Mitch Blank is a music archaeologist and consultant archivist at the Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa Oklahoma. He is regarded as one of the pre-eminent collectors of Dylan memorabilia and artifacts, and is a longtime resident of Greenwich Village, New York City.


Ronald D. Cohen is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Northwest. He has received numerous awards including a Grammy nomination for The Best of Broadside liner notes in 2001. His books include Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970 (University of Massachusetts, 2002), Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935–1945 (2014) and Selling Folk Music: An Illustrated History (2017), both published by University Press of Mississippi.


Barry J. Faulk is a Professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. His recent work includes “A Matter of Electricity: William Burroughs and Rock Music” in the American Book Review (2020) and an essay on Burroughs, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan in Lit-Rock: Literary Capital in Popular Music, edited by Ryan Hibbett and forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press later this year.


Anne-Marie Mai is Professor of Literature and a chair of the Danish Institute for Advanced Study at The University of Southern Denmark. She nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he won in 2016. She has published Bob Dylan the Poet (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2018), edited the anthology New Approaches to Bob Dylan (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2019), and contributed to The World of Bob Dylan (ed. Sean Latham, Cambridge University Press, 2021).


D. Quentin Miller is Professor and chair of English at Suffolk University in Boston where he teaches courses on contemporary American literature, including one on Dylan and the Beat generation. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, most recently Understanding John Edgar Wideman (UP of South Carolina, 2018), James Baldwin in Context (Cambridge UP, 2019), and The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2020). Forthcoming books include The Routledge Introduction to the American Novel and a new edition of the Bedford Introduction to Literature.


Walter Raubicheck is a Professor of English at Pace University in New York, where he teaches American Literature, film, and college composition. He is the co-author of Scripting Hitchcock (2011) and co-editor of Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films (1991), both with Walter Srebnick. He also edited Hitchcock and the Cold War (2019). He has published essays on British crime fiction authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and G. K. Chesterton, as well as essays on American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, and Dashiell Hammett.


Bob Russell is a retired IT Manager. He is an admirer of traditional country and bluegrass music, and a longtime listener to the music of Bob Dylan.


David R. Shumway is Professor of English, and Literary and Cultural Studies, and the founding Director of the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen (2014), and he has published numerous articles on popular music. Some of his other books include Michel Foucault (1989), Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis (2003), and John Sayles (2012). He is currently editing The World of Leonard Cohen to be published by Cambridge University Press.


Rebecca Slaman is a freelance writer and editor. She has a BA from Fordham University in English and Classics. Her writing specializes in fan communities on social media, particularly Twitter. She has been cited as a Bob Dylan expert in speaking engagements at University of Tulsa and Florida International University.


Randy Turley is a retired Missouri teacher and attorney who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Secondary Education at the University of Arizona and a Juris Doctorate Degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He has been listening to Bob Dylan since 1966.


Karl Gustel Wärnberg is a PhD student in Philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He holds an MA in Intellectual History from Uppsala University, Sweden

Graley Herren. Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. London, U.K.: Anthem Press, 2021. x + 176 pp.

REVIEW BY D. Quentin Miller, Suffolk University


I’m writing this review from Valencia, Spain, visiting my son who moved here a few months ago. Yesterday we were making our way to the stunning cathedral, which houses (believe it or not) the Holy Grail. Poking around the narrow alleyways of the old city, my wife eyed some of the tourist shops while my son was scouting out paella restaurants. I spotted a cool-looking sign down a side street: “Devil Records.” I pulled on their coats. “I’m absolutely hitting this record store,” I declared. They exchanged a knowing eye roll, clearly deciding to sit it out. Let the old man have his nostalgic fun. I stepped in and did what I’ve been doing since I was about seven years old, flipping through bins, scrutinizing the artfully designed covers, and deciding what I could afford.


I couldn’t resist this particular temptation – the devil delaying my pilgrimage to the Holy Grail – and I imagine most readers of this journal are fully with me. We know the magic of albums, but we also realize that they signify something to you and me that they don’t signify to others. Take my 22-year-old son. This morning we took a minute to share what we were working on. He tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow. “You’re reviewing a whole book about one record?” Shrug, bashful smile. Dylan Review reader, you understand, right? We’re on the same page and in the same groove. But the premise behind Grayley Herren’s Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind bears a little scrutiny, even between us superfans and critics.


For what is an album in the age of streaming? It’s become more a fuzzy concept than a tangible thing. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you most definitely think of albums as events as well as solid objects, and you regard the experience of listening (and relistening) to them as something not easily recreated on Spotify. We look back at the time when an album release meant an occasion. As we assess and analyze our most important musical artists from the vinyl age, an album marks a specific moment in their evolution. An album isn’t an accident. It’s selected and arranged. It arrives when the artist, musicians, producers, and label are satisfied that it’s ready for release, the endpoint of a period of creative inspiration and hard labor. Maybe most pointedly, it marks a moment of growth, departure, or change in the trajectories of most true artists who aren’t content to repeat their early formulas. Dylan is, of course, one such artist. One might find connections between his debut album, Desire, and Rough and Rowdy Ways, but anyone reading this review would never have to think twice about which one opened with “Hurricane.”


