Paul Morley on Bob Dylan. Part Two.

As this is a site that mostly celebrates improvised music, I was especially pleased to read Paul Morley’s appreciation of this aspect of Bob Dylan’s muse.

“…in the end, improvisation was a big part of how Dylan wrote and recorded songs” (page 37). Regarding ‘Talking World War 3 Blues’ (on Freewheelin’), the jazz critic Nat Hentoff observed that the song was “…half-improvised…the simpler a form, the more revealing it is of the essence of the performer…there is no place to hide in the talking blues”. Made in 1962, this comment is, of course, a precursor of the 'simple complexity’ of rap. Dylan’s singing/talking on Freewheelin’ is a perfect example of how supple and flexible his folk vocalese had become by the time of his second, almost entirely self-composed, album.

Bob Dylan has managed to wrong foot his soi disant 'dedicated fan base’ since 1964 or thereabouts. Let’s see, there was (leaving aside his ongoing live re-imagining of his 'classics’, which had discombobulated so many of the former):

1965: Pissing off the 'folkies’ by re-strapping on an electric guitar for the first side of Bringing It All Back Home. Apres this, le deluge of Highway 61 Revisited and Blond On Blonde.

1968: Alienating the 'psychedelic crew’ by birthing 'Americana’ on John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes. The 1969 Isle of Wight Festival gig caused further cognitive dissonance for 'Dylanologists’, the most celebrated of which was the very early “famous for being famous” non-celebrity, A.J. Weberman (current status not known, presumed utterly irrelevant). These were indeed the idiot daze.

1970: “What is this shit?” bemoans the sacred (or merely just scared?) Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus, appraising, in the most snotty way, one of the most (retrospectively, it must be said) celebrated-but-'misunderstood’ albums in rock history, Self Portrait. Marcus later had cause to make a grovelling re-appraisal in his notes to The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (but between grated teeth, as I read it).

1978: The 'Born Again Period’ caused much trouser-soiling in the post-punk critical establishment. You really couldn’t make up how furious the tragically hip were about Bob’s essential 'lapse’ into non-ironic fervour. “Nobody expected the Born Again Inquisition!!”

2009: The Xmas album, Christmas in the Heart. “What is this shit” 2.0?

2016: The 'Crooner Period", of American standards, WITS 3.0? (The greatest example of “taking a chance with love” of all, given how much of a pummelling his voice has always has?) Shadows of the Night emerged as a 'punk’ triumph of intent-over-restriction. From the punkiest of 'em all, the loser who “couldn’t sing” or even play his harmonica? Just as punk eventually acknowledged its forebears? Even Sid Vicious had the nous to pay homage to Frank Sinatra, however wonky was his eventual timeless crypto-tribute, My Way?

An iconoclastic spree indeed. Even more than Miles, Bob Dylan has continually invited, and risked ridicule, from his self-identified 'liberal’ base. The 'Born Again Period’ proved him to be essentially far more brave than his 'Electric Period’, in terms of how high were the horses that 1970s critics mounted in defense of their precious shibboleths of 'freedom’ (i.e. the freedom to completely reinforce their sixties Weltanschauungen?). Paul Morley completely gets this, and he puts forward the cases for Tarantula, Dylan’s 'novel’, not finally issued until 1972 (at a time when any Dylan material was food for his public, from what I remember), and his live spoken poem, 'Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie’ (contained within the first Bootleg album set). Both of these 'products’ have several pages devoted to them in Morley’s book (inappropriately, it could be argued, i.e. consisting of one largely forgotten novella and a short poem), and both could be seen as metonymies for the artist’s whole career, micro-communications that themselves 'contain multitudes’. Oblique observations like these do make Morley’s book well worth reading. (Any book which prioritises relatively minor works is bound to attract critical and public opprobrium, but hey...).

But this is, surely, somewhat of an exceptional artist…

Final part to follow...

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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.