Friday, May 29, 2009

New Dylan Studies textbook: adequate, good in parts, grade B-

The new Dylan Studies textbook, The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, is good in parts. While the book’s aim – to showcase the range of thinking about Dylan’s art - is admirable, its execution is only partly so. As you’d expect from a book by almost twenty academics and writers, it’s uneven.

Editor Kevin Dettmar’s Introduction is a wide-ranging survey of the field of DylanLit. But, even here, I found myself challenging basic premises: according to Dettmar, “Dylan’s is arguably the most important canon in all of twentieth century American popular music”.

Arguably? Who would argue otherwise? Dettmar could safely delete “arguably”, “American” and “popular” and his assessment might still undervalue Dylan’s art. And the Editor’s depiction of Dylan’s voice as “unlovely”, the voice of a “crow”, rather than a nightingale, also raises questions.

The book is split into two parts. The first, Perspectives, has nine short thematic chapters. David Yaffe’s location of Dylan in the poetic tradition, particularly his detailing of Zim’s debt to Ovid, is a key piece. Anthony Decurtis is engaging on Dylan’s songwriting.

Lee Marshall is perceptive on Dylan Studies, warning against treating him merely as a lyricist – the music and vocal performances are also important. But Marshall’s assertion that you can’t study high and popular culture in the same terms makes me slightly uneasy: it’s perfectly feasible to compare and contrast, say, Puccini and the Everly Brothers.

The fourteen-page piece on religion has some insights, but I’d have welcomed more. Few of the other thematic chapters ring bells in this parish. Wild horses couldn’t persuade me to read the chapter on Dylan and gender politics, though I wouldn’t expect many in the book’s fresh-faced, right-on audience to share my prejudice.

Part 2 reviews eight “landmark” albums. The book would have been better doubling the thematic coverage, instead. Dylan’s catalogue has already been reviewed to death and these new pieces add little to the mountain of press and fan evaluations. Except, that is, the essays on “Love And Theft” and Highway 61 Revisited. They’re both insightful, rapping on the magnitude of Dylan’s achievement.

Having graduated from the academy well before deconstruction, structuralism and the like took root, I was disappointed not to find a detailed, readable assessment of Dylan’s art filtered through the Post-Modernist lens. I suspect that PoMo academia has much to offer the seeker after Dylan Truth.

As is traditional in books about Dylan, you encounter erroneous rock-ist clich├ęs – “first to release a themed album”; “first pop writer with grown-up lyrics”: er, no - in both cases. (I didn’t come across their sibling, the hoary claim that Dylan was the first musician to be bootlegged, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it.)

The sub-editorial rigour you expect from a CUP book is fitful – for example, we encounter a Martin “Scorcese”, and find Dave Van Ronk in “Mcdougal” Street. If the book emanated from a Squirrel Press of Nether Wapping, it wouldn’t matter much, but it’s published by one of the world’s great university presses. Time to reassess the “Cambridge” brand?

Dylan’s great body of art can withstand rigorous, high-minded scrutiny, placing him in the wider flow of both high and popular culture: I much prefer BobLit by intellectuals with writing skills to the musings of brain-lite rock hacks. But earlier, admittedly more extensive, academic studies by profs such as Ricks, Marshall and Negus are not matched by The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.

For a Dylan book to have lasting value, it needs to enrich our understanding of the man’s work - as creative artist, songwriter, thinker, performing musician and curator of American music. The Cambridge book does it intermittently, but not enough.

So, The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan achieves a grade of B-. It’s adequate, good in parts, but it needs more analysis and less narrative.

Gerry Smith


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Together Through Life – “a stinker that’ll soon be forgotten”

I suspect I’m not the only Dylan Daily reader who’s yet to make up his mind about Together Through Life.

But I doubt there’s be many who share the views of a certain Russ Smith (no relation - honest!), who’s posted a very dismissive review on Splice Today.

Not all Dylan Daily readers think that the Sun shines out of Dylan’s a**e. Russ Smith certainly doesn’t. I enclose a few extracts, below - just to whet your appetite!