Even the title tells us that Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is a niche book. That’s not a judgment, just a statement of fact as we consider audience. This one’s for experts or advanced Dylanphiles, and definitely for academics, specifically those who peer at Dylan’s work through literary lenses. It’s unlikely that any budding Dylan scholar would start with this book, just as it’s unlikely that nascent Dylan fans would start with Time Out of Mind. It’s a testimony to the ever-growing depth and breadth of Dylan studies that a book like this one can be written, published, and read at a time when the relevance of _______ (fill in the blank here: Dylan / literature / literary-minded popular music / the humanities / true art) is menaced by ______ (fill in the blank again: social media / the Internet / late capitalism / pandemic ennui). Unbothered, Herren advances a smart, informed, clearly written, old-school argument about an album. And not the oft-celebrated Freewheelin’, Blonde on Blonde, or Blood on the Tracks, mind you, but one that might be lifted out of the bin at Devil Records and held up as an unlikely holy grail. Skeptics might not want to bother with this study if they’re of the camp, detailed by Herren in the introduction, that regards Time Out of Mind as a belabored late career effort that could never live up to the early career gems. In other words, the study is an exercise in risk-taking and deep thinking. What could be more Dylan than that?


It’s clear that Herren is a fan and even a champion of Time Out of Mind. (He acronymizes the album title to TOOM and gets a lot of mileage out of the “tomb” pun: I’m not going to do the same thing here). In an admirably clear-eyed summary of the album’s reception, he acknowledges that Dylan’s achievements can sometimes be overshadowed by critical disagreements about them. He makes his project clear: “The present book seeks to refocus attention where it belongs – on Dylan’s ambitious, inventive, provocative and dialogical art in Time Out of Mind – rather than on peripheral skirmishes” (12). If the reader is wondering, “Why this album?” Herren eventually lays that out, too. His beef is with the well-established trend to celebrate Dylan’s early work of the 60s and 70s while dismissing or diminishing the later work; he writes “This characterization is utterly false, as anyone who has paid any attention to his work over the past quarter-century would know. Dylan has produced some of the most contemplative, complex, challenging and vital work of his career since 1997, a late renaissance initiated by Time Out of Mind” (23). He clearly views the album as a watershed event in Dylan’s career, not only as a complex and worthy text but as the very origin (note the word “initiated”) of his creative rebirth. I concur, and I’m happy to see it getting attention.


So we pretty much agree on what an album is, yes? A text, in this context? Well…Herren takes liberties with the finished product that is Time Out of Mind, adding a few bonus tracks to his analysis, an act which he calls “expanding the domain” of the album (22). As he justifies this decision, he quotes Paul Williams who describes Blood on the Tracks as a “meta-work” and applies the same logic to this album, including not only the eleven songs included on Time Out of Mind but also three that were outtakes that appeared on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 and, perhaps a little less solidly, “Mississippi” which was included on the next album, “Love and Theft”. Um, we-elll, yeah, but…I reiterate my initial question: what’s an album? I really admire the focus of a study like this one, but this move unsettles me a little because it compromises the understood boundaries of the argument. If a critic borrows songs that weren’t on this album (and that ended up on another album), there’s the sense that limiting the analysis to a titled album is somewhat arbitrary. One can imagine a version of Herren’s book that does not seek to analyze every track on Time Out of Mind (plus four) as this one does, but rather that selects a number of tracks from this period and seeks coherence that way. Call it “Dylan’s Early Late-Career Renaissance” or “Dylan’s Work of the Late 1990s.” I know it’s not as punchy, but it’s more accurate.


The troublesome thing about a “meta-work” is that it’s defined by the critic rather than the artist or the reader/listener. Herren argues that “Mississippi” “fits effectively in the context of “Love and Theft” and provides a crucial link connecting the two albums. However, “Mississippi” lies even closer to the heart of Time Out of Mind, and no account of this meta-work would be complete without taking it into consideration” (21-22). But just pages before he includes the following quotation from Hibbing’s favorite son: “This record is not a blueprint. This is it. This is the way these songs should go, every single last one. This record went through different evolutions. What you hear comes through that whole maze, that labyrinth of fire that it takes to perfect the arrangement and the structure” (8). Even though Herren includes another quotation from a later interview in which Dylan is less convinced about the coherence of the record, even that quotation asserts that Time Out of Mind “held together as a collection of songs” (9). It’s pretty clear to me what Dylan might say about the move to add four more tracks that weren’t on it and call it a meta-work. In his recent study Listening to Bob Dylan, in a chapter titled “Arranging an Album,” Larry Starr shares my skepticism; he writes that Time Out of Mind “serves perfectly to illuminate the advantages of listening to a Bob Dylan album as a complete, purposeful program of individual songs.”[1]


Okay, enough about albums (for now). The approach is equally important. In sum, Herren’s argument as laid out in the introduction is smart, well-informed, well-argued, and intriguing. He relies heavily on the number three to structure it, framing his introduction with the statement “Bob Dylan creates in threes” (1, 20). He substantiates this claim with choice quotations from Dylan as well as shrewd observations about patterns in his creative arc. He mirrors this creative principle in his analysis, dividing the Time Out of Mind meta-work into three categories and presenting evidence in triads, such as quotations from three interviews, or arguing that the pattern indicated by Dylan in his Nobel acceptance speech triangulates himself, Leadbelly, and Buddy Holly in terms reminiscent of the holy trinity. I’ll get to each of the three categories in a minute, but there are a few other noteworthy dimensions of the introductory framework that give it heft. One is a deft movement between key biographical details, the Dylan myth (often perpetuated or mischievously altered by the puckish Robert Zimmerman himself), critical pronouncements, audience reception, and finally an intellectual framework that includes psychology, religion, and experimental modern literature (notably the work of James Joyce).


