Dylanologists, You Suck as Hard as Amtrak (Except for AJ Weberman)

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The Nation has a longish, uninteresting review of several Bob Dylan-related books, including the Maestro's own frustrating but occasionally fascinating autobio, Chronicles, Vol. 1. The most daring insight? That yes, Dylan's novel, Tarantula, is a bigger piece of crap than the insufferable Dave Van Ronk's entire discography or tendentious politics (see below).

After that plug, read The Nation piece here.

As with every other cool, hip pop star (e.g. Joey Ramone), the left has always claimed Dylan as one of their own, yet one of the reasons that Chronicles was interesting (sparingly) was that Dylan threw in passages like this:

There was no point in arguing with Dave [Van Ronk], not intellectually anyway. I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn't any way to explain that to anybody.

To say that Dylan, who even more than the Beatles ushered in the age of the rock star as someone who must write and perform their own music or else be relegated to second-class status, exceeds political categories is to suggest that there's anything coherent about him. Other than a fantastic willingness to alienate his audience at precisely the right time and in the right way: through relentless self-invention that has proven to be an exceptional interesting bellwether for and/or counterpoint to American society for the past 35 years. Christ, who else would have closed out the '70s by releasing arguably his finest LP, the fire-and-brimstone masterpiece, Slow Train Coming?

The one truth nestled away in Chronicles, one that other rock stars should pay attention to, is that Dylan remains a great original precisely because he openly acknowledges his influences and then goes his own way; other first-magnitude stars (think Mick Jagger, Bono, Bruce Springsteen) evince an unnerving lack of faith in their ability to be original and as a result often come off looking pathetically derivative.

Dylan's autobio is remarkably generous in the homage he pays to Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac (the final section of the book, a beautifully moving Kerouacian evocation of New York City in the early '60s, is worth muddling through the rest of the volume). And even to record producer Daniel Lanois in a long, technical discussion of the making of what everyone must agree is a middlin' Dylan LP, Oh Mercy.

Reason's Brian Doherty assayed "The Free-Floatin' Bob Dylan" here.

Back in the Suck days (wasn't that a time?), I attacked Dylanologists as the worst sort of musical navel-gazers (except for the great, insane "garbologist to the stars" A.J. Weberman) here.

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  1. I read Chronicles and I think way too much has been made by Reason staffers of this passage. Nothing else in the entire book suggests any right-wing leanings. OTOH, it’s quite true that one comes away from the book wondering just what is Dylan’s world view regarding either politics or the role of politics in music. He definitely gave no indication of wanting to change the world, through his music or otherwise. It’s as if politics was just one more issue that could motivate good music, along with romance or anything else. He talks about falling in love with a particular gal and lists her left-wingness as one of the things that made her “just my type.” But it seems like more an aesthetic attraction than one of thinking, We are on the right side of the political divide and will combine forces lead the world to a better future, blah blah blah. BTW, he brings up this particular affair because she introduced him to Kurt Weill whose music he more or less credit for motivating him to write his own, at the risk of this being a spoiler! 🙂

  2. Man, I hate de rigeur “contrarian” Dylan articles.

    Slow Train Coming “arguably his finest LP”? Get fucking real, Nick–only a moron would “argue” this.

  3. Uh, I’ll bite. Besides Jesus Christ, Bono is “pathetically derivative” of who exactly?

  4. Jeff,

    Apres The Joshua Tree, U2 and Bono in particular fell through a series of styles and wannabe pretensions (bluesman, synth-pop, etc) that I think speaks for itself (Rattle & Hum, Zooropa, Pop, etc).

  5. henry,

    Puh-leaze. Slow Train was Dylan’s best-selling LP up to that point in his career and in fact got very good reviews. Peaked at Number 3 on the album charts and netted Blind Boy Grunt a Grammy for vocal performance, too. Excellent instrumentation provided by Knopfler of Dire Straits (when they didn’t totally suck). I don’t believe the content of the music, but god it’s a fucking great listen every time.

    Moronically yours,

  6. A few notes:

    Tarantula is not a novel. It’s a book of poetry. Mostly bad poetry, but there is a section of about two pages that is somewhat illuminating of his mindset at the time.

    Dylan was and probably is a bourgeoise individualist. A department owner’s son who loves fine cars and expensive clothing [one interviewer asked him what he did with all his money and he said ‘wear it.’] He had a liberal sense of injustice but a conservative skepticism of government remedies. Anyone who really wants to get a glimpse of his views on these things [as chaotic as they may be] should check out the Dylan interview archive at:

    http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interv.htm

    I would also recommend Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art by Mike Marqusee

    Slow Train Coming is not a bad album but Saved is better.

  7. Slow Train got some good reviews, and it got some very negative ones too. Jann Wenner’s gushing praise in Rolling Stone is hilarious — not because he likes the record (I like it too; hell, I even like Saved), but because he gerrymanders the lyrics to make them more palatable to the modal Rolling Stone reader.

  8. Oops, I meant to say department store owner’s son.

  9. My favorite Dylan moment came while watching an MTV News segment on gun violence in the late 80s or early 90s. After a parade of musicians put on their serious faces to give their boring opinions they cut to a drug-addled Dylan (or religion-addled – I don’t know where he was at then) who slurred this:

    “I don’t think there are enough guns on the street.”