You can see the full review online at

Gerry Smith


Nothing Is Delivered, by Russ Smith

* Together Through Life, Bob Dylan’s latest recording, is a stinker that’ll soon be forgotten.

* the last time Dylan released an exciting bunch of new songs was in early ’75, Blood on the Tracks, and that coincided with my most recent cavity. And, let’s be honest, that record, while a step up from Planet Waves and New Morning, hasn’t aged all that well, with the clunkers “Meet Me in the Morning” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” getting in the way of his two gold-standard 70s songs “Idiot Wind” and “Tangled Up in Blue.”

* his last 20 or so records, including his latest, Together Through Life, really stink, and I imagine that once this article is complete I’ll relegate the CD to the pile of near-discards, maybe next to Imagine or anything Morrissey released after he and guitarist Johnny Marr broke up the Smiths, the best band of the 1980s.

* Dylan’s value today is as an archivist (of his own songs and those artists he admires)

* Listening to Together Through Life, it’s possible, I suppose, to believe that Dylan really thinks he’s making exceptional new music… the songs, mostly co-written with Robert Hunter (immediate tip-off), have little lyrical merit and while reviewers have somehow fallen for the singer’s p.r. that he’s incorporating his love for old Chess Records classics with his own tweaks and observations, this record’s a bust. Not wholly embarrassing, but a bust.

* David Hildago’s brain-numbing accordian…

* with very few exceptions (maybe “Catfish,” “Seven Days” and “Jokerman”), the songs he’s composed since the mid-1970s are half-baked and would never even be considered by the staff who help him compile the playlist for his radio show…

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cover painting of Dylan special edition of Rolling Stone (France)

Thanks to Eric Wolfe:

“Thought you'd like to know that the painting by Scott Laumann accompanied the review of Tell Tale Signs in the American edition last fall.”


Article of 22 May:

The French Rolling Stone has a delightful new 100-page Collector’s Special Edition (Hors-Serie) devoted to Dylan.

Beautiful cover portrait by Scott Laumann… 15 articles… many great photos… a magnificent addition to the library – allez, allez – vite!

NB1: it’s in French.
NB2: the content is nothing like the recent Dylan-covered issue (no 1078) of the US edition of Rolling Stone, though I’m going from info supplied by RS - I’ve yet to see issue 1078 on the racks where I get my occasional fix…

Vive le Rolling Stone francais!

Gerry Smith

Friday, May 22, 2009

Delightful Dylan special edition from Rolling Stone (France)

The French Rolling Stone has a delightful new 100-page Collector’s Special Edition (Hors-Serie) devoted to Dylan.

Beautiful cover portrait by Scott Laumann… 15 articles… many great photos… a magnificent addition to the library – allez, allez – vite!

NB1: it’s in French.
NB2: the content is nothing like the recent Dylan-covered issue (no 1078) of the US edition of Rolling Stone, though I’m going from info supplied by RS - I’ve yet to see issue 1078 on the racks where I get my occasional fix…

Vive le Rolling Stone francais!

Gerry Smith

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Before The Flood: encore

Thanks to Jon Talbot in Seattle, Washington:

“I enjoyed reading your take on Before the Flood. I bought the re-mastered CD last month, but hadn't listened to it yet. Your comments encouraged me to play it last night. You are right - the sound is much better, even when comparing it to the original CD.

“But I wouldn't recommend it for the average Dylan fan. Despite what you called an impressive set-list, the songs for me are delivered in a rushed and robotic fashion that strips them of their integrity and potency. They come from his lips in a spitted-shouted-spoken flurry.

“Others have also noted how Dylan whizzed through them, deliberately in a hurry. The monks often say, "hurry is the death of prayer," and on Before the Flood, hurry is nearly the death of Dylan on this live performance.

“But I would recommend the CD for those serious about Dylan (and fans of the Band), for there are a few bright moments. Some aspects of "Just Like a Woman" become less rushed and hurriedly delivered to show its truthful intent, and you feel that Dylan's heart is in the singing.

