeare as a witness for the defense. If Shakespeare can create great art that is a creative and transformative assemblage of other writers, then why not Dylan? Part of the way both writers have been able to create such a rich and diverse canon is through their extensive assimilation of other writers. The young Dylan was notorious for spending hours in listening booths absorbing hundreds of folk songs which he had an uncanny ability to pick up after only a few hearings. Shakespeare too seems to have been something of a cultural sponge, absorbing, recycling and recreating classical and contemporary sources and turning them into remarkable works which transcend their origins.

Muir is also interested in the social and cultural contexts for his chosen subjects. Chapters on religion and political contexts bring into focus the way that writing and music interact with the world around them, and occasionally have an impact on the way people think. It is a valuable exercise to put Dylan and Shakespeare into context, especially as we are now at a point where we have enough distance to start to see Dylan as a figure of history rather than as a contemporary. However, Muir is on noticeably thinner ground here than elsewhere in the book, as contexts tend to separate artists out rather than flatten the distance between them. Shakespeare lived in the fraught aftermath of a tremendous religious schism. Born in 1564, Shakespeare would have been old enough to have remembered the old morality and mystery plays which were later banned by Elizabeth’s government, nervous of the potential those plays had to incite religious division. Shakespeare was effectively banned from writing about religion and contemporary politics, and when he did so, he did it in allusive and subtle ways, which means scholars are still arguing about Shakespeare’s religious and political beliefs centuries later. Dylan has lived through some interesting times and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s helps to mitigate some of his less politically acceptable speeches during his “born again” phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Shakespeare is a natural reference point for any writer, especially one whose cultural knowledge is as expansive as Dylan’s. Dressed in a jester’s outfit and talking to a French girl in an Alabaman alley, Shakespeare is a character in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” His own characters also appear from time to time in Dylan’s work: Ophelia sits beneath a window peering into Desolation Row; in “Po’ Boy,” Desdemona gives Othello poisoned wine in an odd conflation of Othello and the denouement to Hamlet, an image which Muir intriguingly links to carnival burlesques and minstrel shows Dylan recalls seeing as a boy. Muir’s chapter on “Shakespeare in Dylan” may prove to be the last word on the subject, for Muir offers many examples of ways in which Dylan has quoted, reshaped, or simply reflected Shakespeare. Sometimes he over-reaches. Metrical similarities between Feste’s song in Twelfth Night and “Percy’s Song” may simply be the result of both drawing on the ballad tradition. I’m not overly convinced that the “painted face on a trip down Suicide Road” is Ophelia, but I accept that this is the sort of creative and subtle borrowing that Dylan is good at. In a witty move that I suspect both Dylan and Shakespeare would approve of, Muir follows this with a chapter on “Dylan in Shakespeare,” which reminds us that, because Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being performed and filmed, he exists very much in the present as a contemporary writer. For example, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film Hamlet includes an excerpt from “All Along the Watchtower” in its soundtrack, and the man who digs Ophelia’s grave also sings the song. Muir goes on to discuss Dylan references in Almereyda’s 2014 film Cymbeline and Robert Icke’s 2017 theater production of Hamlet.

Muir’s survey of Dylan and Shakespeare is so broad that there are, inevitably, mistakes and misconceptions. For example, he misleadingly compares Shakespeare’s collaboration with Thomas Middleton to Dylan’s collaboration with U2 on the track “Love Rescue Me.” Although we know very little about how Shakespeare collaborated, few if any scholars believe that he and Middleton sat down together to compose plays: more likely, Middleton was asked to dust down plays Shakespeare had already written for fresh performance, possibly years after Shakespeare had written them, which makes Middleton more of a script editor than a co-writer. I am not sure that it can be said that Shakespeare did not care about the printing of his plays given that almost half of them appeared in print during his lifetime (Muir’s claim that “Shakespeare’s plays in quarto format had nothing to do with him” (29) is unprovable and seems unlikely). Shakespeare’s early retirement from the stage suggests otherwise—it seems likely that he was spending at least some of his time in Stratford preparing his works for publication, as several of the ones that appeared in his posthumous complete works, known to the ages as the “First Folio” and published in 1623, were so long that they would have been unlikely to have been performed in the “two hours traffic” of the early modern stage. Muir is on better ground with Dylan, although I am not sure I can agree with his claim that “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” has entered the English language as a commonplace.

Dylan has almost written Muir’s conclusion for him by titling his 2012 album Tempest. As many newspapers were quick to notice, the title appears to be a reference to Shakespeare’s last play (at least, the last that he wrote solo), The Tempest, which is arguably about the “magic” of theater and poetry, and ends with the magician breaking his staff and abjuring his magic. The temptation to see Prospero as a cipher for Shakespeare has proved irresistible to even the most cynical scholars. Could Tempest be Dylan’s last album? Dylan’s people were quick to refute that suggestion, but as we enter into 2020 (at the time of writing), with no new material from Dylan for the best part of a decade, one begins to wonder if Tempest will prove to be his final artistic statement. The dark is drawing closer: Dylan does not have long to capstone his career with new work. Muir’s finale, then, is a spirited comparative analysis of The Tempest and Tempest with some nice observations about the way Ovid and Homer influence both.

What, then, is to be gained from over three hundred pages of side-by-side comparison between the two Bards? Perhaps very little in truth: the book serves to remind us how different Shakespeare and Dylan are, both as men and as writers. The book is at its most persuasive when it uses one to frame the other: that they are both performers who write for performance seems to me to be a useful way of de-mythologizing both of them. The contexts of their work were both highly charged politically and socially, but in very different ways. That Dylan was influenced by Shakespeare is hardly surprising, since all writers in English are whether they know it or not—if anything, Muir’s study here highlights how infrequently Dylan has turned to the other bard for inspiration over his long career. And one might have expected a cultural figure as influential as Dylan to have intruded on modern performances of Shakespeare many more times than the three somewhat obscure examples that Muir finds. None of this detracts from the book’s achievement. Muir has synthesized an impressive amount of detail which he marshals in an intriguing way. As the “long twentieth century” draws to a close and we look at the cultural achievements which our times offer up to the centuries, it may well be that Bob Dylan’s work is one of those, but only time will tell if the people of the twenty-fourth century revere his work as much as we do the plays of William Shakespeare.

Otiono, Nduka and Josh Tosh, editors. Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. vii + 212 pp. $109.99

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent scholar, Luxembourg

There are now two periods in Dylan studies, pre- and post-Nobel, and this new edited collection inscribes itself from the start as a product of the 2016 Nobel watershed. It also reflects the curious circumstance that, while the Swedish Academy’s award was the final act of the gradual, decades-long process of conferral of literary respectability on the Dylan œuvre, that same award has also, perhaps paradoxically, generated a passionate defense in some quarters of the primacy of performance over text in Dylan’s work. Examples may be found in Andrew Muir’s recent book-length study of Dylan and Shakespeare, and among the contributions to the 2019 international Dylan conference in Tulsa. The present volume may be considered as aligned primarily with this tendency. Regarding the prioritizing of performance (and thus of song over text), one might wish here to recall the words of France’s prestigious poet—as namechecked by Dylan on Blood on the Tracks—Paul Verlaine: “De la musique avant toute chose . . . et tout le reste est littérature” (“Music above all . . . and all the rest is literature”). From such a perspective, (performed) music comes first and literature second.

