Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dylan the Never-Ending Star – a must-read new book

Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, by Lee Marshall, is one of the most enlightening of the 115 titles currently weighing down my groaning Zim bookshelf.

Author Marshall is a baby boomer Dylan fan who also happens to teach sociology at England’s Bristol University. He has applied his professional skills to his musical passion and come up with a challenging, wholly original perspective on Dylan’s art.

Along the way he offers refreshing insights into, inter alia, Dylan the folk star, the rock star, the Never Ending Tourist and the benign radio-friendly Uncle Bob, fount of wit and wisdom.

Mulling over Dylan’s early subversion of the traditional star role, Marshall is strong on the mid-1960s emergence (creation?) of the rock music market, and Bob’s centrality therein.

The book’s highlights include its analysis of crucial eras in Dylan’s development: the 1965 morphing from folkie to rocker; the unpopular late decade “sell-out” in favour of country and pre-rock pop; and the early 1980s Rock Is Dead phase. Marshall’s analysis of the NET, its purposes and its ever-evolving phases, is stimulating - it will force many readers to reassess the last twenty years of Bob-mania.

No one, not even Bob Dylan, operates in a vacuum, and all players are constrained to some extent by the times. Marshall’s study succeeds admirably in defining the social context and significance of Dylan’s career. In doing so, he ranges freely – and expertly – over popular culture, rock music, the cult of celebrity, and post-Modern creativity, to list but a few phenomena adroitly analysed.

The author’s social scientific objectivity enables him to outshine most Dylan writers, locked, as they are, inside rockist straitjackets, and hampered by risible musical prejudices.

His discussion of earlier Dylan authors is absorbing. Encyclopaedist Michael Gray is the target of some critical potshots; Marshall is maybe too gentle with Greil Marcus.

Though the book is addressed primarily to Cultural Studies inmates, mere civilians shouldn’t be deterred: unlike many sociologists, Marshall writes lucidly and wears his considerable learning lightly. You have to engage your brain, but it’s well worth the effort. And while it’s easy to sneer at the loonier margins of Cultural Studies, admirable books like this reveal a maturing subject demanding respect.

Weaknesses? Not many. Just occasionally, the mask slips, to reveal the Dylanista lurking behind the professorial persona. For example, Marshall proudly discloses attending the full week – five nights – of London shows in 2005: it would be interesting to hear a sociological take on what is, let’s face it, unusual individual and social behaviour. And some of Marshall’s artistic judgments are debatable, but, then, whose aren’t?

Kudos to author and/or his unsung Editor at publisher Polity who worked hard to make the text into such a polished product. In 300 pages of factual information, I only came across one single error (Arthur “ Cudrup”).

Dylan Daily readers are lucky that an expert fellow fan has applied his specialist insight to create an original, compelling explanation of the “Bob Dylan” phenomenon. And that he’s done so with such an accessible and stylishly written book.

Highly recommended. A must-read.

Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, by Lee Marshall, Polity Press, 2007 308pp, pbk, £15

Gerry Smith