This time last year (January 2017), I blogged about how particular groups/artists re-emerge every few years back into my listening schedule, and stick around for a few weeks before disappearing back into the collection until the next time (”My Re-Appreciation Society”). The chief among these, and certainly the one that goes furthest back, is Bob Dylan.
The reason that Dylan has re-emerged this time around is merely because my wife got me a copy for Xmas of classical studies academic Richard F. Thomas’s Why Dylan Matters, which came out last year, and attempts to demonstrate, with mixed success, how His Bobness was influenced by classical literature and poetry, especially Virgil and Homer. I wasn’t particularly sold on his arguments, to be frank, and the book seems to me to be yet another hagiography extolling Dylan’s lyrical genius. It still beats me how any writer thinks that they can top Michael Gray’s ridiculously erudite Song and Dance Man, which I first bought in its initial edition circa 1974, and has since become an Alexandrian resource for Dylan scholars. Thomas’s particular shtick is fine as far as it goes - everyone needs to make an honest living after all, and he has cornered a particular niche in Dylan Studies, but this book is far from the best in this vast field (and far from the worse).. What the book has done, however, is send me back into Dylan World, and who knows how long I’ll be stuck here.
I first listened to Dylan records around 1971, a period that is now seen as an interregnum between his ‘wild, mercury’ trilogy (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde) and the ‘divorce’ trilogy (Blood On The Tracks, Desire, Street Legal), and towards the end of the period in which he pretty much invented Americana ( the trilogy of The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline). One could perhaps make a claim for the likes of Neil Young and Tom Waits as having produced two classic trilogies in their career, but three??!! The received wisdom at that time was that Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self-Portrait were, at best, mediocre and under-achieving, at worse just plain crap - ‘”what is this shit?”, as Grail Marcus infamously asked in Rolling Stone at the time. The ridiculously over-rated Marcus later saw fit to apologise (in his usual clever-dick way, however) in the booklet that came with the re-release of Self -Portrait as part of The Bootleg Series (Volume 10). Talk about having your cake (or should that be country pie?) and eating it!.
I do remember that fans were experiencing Dylan cold turkey at the time, and the furore that surrounded his 1969 Isle of Wight appearance (some of which appears on Self-Portrait). People were desperate for Dylan product, but the material that was emerging was not to their taste on the whole, and the way that all this has been carefully forgotten/reframed in the present day is one of the most telling examples of the fickleness of taste and fashion and the way that history can be re-written as a result of these factors.
To Be Continued