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.
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 song 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.