Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Original new book analyses Dylan the musician

My bookshelves groan under the weight of well over 120 Dylan books, covering every conceivable aspect of the man and his art.

Every aspect, that is, except one: music. You could read Dylan books non-stop for weeks – books about his poetry, his life, his recordings, films, bootlegs, live tours, handling of stardom… . And enjoy his paintings and innumerable collections of iconic photos.

But you’d rarely encounter words like “melody”, “harmony”, “rhythm”, “dynamics” or “sonic texture”.

Apart from Wilfrid Mellers’ A Darker Shade Of Pale: A Backdrop To Bob Dylan (Faber, 1984, but long out of print), you simply won’t find a book-length study of Dylan the musician.

Strange, that, because music is Bob Dylan’s life.

So Dylan Daily readers will welcome a fine new book plugging this enormous gap.

Bob Dylan is a new small-format paperback, in which author Keith Negus, of London University’s Goldsmiths College, provides an expert analysis of the music – Dylan’s voice, his playing of guitar, piano and mouth harp, his arrangements, as well as the different musical styles of his massive songbook.

Negus’ 43-page chapter, Chronologies, a perceptive run-through of Dylan’s catalogue, is the centerpiece. His revisionist thinking on the John Wesley Harding/Nashville Skyline/Self Portrait and Oh Mercy/TOOM periods are particularly acute.

He’s unafraid of challenging conventional wisdom – Subterranean Homesick Blues as the first hip-hop song? Not at all, avers Negus - like many a spikey prof, he relishes intellectual fisticuffs.

Negus’ chapter entitled Traditions places Dylan’s ever-changing styles in their musical context. He dismisses rock-ist interpretations of Dylan’s work, arguing convincingly that he’s primarily a bluesman, tempered by country influences.

Unlike most writing by music academics, Negus’ Bob Dylan is readily understandable by the average reader, even those with limited musical knowledge (like me). Its footnotes and references add to the book, opening up a new body of unfamiliar writing. By extensive quotation from the Dylan literature, the author summarises the party line about Bob the musician, but he frequently takes issue with his sources.

Keith Negus’ new book is an indispensable primer on Dylan’s art. It’s original, smart, finely written, and concise (but not slight). Highly recommended.

Bob Dylan, by Keith Negus (Icons Of Pop Music series, Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2008, 172pp, paperback, £10.99).

Gerry Smith