This may sound like a rich cup of coffee, but it’s mellowed by Herren’s prose style, which is clear, accessible, and enthusiastic, even while advancing sophisticated ideas about transfiguration and metempsychosis. We dive pretty deep here, even in the introduction, but Herren doesn’t let go of our hand and force us to swim on our own. I found particularly intriguing the notion of dreams (gleaned in the title) as a valid inroad into Dylan’s art in general and this album (I’ll go back to calling it that) in particular. Herren counts sixty-five Dylan tracks over the course of his career that “contain the root-word ‘dream’” and traces a career-long pattern that constitutes “an aesthetic of transformational art modeled after dreams” (17, 18). This dimension of the argument had me bobbing my head, eager for more. I’ve often focused on dream imagery when teaching some early tracks like “Gates of Eden,” but have never considered the topic with Herren’s level of breadth or sophistication. He uses the lyrics from “Series of Dreams,” an outtake from Oh, Mercy (better add it to the meta-work), to cue up the analysis to follow: “Time Out of Mind represents a series of dreams. The album is Dylan’s most concerted experiment with enlisting dreams in the service of art. He uses dreams for content, drawing from a vast rag and bone shop of intertextual references stored in the unconscious” (19). Whose unconscious? Not Dylan’s, or not exactly. Herren views the dreamer as a “protagonist” who reproduces many of the tropes recognizable throughout Dylan’s career, but declares that the protagonist “is personal, if not strictly autobiographical” and concludes, “Time Out of Mind sometimes appears as a portrait of failure – the dreamer’s failure – but the portrait itself, as painted by Dylan, is a major artistic success” (19). This summary quotation is a good example of the author’s authority, grace, and excitement about the subject at hand. I imagine most readers who had understood the references and followed the argument through the introduction would be eager, as I was, to plunge into the close readings at this point.


So here we go. The first category Herren addresses is murder ballads, in the close company of a type of character Dylan has engaged with over his career: “lawbreakers, rebels, and desperadoes” (26). The argument rearranges most of the tracks on the album to suggest that the narrator, motivated by his desire to hunt down and kill his lost love, becomes a fugitive, is arrested, imprisoned, and executed with a dying wish to be redeemed or to receive mercy in this world or the next, knowing that it will be unfulfilled. The key, Herren reminds us, to accepting this interpretation is to remember that Dylan’s speaker is not a literal killer, but a dreamer. His disturbing nocturnal visions are the substance of the narrative. Herren also reminds us that Dylan and the dreamer-protagonist of the album are not the same person, but they “do have one important thing in common: they both know a hell of a lot of folk and blues songs” (27). Herren provides a quick and effective background on the murder ballad genre and Dylan’s previous forays into it, acknowledging that the genre can descend into blatant misogyny and using that observation to address Dylan’s uneven record on depictions of women. He keeps the focus on dreaming, though, as an aesthetic motif rather than as an occasion for psychoanalysis. He’s keen to remind us of the crucial distinction between artist and protagonist: “Dylan is a master swimmer gliding through the sea of madness in which his dreamer drowns” (37). This analysis attaches itself to one of the outtakes, “Dreaming of You,” which, Herren suggests, perfectly captures the crux of his argument, though it is “inexplicably” left off the album (37). He springboards to “Make You Feel My Love” at that moment, reframing a song that many of Dylan’s champions love to hate for its sweet, cliched, anodyne triteness. Hardly, says Herren. Within the context of the murder ballad analysis, this song is menacing and creepy. Placed between his analyses of the more overtly sinister tracks “Love Sick,” “Can’t Wait,” and “‘Til I Fell In Love With You,” the argument sticks. Herren is a literary scholar, so the lyrics are tantamount to his analysis, but he does manage to address musical concerns, too, including the arrangements, the Psycho-like sounds of the organ (“four staccato stabs”) at the opening of “Love Sick,” and the distinct rasp of Dylan’s voice (“estranged and alien”) (34).


As the murder ballad chapter approached its conclusion, the centrifugal force of the argument left me feeling a little dizzy, like someone added a healthy pour of tequila into the rich cup of coffee that is the argument. I’m not complaining – I like both espresso and hard liquor – but here I felt the need for more patience. Herren’s close readings of some of the more challenging and enduring tracks on Time Out of Mind – “Standing in the Doorway,” “Not Dark Yet,” “Trying to Get to Heaven,” and “Highlands” – are perceptive and convincing, and he uses them to good effect to conclude the argument about the murder ballad tradition, but they’re surrounded with a whirlwind of allusions to everything from fairy tales to canonical literature to Dylan’s own songs to such a degree that I wanted the author to slow down a bit and sink even deeper into the lyrics he’s so good at analyzing. The book is on the short side for an academic study, so I don’t think anything would have to be cut to make room.


The next chapter covers Herren’s second category, religious allegory. The frame here involves a good bit of effort defining the term, especially since Dylan once explicitly claimed that Time Out of Mind did not employ allegory. “I have given that up,” our hero declared in an interview with Edna Gunderson (54). Like hell you have, Herren rejoins. I’m persuaded by Herren’s inclination to “trust the tale” rather than the teller here because he works so hard and so carefully to define allegory, whereas Dylan in the interview writes it off as mere “philosophical dogma” (57, 54). Plus, as we know, it’s dangerous business to take Dylan’s interviews at face value. Herren weaves a web connecting a literary tradition from the medieval type of soul-struggle called “psychomachia” to Othello to Moby-Dick in order to argue for this album’s place in that tradition.