“ "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" works very well for a number of reasons. First, its staccato-type format fits Dylan's need to hurry things along. Secondly, the crowd is following each stanza carefully (all the words are clearly articulated--no lyric sheet needed there) and they explode over the line about the President of the United States. Lastly, there's an audience member who ought to get royalties as he (maybe she, as the re-mastered CD gives this person a higher voice) cheers almost rhythmically in response to a number of the lines of the song. There's one place where it appears Dylan is a bit distracted, but immediately gets back on track.

“Of the final Dylan pieces on disc two, "Highway 61 Revisited" is my vote for the best performance. I also enjoyed the warm-up and introduction to "All Along the Watchtower," which could have been dynamic if Robbie Robertson did an extended guitar solo, but as soon as you get into their Hendrix-infused groove the song immediately ends.

“The Band glowed; my favorite moments are two: "The Shape I'm In," exceptionally sung by Richard Manuel, despite his hoarse voice, and played equally well by the top-notch musicians. And "When You Awake", with lead singing by Rick Danko--lovely.

“Ironically, it was my first Dylan concert. I attended the evening concert at The Forum (now the Staples Center) in Los Angeles, February 14--I think the year was 1973, my ticket doesn't show the year. The price of the concert was cheaper than the re-mastered CD: $8.50!

“I believe it was the last leg of the tour, and that most of the CD's tracks were taken from the afternoon concert of that same date. (Your faithful readers can verify and/or correct that.) I think Dylan and the Band also performed a track or two from Planet Waves, "Forever Young," sticks in my memory.

“The experience of the concert outmatched the CD, of course, but my lasting impression wasn't the music. It was the manner in which Bob Dylan left the stage and bowed: he held up his harmonica in one hand and the guitar in the other, as if to say, you could do this too...or maybe to say "you're right from your side, I'm right from mine; we're just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind."

“Thanks Gerry, for encouraging these thoughts.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Roy Silver interview DVD: encore

Thanks to Steve Rostoski:

“I was involved in a project related to No Direction Home and got to read all the interview transcripts (except Bob's!) before it was released.

“I remember the Roy Silver interview and I doubt they would have gone to the trouble of transcribing all the retakes and asides if it were staged. The guy did sound like a character, so I'm not surprised some think he's an actor.

“Another thing I remember about the interviews was that most of them were rough and broke down when they had to change film or something needed rephrasing.

“Except for Greil Marcus. His interview read like one of his essays with not one word out of place. The only time he stopped was when he asked if the skateboarding kids outside were making too much noise.”


(8 May): The Roy Silver interview DVD

Watching the Roy Silver interview on DVD, one of the bonus discs in Together Through Life, I thought at first it was a spoof.

Never having heard of Silver and conscious of the hammy presentation style (Groucho Marx?), it seemed like a well-executed Dylan put-on.

My suspicions were strengthened when a check of the Trager and Gray encyclopedias failed to turn up Silver. Ditto Heylin’s bio, Behind The Shades Take 2.

But then I found him in a biography I’ve rather neglected – Howard
Sounes’ Down the Highway: the life of Bob Dylan (Black Swan, 2002, paper, 624pp). Sounes documents in some detail Silver’s early association with Dylan in the Village, before he was signed by Albert Grossman.

Bravo, Howard Sounes. I’ll have to read him rather more carefully.

And I’ll have to watch the Roy Silver DVD again – but as a factual interview this time, not an elaborate joke.

Gerry Smith

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Euro Tour 2009: final thoughts

Thanks to Gerald Bamford:

“Bob has been here and gone once more at a time when his stock is as high as it has ever been what with his new album at the highest reaches of the album charts both sides of the pond and all manner of media programmes dedicated to all aspects of his unbelievable career. Must be the end game.

“One thing is for certain: Bob is still the spokesman for our generation gently leading us to understand what it feels like to be getting old.

“But not infirm - the energy needed to sustain a tour of recent proportions must be enormous, so all power to Bob.

“I like to organise my part in the tour by selecting shows where I think my wife might like to visit, so we went off to Tuscany and Florence in particular where Bob and the band played in the Nelson Mandela Forum - which did Bob no favours since the sound, at least where we were seated to the left of the stage, was atrocious - hurtful to my ears at times.

