Monday, February 14, 2011

BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA

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.

13 comments:

Robert G. Zuckerman said...

I heard that Leonard Cohen once said of Bob Dylan "he has so many sides that he's round."

I still love "Don't Look Back."

Lally said...

Robert, And the irony that this book deeply exposes is that that's pretty much all he did and does is "look back" in many (if not all) ways.

Jamie Rose said...

Oh cool. I can't wait to read the book.

And, I too, MUCH preferred Dylan's performance last night to Jagger's. I felt that Jagger was an old guy trying to act and look young. I found it a little desperate.

xo
J

Lally said...

Watching Jagger last night I couldn't stop worrying that any minute he was gonna have a heart attack. And how about Barbra Streisand, who's older than all of them, I think, keeping Chris Kristofferson from falling when they were climbing the stairs to the stage?! He looked like he has decided to assume the mantle of Johnny Cash's "man in black" but didn't have the Cash gravitas, though starkly iconic in his sunken cheeked chiseled look. He definitely seemed old for the first time. Ah age.

harryn said...

True: "the more you know about anything, the more interesting it becomes", but I had a hard time trying to understand the level of fluff and effect for the majority of last night's program. Maybe it's also true that pop culture migrates to the lowest common denominator.
Despite Jagger's desperation or Dylan's incomprehensible delivery, I found myself wanting more of their genre. I was blown away by the diva's tribute to Aretha, Eminem's passion, and Streisand's performance but a lot of what I saw seemed pretty bubble-gum ...
Thank goodness for the artists who move through the ranks and survive the lawyer infested industry.

Anonymous said...

michael, you know I love my bob dylan...and streisand looked and sounded great from where she was coming from...
suzanne

Tim said...

I like today's Dylan. I thought Modern Times (2006) was a great album. I caught him in Lakewood last summer with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp and really enjoyed the show (even in the pouring rain). But that was a strange performance on the Grammies. His voice isn't' "raspy and growly," it's gone.

Lally said...

Tim, sorry to always be disagreeing with you. But if Dylan's voice was "gone" we wouldn't have been able to hear it, which on my TV set, I did. You may not agree it sounded "raspy and growly" but that's the way it seemed to me. The big surprise was Jagger, whose voice actually sounded pretty good, though he was more shouting than singing, and whereas Dylan seemed pretty much his age, Jagger seemed to be replicating his youth in terms of the energy he displayed careening around the stage and it's extensions. But Dylan seemed surrendered, to me, to the reality of his age, the deterioration of his voice and even his harmonica playing (I notice he doesn't play much guitar anymore, which is probably a finger and wrist problem of aging thing) as well as the limited movements (though his movement on stage has always been limited). So Dylan, to me at least, seemed benign, even inclusive, in ways he didn't used to, whereas Jagger seemed aggressive and insistent as though daring anyone to question his right to prance around in his sixties as if he's still in his twenties. There was something daring and brave about that, but something also very offputting to me. I wanted to pat Dylan on the back and say thanks, but I wanted to stick my face in Jagger's and shout "Oh yeah m-f-er!?"

Tim said...

I agree about Jagger, although I had no urge to get in his face and call him a name. What's up with you sometimes?! I also hear what you're saying about Dylan - I just have a hard time watching people pat him on the back and say thanks. Ok if he's doing it for true fans, but to get up in front of the great unwashed at the Grammies... It made me squeamish.

Tom King said...

Why shouldn't Jagger run around if he can do it? I like how he communicates to the audience, where I feel Dylan tries NOT to communicate to the audience half the time. And I love Dylan, don't get me wrong. I feel like the simplicity of the song Jagger sang was good for the venue, what he could communicate in the tight box of TV in a very limited amount of time. And Dylan doesn't need to play guitar when he has ten guys behind him backing him up, two banjos included. I could not stand his backup musicians. They all seemed sycophantic, preening, mugging for the cameras, like aren't we all good Bob Dylan disciples. Can't stand that. And I see it a lot. Like with Bruce Springsteen playing Seeger sessions, a lot of good backup musicians wasted. And as a trumpet player I have to say yet again what a wasteland it is for horn players now. If a group has horns they play some insipid whole note phrases over and over, just brass eye candy in the back row that nobody hears. Totally uninteresting. I mean look at the good horn lines there used to be, like in Burt Bacharach music, in R & B, soul, funk. Now totally insipid.

Lally said...

Tim and Tom, I hear you both. I caught Dylan several years ago at an outdoor venue when he was toruing with Willy Nelson and the night I saw him Nelson was totally on and Dylan spent the night (I think I posted about it actually) going between two notes no matter what the song. It was pretty disappointing for me, though his band totally swung. As for Jagger, he;s always bugged me on some level, even when I like something he does. It started with the whole business major corporate mentality he seemed to have vis-a-vis the business greedy part of the Stones (did anyone see the article in the Sunday Times about how this little (20,00 bucks budget) film couldn't get the Stones to let them use a karaoke version of one of their songs). But you're right, there was something admirable about his performance and the fact he could pull it off, but I still found it weirdly aggressive (what was with the constant shoving of the "black" guitar player, for instance). In the end, it's pretty impressive that both Jagger and Dylan are out there touring and performing and keeping themselves in the audience's attention span even still.

harryn said...

yeah - and the fact that we're still talking about them is good ... and Tom, I totally agree about the horn lines - even when they are there (like in the Aretha tribute) they're hardly in the mix - may have something to do with the fact that a lot of scores these days are generated by keyboards and not 'players' ...
Saw Dylan in November in a small college venue here in PA and was initially disappointed by the rasp and growl of his voice until it started sounding like an instrument which elevated the experience - besides we know most the words anyway ...
Fact is, even on his most recent CD - the guy has got voice with all the authenticity we've come to appreciate from one of most traveled minstrels of our generation ...
As far as Mick, I think he works harder on his athleticism than his music these days - and why not - he's done it all too - and he's still setting the bar ...

Tore Claesson said...

didn't watch the grammies. I like both jagger and dylan, different as they are, so i probably missed something. (But we always have youtube.) Enjoyed the vivid commentary on this. I will get the book. Thanks for highlighting it.