Psychomachia is one of (you guessed it) three forms of allegory Herren identifies in Dylan’s work, the other two being personification and intertextual identification with an allegorical figure. The first and third categories are the most prevalent on Time Out of Mind, and Herren begins the chapter with a somewhat lengthy establishment of Dylan’s allegorizing early in his career through readings of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and “Where Are You Tonight” among others. It takes ten pages to get to Time Out of Mind, or rather to one of the outtakes, “Red River Shore,” which is the author’s entry point. He lingers on this “undeniably stellar song” for quite some time – about seven pages, with plenty of connections to earlier and later songs peppered in – which is the type of sustained analysis I was craving at the end of the preceding chapter (62). Moses is the key figure of intertextual identification here: Herren concludes his analysis by calling it “Dylan’s Mosaic mosaic” (69). (Clever!) This reading sets the table for a diverse set of inquiries into the album’s other allegorical features, which are more free-ranging and combinatory than the way the murder ballad reading worked in the previous chapter (i.e. as a continuous narrative, told out of order). The spiritual pilgrimage is one dimension, but without the customary redemption at the end. The biblical figures Herren initially showcases here are Job and his tormenter, Satan, who provide ways to reframe some of the tracks he contextualized with the murder ballad tradition earlier. The separate contexts are opportunities to go deeper into the analysis, and indeed, Herren refers to them as “levels” (74, 78). The overall argument takes on breadth as well as depth as Herren goes into some tracks that did not get as much play in chapter two such as “Cold Irons Bound.”


But the depth is more striking, especially as Herren recasts two central, weighty songs from Time Out of Mind – “Not Dark Yet” and “Standing in the Doorway” – as allegories that involve Judas and Jesus, especially Jesus as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. Always keeping the context of dreams in sight, Herren’s argument is especially rich here as he stays close to the texts at hand and provides a way of reading that is both an alternative to his earlier readings and complementary to them. Certainly, Dylan’s best songs can and should benefit from approaches from multiple contexts. A murderer about to be executed and Jesus perishing on the cross are clearly two different types, but both stare down the same spiritual dilemma. The chapter concludes by revisiting one of the long tracks considered in the earlier chapter, “Highlands,” with an emphasis on the ongoing pilgrimage that Dylan allegorizes. (Surprisingly, there’s no reference to the Never Ending Tour in that context). Herren’s ultimate point is that the Time Out of Mind-era Dylan has moved into allegory and away from binary moralism (good vs. evil, serving the devil or the Lord, etc.).


Not done yet, but we’re getting there. Herren’s third contextual level involves race in America, a critical frame he describes as “intertwined with and yet distinct from the murder ballads and religious allegory levels of meaning” (91). I was just about to scratch my head about the relationship when he explained it this way: “The recurring motif of a man searching desperately for a woman – a motif that suggests a predatory stalker and killer viewed from one vantage point, and a pilgrim on a religious quest seen from a parallax view – works on a third level as emblematic of the African American search for freedom, justice, equality, and dignity” (91). My scalp remained a little itchy, for this is a stretch, but I was willing to press on. Dylan’s engagement with the struggle for civil rights vis-à-vis the folk/blues tradition is a bit more evident and accessible than the critical frameworks required for the first two chapters: safe to assume most readers know more about racial inequality than metempsychosis. Herren’s focus in setting up this chapter is on the riskiness of Dylan, or any white artist, representing the lives and experiences of African Americans. This is an important inquiry, and Herren approaches it with clarity and sensitivity. His conclusion is neither that white artists should never tread on this ground nor that cultural appropriation is everyone’s right, but rather that context is everything. “Hybridity” is a goal, “essentialism” is a danger. Herren draws from some prominent sources – Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul Gilroy, Zadie Smith – to help navigate these troubled waters.


There’s more than a little anxiety around this touchy subject which spotlights the ethics of the white artist speaking about the Black experience. I do think thorough interrogations of this subject in Dylan are important. There are many examples throughout his early career in which he inhabits this space, such as “Oxford Town” or “Hurricane” in addition to the ones that Herren analyzes or alludes to. As applied to Time Out of Mind, though, it was the hardest to see in terms of the overall argument, and this chapter – the longest in the study – was the least persuasive of the three. During my first readthrough of this book I occasionally wondered if what we really have here is three books, three separate contexts for reading Dylan, each of which could be even more probing than this one if the author had focused on Dylan’s entire career rather than just one album/ meta-work. In fact, Herren does pull quite a bit from Dylan’s earlier and later work in his analysis: this chapter opens with a lengthy consideration of 1962’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” which Dylan never included on an album and which he later denounced as a “bullshit song” (96). While it’s a fine analysis, it struck me that we’re a long way from the purported focus on the album that initiates Dylan’s late-career renaissance. Herren continues his analysis with a sustained look at “Blind Willie McTell,” another bootleg left off Infidels, a decade-and-a-half before the album under consideration. Herren spends much more time setting up his reading of Time Out of Mind in the context of race than he does analyzing the songs on Time Out of Mind: the first thirty-two pages of the chapter are buildup, the last sixteen include close readings of two songs from the album, one of which is not on the album.


Herren’s reading of “Trying to Get to Heaven” in the context of the fugitive slave dream-level is convincing, but brief compared to some of his earlier close readings. He moves into “Mississippi,” which, as we know, is not actually on the album (though Herren is so thoroughly convinced that it should have been that he starts one sentence about it this way: “Unlike other songs on Time Out of Mind…” [130]). I’m not sure the stretch to include “Mississippi” pays off, even setting aside my reservations about including it in the meta-work: I found it the least focused of all the close readings in the study, which are generally excellent. If it were not included, that would mean that this whole dimension of the argument – the dream-level from the perspective of a fugitive slave – really only applies to one song on Time Out of Mind. This is at odds with Herren’s claim that “Dylan draws deeply” from his understanding of America’s racist history “time and again in Time Out of Mind” (90). Herren does scatter a few quotations from other songs on the album, but in terms of sustained analysis, there’s just not enough evidence to convince me.