The collective volume is the work of eleven contributors (eight male and three female) from the academic milieu, including the two editors, based variously in Canada (both editors, including Nigerian-born creative writer and academic Nduka Otiono), the United States (eight) and Germany (one). The component texts consist of an introduction co-signed by the editors and eight chapters, one of them (chapter 8) co-authored. The book spans a wide range of perspectives, for the most part anchored in Dylan’s performance orientation, while not neglecting close lyric analysis and with reference back to the Nobel a recurring trope. The title not only points to the multiplicity of Dylan’s selves but also, by signaling in the term “polyvocal” his many voices, anticipates the book’s alignment with performance, of which voice is so vital a part.

The introduction (chapter 1), co-signed by the editors, argues that despite the Swedish Academy’s “justifying of [Dylan’s work] as readable text,” “awarding Dylan the Nobel in literature is not the same as awarding it to Yeats or Eliot” (1). This is not to undermine the award as such, but to avow that Dylan’s presence on the Nobel roster forces a redefinition of “literature,” since “we cannot simply ‘read’ the vast bulk of Dylan’s work”: the musical and performance dimension is always there. Dylan’s Nobel, the editors suggest, has provoked in the literary world “a sense of unease that is readily comparable to the unease sparked by the rise of the novel at the close of the eighteenth century” (4). They conclude that his œuvre “is literary only insofar as it is musical” and “readable only insofar as it must also be heard” (5), stressing the multiplicity of Dylan’s voices and underpinning the notion of a “polyvocal Dylan” with the key concept of polyphony, deriving from literary theory via the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. The chapters that follow, they affirm, “develop our understanding of Dylan and place his textual and performative art within a larger context of cultural and literary studies” (11).

Chapter 2, by Damian A. Carpenter, is entitled “Restless Epitaphs: Revenance and Dramatic Tension in Bob Dylan’s Early Narratives,” and it lays its main emphasis on Dylan’s ambivalent relationship with certain of his poetic predecessors (T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost), regarding not so much their actual poems as their concept of literature (Eliot’s “historical sense,” Frost’s “sound of sense”). Carpenter sees Dylan as a “poetic songwriter,” one who combines criteria of both poetry and song and creates a new paradigm from their fusion: “he would need to not simply imitate the traditional structure [of poetry or song] but also reorder it, speak to his present” (37). The author follows up his theoretical considerations with a close lyric analysis of “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “North Country Blues,” which succeeds in illuminating and expounding the sense of two somewhat undervalued early-Dylan triumphs.

Chapter 3, by Charles O. Hartman, confronts the (non-academic) reader with a title that may appear a shade forbidding—”Dylan’s Deixis.” The author defines the linguistic term as an aspect of language whereby certain words (notably pronouns) “take on referential meaning within the context of a situation shared by speaker and listener” (55), resulting in not always predictable shifts in meaning. Armed with this theoretical apparatus, Hartman invokes songs such as “I Want You” or “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind,” or, as he puts it, “most famously,” “Tangled Up in Blue” and Dylan’s “vacillations” around that song’s lyric, in order to point up the shifting, unstable nature of words as apparently basic as “I,” “you” or “he” in Dylan’s writing (57). A highlight of the chapter is a closely argued interrogation of the pronominal complexities in that great neglected song, “Up to Me” (58): all in all, the initial conceptual difficulty of this chapter is compensated for by the quality of the lyric analyses.

In Chapter 4, “Not Just Literature: Exploring the Performative Dimensions of Bob Dylan’s Work,” Keith Nainby, implicitly pursuing a Verlainean “music above all” line, takes up the cudgels for the prioritizing of performance, writing: “for Dylan, songs are living, and only ever fully present in the moment of expression” (80). He affirms that in Dylan’s work, “poetry depends not merely on the words themselves but on how they are engaged through his performing artistry as a vocalist” (68), and stresses Dylan’s status as “performer of his own compositions” (69). He effectively treats Dylan’s studio recordings themselves as performances; thus, Nainby notes how in the Blood on the Tracks version of “Idiot Wind” a deliberately “poor” articulation reflects and reinforces the despairing sentiments of the stanzas’ end-words (75), and explicates how in “Most of the Time” Dylan’s “weak voicing of the halting promise to ‘endure’ even as the sound of the word itself cannot” (79). For Nainby, Dylan’s vocals exhibit “the paradox of articulation—its capacity to both join and confound” (78).

Astrid Franke’s Chapter 5, entitled “The Complexities of Freedom and Dylan’s Notion of the Listener,” reads the polyvocal in Dylan as an expression of “individual freedom” and “self-determination” (88), and of—using Raymond Williams’ term—a “structure of feeling” in the form of an “impetus to start anew” (91). She further finds a tension in Dylan’s songwriting between individuality and the urge, present in many of his love songs, to achieve the “merging of one’s personality with that of another being,” stressing here the initiatic role of the addressed female “you” as indicated by the titles in such songs as “Precious Angel,” “Covenant Woman”  or “Oh, Sister” (92). Regarding performance, the author argues that by radically reinterpreting his classics on stage, “Dylan attempts to free the songs themselves of their past and thus urges his old fans (and also his critics) to discover the songs anew, freeing them, too, of their listening habits” (93). She concludes that “to have [someone like Dylan] around so long” in an activity of constant reinvention is “a gift to [our] culture” (97).

Katherine Weiss, in her chapter 6, “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and the Question of American Identity,” offers the volume’s first more specialized case study, tracing the interaction between Bob Dylan and the celebrated dramatist and film scriptwriter Sam Shepard. The author traces out the Dylan/Shepard story through three main sources: Shepard’s participation in the Rolling Thunder Revue; their songwriting collaboration, in the shape of the outstanding co-written song “Brownsville Girl”; and Shepard’s one-act play of 1987, True Dylan. Weiss identifies as a common thread Shepard’s pursuit of Dylan’s masks, a search stretched out over time and by its nature never-ending. If Shepard argues that “Dylan has invented himself,” Weiss adds that the former repeatedly “comes back to the philosophical question of who Dylan is” (103). She considers that for both artists “identity is a performative act” (105) and that both “reflect upon the fluidity of American identity and the need for and destabilization of the myths that help to form what it means to be American” (102).