“The acoustic songs were much easier to listen to so these were the highlights of a frustrating experience.

“The sound at the O2 was very much better and even though the set list was strangely similar to Florence and the huge arena makes for a dislocated feel, I really enjoyed the concert sitting in the infamous Block 101.

“So we went to Scotland and, even though we stayed in Glasgow, went only to the Edinburgh Playhouse, which is a fine Victorian theatre at the end of Prince's Street and one of those more intimate venues that Bob seems to like to fit in.

“Of course this was the highlight for me, setting me in mind of the two fantastic shows at the Portsmouth Guildhall in 2000 and a wonderful show in Oporto some years back, also in a small theatre.

“Song tour highlights for me were:

Hollis Brown - Florence and O2
'Till I fell in Love with You - O2
Return To Me - Fl (just a jester's gesture)
Working Man's Blues #2 - Florence & O2
Just Like A Woman - Edinburgh (actually most of Edinburgh from Pill Box Hat onwards)

“Strange how we view and assess the shows - our enjoyment depending on so many external and internal factors (as Leonard Cohen said about the financial and geographical inconvenience of attending his concert at the O2, or simply what we had for lunch having some effect on mood), and our built-in desire to criticise having come out so far with so many expectations.

“Let's hope that familiarity does not breed a degree of contempt, since Bob seems very happy with his current band and sound. I guess most of us were hoping for at least a song from Together Through Life but he saved that for Dublin - the luck of the Irish indeed.

“Still, all things being equal, Bob will be back touting his wares once again in a town near us very soon.

“It's all good!”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Before The Flood re-mastered: very impressive

You’re not supposed to like Before The Flood.

It’s supposed to lack subtlety. You look for subtlety in rock music? If I want subtlety I avoid rock and turn to jazz or opera instead.

I think Before The Flood is a spellbinder in which Dylan reinvents his ‘60s songbook into a cacophanous tumult; rock has rarely been this raw.

Great vocals, inspired band, set-list without equal. What’s not to like? Dylan’s performance is impassioned, vituperative, driven. What more could the nay-sayers reasonably expect?

I’ve listened to Before The Flood in the car, on a cheap tape, recorded from worn-out vinyl via a scratchy needle, for years, so the sound on the new re-mastered double CD set is a revelation to me; maybe if you’re used to a hi-fi version, the sonic upgrade would be less impressive.

If you delete the intrusive (if otherwise excellent) tracks by The Band, you have a legendary, almost seamless, Dylan rock concert.

Before The Flood re-mastered: very impressive

Gerry Smith

Friday, May 15, 2009

Basement Tapes re-mastered: impressive

You learn some useful stuff from expert contributors to The Dylan Daily.

First, Liam Mogan raved on about the sonic improvements on the newly re-mastered Basement Tapes 2CD. So I made a note to buy it.

But where?

Right on cue, Martin Cowan told us that HMV are discounting all four newly re-mastered albums. And even my sorry little local branch had a digipack copy of The Basement Tapes in stock, at only £8 (though it had none of the other three titles).

So I bought it and, like Liam, I’m very impressed by the sound: it’s like hearing the album for the very first time.

Even after degrading the sound by ripping/burning a CDR copy via iTunes, to excise the Band tracks, the production is still a revelation, with Dylan well up in the mix and the mud cleansed.

The improvement was more noticeable after I’d tagged on the three official Basement Tapes sessions out-takes, released on Biograph and Bootleg Series 1-3, and listened to them back-to-back with the newly cleaned-up album.

So, tomorrow I’m off to a bigger HMV, to buy Before The Flood, a long-time favourite tape in my car, though often derided by the Dylan Police.

And, as a bonus, I can park all the non-Bob tracks from both the re-mastered albums onto a dedicated The Band CDR.

If, like me, you’d never bothered buying The Basement Tapes on CD, now’s the time!