So I’m back where I started, worried about the line between a study of a single album and a study that has broader applications for a deeper understanding of Dylan over the course of his career. This final chapter is the one that leaves my brow furrowed since it has the least to do with Time Out of Mind and the most to do with a context that demands further exploration in Dylan more generally. Granted, it’s not as though the topic hasn’t been broached before.[2] But Herren works very hard to create the context here and I think he owes himself more space to substantiate it with additional close readings of songs from the album under consideration, if it’s possible to do so. This chapter also stands in place of a conclusion to the entire argument. My brow might have relaxed a little if there were a standard concluding chapter reflecting on the three “levels” of the dreamer at the end of the book to close the frame that opened it in the introduction, but the argument about the race dimension concludes the book a little abruptly.


My conclusion, then, is that Herren says quite a bit, and says it well enough that it warrants the attention of other critics, and yet I think he has more to say, especially about race, and not just how it applies to Time Out of Mind. I hope it’s clear at the end of this lengthy review that what might seem like my fussiness over how an album is defined is actually an earnest debate about whether Dylan’s massive body of work is best approached in terms of individual texts (be they songs or albums) or whether it’s inevitable to make connections that span his songbook. In addition to the four songs Herren adds to the meta-work, I count more than thirty additional songs that he quotes from during the analysis. This indicates to me that Dylan’s enormous oeuvre nearly forces us to make connections across it, or, put differently, that he creates and recreates his own contexts that are in conversation with the contexts we critics bring to the work. What’s an album? In the case of the astonishing sixty-year career of the world’s most celebrated songwriter, a fragment. Or it’s a coherent text. Here it’s something in-between. I found the approaches involving murder ballads and religious allegory engaging and insightful about Time Out of Mind, but the approach involving race left me hoping that the topic will be more broadly applied and more thoroughly explored in subsequent work.


[1] Larry Starr, Listening to Bob Dylan (Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2021), 90.

[2] See, for one example, Mike Marqusee’s Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art (New Press, 2003).

Spencer Leigh. Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues. Carmarthen, Wales, U.K.: McNidder and Grace, 2020. xi + 511 pp. $22.95.

REVIEW BY D. Quentin Miller, Suffolk University

Like Dylan himself, no label is going to contain this book. As it sat in the middle of our coffee table for the past few months (causing the legs to bow slightly), Dylan’s angelic eyes on the cover arresting the attention of anyone walking by, my bookmark traveling slowly toward the final pages, my wife asked, “What exactly is it?” Biography? Check. Analysis? Check. Overview? Yup. Anthology of pithy quotations culled from interviews? Certainly. Context-building historical and cultural study? That, too. Although I’d stop short of describing the book as an encyclopedia, I think it’s fair to describe it as encyclopedic. I honestly had to double-check on more than one occasion to make sure it was written by one person.

That one person is Spencer Leigh, a Liverpool-based radio personality who has hosted a show on BBC Radio for some thirty-five years and who has published books on Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Fury, Buddy Holly (two), and the Beatles (four), to name a few. It’s clear that he knows a hell of a lot about popular music in general and Dylan in particular, and it’s fair to say that Outlaw Blues is an extremely accomplished record of his considerable understanding. In addition to sheer knowledge, his passion for his subject is palpable. The book brims with energy (until the last couple of chapters, as I’ll discuss later). When I described my slow-moving bookmark earlier, it wasn’t to imply that the book was dull in any way, just big. Very big.

Have I mentioned it’s a big book? The 511 pages listed above don’t really tell the full story. These are 511 pages without margins, printed in a font that I dare say most of Dylan’s fans couldn’t make out without some pretty strong reading glasses. The bigness of the book can’t be overlooked, and I regard it as potentially both its chief strength and its chief weakness. First to the strengths, since I hold Leigh’s book in high esteem, and I want to lead by highlighting them.

Outlaw Blues is strikingly nonconventional, which Dylan aficionados should appreciate. The author describes it in the introduction as “the story of Bob Dylan” (x), but also acknowledges in no uncertain terms that Dylan is “mercurial” (ix), mysterious, unknowable, and evasive (though he balks at the word “enigmatic,” suggesting it indicates a failure to dig deep enough). Late in the book he describes Dylan’s “unpredictability” as the only thing that is predictable about him (397) and the thing Leigh loves most about him (414). In keeping with the spirit of that idea, the book is a little unpredictable, too. Leigh describes the structure in his introduction: each chapter essentially begins with thick context, which might involve Dylan’s most recent location, or one of his musical influences, or a certain dimension of history that framed his transformations. The second part of each chapter (which is always the most substantial) traces Dylan’s life with an emphasis on his creative output: primarily songwriting, recording, and touring, but also the side projects, such as Tarantula and other writing, painting, and film excursions. (As he says, “If you just want Bob’s story, then you can read the second sections on their own” [xi].) The third section of each chapter is the wild card in which the author might bring in a contemporary artifact, such as the recent Broadway adaptation of “Girl from the North Country” or the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis as a lens back into the time period that dominates the chapter, or as a demonstration of Dylan’s ongoing influence on music and on culture more generally.

