Having withheld himself for many decades from interviewers, intruders, commentators, biographers – including an autobiographer – what makes the elusive Bob Dylan tick is more than opaque: it’s invisible.
A laudable aspect of “Why Dylan matters”, by a classics professor at Harvard, is that he doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking there is an easy formula, a copper-fastened equation, that will open a window on the singer-songwriter’s soul and his compositions.
Quite the opposite, for he gleefully charts the twists and turns that characterize the chameleon-like Dylan.
Everyone who has listened to Dylan over the years will have their favourite songs and renditions; what comes to my mind include the performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ from his “Budokan” live album in the late 1970s; ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit; the melancholic and moving ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ from his thirty-second studio album, “Modern times” (2006).
Richard F. Thomas, the Harvard professor, likes just about everything Dylan has written and his thesis is that the songwriter has been deeply influenced by classical literature, Roman mostly and especially Virgil.
It’s a dubious claim but one he pursues with conviction and he puts forward a convincing case for Dylan’s plagiaristic use – Thomas prefers to use the literary term intertextuality – of some 30 lines of poetry that were written by Ovid.
“Why Dylan matters” is an affectionate account by a lifelong fan who ruminates on particular albums, non-classical influences, Dylan’s memoir and the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The author’s knowledge of his subject is exhaustive but not laboured and, though Dylanologists will especially enjoy some of the arcane references and quotations, it can be recommended to anyone who enjoys the music.
The approach taken in “The political Art of Bob Dylan” is made clear by the book’s title. It is a study by mostly academic writers of political meanings that can mined from his songs.
Some of the essays look at Dylan’s work as a whole and the political critiques it embodies, accepting the changing styles and attitudes that have unfolded over time.
Other contributions examine emblematic moments like the infamous ‘Judas’ accusation – a piece of ancient history by now – and Dylan’s statement at Live Aid which had the virtue of annoying the sanctimonious Bob Geldof.
The short-lived Christian fundamentalist period and resulting “Slow train coming” album (1979) is mostly passed over in silence and this points to a weakness in any attempt to claim political significance for the Dylan that shape-shifted in the decades after those early searing protest songs.
Dylan adopts poses and identities with the drop of a hat and, like Shakespeare, he can’t be pinned down. ‘Get a life, please’ he told an interviewer in 2001, ‘You’re wasting your own.’ He is a sphinx and attempts to fix a meaning, political or otherwise, to his work seem doomed to failure. What he succeeds at is being an artist.
“Why Dylan matters”, by Richard F Thomas, is published by William Collins. “The political art of Bob Dylan”, edited by David Boucher and Gary Browning, is published by Imprint Academic.