    Needless to say they didn’t explore Dylan’s insight any further.

    As for Slow Train Coming, it’s an excellent album and the 70s were Dylan’s best years. Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and Street Legal (Marcus can fuck himself, “New Pony” is worth the sticker price all by itself) mark an incredible run.

  10. Nick, you’ve just splattered blood all over the tracks with your nomination of Slow Train Coming as Dylan’s Can anybody here besides Nick name a single song from Slow Train Coming, without looking it up on All Music Guide?

    When you hear a Dylan song on Klassic Rock Radio, do they usually play a song from Slow Train Coming?

    And I think it was Joey Ramone who embraced the left, not vice-versa. Lefties can’t handle the ear bleeding assault of the Ramones. Bruce Cockburn singing stupid aphorisms is more their style.

  11. Can anybody here besides Nick name a single song from Slow Train Coming, without looking it up on All Music Guide?

    Even if they don’t like the album, most casual Dylan fans can easily name a track from it: “Gotta Serve Somebody.” (A fine song, though I’m more partial to “Precious Angel” and the fire-and-brimstone “When You Gonna Wake Up.”)

  12. Uh, trainwreck, appealing to Klassik Rock Radio as an authority on what is “good” isn’t going to win you any points. When was the last time you heard anything by the Ramones (to use an act you mentioned) on Klassik Rock Radio? Let’s face it, that format is uncomfortable playing anything more challenging than Steve Miller and Journey.

  13. Oops, I meant to say department store owner’s son.

    I thought I had read that in the original even though “store” wasn’t there!

    As for the left embracing The Ramones, I would say most Ramones fans are leftists, but most leftists are NOT Ramones fans!

  14. “In 1964 Bob Dylan issued an invitation to his literary exegetes …”

    ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

  15. Okay yeah Nick’s statement is totally subjective and music is personal and all that crap.

    But just because Clear Channel plays it, doesn’t mean it sucks.

    Look, the fact that Slow Train was the best selling album of Dylan’s career is easily explained by the fact that by the late 1970’s more people had heard of Dylan, and there were more record players in existence, than at any other time in his history. He was a popular guy in the 1970’s and he could have put out the equivalent of Metal Machine Music and it would have sold by the boat load.

    Besides that, sometimes artist’s finest albums are made when they are obscure, or pushing the boundaries beyond current tastes or trends, and were unpopular at the time.

    Personally I don’t think the guy has a “finest” or “best” or whatever album. He may have one record from each period that deserves to be considered his best of that style. But considering the boring shit he put out during his Christian period, I would whole heartedly agree Slow Train is the finest of his Christian-oriented albums.

  16. Apres The Joshua Tree, U2 and Bono in particular fell through a series of styles and wannabe pretensions

    Not to mention that avant The Joshua Tree, U2’s sound was borrowed from Gang of Four. But Bono’s main source of inspiration is black holes: They suck, and he sucks.

  17. It’s possible that Dylan liked left-wing girls because some of them were willing to sleep with him. When he was an extremely dirty hobo in New York in the early 60s, I would imagine most people would have thought twice about bedding him. That’s alright.

    Joan Baez had some remark somewhere about how bad he smelt up until 1965 when he finally made it big and started bathing.

    As for “Dylan the right-winger,” well that’s a bunch of horseshit. One of the problems with the some of the readers of this blog is their Republicanism, because it seems to compel them to define all else as drooling collectivist leftism. Dylan is an individualist, clearly; more revealing than the quoted line about Barry Goldwater is his complaint that, while living in Woodstock, he would have been unable to defend his family and home (which were constantly being violated by all sorts of cracks and whackjobs) with a shotgun.

  18. Speaking of Gang of Four, as I listened to Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets yesterday I thought that Andy Gill must have had a listen to Fripp and Manzanera.

    And since Metal Machine Music was mentioned, I was FLOORED to here Lou Reed’s Street Hassle in a Safeway Grocery Store TV commercial yesterday. I have to imagine that the ad agency didn’t tell Safeway that the ditty was about prostitution (man on man?) and accidental overdosing and disposal of the body.

    bump bump bump bump bump

  19. Yeah, Worthy, well if they can doctor the song “Fortunate Son” to make it seem like a rousing declaration of American patriotism and an ode to Wrangler jeans, I’m sure that Safeway can make Lou’s junkies hide in the dumpster while the nice folks are shopping for groceries.

  20. It’s possible that Dylan liked left-wing girls because some of them were willing to sleep with him.

    lol! But, FWIW, my point was that he talked of her left-wingness like it was a very good thing.

    Worthywads,

    Since hearing The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop in a grocery store, I don’t think I’ll be surprised by what I hear there for quite a while. Shoot ’em in the back, now….

  21. After reading Nick’s Suck article I’ve come to one conclusion:

    only a Dylanologist would argue Dylan’s Slow Train Coming is his only indisputably great LP.

  22. I don’t know what is a more pathetic basis for advancing the case an album is “arguably” the best by ANY artist: how much it is played on “classic rock” stations, or touting how many copies it sold. While elitism may be a sin, phony appeals to populism is a mortal one.

    A pox on both of you.

  23. Further indication that the folks who write for the Nation need to get over themselves big-time…

  24. Next, Nick Gillespie will explain to us why Landing on Water is Neil Young’s only indisputably great LP.

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