In short, the book keeps readers on their toes, inviting them into the broad Dylan universe and encouraging them to linger in it, enjoying the journey for which the author acts as a tour guide. As he says late in the book, “If a reader is coming to Bob Dylan for the first time with this book, then I don’t think he or she could predict what would be on the next page” (414). Certainly true, but I really don’t imagine any reader of this book would be a neophyte. In fact, I imagine the reader of this book to be someone who knows Dylan more than just casually. You would have to be a fan or even a superfan to commit to this level of detail. Leigh knows this, too: on the same page, when he speculates about a first-time Dylan reader, he addresses the reader directly after summarizing Dylan’s interview style: “But you know all this” (414). Yes. We know it even better by this point in the book. I teach a course on Dylan, but by the book’s conclusion I felt like I’d taken one. That’s a high compliment.

The number of books about Dylan is growing all the time, and in addition to “who is this one for?” the crucial question is: “what does this one add?” Leigh is aware of the way others have told Dylan’s story or analyzed his work, and he nods toward previous publications when necessary without letting them interfere with his flow. There is a bibliography at the book’s conclusion that indicates what others have said, and he occasionally quotes from these works (especially Scaduto), but this is not an academic study: we shouldn’t expect a thorough review of the literature followed by a statement of how this work departs. The dominant genre is more journalism than literary/cultural criticism, and even more specifically radio journalism, I would argue. It reads a little like an extended radio program with the host frequently pivoting to include the words of Dylan’s fellow travelers and inner circle, naming them before letting their words do the talking. The effect is to give a rich multivocal context for Leigh’s core study. His is the central voice, but he is generous in letting others have a turn at the mic, including Dylan himself. What the book adds to the growing corpus of Dylanology is a living archive of opinions, analysis, and anecdotes, closer in nature in some ways to one of Scorsese’s recent documentaries than to the books listed in the bibliography.

The author knows music and musicians very, very well, and the book has the potential to expand our sense of Dylan’s influences, his milieu, and the next generation of musicians he influenced. There is, appropriately, a healthy amount of attention paid to Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Robbie Robertson, Peter Yarrow, and others we might expect, but also a good number of pages devoted to Phil Ochs, Kinky Friedman, Manfred Mann, and Kris Kristofferson, all of whom might have been diminished or overlooked in a different book. The author’s ability to deftly string together the voices of Dylan’s milieu constitutes the chief strength of Outlaw Blues.

In short, if you’re looking for a magic key that will unlock a mystical understanding of Bob Dylan, it’s not here, and probably not anywhere. Those who labor to interpret his work realize that. If you’re looking for a dense, thorough overview with plenty of anecdotes about Dylan’s development against the backdrop of the turbulent ‘60s, misunderstood ‘70s, best-forgotten ‘80s, and so on, right up almost through Rough and Rowdy Ways, you’re in luck. This one’s got all that and then some, and it has the advantage of an affable and knowledgeable host/author who is a clear writer and appreciator of Dylan, even as he insists that the book is “not hagiography” (x).

Those are the strengths, or some of them. So: what are the pitfalls of a big book about a protean subject written for a niche audience?

One, selection. In order to tell Dylan’s story in such a way that it appears as a story, I believe, you have to select a “pivotal moment” and build outward from there. Stories have an arc. If you were to write about Dylan’s relationship to the Bible, you might focus on his conversion to Christianity and back again as the climax of the story. If you were to write about Dylan’s fraught relationship with the public, you might begin with his motorcycle accident-fueled disappearance following the exhausting mid-‘60s tour, or perhaps his vanishing act after the Nobel announcement. If you were to write about Dylan’s contributions to the evolution of rock music, Newport. But if you’re tracing Dylan’s story from start to now, you have to choose that moment and emphasize it as the moment to lean on. In this book which doesn’t claim a single aspect of Dylan but rather tries to get them all in, there are multiple candidates for the pivotal moment, but one does seem more important than the others. That moment in this book is clearly Dylan’s polarizing tours of England, balancing like a mattress on a bottle of wine on that “Judas!” shout we have all come to know so well. If you want to know about Dylan, the book insists, start by scrutinizing that incident. Yes, it’s convincing. But also, it’s familiar.

Put differently, the Judas moment is well-recorded in Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back and deepened in Scorsese’s No Direction Home, to take only cinematic renditions of the infamous event. It’s the stuff of legend. Leigh is working with so much more material, and yet he locates the story’s climax in a familiar place, making us feel we’re walking a road other men have gone down. Leigh’s involvement in the mid-‘60s England tours, clearly a main reason he’s so fascinated by Dylan, is personal. He speaks (as Scorsese and Pennebaker never would or could have) of how the history of British football framed Dylan’s 1965 appearance in Liverpool (Liverpool! who had just beaten Leeds for the League, and the FA Cup!). As a soccer fan I found details such as this one amusing and charming, but . . . most American readers of this book wouldn’t know Leeds from Liverpool, and what’s an FA Cup? More, Leigh attends the concert with a girlfriend Diana who was not a Dylan fan. We get to hear about the disastrous date, how Diana called it a waste of two hours of her life, and how Leigh considered that she’d also wasted some of his precious time . . . but he promises to tell us later how they managed to get together for another try at long-lasting love, and part of the test of that love is another Dylan concert. Leigh puts it this way: “in 1966 we were again having a threesome with Bob Dylan” (175). [This reader: Facepalm.] Since she couldn’t appreciate Dylan, Leigh implies, he couldn’t tolerate her, calling her “hapless” the second time around (207). Their ill-fated relationship might be an interesting anecdote for a dinner party, but I don’t think it tells us anything about Dylan. I really wouldn’t have a problem with a memoir called Dylan and Me, and Girlfriend Makes Three, but this book isn’t that, and it’s so much more than that. The brief personal anecdotes intrude more than they illuminate.