Chapter 7, John McCombe’s “Bob Dylan’s ‘Westerns’: Border Crossings and the Flight from ‘the Domestic’,” reads as less concerned with performance than with identity, pushing that issue into the area of genre. Starting out from certain tropes of the celebrated (mostly cinematic) “Western” genre, the author identifies in Dylan’s work, on the one hand, notions of the rebel outlaw hero and, on the other, the converse temptation of domesticity. Scoured for these themes are both the Dylan film canon (his participation in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and such “Western”-themed songs as “John Wesley Harding,” “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” or “Isis”—the latter being considered as “Western” despite its “pyramids embedded in ice,” that image being seen as a proxy for the hills of Wyoming (134-135). The author contends that “Dylan’s westerns regularly conform to, and occasionally subvert, gender-based binaries that distinguish the classical Hollywood western” (122).

Chapter 8, co-written by Emily O. Wittman and Paul R. Wright, is entitled “‘I Don’t Do Sketches from Memory’: Bob Dylan and Autobiography” and, taking its cue from the line from “Highlands” quoted in the title, examines Dylan’s attitude to life-writing, as reflected in the songs and in Chronicles, foregrounding what the authors call “a defiant interiority unmoored from temporality” (142). Like Chapter 7, this study explores Dylan’s work more from the vantage point of identity than from that of performance. “Highlands” is analyzed, with the focus on the exchange with the Boston waitress who requests a sketch, as a song that embodies the “tension between the visual and the verbal arts” (144), potentially forming a bridge between Dylan’s core activity as musician and his forays into visual art. Songs defined as autobiographical, including “My Back Pages” and “Idiot Wind” (the latter seen as “raging with the power of King Lear on the heath” (53), are analyzed as exhibiting a contradiction between “self-presentation and self-obfuscation,” while Chronicles is characterized as an exercise in autobiography that is “explicit (yet highly evasive).” In his memoir, Dylan is seen as rejecting the generic model derived from Saint Augustine’s Confessions, grounded in “chronological coherence,” instead following in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker) reconstitutes the past “without . . . linear narrative, as a means to think through the present” (158). The authors affirm that Dylan’s memoir has the impact of “rethinking and reworking the very genre of autobiography itself” (155)—and that “his songs are autobiographical, but you will be thwarted if you try to figure him out” (166). Once again, it is a many-faced Dylan that emerges from this chapter’s analysis.

The ninth and last chapter, by co-editor Nduka Otiono, strikes a visibly different note from its predecessors, and some will certainly find it the most immediately readable. Entitled “Beyond Genre: Lyrics, Literature and the Influence of Bob Dylan’s Transgressive Creative Imagination,” it charts the history of Dylan’s influence in Nigeria, thus forming a valuable addition to a sub-corpus of Dylanology (reception studies) whose enrichment is always desirable insofar as it helps correct the conscious or unconscious U.S.-centric slant that characterizes the majority of Dylan studies. Otiono starts out from the Nobel and the general issue it raises of Dylan’s literariness, moving on to the very specific “case study” of his reception in the Nigerian literary world. He shows how his music “cast a spell” on a group of Nigerian writers, including Otiono himself—and this despite the fact that “Bob Dylan has never played a concert” in any African country; Nduka Otiono was nonetheless entranced by the image of “African trees” in “Man in the Long Black Coat” (174). He compares Dylan’s appeal to that of Fela Kuti, the “Afrobeat King” and doyen of Nigerian music (179, 181), and recalls how, for himself and his creative group in Lagos, Dylan was, to quote his fellow writer Afam Akeh, “one of our significant presiding spirits” (184), and, in Otiono’s own words, “a quintessential example of the composite artist who straddles our polyvocal creative aspirations” (187). Dylan’s multiplicity is thus received with open arms by artists in and from a culture far from similar to his own.

Many are those whose work has posed the no-doubt unanswerable question: “Who is Bob Dylan?” This volume may be seen as an accumulation of partial answers to that question, predicated on the awareness that there can never be one single or definitive take on the matter. Its multiplicity of perspectives is given a certain unity by the recurring themes of identity, performance, and the Nobel. The emphasis on performance over text is clear throughout, whether implicitly or explicitly, and at one point studio recording too is subsumed into performance. The various lyric analyses, while often dense and detailed, tend to emphasize the “how” of the songs rather than the “what.” Such an approach is evidently laudable and necessary insofar as it corresponds to a vital set of facets of Dylan’s work, recalling also that his creative oeuvre is not confined to songwriting and that he is an artist practicing in diverse other media.

The text-orientated tradition, however, has been a key aspect of Dylan studies ever since the first edition of Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man hit the bookshops in 1972, and has borne fruit over the years in essential analyses by Greil Marcus, Aidan Day, Christopher Ricks, Stephen Scobie, Richard Thomas and more. The last word has not been said—and never will be said—on any number of superb lyrics from the Dylan canon, and it is to be hoped that the post-Nobel reality will also stimulate new and fascinating analyses of Dylan’s lyrics on the page, coming from the other side of the ongoing performance/text divide.

Mondo Scripto, Lyrics and Drawings, Bob Dylan. Halcyon Gallery, London, UK, October 9, 2018 – December 23, 2018.

REVIEW BY Lisa Sanders, St. Peter’s University, NJ

Situated in the heart of one of the poshest spots in Europe, the foundation of the most important American song catalog of the twentieth century hangs uniformly among fifty similarly created and framed pieces. The contrast between Bond Street elegance, and the collection of the most American of American songs is striking, and the contrast proliferates throughout the exhibit. The juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity, of the temporary and the permanent, and of the ordinary life and the posh life are just a few examples.

Dylan quotes are painted on the deep red gallery walls. His view of the nature of art and its defining purpose in life expressed in the 1978 interviews with Rolling Stone and Playboy magazine, an excerpt from the Nobel speech regarding the nature and purpose of songs, and a quote from his autobiography Chronicles regarding his experience of looking for the singers he heard on records, illustrate the depth of some of his ideas. Indeed, the feeling of rich depth is exactly what is captured by the lighting and color inside the gallery. One feels ready to think. And Dylan helps us with our considerations by the uniformity of presentation. Each piece is presented on cream colored paper. Dylan’s handwritten song lyrics are on the left, and on the right, an illustration in pencil. One is immediately drawn to get up close and focus. What’s revealed in doing so is nothing short of astounding.

The exhibit is organized on two floors. Upon entering the ground floor of the gallery, two center columns, one on the left, and one on the right, display seven and nine pieces respectively. These center columns feature masterpieces such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Love Minus Zero – No Limit”, “Don’t Think Twice, (It’s All Right)”, “Masters Of War”, “Song To Woody”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, and others. Seven works are hung on the left outer wall and five pieces are hung on the right outer wall. “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat”, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”, “Visions Of Johanna”, “Just Like A Woman”, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “Positively 4th Street”, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Rainy Day Woman #13 & 35” are some of the featured works. Twenty-three pieces are displayed on the lower ground floor, all hung along the perimeter, including “Hurricane”, “Every Grain Of Sand”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Jokerman”, “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Tangled Up In Blue”, “Simple Twist Of Fate”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, “I Shall Be Released”, and “Forever Young”. The “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ series” and “Isis” are hung toward the back of the gallery. Some viewers might prefer having those pieces hung closer to the other masterpieces.

