Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

There are two new books out on Dylan and I'm trying to create the space and money to read them both. I don't read everything on Dylan. I've been given books on Dylan on the mistaken assumption that I am as obsessed as the person who gave the book to me, and I haven't read them. But I'm anxious to read these books. The reason is a great interview with both of the authors that I found last week.

Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan, is a critic who has followed Dylan closely and written a lot about him through the years. Sean Wilentz is a historian who has written something of a cultural history, Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz claims to have become a writer because he became a fan of Dylan's. "I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it—I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it, was my way of doing that."

I love the interview because both talk about things that in which I am interested in my other life--the way words and performances create worlds, and the way an artistic imagination works and is funded. For both, the song is the medium that allows Dylan to capture multiple, stray worlds in a single place. They know his world, the literary references, the folk history, Dylan's own notions of historical consciousness. They hear the echoes, recognize the allusions, and know just how large the imaginative landscape is from which Dylan performs. And I'm interested in that. So, over time, I will buy and read these books.

But the interview is great as well. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

SW: One of the marks of Dylan's genius is the ability to shuffle time and space like a deck of cards. He can make the past sound like the present and the present sound like the past. In doing this, he is a great, great historian, like Greil says. But Dylan also does something that historians can't do, which is to actually commingle the past and the present in ways that are astonishing.

GM: So it's that sense that there are so many worlds behind and within the songs to discover and live in, but also this sense of empathy for the people who appear in his songs. Dylan once said, maybe sarcastically, that all of his songs really ended with "Good luck." But that may be what he says to the people in his songs.

SW: In the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, he talks about how virtual reality has taken over, or is taking over—he calls it "hegemony"—and people are just not able to write songs like the ones that he is singing for the dead and out of the dead; they can't write those kinds of songs any more. He makes it pretty clear that, in some ways, all he can do to battle this hegemony, as he calls it, is to sing those songs, and to continue to write his own songs out of that tradition, out of those traditions, the many traditions, not just one. It's not exactly the attitude of a big rock star who thinks he's all powerful; this is a guy who feels like he and the world are up against forces that are so complex and so overpowering that singing these songs is all that he can do.

SW: You're up against a lot in this world, and you may be up against more now than you were in 1961. But as he says, he finds his lexicon in the songs, and in the songs he can find a measure of hope to battle against it. But that means more than just protesting; it's not about protesting. Well, maybe it is always about protesting—all of his songs are protest songs. But it's really about exploring realms of human imagination that he finds being flattened out in this virtual reality in which we live.

I hope my work is in some measure is recognizable in light of that last sentence.

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