Two, tangents. A more streamlined book shaped by an editor with an eye on the page count would have let the author know where he was wandering. It’s not as though anything in this book is irrelevant, but a book ought to be intentional about its forward motion. We came for Dylan, and although context is important, I sometimes felt as though I wanted to interrupt the author to remind him who he was supposed to be talking about. This point is related to selection and emphasis, but a little different because I’m primarily talking about the context sections. Chapter one tells about Minnesota, starting with the way the ice age flattened out glaciers to make the prairie. Okay, I’m along for the ride here, I thought; I can handle a little geological history, and I forged on. Chapter two gave me 13 pages on the history of the blues and the Beat generation, and I remained cool with it. The history of cultural events “that caused a stir” that preceded Dylan’s Newport appearance, though, from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, to Coleridge and Byron’s drug experimentation, to Wagner, to Stravinsky, to Joyce, to Picasso, to . . . you get the idea. Such background could go on forever, and when I felt like it was, I got a touch impatient. I can imagine readers who aren’t as used to academic writing as I am would be even more impatient. Such points can be made effectively and economically, especially in a book about a figure who is complex enough on his own.

The longest tangent is easily the lengthy section on The Band. Obviously, The Band’s story is related to Dylan’s, but here it threatens to eclipse Dylan’s for the better part of a chapter. The Band’s story constitutes its own history and deserves a book of its own (and in fact recently got just that, albeit from the perspective of its central songwriter Robbie Robertson in a memoir entitled Testimony, tellingly included in the bibliography of Outlaw Blues).

Three, emphasis. In a book this ambitious, it’s clear that not everything will be treated equally, and part of my point about selection is that the author has chosen to include virtually all the information he has amassed about Dylan. That’s nearly true, but even in Dylan’s personal history, which is a key component of this book if not its main focus, there is a sometimes frustrating unevenness caused by an imperfect sense of emphasis. Dylan’s relationship with his first wife Sara is especially underwritten. She appears in the narrative mysteriously, without a clear indication of how she arrived in his life. She’s suddenly just there, though furtively, replacing Joan Baez (who gets a great deal of time on the mic, and who thus becomes three-dimensional in a way Sara does not). Sara disappears much more emphatically: we get to read about the messy divorce settlement, the amount of money she was awarded, her punching a teacher as she picks up the young Jakob from school. This is the only detailed description of her in the book, and she is somehow left out of the index at the back completely despite the fact that even Dylan’s girlfriends are listed there (and listed as such). Although this isn’t a straight-up biography and I don’t expect a thorough look at Sara, she is a major figure in Dylan’s personal story and this portrait of her is a mere outline of a sketch, and not a very flattering one even so.

I reached the point about three-fourths of the way through when I realized we’d only made it to 1980, which left forty years to cover. It’s clear and obvious that the 1960s and 1970s were Dylan’s great decades, and it’s not surprising that the author chooses to emphasize them: some of Dylan’s fans would prefer to pretend the ’80s and some of the ‘90s didn’t exist. And yet, if we’re looking for something new about Dylan, the last four decades are less explored than the first two, and one would think that a story of the complete Dylan would spend more time here. I will say that Leigh manages to get quite a bit into the last quarter of the book, and he is generous when it comes to some albums that critics dismissed, honest about the Live Aid performance and a couple of disastrous movie projects, and knowledgeable about possibly overlooked details from this period, including the Theme Time Radio Hour program Dylan hosted from 2006 through 2009 (and again in 2020). The Traveling Wilburys get a kind and expansive treatment here. But it’s undeniable that the energy of the book falters in the late chapters. There’s less enthusiasm for the late Dylan, less of an attempt to understand him and more of an attempt to catalog his various projects. The substance of the late chapters too often involves a reproduction of the set lists at the many concerts Dylan has given as part of the Never Ending Tour. Mildly interesting if you weren’t at a particular show. Actually, if I’m being honest, not interesting, not unless the patterns of what he played were interpreted.

Which leads me to my final complaint: a shakiness in the interpretive approach, or the book’s actual thesis, or mission, or through-line, or argument: call it what you will. I want to emphasize that Leigh isn’t an academic and I am, so it might seem unfair for me to critique his methodology and to expect some critical consistency. And yet, all books seek to advance understanding, so even those which aren’t all the way at the academic end of the spectrum have to be clear about their critical premises. I want to emphasize that the author knows so much about Dylan and the music that surrounds him that it dazzles and bewitches the reader, this reader included. What I’m grousing about is what he does (or sometimes doesn’t do) with that knowledge. There are times in the book—most of it, in fact—when the intent is clear: he is helping the reader get closer to an understanding of a figure who is unique, inscrutable, controversial, fascinating, etc., and he accomplishes this through gathering everything he can and binding it together. Sometimes, though, it feels like an attic full of boxes more than a curated exhibit. One way for an author to get readers closer to understanding Dylan is to do the tough work of interpreting the lyrics, or the music, or ideally (as Christopher Ricks has said) the two together. Here Leigh sometimes seems nervous. Occasionally he offers a close reading of the lyrics, and the resulting interpretation gives the reader something to hang onto. At other times, he seems to give up on such analysis. “Dylan will never provide footnotes for his songs,” he tells us in his introduction. (True, and we’d be fools to trust them if he did, knowing his tendency to toy with us.) Very late in the book, discussing the song “License to Kill,” he laments, “It’s only a song and doesn’t have to mean anything but it is still perplexing. Sometimes I wish Dylan’s songs came with footnotes” (345).  But . . . that’s a job for critics, isn’t it? Like you?