Although the pieces are displayed according to a consistent theme, the interpretation is anything but. And we should expect that–it is Dylan’s art after all. Twenty-nine of the pieces have at least two illustrations, one in the catalog and a different one on display. Some of the songs with multiple illustrations reflect a consistent interpretation. The two illustrations of “Blowin’ In The Wind”, for example, are consistent with the lyrics. The catalog illustration depicts a man on the side of a road staring at a signpost with signs pointing to Wyoming, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada and Montana. The illustration hanging in the gallery depicts a man sitting near a window, covering his ears with his hands, staring straight ahead. Both illustrations make sense. The illustrations for “Hurricane”, on the other hand, are more challenging. The catalog illustration is of a right hand holding a smoking gun with the first finger on the trigger. The illustration on the gallery wall is of a baseball pitcher having just released a pitch. He is in perfect form and the ball is coming directly at us. Baseball and guns, both as American as apple pie. The invitation to dig into the depictions, scratching the surface of the sketches to reveal powerful ideas relating to the interpretation of the songs is compelling.

Mondo Scripto provides an opportunity to explore a new aesthetic of song. As one of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote in his seminal work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound–waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world (4.014).” Through Mondo Scripto, Dylan offers us a translation of his experience of that internal relation, where powerful modes of thought, music, and art are realized into a language that is uniquely his, but one that forcefully relates to our individual worlds. The variations in the Mondo Scripto drawings underscore how Dylan’s art straddles permanence and challenges us to recognize the kind of “waves” Wittgenstein describes. The labile nature of the Mondo Scripto project seems to be Dylan’s reflection on how art functions in giving meaning to human life.

Daryl Sanders. That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville and the Making of Blonde on Blonde. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2019. xvi + 240 pp. $26.99

REVIEW BY Nick Smart, The College of New Rochelle

That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde (2019) is not a commentary on or mere history of the making of Blonde on Blonde (1966). The book’s experiential re-creation of the making of the record manages to improve upon the primary pleasure of listening to Bob, and that’s not an easy trick.

By most standards Thin, Wild Mercury probably won’t rank among the most important Bob Dylan books in the catalog. Sanders relies on sources well known to Dylan criticism for much of the material he marshals, and his intimate connections are mostly with the Nashville musicians who played on the record; he can’t tell you anything you don’t know about Bob Dylan and Edie Sedgwick. There is no gossipy or erudite currency to be gained from this book. But if you’d like to hear more of songs you’ve played a zillion times, or if for some reason you haven’t yet understood why the release of Blonde on Blonde is such an inescapable moment in the history of music, then you’d better call your librarian.

With its title, Thin, Wild Mercury certainly provokes the skeptical Dylan reader. This phrase, Dylan’s own, is so well known to enthusiasts that it seems foolhardy at first for author Daryl Sanders to claim he can contribute to anyone’s understanding of what thin, wild mercury means (no, not what it means, what it sounds like, because its meaning is only its sound) and how Dylan conceived and delivered it. But this guy Sanders, he pulls it off. The distillation of his experience with Nashville’s people and sound, and all the impressions of Dylan he’s collected from first- (and second-) hand witnesses, results in the proof that Blonde on Blonde meets the Wild, Mercury standard to which Dylan retroactively holds it.

For better or for worse (mostly better), Daryl Sanders is a lifer, a Nashville music journalist who has covered Music City scenes and players since the late ‘70s. His feel for the town is put to good use when he recounts anecdotes like Al Kooper’s run-in with street toughs on his way back to the studio from a record shop or an effort to have illegal liquor brought to Studio A as a lubricant for the recording of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” These tasty details, gleaned from interviews with the musicians and made immediate by Sanders’s experience of the scene, give much of the book a gritty and honest atmosphere. Of course, Sanders is also a writer who likes the marquee value of his subject, and has interviewed many major figures including Robert Palmer, Joan Baez, and Tom Petty. Perhaps it is this nearly epic sense of scope that makes him want to fit his take on Blonde on Blonde into more arenas than it should play. Occasionally the density of what Sanders knows deprives the book of focus (like a great song with too many verses?).

Both aspects of this book (unchecked recitation of record label names, locations of minor gigs, antipathies of industry executives, and spot-on storytelling once tape starts rolling in Studio A) are necessary. Together, as in novels and life, the banal and the brilliant create the effect. If you don’t know how old drummer Kenneth Buttery was when he started playing Tennessee roadhouses, your jaw won’t drop far enough at the sound of his brushwork many years and chapters later.

The book provides backstory for anybody who played a note, called a take, snapped a photo, or rode along in a limo with Bob Dylan between July 1965 when Dylan resumes work on Highway 61 Revisited to the day in 1967 when the layout of Blonde on Blonde’s inner sleeve is reconfigured because an Italian starlet doesn’t want her picture in the montage of faces that are mostly Bob’s. It’s possible to feel too carried away by this bloodhound approach, but it will all be worth it when Sanders displays his spellbinding mastery of minutiae by uncovering the shape of the lyrics and the sound of the songs.

This description of some of the takes of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)” is a good example of the payoff:

The second and third verses and the bridge all underwent significant changes between the first take and the sixth, the only complete takes—none of the other four made it past the first verse and the chorus. Dylan also made a key lyrical change in the bridge between the first and final takes, adding “the judge” who “holds a grudge.” The introduction of the judge underscored the reckoning awaiting the woman for what she had done to the man when “time will tell just who has fell and who’s been left behind.

The up-tempo arrangement (in the key of G) developed fairly quickly—it was mostly together on the first take. Between the first and the second takes they settled on the primary melody line, a catchy bluesy riff suggested by McCoy that was repeated in unison by a number of instruments throughout the song.

“There was a little figure after each chorus that he [McCoy] wanted to put in on trumpet, but Dylan was not fond of overdubbing,” Kooper recalled in his memoir. “It was a nice lick, too, Simple, but nice. Now Charlie was already playing bass on that tune. So we started recording, and when that section came up, he picked up the trumpet in his right hand and played the part while he kept the bass going with his left hand without missing a lick in either hand. Dylan stopped in the middle of that and just stared in awe.” (154-155)

These paragraphs show you all of the book’s strength, and another, forgivable, weakness. If you read Thin, Wild Mercury with your headphones on, as I did, Sanders’s detailing of each track’s development will bring you to moments of genuine exhilaration when each song’s full sound is realized. While reading the chunk of Thin, Wild Mercury quoted above, I played “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” over and over, reveling in those trumpet flourishes that showed me the contortion of Charlie McCoy, the band leader who kept all the Nashville musicians working toward the realization of Dylan’s sound, and also Dylan’s face registering McCoy’s sublime contribution. What had once been an undifferentiated aspect of a song I really liked, became a moment of creation I felt in my bones. The palpability of this rendering is a great accomplishment, and it happens often.

