Monthly Archives: January 2019

Richard F Thomas, Why Dylan Mattersi

Richard F Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (Dey Street 2017)

I’ve been a Dylan fan for five decades. I remember playing John Wesley Harding on repeat in the late 60s, and sitting hunched over a tiny radio in the dead of night hearing a bootleg ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ for the first time. I wrote a piece for my college magazine about ‘Dear Landlord’. Occasionally these days when I’m need of a pick-me-up, I’ll play ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on full volume. ‘Mississippi’ speaks directly to my heart. I even love Dylan’s recent versions of ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘I Was a Fool to Love You’, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and all. But a couple of hours spent with Dylanologist/garbologist A J Weberman‘s ridiculously obsessive analyses of Dylan’s lyrics in my early 20s cured me of any pressing desire to read about his work, or to do any kind of close reading of his lyrics. I was all too happy to accept Dylan’s own implication in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One that he was often more interested in rhyme than meaning.

It was the title of this book that grabbed me. It’s all well and good to be a fan, but does Dylan matter, and if so, why?

Sadly, though Why Dylan Matters taught me a lot about Dylan’s life and his songs, it just doesn’t answer its own question. It would have been more accurate to use Mary Beard’s cover blurb quote as a title: ‘At last an expert classicist gets to grips with Bob Dylan’. But I guess that’s just not catchy.

Richard F Thomas is a bona fide classicist. He is a professor at Yale, and has written extensively about Virgil, Horace, Tacitus and Ovid. He is also a self-described Dylanologist (though not, thankfully, a garbologist), who attends three or more Dylan concerts annually and teaches a semester course on Dylan to first year students every four years.

He takes us through Dylan’s early exposure to classical literature – he was a member of the Latin Club at the Hibbing High School, and played a Roman soldier in a school theatrical production, and probably went to Hollywood movies set in Ancient Rome. Then he walks us through Dylan’s career, arguing that intertextuality is a significant feature of his works, arguing strenuously (and, given that Dylan started out as a folk singer, unnecessarily) that his stealing of phrases from other sources is not plagiarism, but adds richness and depth to his songs.

Leaving aside Dylan’s use of motifs and turns of phrase from the folk tradition (as Thomas largely does), it’s interesting to learn that he is a serial ‘stealer’ from literary sources: Rimbaud, US Confederate poet Henry Timrod, and – bringing Thomas’s two fields of study together – Ovid (the Tristia), Virgil (from whom whole sentences appear), and finally, in Tempest, Homer. My understanding of the personas he takes on, especially in the last four albums that he wrote, has been greatly enriched. Thomas talks about these personas as ‘transfigurations’.

Sadly, I often found the book’s combination of fannish speculation and scholarly attention to detail irritating. The playlists at his concerts and what I have previously taken to be stoned utterances in interviews are scrutinised for what they reveal of deep artistic intentions. At times there’s an almost stalkerish enthusiasm. The album Tempest is never mentioned without being described as a masterpiece, and we are told several times that Dylan’s wife Sara was a former Playboy Bunny. Every

I’m glad I persevered to the end, because the final chapter, dealing with the Nobel Prize, gives a lovely account of Patti Smith’s performance of ‘Hard Rain’, of the way that dong has transcended the circumstances of its composition to remain powerfully of the present moment, and of Dylan’s acceptance speech.

But I’ve renewed my resolve to avoid books about Dylan, and just let the songs to their work on me.

John Purcell’s Girl on the Page

John Purcell, The Girl on the Page (Fourth Estate 2018)

This is a quick, fun read about the current parlous state of fiction publishing – set in London, written by an Australian whose biographical note says that, like one of the book’s characters, he has written a successful series of novels ‘under a pseudonym’.

Helen Owen and Malcolm Taylor, a near-octogenarian couple who have dedicated their lives to writing literary novels, are facing a crisis brought on by Helen’s writing what everyone knows will be a best seller and receiving an advance that enables them to move from their cramped flat in Brixton to a comfortable house in a nice suburb. A raunchy young woman editor who is an expert in what sells is sent in to ensure that the rewrites will be delivered. Imagine Amy Schumer from Train Wreck wandering into the world of Glenn Close in The Wife, only with English accents.

One of the joys of the book is the counterpoint between the ideals of the elderly writers and the kind of book they inhabit. One of Malcolm’s many pronouncements:

There’s uphill reading and downhill reading. As you can imagine, uphill reading requires more effort. Downhill, less so. Readers will do both in their reading lives. Most will tend to favour downhill reading. It’s thrilling to race headlong through a book. Uphill reading is more taxing and requires a certain amount of humility. We need to accept that we won’t always enjoy or even understand all we read. It can be a hard slog at times. The ego takes a battering. But the rewards are great.

(Page 281)

I wouldn’t say The Girl on the Page is a headlong race, but it’s a long way from being an uphill slog. Admirably, it refrains from quoting even a single phrase from either Helen’s or Malcolm’s Man Booker and/or Nobel worthy works, though I was convinced that these people could have written such books. The sex scenes are robustly phallocentric without going into embarrassing detail. I laughed a lot, and enjoyed the cleverly crafted illusion that the story was just one or two removes from actual publishing-world gossip. Not that I can – or would want to – imagine any of the editors or ghost writers I know engaging in noisy public sex in a suburban street after midnight.

In short, a good holiday read and – for me – a palate cleanser after Alexis Wright’s Tracker, a monumental work that makes big demands and offers great rewards, about which I’ll blog soon.

*** New Merch***

As regular readers know, every now and then this blog bursts into rhyme. This has been happening in November for nine years now, and occasionally at other times. I’ve just published through Lulu.com the fourth hard copy collection of these rhymes: Four, Good Measure.

I gave copies to a number of people as glorified Christmas or end-of-year cards, I still have some left. If you think you should have received one, email or text me and I’ll rectify the omission.

Otherwise, you can buy one, cheap, from lulu.com. It’s not listed at Amazon yet, but the previous three books are for sale there, here, here and here. There’s information about all four books on my Publications page.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.