Gerry Smith

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dylan back catalogue CDs: HMV bargains, and phantom new re-masters

Thanks to Martin Cowan:

“Dylan is HMV artist of the month. This means that a whole bunch of the hefty back catalogue is available at £5 per throw, and in my local branch they also had the new re-masters of "Basement Tapes" and "Before the Flood" for £8 apiece.

“This is a good chance to pick up any LPs that are missing from your collection!

“But, further to all the column inches sounding the death knell of CDs in favour of inferior downloads or inconvenient streaming, I’ve discovered that it is almost impossible to buy all the new Dylan re-mastered CDs anywhere.

“Amazon lists them, but only from other sellers, though it does seem possible to track them down via Ebay.

“Have any other Dylan Daily readers come across the latest wave of Dylan reissues in physical form?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Barry Feinstein exhibition opens at National Portrait Gallery, London

Thanks to Gordon Macniven

“In case you don't know, the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of Barry Feinstein's 1966 photos of Bob began on 11 May and finishes on 30 August.

“The NPG is a magnificent gallery so well worth a visit. The exhibition is in the basement. Not worth a special journey but definitely worth a look if you're near.”

(NPG is in central London, just off Trafalgar Square, round the corner, east of the National Gallery - GS)


Related DYLAN DAILY article from 2008:

Feinstein’s Dylan exhibition extended, plus new Sub H Blues photo

Birmingham’s Snap Galleries is extending its Barry Feinstein exhibition of Dylan photographs until Saturday 9 August. Snap is selling prints from the photographer’s iconic catalogue, as published in his new book, Real Moments.

And Snap has unearthed (and is selling) a new colour still, by Tony Frank, from the Subterranean Homesick Blues black and white film shoot.

Snap Galleries runs a remarkable series of rock photography exhibitions.

Their newsletter – itself a visual feast; any rock fan should subscribe (free) – announces some enticing forthcoming shows:

1. "Majesties and Exiles", new Rolling Stones exhibition starts 13 September 2008

2. Dylan “Gets Born” - glorious colour from the Subterranean Homesick Blues film set

3. Oasis: awesome early years singles and albums portfolio collection launches in November 2008

4. Soul with attitude

5. Feinstein Dylan show extended

6. Pepper drumskin at Christie’s

7. Wonderwalls

8. More out of print and 'sold out' books

Snap Galleries Limited, Unit 7 - Ground Floor, Fort Dunlop, Fort Parkway, Birmingham B24 9FD

Gerry Smith

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

London O2 gig and the overpriced tour programme – encore…

Thanks to Paul Ryles:

“I think I share your opinion of the O2 Arena, but maybe not completely.

“The transport arrangements were nothing short of ridiculous for such a big venue. The boat service was woeful, the boat on the way there left early, so we missed it, along with 20 or so other people. We actually left the show early to catch the return trip, needless to say to the boat on the way back left late. I’d hate to go to another event where the tube wasn't running.

“The lack of screens did create a detachment from the performance, we sat in a corner of the top tier far from the stage. The experience was like listening to the music, but not really like attending a live show, quite an odd experience.

“I'm trying not to be the grumpy old man, but I agree 100% with your view about sales of food and drink. I don't understand why you would pay for a ticket then spend your time queuing at the bar or the toilets. I can understand why Van Morrison wanted to stop bar sales during his shows.

“For me the O2 was so huge it bordered on the incredible, not quite oppressive, even though you could probably fit the village I live in into the arena 10 times. From where I was sitting the view of the audience looking amazing, the sound was good, slight bassy reverb off the roof, but not half as bad as the SECC in Glasgow the next weekend.

“I'd actually like to go back to see an artist that really does connect with the audience, Prince in 2007 might just have been the perfect artist, but I wasn't there.

“The show itself, I thought, was excellent, as was your review. Highlights for me 'Til I Fell In Love With You, Hollis Brown and Hattie Carroll, my wife thought Workingman's Blues was better than the recorded version.”

And to John Jeffrey:

“I, too, thought the (European tour) programmes were over priced (£12), but I bought one in Glasgow on Saturday night when the price was "reduced" to a tenner.”