Robbie Robertson’s “blistering lead” on “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” might have remained for me just the sound of good guitar playing had I not read Thin, Wild Mercury and overheard the arch-Southern McCoy, telling Robertson (such a Northerner he’s Canadian), “’Robbie, the whole world’ll marry you on that one’” (167). Sanders reanimates the recording sessions by listening to every scrap of raw tape available, reading every book that mentions Blonde on Blonde (that great McCoy line is sourced to Sean Wilentz’s Dylan in America [2011]), and interviewing those Nashville musicians we hear on the record (McCoy insists he never played the trumpet with one hand, but Sanders, with due respect, provides enough evidence that he might have to allow a reader’s startled impression to linger).

So that’s what the section under review, and the book as a whole, do so well, take us to Nashville by way of New York and drop us in the studio with Dylan and the bands. What isn’t as wonderful about the book is apparent in the last line of that first quoted paragraph. Anyone who follows the Never Ending Tour hoping to hear Bob drop a new couplet into “Tangled Up in Blue” is going to love the way Sanders keeps track of Dylan’s on-the-spot revisions. Anyone who does not love to have other listeners tell them what Dylan meant, especially when the proffered meanings are standard and somewhat sexist, is going to take exception with this book from time to time.

Glossing lyrics is not Sanders’ best skill. After he shows how each track of Blonde on Blonde ends up in the can, he often strays from listening and reads the words for an obligatory paragraph or two. His notes rarely improve the experience of the record the way his sterling stories of social and sonic convergence always do. The “fever down in my pocket” on “Absolutely Sweet Marie” refers as well to musical pockets and spiritual containers as to hard evidence of sexual urgency. But because Sanders, like so many explicators of Blonde on Blonde, can’t resist imagining Dylan’s feelings for Edie, Nico, Sarah, or Joan, meanings are frequently overdetermined. But this trap’s jaws catch everyone who writes about Dylan; some struggle more often and less gracefully than others. Sanders quotes many unsatisfactory critical attempts to reduce Dylan songs to stable meanings, or prove they mean nothing. Knowing that Lester Bangs and Clinton Heylin and Jann Wenner don’t deserve the last word on any of this stuff should allow us to just ignore Sanders’s unremarkable effort to render Blonde on Blonde a record about women delivered via the thematic twin engine of “waiting and gates.”

Thin, Wild Mercury does not need to be regarded and shouldn’t pose as the sort of Dylan book in which one available version of some of the songs backstops an author’s view of Dylan as activist, poet, or profligate. No, this book is an example of what English professors call performative rhetoric, an act of speech or writing that enacts the very thing it also describes. Eulogies bury and vows marry and That, Thin Wild Mercury Sound reveals its sonic referent by reverently turning our ears to Blonde on Blonde.

Bob Dylan: Electric. American Writers Museum, Chicago, November 16, 2018-April 30, 2019.

REVIEW BY Kenneth Daley, Columbia College, Chicago

As its title suggests, the primary focus of Bob Dylan: Electric, the exhibit currently on display at Chicago’s American Writers Museum, is 1965, Dylan at Newport and the electric songs of the ‘65 albums, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s ‘64 Fender Stratocaster, captured in Diana Davies’ iconic photo of Dylan playing Newport 1965, hangs in the center of the exhibit, encased in plastic like a religious relic. Underneath the guitar lies a copy of the ’65 festival program, illustrated by Jonathan Shahn, son of the social realist, and opened to Dylan’s absurdist short story, “Off the Top of My Head.” To its right, headphones offer the exhibit goer a recording of the Newport performance of “Maggie’s Farm,” the song from the newly released Back Home that Dylan chose to open the electric set.

The exhibit is relatively small, mounted in a 100-foot long corridor connecting two sides of the Writers Museum, and organized into six sections: Highway 61 Revisited; Influences; Newport Folk Festival, 1965; Don’t Look Back; Dylan’s Impact; Nobel Prize. Curated by rock critic Alan Light, with photos and objects on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bill Pagel, James Irsay (the guitar), and others, the exhibit brings together an entertaining collection of historical artifacts, among them, studio logs, job sheets, and photos from Dylan’s 1965 Columbia recording sessions; a “fair copy” manuscript of Dylan’s hand-printed lyrics to “Tom Thumb’s Blues”; Dylan’s playfully annotated/illustrated copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; a beautiful 1965 painted handbill in orange, blacks, and blues, by Eric Von Schmidt, announcing Joan Baez and Dylan in concert; the opening pages from the original transcript of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film, Don’t Look Back. Each section of the exhibit includes audio or audiovisual components.

Unfortunately, none of this constitutes, in the words of the Museum’s promotional materials, “an unparalleled display of Bob Dylan’s contribution to American music and literature.” That Dylan’s embrace of rock altered American culture is an oft-told tale (two recent attempts, Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric! (2015) and Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005), sit at the entrance to the exhibit), and the telling here is only superficial, an introduction to the uninitiated as opposed to anyone even reasonably well acquainted with Dylan’s life and career. Most disappointing is the concluding section of the exhibit devoted to “Dylan’s Impact,” consisting of an oversized selection of banal quotations from well-known musicians (and a few writers) speaking to Dylan’s genius and achievement. “It almost makes me furious sometimes, how good his lyrics are,” says the inspired Dave Matthews from somewhere far on desolation row. “Bob’s songs seemed to update the concepts of justice and injustice,” Joan Baez helpfully chimes in. Headphones are lined up along the lower portion of the wall offering audio clips of various artists covering Dylan songs, in case you’ve missed Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, or find Miley Cyrus’s rendition of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go compelling evidence of Dylan’s vital contribution to American music.

Even weaker is the exhibit’s treatment of Dylan’s contribution to American literature. The Nobel Prize section is merely an exercise in hagiography, a collection of newspaper headlines and a gold-embossed invitation to the award ceremony. The script of Dylan’s lecture and the full twenty-seven-minute recording that he cannily set to music are made available absent any analysis of Dylan’s place in the vernacular American tradition of songwriting, or any interrogation of the relationship of song to literature. Copies of Moby-DickThe Odyssey, and All Quiet on the Western Front, classic literary texts that Dylan singles out as having informed his music, dutifully sit on a shelf along the wall. So nearby sit copies of the 2016 edition of The Lyrics: 1961-2012, and Chronicles: Volume One (2004). Tarantula, Dylan’s 1971 collection of prose poems, is represented only by a picture of its front cover. The out-of-print 1973 Writings and Drawings is not represented at all, nor any of Dylan’s other early publications — “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the prose poems printed on the back of the 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’; “Some Other Kinds of Songs…Poems by Bob Dylan,” printed in the jacket notes of the other 1964 album, Another Side of Bob Dylan; the columns Dylan penned for the short-lived, folk-song magazine, Hootenanny; the open letter to friends in Broadside.

