A lot of bad prose is written about popular music, but the English journalist Paul Morley has produced some of the very worst. In the Eighties, he puffed the most insubstantial of music, synth-pop, with the leaden theories of Jacques Derrida. When Morley eventually noticed the existence of classical music, he wrote a book all about how he eventually noticed its existence. Tin-eared and pretentious, his writing also displays a brave ignorance of the technicalities of music.
So it was with considerable anticipation that I opened You Lose Yourself You Reappear, Morley’s book on Bob Dylan. I was hoping to read the worst book I’d read in a while. This seemed a fair expectation for any book by Morley, but especially a book about Dylan, because it’s impossible to write a great book about Dylan. A good one, certainly, in the line of those brick-sized rock biographies that combine a Freudian fascination with their subject’s early life with a heroically pedantic list of girlfriends, bass players, and cities visited on the comeback tour. (Howard Sounes’s 1981 biography, which has been updated and reissued to mark Dylan’s eightieth birthday, is a model case in point.) But not a great one.
It takes a great artist to do justice to a great artist. Dylan is a great artist, and one of the very few living greats in America. No one has known what to do with him since his greatness first manifested itself. His chosen idioms are folk and blues, two fields in which everyone pretends to be illiterate. He became a curious kind of star in rock music which, even at its literate Sixties peak, was committed to a search for spontaneity that raised illiteracy to a moral principle. Dylan is obviously highly literate: In his generation, his only peers in marrying words and music were Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, and neither of them would have been the artist he was without Dylan’s example.
He has been famous for six of his eight decades. Halfway through his third decade—the years of the folk-to-electric heresy, the years when he redefined the popular song then fell off his bike—he learned to hide in full sight. Perhaps he had learned this by reading Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre.” Perhaps he had learned this by watching what happened to Elvis, who was as slow and dumb as a red heifer and got slaughtered accordingly by the business.
“I’m Not There” is the title of a Dylan song from 1967, the period of his public disappearance. Naturally, the song wasn’t issued at the time, even though it’s one of Dylan’s best. Naturally, the song wasn’t even issued when the other songs from that period were issued as The Basement Tapes in 1975. This skein of counter-biographical possibility was inevitably tugged at by Todd Haynes for the film I’m Not There (2007), in which six actors, Cate Blanchett among them, acted the stages of Dylan—because when an artist has expressed a surfeit of words and sounds, surely the repressed and unheard must be more significant, must hold the key to the meaning of the great silence that all that sound and fury was attempting to evoke.
Dylan did not arrive fully formed, but he arrived in character. There is an inadvertently hilarious clip of Dylan in his early, earnest folkie phase—which is to say, the first and greatest of his numerous impostures—twanging out a field lament for the benefit of some black field workers. They look perplexed. They are the first recorded victims of the Dylan bait-and-switch. He sounds like them, and he sings their story, but he isn’t them. He is a white person singing black music. He is a college dropout pretending to be a hick. He is a Jewish singer from Minnesota pretending to be a Welsh poet. Just as he is a poet working in music, so he is an actor working in music.
I have no idea why people find this so difficult to grasp. Bob Dylan is a real person whose success has no doubt made him a generous donor to the IRS over the years. Bob Dylan is also a fictional character, someone we think we know through the keyhole of his lyrics. But why assume that the lyrics tell us more than the music? If Robert Zimmerman had been more stirred by the words, he would have kept his surname and become a second-generation Beat poet instead. Obviously, the music meant more: the sound of Little Richard and Elvis, the change from the I chord to the IV. But that tells us nothing much, or nothing we can pin down.
Also, Dylan isn’t much of a musician. All those years of solo folking broke his inner metronome and left him with the busker’s tell, an unsteady rhythm when he plays with others. He strums the electric guitar like it’s an amplified folk guitar, and he can’t play a decent solo, either. The awfulness of his harmonica playing has been the only standard that hasn’t wavered down the decades. But his voice, once he escaped the folk-singer method-acting, is surprisingly supple, given its limited range and equivocal pitch. The guitarist’s handicap, an inability to stick to the beat, becomes the singer’s secret weapon: Dylan’s voice, weaving around the beat and never quite sticking to it, is mimetic of the weaving of sound and rhyme in his lyrics, which are also highly evocative without quite getting to the point.
Morley doesn’t so much wrestle with the ambiguities of Zimmerman-Dylan as throw up his hands. He begins with an apology: “Because of how things change, this book does not begin as I once intended it to.” Any writer knows this feeling: It’s what happens when you’ve finished your first draft. “A thing’s not begun until it’s half done,” said Keats. Morley has decided to leave it all undone, and blames his inability to lay hands on the greased pig of Dylan’s identity on COVID-19. This is one of the most ingenious excuses for failing to write a book I’ve yet encountered, and full marks to Morley for convincing Simon & Schuster to publish it.
What does it mean that when Dylan recorded Planet Waves, he benefited from “the grounding high resolution of The Band’s playing”? The kick drum and the bass are what grounds the playing, even when the vocalist works around the feel, as Dylan often does. “High-resolution” is a visual term, denoting a high degree of detail; “hi-res” images are digital photographic files that are detailed enough to reproduce in print.
There is an art to adding detail to a sound image: It takes a master arranger, for instance, to bring horns and strings into a pop tune without it becoming top-heavy and saccharine. But Planet Waves is not an example of sonic elaboration and dispersion: On the contrary, it’s a masterpiece of valve-amp compression, hence the album’s sense of a band and singer who know each other well, playing tightly and powerfully. Morley has confused high-resolution with compression. This is a bravura display of ignorance in two fields at once.
