Paul Morley on Bob Dylan: Part One.

“This isn’t, though, just a biography of Dylan, it is also about a man whom Morley clearly regards as a major cultural force: Paul Morley”.

These are indeed wise and perceptive words from just one review of the writer and cultural force’s new book on Bob Dylan, an unusual meeting of two very different wordsmiths and taste-makers, which I have just finished, and that I can recommend. Sort of. It’s called You Lose Yourself, You Reappear: Bob Dylan and the Voices of a Lifetime, and its basic shtick is that Dylan’s shapeshifting voice has been an important definer of his massively influential career. It’s also been, along with his harmonica playing, a feature of his work that has regularly garnered much criticism of the “he can’t sing” school. (Just like Derek Bailey “can’t play guitar”.)

Paul Morley has also garnered plenty of criticism of the “he can’t write” variety, ever since he emerged in the late 1970s pages of the New Musical Express (NME), alongside another ‘postmodern’/'cultural studies’ semi-icon, Ian Penman. Both have been lambasted for deliberate obscurity, excessive self-consciousness and self-referentiality (and uber-referentiality in general). Morley, in particular, wears his style on his sleeve, with his use of lists (to prove how clever and how big his record collection is, some say) and his pile-ups of repetitive allusions. It is impossible to ignore the sheer imbroglio of the writer’s style here, in contra-distinction to more established NME writers, of the time, who tended to unobtrusively 'disappear’ in their texts, such as the two Pauls, Du Noyer and Rambali, Max Bell and Charles Shaar Murray, to name but four 'proper journalists’. (Doesn’t it all seem such a long time ago, though?)

Dylan’s latest masterpiece, Rough and Rowdy Ways (RRW) released at the height of Lockdown 1.0, justifiably gets a lot of attention in the book, just as his first eponymous album of 1962 also does, the alpha and omega of his massive discography. “I Contain Multitudes” is the opening track of RRW, and Morley observes that “one voice is for the ordinary, the genius has many voices”, a Trumpian reflection that pretty much sums the book up. Like another artist who “can’t sing”, Tom Waits (“why don’t critics say the same things about Tom Waits?”, Dylan complains on page 87), Bob D. has accepted and welcomed the unavoidable changes in his voice over time, allowing it to" move with the times" (page 76). Morley’s attempts to make Dylan the vox version of Lon Chaney’s 'Man of 1000 faces’ doesn’t really do it for me, however,with the singer presented as an ultimately unknowable and inscrutable polymorph (as in the film I’m Not There?), with the simile of his 'voices’ as Russian dolls, one inside another, informing and reflecting one another.

Arguably, only Miles Davis, dead at 65 years of age, can equal Dylan in terms of his continually surprising and, most significantly, at the same time upsetting his fan base: “I have to change, it’s like a curse”, MD is supposed to have said. Such is the weight of genius, I suppose? Miles helped to kick start at least five jazz sub-genres, and Dylan, at 80 years of age, can be said to have been equivalently disruptive and prophetic over 60 years of (mostly) continuous innovation.

To be continued…

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.