Except for “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the exhibit includes no manuscripts, correspondence, notebooks, or any other archival materials that would lend insight into Dylan’s composing process or literary contributions. There is nothing here on loan from The Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, the resource most likely to provide the materials necessary to craft the definitive display of Dylan’s contribution to American music and literature. But if you find yourself in Chicago, Bob Dylan: Electric offers a pleasant enough hour among Dylan memorabilia and photographs, some of which you very well may never have seen before.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks [Deluxe]
 REVIEW BY Jonathan Hodgers, Trinity College Dublin
 

More Blood, More Tracks (2019) fulfills many fans’ wishes for broad access to the recording of one of Dylan’s most revered albums. The set’s pleasures are many, not least the complete New York sessions recorded in September 1974 (even those takes Dylan wanted to erase), but also remixes of the versions familiar to us from Blood on the Tracks (1975). The five tracks recut by Dylan in Minnesota that December are also present, but outtakes and demos from these sessions are lost. Nonetheless, More Blood, More Tracks is a cornucopia from the more fabled September stint that was represented by five songs on Blood on the Tracks. The New York recordings approximate chronological order on discs 1–6, with the Minnesota remakes closing the set on disc 6.

More Blood, More Tracks affords us an ideal forum to pore over Dylan’s choices. Looking at the New York takes, it is perhaps surprising that changes to most of the songs were relatively subtle between 16–19 September. The approach to “Buckets of Rain”, although revisited quite often, remains consistent. Others, such as “Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts” and “Shelter from the Storm” are achieved in remarkably few takes. Dylan revisits the songs to find the right performance, rather than explore their harmonic or melodic possibilities.

The set makes clear that Dylan had the songs’ musical scaffolding more or less set down in New York and carried it with him to Minnesota. Even the songs more radically altered in Minnesota retain their harmonic blueprints. Kevin Odegard has attested to this, barring Chris Weber’s input on the Minnesota “Idiot Wind” and the key change for “Tangled Up in Blue.”[1] That said, Dylan does take the opportunity in December to tweak some of the chord progressions, and in turn, alter the songs’ overall effect. Part of the pleasure of More Blood, More Tracks is the chance to compare all of Dylan’s options.

The set traces Dylan’s development of the songs from solo acoustic numbers to full band renditions, before his settling on a more spartan accompaniment featuring Tony Brown on bass, Paul Griffin on keys, and Buddy Cage on steel guitar. The sojourn on the 16th into full band renditions is noteworthy. This material on the second disc brings into focus how Blood on the Tracks evolved from contemporaneous Dylan albums. Although the links have always been there, it’s obvious from disc 2 that Blood on the Tracks initially had qualities in common with Planet Waves (1974), and even Nashville Skyline (1969). The guitar on early takes of “Simple Twist of Fate” recalls Robbie Robertson’s contributions to Planet Waves. In the second disc’s outtakes of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, Dylan allowed country to color the arrangements. Country reappears in the final Blood on the Tracks, particularly on the Minneapolis “Lily.” But from the sessions, we can hear how the musical language of country had always been present.

More Blood, More Tracks makes it clear that the album’s initial musical palette moved from a Greenwich Village template into a country rock style not dissimilar to its immediate studio predecessor. Dylan fast abandoned this style on the second day of recording, but clearly was game to give it another go after some months had passed. The decision to re-record certain tracks in Minnesota resulted in five new takes to replace their New York equivalents originally chosen for the album’s running order. The most significant changes then occur between New York (NY) and Minnesota (MN), and a great deal of the set’s interest lies in the contrasts (and similarities) between them. Lyrical adjustments notwithstanding, Dylan made some structural changes to the songs in MN that bear comparison with their NY predecessors. What follows is a consideration of this musical evolution, followed by a brief reflection on the More Blood remixes and The Bootleg Series more generally. For convenience, the NY versions refer to
the “test pressing” takes[2] originally earmarked for the album but shelved in favor of their MN namesakes.

Harmonically, “Tangled Up in Blue” is a touch more nuanced in NY, with more changes occurring in the fourth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth lines (“If her hair…”; “Papa’s bank book…”; “Rain fallin’…” and “Lord knows…” respectively). Dylan streamlined these in MN, dropping either one or two chords. Yet, the harmonic conceit of the song remains consistent, with six of the first nine lines see-sawing between the tonic and an anomalous chord (D in NY, G in MN). In initially avoiding chords with any conventional harmonic relationship, Dylan affords us conditions which contrast with one another, yet that establish a connection within a field of tension. It’s easy to see this dichotomy as representative of the fated romance found in the lyrics. As each line expands on the couple’s deepening connection, the mysterious chord eventually vanishes in NY, replaced with chords endemic to the song’s key. The process repeats for each verse.

The NY and MN versions diverge subtly in this regard, however. In NY, Dylan doesn’t revisit the mystery chord when the verse comes to an end. The words “Tangled up in blue” are accented with an Emaj7 (an embellishment of the E major chord), the dominant (a B11 here, technically conflating the dominant and the subdominant) and finally the basic root chord on “Tangled.” In an interesting quirk, Dylan makes one final revisit to the mystery chord in MN, on the ideal word: “tangled.” There’s nothing especially noteworthy in Dylan’s (straightforward) use of an A and G together in MN; it’s interesting, however, that Dylan retained the same tonal distance found in the NY take where he moves from E to D. Dylan clearly intends this chordal relationship.

Curiously, Dylan may have intended an even more streamlined version of the song in MN. In his chord chart,[3] the last line reverses the dichotomous pattern found at the start of the verse (with the song originally in G, the last line initially progressed from F to G). Keyboard player Gregg Inhofer transposed these to the key of A for the band’s benefit. Dylan initially used an Em that Inhofer transposed to Fm; in the take that made the album, the band play F#m to conform to the vi of the A scale. Inhofer also deviates from Dylan’s template in the last two lines. It’s here we see written the familiar progression for the verse’s final line. In the key of A, the line moves from the anomalous G to the subdominant D, and finally the tonic A. It’s possible Dylan initially considered a starker transition for the line “tangled up in blue.” In the key of G, the move from F to G would have afforded an interesting counterbalance to how the verse opens (G to F). Conceptually, it mirrors the chords’ earlier relationship, feeding into the album’s Escher-like quality. This is something of an intellectual conceit, however, and it’s difficult to argue with the musical appeal of the finished product, whose chord changes complement the trochaic thrust of the line (“Tangled up in blue”). This preserves the approach found in the last line of the NY version, and also offers a more pleasing, poppier progression than Dylan’s mooted F to G ending.