It is completely meaningless to describe Planet Waves as being “grounded in high resolution.” It sounds like a winning phrase, but it is actively misleading, and it exposes the near-comical fact that Paul Morley, despite a lifetime of writing about music, hasn’t deigned to familiarize himself with how Dylan’s albums have been made. All modern music—even the early folky Dylan records—is made and then remade: It is not just recorded, but also, and frequently more importantly, mixed and tweaked and messed with. If an electrician showed the kind of disregard for his subject matter that Morley displays, people would die and he’d never work again.
“Bear with me,” Morley pleads with reckless candor on page 179, the halfway mark. “I was just thinking how best to begin a book about Bob Dylan.” Really, he’s limbering up for a sprint to the end. The second half of this misbegotten shambles is a weak approximation of the Dylan psychobiography. There is little here that isn’t in Howard Sounes’s book, even at the level of critical observation; for instance, the comment that the narrative technique of “Blind Willie McTell” is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht.
Compared to Morley, Sounes is a model of restraint. Just the facts, ma’am. It may be fruitless to look for the sources of the Eroica Symphony in anecdotes about Beethoven enjoying a pint after work, or suing his nephew, but Romantic subjectivity was then in its modest infancy. By the time Dylan appeared, subjectivity was all there was. He exploded the contained passions of the moon-June love lyric with the infinite narcissism of Beat poetry. This was a genius move, and also a kind of vandalism.
Dylan didn’t go off the boil because he fell off his bike, a legend that Sounes debunks and Morley repeats regardless. Dylan went off the boil because once he’d ditched the Woody Guthrie routine, his life was his subject matter. By 1966, his life was that of a perfectly ordinary, drug-crazed global superstar. He attempted a Country persona, and often excelled at it, but it wasn’t until he got divorced in real life that he found the material for Blood on the Tracks in 1974. After that, as Sounes describes in gratuitous detail, it was back to three of the most boring activities known to man—drinking, drugs, touring—enlivened with the odd bout of droit de seigneur action with the backing singers.
Morley, when he eventually gets to the conventional psychobiography bit, attributes to Dylan something called “fundamental disruptive Jewish ambition.” I’d like to know more about this, and where to get some. Morley may well be onto something about the ambivalent feelings of the outsider who wants to get to the top. But he is incapable of doing the reading about what might make Bobby run. He drags in Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s hagiographer, of all daft people, and calls Dylan a “non-Jewish Jew, like Spinoza, Trotsky, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Ligeti and other Jewish humanists with overlapping and co-existent identities, living at the edge or in the shadows of their countries.” But Dylan doesn’t seem to be a Jewish humanist at all. At one point, he was an evangelical Christian; subsequently, he’s been spotted hanging with Chabad. A man who tells his friend, as Dylan told Dave Van Ronk in the late Eighties, that “The Devil is the lord of this world” may be many things, including someone who has spent too long in the music business, but a humanist he ain’t.
Dylan’s mother Betty all but delivered the Life of Brian line to Allen Ginsberg when the bearded pest asked her what she made of Bob’s apostasy. “She said, well, he sang about Jesus,” Ginsberg recorded, “but they came from a neighborhood where everybody liked Jesus.” “I like Jesus too,” said Betty. Bob was not the messiah: He was being a naughty boy. Dylan’s apostasy was like Bernard Berenson’s: an attempt, Berenson explained, to remove an impediment to complete merging with his subject.
Morley, disturbingly, hits the mark here: “His performance was based on being born again, and again, and again, out of the America he believed in.” But then Morley wanders off before considering the theological import of Bob’s appearance, complete with kippah, in a Chabad telethon in 1983, playing “Hava Nagila” with Harry Dean Stanton and his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Peter Koppelman.
The problem, I suspect, was that becoming a Christian just didn’t juice Dylan’s songwriting enough. So he drifted away from it, just as he had earlier drifted away from being Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham of Hibbing, Minnesota, to being Bob Dylan of Greenwich Village, and later Blind Boy Grunt, Tedham Porterhouse, and Jack Frost, the last being the pseudonym under which he produces his own albums. Eventually, he found the material he needed as far from the record companies as you can get: on the road with his “endless tour.” Out there, he rediscovered a Sun Records-like rockabilly clatter, and then took that into the studio for a late-career revival—reviving, that is, the second-stage Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited—that will go on and on until they carry Dylan out by the handles, just like Hank.
Morley and Sounes are both so distracted by Dylan’s early-Eighties return to folk form on “Blind Willie McTell” that they miss the real return to form on the 1983 Infidels album: “Neighborhood Bully.” Here, at last, Dylan finds subject matter in his life commensurate to his talent for jamming his thumb in people’s eyes: a song about the revival of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel, issued just after the Lebanon war of 1982 when bien-pensant Western opinion—always ambivalent about the Jews living collectively on their own terms—was starting to sour. Sounes priggishly criticizes Dylan for “reactionary” attitudes; of course, there is nothing more reactionary these days than a nation-state that can look after itself. Morley is out of his depth as ever, and doesn’t talk about it at all. But it’s with that song, I reckon, that Dylan began to extricate himself once more from fame and its attendant confusions.
In 2020, four years after Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, YouTube banned a homemade video for “Neighborhood Bully” as “hate speech.” Finally, after all these years, Bob Dylan once again stands alone against lies, control, and corruption. He would say, if he were to say anything, that this is where he has always stood, in plain sight.
Dominic Green is editor of The Spectator’s world edition.
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