And this is where the academic in me wants a little more. I certainly don’t expect a close interpretation of every song mentioned in a book this big by a songwriter as prolific as Dylan, but I don’t want the author to give up on the notion of interpretation altogether. He is more comfortable going through the albums and declaring which tracks are the best, and which aren’t so inspiring. That type of assessment is a form of criticism, of course, but it also requires a little more work than it’s sometimes given here. He calls “I Believe in You” from Slow Train Coming “one of Dylan’s greatest performances. The song is very good, but is it a love song or a song about Jesus? It can be taken either way” (335). Again, he’s leaving the interpretation to the reader, but I’m more interested in why the author considers this song one of Dylan’s greatest, or what he means by “very good.” Not arguing, just waiting to be convinced. He says of a performance in Tel Aviv from 1987, “He did well but not great” (368). Again, tell me more.

On one occasion the author argues that Dylan has encoded meaning in a kind of acronym game: “The album is called Under the Red Sky, UTRS—say that fast and you have Uterus, another indication that this is a children’s album” (389). So, yeah, no: in asking for more consistent interpretation, I’m not hoping for more of that, nor of the speculation that the title of Pennebaker’s film Dont Look Back “could also refer to John Osborne’s play, Don’t Look Back in Anger, which was at the forefront of the kitchen sink dramas” (178). The title of the play in question is Look Back in Anger, just the opposite. (Oasis added the “Don’t” as the title of their 1996 hit, which may explain the confusion, but sort it out before committing it to print.) These two moments—not in any way typical—are just a different way to suggest that a stronger editorial hand might have helped focus and streamline the book, and might have also scrubbed out speculative or inaccurate moments like these that can serve to distract. (Along those lines, I won’t groan here about the frequent puns, but I did groan when I read a few of them.)

For its ambition and its enthusiasm, for its passion and scope, and for its understanding of Dylan’s many dimensions and radical transformations, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues is a worthy addition to any fan’s bookshelf. As “the story of Bob Dylan,” it doesn’t fully arrive at the intent of a story—to lend focus and clarity to a subject, and to suggest a shape that takes the form of a narrative—partly because Dylan’s story refuses to cohere and partly because this lush garden could have used a little more pruning. The intent to try to approach Dylan’s story creatively as Leigh does here is reason enough to read it, appreciate it, learn from it, even while wishing for that elusive clarity, focus, and narrative form.

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, acclaimed Americana musicians, are a powerhouse of vocal and instrumental virtuosity. Their performing partnership was molded during ten years of recording and touring with Levon Helm, iconic drummer and voice of The Band. The couple’s two albums, 2015’s Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams and 2017’s Contraband Love opened doors and ears as they toured with Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, and John Prine. Mojo dubbed the pair “The first couple of Americana,” and American Songwriter wrote: “[Larry and Teresa] have created a unique sound inspired by the past, that is spirited, stirring and timeless.”

Michael Hacker is the creator of A Bob Dylan Primer, a fifteen-episode podcast dedicated to Dylan’s life and work (  He is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker, raised and currently living in Los Angeles with long stints in San Francisco, Livingston, Montana, and Vienna. At present, Michael works mostly in television producing documentary content for a wide variety of providers.  He’s seen Dylan in concert many times, starting with the 1974 tour and including The Last Waltz, the “gospel” shows in 1979, and the last night of Dylan’s run at the Beacon Theater in NYC in December 2019.

Bob Keyes writes about arts and culture for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. He’s written about Bob Dylan since the early days of the Never Ending Tour and presented a paper about Dylan’s visual language at the World of Bob Dylan Symposium in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2019. He received an inaugural Rabkin Prize for Visual Arts Journalism in 2017 in recognition of his essential voice in the regional arts conversation and is currently working on a book about the artist Robert Indiana.

Matthew Lipson is an independent scholar from Montreal, Canada. His graduate studies focused on Dylan’s performance of age from Time Out of Mind (1997) to Tempest (2012) and Dylan’s twenty-first century role as elder statesman of traditional American genres. His future work will examine this topic from the perspective of Dylan’s roles in television commercials. Lipson is currently based in Toronto, where he curates and manages music for a range of brands.

Quentin Miller is Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston where he teaches courses on contemporary American literature, including one on Dylan and the Beat generation. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, most recently Understanding John Edgar Wideman (UP of South Carolina, 2018), James Baldwin in Context (Cambridge UP, 2019), and The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2020).

Thomas G. Palaima, Robert M. Armstrong Professor of Classics at University of Texas at Austin and a MacArthur fellow, has long thought and taught about evil, suffering, and injustice in human societies, ancient and modern. In 1963–68, Bob Dylan and James Brown changed his life. He has written over 500 commentaries, reviews, book chapters, feature pieces, and poems on what human beings do with their lives. These have appeared in such venues as the Times Higher EducationMichigan War Studies Review, Arion, Athenaeum Review, The Texas Observer, the Los Angeles Times, and

Tommy Shea teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. He was an award-winning columnist for The Republican in Springfield. He co-authored Dingers: The 101 Most Important Homers in Baseball History. He’s been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.

John Radosta teaches high school English in Milton, Massachusetts. He is the co-author, with Keith Nainby, of Bob Dylan in Performance: Song, Stage, and Screen. A board member of the New England chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, he has also, under a pseudonym, published a noir novel and many crime stories. He lives in Boston with his wife, son, and rescue dog.

Walter Raubicheck is a professor of English at Pace University in New York, where he teaches American Literature, film, and college composition. He is the co-author of Scripting Hitchcock (2011) and co-editor of Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films (1991), both with Walter Srebnick. He also edited Hitchcock and the Cold War (2019). He has published essays on British crime fiction authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and G. K. Chesterton, as well as essays on American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, and Dashiell Hammett.