Other features add interest once Dylan relocated to MN. In NY, bassist Tony Brown cleaves to the roots of Dylan’s chords, resulting in a folkier sound altogether in keeping with the neo-coffee house approach taken throughout the initial sessions. In contrast, Billy Peterson in MN plays against Dylan’s chords. He often plays an A bass note against a G chord. This was a purposeful decision made by Peterson,[4] and it meshes well with the tension established by Dylan’s alternating between A and G. Enhancing this is Dylan’s use of suspended chords in MN. After opening with an A major, he alternates it with an Asus4, indicative of travel and instability. He repeats this at the end of the verses, enlivening the lyrics’ frequent evocations of restlessness and movement.

The key change similarly has an impact. All of the NY sessions found Dylan using open E tuning. In MN, Dylan had originally wanted the song in G, before being persuaded by guitarist Kevin Odegard to try it instead in A. This energised the song’s performance; in Odegard’s words, “we went from Appalachia to Mississippi in changing that key from G to A”,[5] capturing the transition from folk to folk blues between NY and MN.

This adjustment to the album’s musical language indicates a broader shift in the Blood on the Tracks sessions from a Freewheelin’ (1963) bent to a more multi-colored sound suggestive of a number of Dylan eras. Odegard viewed the MN “Idiot Wind” as Dylan reconnecting with his “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Positively 4th Street” persona.[6] Once again, the broader sound palette of the MN sessions suggests a range of pasts co-mingling and overlapping, furthering the lyrics’ themes at an album-wide level.

The NY “You’re a Big Girl Now” switches initially back and forth between the I and V, until the third and fourth line, where Dylan introduces the IV. He uses an Emaj7 on the first two lines and transitions to a straight E major for lines 3 and 4. In MN, the first two lines alternate between the ii and iii, before transitioning to the I and IV in lines 3 and 4. This is an instance of Dylan making a sizeable change to the harmonic logic from the NY to the MN version. In NY, there’s something propulsive between the opening Emaj7 and the B11. With its blend of dominant and subdominant notes, the B11 asks for resolution more urgently and compels the returning tonic more emphatically. In MN, Dylan eases this by opening with two minor chords (Bm and Am), creating an unsettled quality, but without the same drive. As with “Tangled Up in Blue”, Dylan also sands away a few chord changes, streamlining the progressions.

In both NY and MN, Dylan lands on the tonic on the word “back” (for the phrase “back in the rain”), creating a pleasing synergy between the narrator’s return to the rain-drenched outside that somehow constitutes for him a home. He repeats the trick in the next line, returning to the tonic on “land.” It’s a neat gesture, demonstrating musically that the natural states for these two people are very different.

“Idiot Wind” is the most harmonically restless of the songs, befitting its mood. The song follows a sequence of two musically identical verses, followed by the chorus. Dylan herds the minor chords into the verses, mostly saving the majors for the chorus. The irony is palpable, with the confident movement between the I, IV and V in the latter sounding resolutely triumphant and assertive next to the minor chord shifts in the preceding verse. The directness of the lyrics in the chorus befits the approach, while circling around the ii, iii and vi in the verses encapsulates the lyrics’ confusion and indignation.

While Dylan ameliorates the chorus with IVs, each verse in both NY and MN opens with a sour minor chord and an unstable V before finding the tonic—capturing something of the song’s overall drive towards self-realization that characterizes the song’s progression as a whole. The NY features an additional gesture in this direction by including a suspended chord before the V. The song thereafter sticks mostly to the template laid down in NY, save for substituting a iii–IV progression for a iii–ii progression in the third and fourth lines, mirroring the MN opening of “You’re a Big Girl Now.”

In an amusing decision, More Blood, More Tracks does not exactly provide us with the test pressing’s “Idiot Wind.” The same take is included, but with a different organ overdub than the one originally mooted for the album. One hopes someone at the Dylan office was purposely trolling us trainspotters (“It’s still not complete!”)

In MN, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is in D, but in NY, the song is in open E like the others. Harmonically, the song remains almost identical, with a mostly similar progression around I, IV and V. The big changes are in tempo and instrumentation. Most seem to approve of the MN version, adding as it does some dynamism and momentum. More Blood, More Tracks also affords us with the excised NY verse long teased in lyric collections.

“If You See Her, Say Hello” from NY keeps to traditional E major chords. Dylan reshuffles a few of them and embellishes them in MN. With the song now in D major, Dylan includes a striking C for the long “hear” that ends the second line. C, not featured in the key of D, is conspicuous. It shares two notes with both the ii and vii° of the scale, giving it an unsettled quality. It works effectively to convey the sudden disquiet in Dylan’s voice. After a quick reorientation towards the V, he shifts to the vi chord (Bm). This chord opens the two subsequent lines (the pained “Say for me that I’m…” and “She might think I’ve forgotten…”). In tandem with Dylan’s vocals arching upwards, this vi chord lends much poignancy to the lyrics’ understatement.

In NY, Dylan uses the B11 for the “hear” pivot. Functioning as part dominant, part subdominant, it’s a notable voicing, found frequently in the NY versions. Dylan clips the “hear” in NY, however, whereas in MN, the word and its sequels (“chill”, “free”, “town” and “fast” in verses 2, 3, 4 and 5 respectively) are purposely elongated. The slightly ambiguous C in MN offers more of a twist on these words, before the shift back to A.

Unavoidably, the release is an occasion to further consider the relative merits of the two sets of sessions. Far from attenuating NY’s innovation, it’s apparent that the trip to MN found Dylan still alert to the possibilities of the songs. He continues to develop ways of exploring the songs’ central conceits and finds new ways to enrich the lyrics.

The Bootleg Series has increasingly become a space to experiment with Dylan’s mixes, and in a manner of speaking to de-historicize them and present the music in something approaching a natural state. Producer Phil Ramone’s reverb has been stripped from the songs, and the multitracks (where available) mixed into a new master. More Blood, More Tracks co-producers Steve Berkowitz and Jeff Rosen deliberated over this and ultimately decided on presenting the music sans various production decisions made at the time, including speeding up the songs by approximately 2– 3%.[7] Previous Bootleg Series releases have taken a similar approach (including 2008’s Tell Tale Signs and 2015’s The Cutting Edge), attenuating the producer’s original stamp and aiming at a new presentation of the music. As with much of the series, an ideology of purity, “access”, closeness and naturalness coalesces around the material.

The Bootleg 14 takes then sound unlike any of their previous releases. The remix, for all the debate it inspires, is more than welcome. In hindsight, the sporadic releases of the NY takes on various collections have been of less-than-ideal quality; the Jerry Maguire “Shelter From the Storm” (1996) now sounds a generation or two away from what More Blood, More Tracks gives us. On this set, Dylan’s vocals are startlingly present from the very first track. The music overall perhaps has greater warmth and intimacy than the original Blood on the Tracks. Ramone’s reverb has a spacious, nocturnal ambience of its own, and has been an integral part of Blood on the Tracks since its release. It’s a delight nonetheless to hear how bright some of the songs sound in their new iteration. The MN “Tangled Up in Blue”, long since internalized by Dylan fans, has taken on a sweeter quality, with the guitars now mixed higher and clearer.

