I caught a couple of acts on the Grammies tonight. It's not an awards show I usually watch but I heard Dylan was gonna be on it and wanted to see what he would do. He sang "Maggie's Farm" backed by a couple of new bands that preceded him with their own hits, both very impressive.
But Dylan was the reason they were there, in more ways than one. And he didn't let them down. His voice as raspy and growly as usual lately, though maybe a little deeper than usual, he gave a real show. Not imitating his younger self (as Mick Jagger did later with an amazingly (for his age) energetic rendition of an otherwise boringly repetitive song, unlike Dylan's which is repetitive but not boringly so, in fact intensely so as each verse resonates with even deeper meaning) but doing an old fashioned showman bit and ending with some minor harmonica riffs.
He was something to behold, especially if you knew where he was coming from. And to know that, the best thing ever written on him in terms of origins and influences and historic references is the new hardcore virtuoso historian's symphony to what seems like every aspect of Dylans musical life: BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA.
The historian is Sean Wilentz, the son and nephew of the Wilentz brothers that ran what was the main bookstore and small press of the East Coast Beat scene in the '50s and '60s when I was coming up. I knew both of them from those days, and was a big fan of the store and of their Corinth Press that published some of my early favorite books of poetry.
Sean has done them proud in more ways than one. But he has also done a great service to anyone who's ever been interested in Dylan's music and would like to have some insight into the various mysteries and contradictions in it. From centuries old references like the traditional folk music of the British isles to Dylan's more immediate childhood influences (including ones I'd perceived and talked a bit about since Dylan came on the scene, like Aaron Copland and Frank Sinatra, two of my favorites since childhood as well, and others I hadn't, like Blind Willie NcTell) Wilentz not only makes the connections clear, he offers up explanations beyond the usual and obvious to source materials more varied than even I had imagined.
He focuses on several periods in Dylan's musical odyssey, and not all the obvious ones, to unlock some of the secrets of what Dylan was actually up to, and I think gets it right almost every time. I didn't always agree with his critical judgement of some of the songs he analyzes, but I always agreed with his conclusions about how those songs came to be or might have come to be.
It's a fascinating and compelling study, if you have any interest at all in Americana let alone Dylan, and watching him tonight on the Grammies I felt exponentially more insightful about every move he made, every gesture, even his outfit, than I ever could have been before reading BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA.
As I always used to tell my kids, and still do actually, the more you know the more difficult it is to be bored, because everything you know anything about becomes interesting, and the more you know about anything the more interesting it becomes. I thought I knew a lot about Dylan and American musical history and U.S. history in general, but this book raised the ante on my knowledge tenfold. A totally enlightening experience.