Making no claims on being definitive, these remixes that conclude the set are yet another series of possibilities—further pieces of a shifting puzzle. Part of the set’s coherence stems from the relevance of alternatives to Blood on the Tracks, and how much their presence feeds into the album’s world. Much as the album seems to be both flashforward and flashback all at once, More Blood’s alternatives and remixes offer flashsideways—parallel, simultaneous permutations—wholly fitting for an album concerned with time, cycles, eternal return and predeterminism, but also whose release history has always elicited doubleness and alterity.

Given the expectations around the set, it’s edifying that More Blood, More Tracks has a narrative that satisfies in its own ways apart from simply being a compendium of ingredients for the eventual Blood on the Tracks. This is down to both Dylan’s working process and the compilers’ faith in its appeal; the latter’s decision to show the sessions’ linear progression happily offers a pleasing sense of journey and a satisfying dénouement in the MN remakes. Yet, the material’s release in this form was not inevitable, and the set’s “completist” mentality is itself worth pausing over in closing.

One gets the impression that the Dylan office is moving towards more comprehensive overviews of entire sessions that led to epochal albums. With something of a trilogy in place (2014’s The Basement Tapes CompleteThe Cutting Edge, and now More Blood, More Tracks), and more if one counts the 50th Anniversary collections (2012–14), Dylan’s studio chronicles are being made to parallel and offer alternative experiences to the albums that finally emerged from them. In tandem with the insight to be garnered from Tulsa’s Dylan Archive, process is taking a place alongside the finished product. Having proved itself both commercially and artistically viable, it is sure to be given further exposure.

With greater access also comes greater volition on the part of the listener. However cogent the process documented on More Blood, More Tracks is, one is not constrained by the tracklisting, and re-assemblage and playlists are inevitable with this set. For music taken to have such personal resonance with the artist, the set facilitates the listener’s capacity to personalize it, and in effect compile their own version of the album. Once up to me, Blood on the Tracks looks increasingly up to us.

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to express his gratitude to Mark A. Davidson and Gavin Wynne for their many helpful comments during the drafting of this work. Special thanks go to Kevin Odegard for sharing his experience of the Blood on the Tracks sessions and for his invaluable contributions to “Tangled Up in Blue.”

 

References

Dylan, Bob. The 50th Anniversary Collection: The Copyright Extension Collection, Volume 1. Sony Music – no catalogue number, 2012, CD-R.

Dylan, Bob. The 50th Anniversary Collection 1963. Columbia – 88883799701, 2013, vinyl.

Dylan, Bob. 50th Anniversary Collection 1964. Columbia – 88875040861, 2014, vinyl.

Dylan, Bob. Blood on the Tracks. Columbia – 512350 2, 2003, compact disc. Originally released in 1975.

Dylan, Bob. The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006. Deluxe Edition. Columbia – 88697 35797 2, 2008, compact disc.

Dylan, Bob. The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966. Deluxe Edition. Columbia – 88875124412, 2015, compact disc.

Dylan, Bob. The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks. Deluxe Edition. Columbia – 19075858962, 2018, compact disc.

Dylan, Bob. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia – 512348 2, 2003, compact disc. Originally released in 1963.

Dylan, Bob. Nashville Skyline. Columbia – 512346 2, 2003, compact disc. Originally released in 1969.

Dylan, Bob. Planet Waves. Columbia – 512356 2, 2003, compact disc. Originally released in 1974.

​Dylan, Bob, and The Band. The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete. Columbia – 88875016122, 2014, compact disc.

​Fremer, Michael. “Bob Dylan’s ‘More Blood, More Tracks The Bootleg Series Vol. 14’ Review + Exclusive Interview With Co-Producer Steve Berkowitz.” Analog Planet. November 2, 2018. https://www.analogplanet.com/content/bob-dylans-more-blood-more-tracks-bootleg-series-vol-14-review-exclusive-interview-co.

Gill, Andy, and Kevin Odegard. Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2005.

Odegard, Kevin. Interviewed by Jason Verlinde, Fretboard Journal. Podcast audio. February 2019. https://www.fretboardjournal.com/podcasts/podcast-237-kevin-odegard/.

Odegard, Kevin. Conversation with the author, May 2019.

Various. Jerry Maguire: Music from the Motion Picture. Epic Soundtrax – 486981 2, 1996, CD.

Wosahla, Steve. “Interview: More Blood, More Tracks…More Bob Dylan Stories.” Americana Highways. November 20, 2018. https://americanahighways.org/2018/11/20/interview-more-blood-more-tracks-more-bob-dylan-stories/.

Footnotes

[1] Kevin Odegard, in conversation with the author, May 2019.

[2] Please see appendix below for the track numbers of these takes on More Blood, More Tracks.

[3] Steve Wosahla, “Interview: More Blood, More Tracks…More Bob Dylan Stories”, Americana Highways, November 20, 2018, https://americanahighways.org/2018/11/20/interview-more-blood-more-tracks-more-bob-dylan-stories/.

[4] Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard, Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and The Making of Blood on the Tracks (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2005), 128.

[5] Kevin Odegard interviewed by Jason Verlinde, Fretboard Journal, podcast audio, February 2019, https://www.fretboardjournal.com/podcasts/podcast-237-kevin-odegard/, 00:39:54.

[6] Kevin Odegard, in conversation with the author, May 2019.

[7] Michael Fremer, “Bob Dylan’s ‘More Blood, More Tracks The Bootleg Series Vol. 14’ Review + Exclusive Interview With Co-Producer Steve Berkowitz”, Analog Planet, November 2, 2018, https://www.analogplanet.com/content/bob-dylans-more-blood-more-tracks-bootleg-series-vol-14-review-exclusive-interview-co.

Appendix

The test pressing takes on More Blood, More Tracks.

Disc 1, track 11: “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”

Included on the test pressing, and the single disc edition of More Blood, More Tracks.

9/16/74: Take 2

Disc 2, track 5: “Meet Me in the Morning”

Edited version included on the test pressing, and previously released on Blood on the Tracks.

9/16/74: Take 1

Disc 3, track 3: “You’re a Big Girl Now’”

Included on the test pressing, and previously released on Biograph.

9/17/74: Take 2, Remake

Disc 5, track 3: “Tangled Up in Blue”

Included on the test pressing, and previously released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.

9/19/74: Take 3, Remake 2

Disc 5, track 10: “Idiot Wind”

Included on the test pressing, with caveats.

9/19/74: Take 4, Remake (with organ overdub)