Why Dylan Matters

I have been unfaithful to Bob Dylan. That’s what it feels like. As a student, I listened over and over to those early albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding. I didn’t actually buy any of them: I had friends at college who could afford to do that. (Actually, I was still buying Francoise Hardy, but don’t hate me for it.)

Later on, when he was reported to have become a Christian, we bought Slow Train Coming and Shot of Love — not vinyl by now, but on tape cassette. (So actually, much less use than vinyl; except that we didn’t have a record deck at the time.) Since then we’ve listened to a few of Dylan’s later titles, those that made it to The Essential Bob Dylan collection. But for the most part I just haven’t kept up with the evolution of his career and his music.

Then I read a review of Richard F. Thomas’s book Why Dylan Matters, and knew this was what I needed to read to make some amends for my decades of infidelity. Thomas is a Professor of Classics at Harvard; more than that, he has been a Dylan fan since pretty much forever. That’s ‘fan’ in the full sense of fanatic: he is a Dylan freak, an expert, a nerd. What he doesn’t know about Dylan, or doesn’t know how to find out, ain’t knowledge. The thesis of this fascinating book is that Dylan is a classic, just as much, and in just the same sense, as Virgil, Ovid, Catullus, Homer, Aeschylus and all those others are.

Our own favourite classicist Mary Beard agrees:

At last an expert classicist gets to grips with Bob Dylan. Richard Thomas takes us from Dylan’s high school Latin club to his haunting engagement with Ovid and Homer in recent albums. He carefully argues that Dylan’s poetry deserves comparison with Virgil’s — and Thomas, senior professor of Latin at Harvard and author of some of the most influential modern studies of Virgil, should know!

This book provides an oversight of some of the twists and turns of Dylan’s musical Odyssey — another good classical allusion — with a timeline-discography of all Dylan’s albums, a discussion of the broad outline of their development, and detailed analysis of the texts of many of the songs, and how they have changed in performance over the years. Because one of the great themes is that Dylan’s work is all about performance: in his Nobel Prize lecture he frequently made the point that Shakespeare was not interested in whether or not he was writing ‘literature’: his concern, like Dylan’s, was with the details of the performance. Getting everything right, so it was the best possible performance it could be.

The final chapter takes us through Dylan’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. It’s not certain that all the details of what happened will ever be known. Dylan famously delayed for some time in responding to the Swedish Academy’s news of the award — perhaps because he couldn’t believe such an august body would really recognise his work as ‘literature’. Then he didn’t turn up in person to make his acceptance speech in Stockholm, asking the U.S. ambassador to Sweden to read it on his behalf. But he did — somewhat at the last minute — deliver the obligatory Nobel Prize lecture. Thomas describes it in his book, and you can listen to it on YouTube. It’s also touching to watch Patti Smith performing ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ at the ceremony. No doubt she was mortified by losing her way at one point, which she attributed to extreme nervousness, but she was warmly applauded and encouraged by the audience of the great and the good of the Nobel Prize.

It’s a book that I loved, a book that makes me want to go back to listening and listening to Dylan’s more recent albums, and a book that makes me want to read those ancient classics of Greek and Rome, either again or for the first time.

Addendum

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify which includes most of the songs Thomas discusses in this book. If you’d like to save yourself the trouble of searching for them all, you can find them here.

NaNoWriMo — How was it for me?

It wasn’t my best ever NaNoWriMo: for that I still think my favourite story ever was 2011’s A Month of Living Vicariously. It cheered me up and made me laugh every time I read it for weeks afterwards. But this year was the most interesting in terms of process.

The plan I started with was to write a fictionalised autobiography. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that writing about how my life might have been, or how I would have liked it to be, was somehow devaluing the life I’ve actually lived. Don’t get me wrong: I go in for wishful thinking, what-ifs and if-onlys as much as anyone. But I’m also feeling pretty good about my life at the moment, which is a good place to be, and one I’m not proud of, because I’ve done nothing to earn it, but just very grateful for.

Instead of the autobiography, it morphed into the life story of someone who has livedthrough much the same historical period as I have (c. 1950 to the present day). (Good idea this, it means there’s less historical research necessary. Though still some: we found ourselves asking, When was the first supermarket introduced in Britain? When did DNA paternity testing become a thing?)

John (good name!) bears a dark inheritance: in every generation of his family there have been evil people, and his parents felt the burden of having to atone for this, or somehow make amends so that the ‘bad blood’ doesn’t continue to wreak havoc through the generations. When John inherited this burden, and discovered the evil twin sister he never knew he had, his story turned into a decades-long struggle between Good and Evil. How can Good triumph, when it is so weak, so powerless in comparison with the monstrous evil that is done?

I still don’t know the answer to that question; so in part this fiction expresses my own wrestling with hope, and faith, and doubt. It reaches some kind of resolution, but I’ll leave it to you to judge how convincing it is. About as convincing as the final victory of Good over Evil, I guess.

But along the way I learned some interesting things about myself, about creativity, and about how I create. Part of the story hinges on the ‘fairy godfathers and godmothers’ who attend John’s christening, grant him gifts and blessings, and help out at key points in the story. To my surprise, two of the godfathers I started out with turned out not to be the right ones, or the ones that were needed later on. Also, I had given away too much about them when they first appeared. So I had to go back, in a partial reworking phase, and both take back what I had given away, and change the identity of the two who were the wrong ones. You may find, if you read carefully, a hint about the identity of one of the original godfathers. Also, that DNA test that would have established beyond doubt the relationship of the twins: I had to think of a workaround there, and I think the workaround turned out to be better than a DNA test would have been. All of this is such fun! It really is as if you set your characters off at the beginning, and find they assume a life of their own, which they then show you, rather than you showing them. It’s almost as if they solve the problems they find themselves in, rather than you having to solve them.

In other ways, this novel is more experimental, more surrealistic, and maybe even more religious, than some of those I’ve written before. I had fun with this, too. And there was a change of title. After having the title Bad Blood all through the writing month, and even when the ‘win’ was registered, when it came to revision that felt too worn-out, and it got changed to Blood Will Out. A phrase which, it turns out, already appeared in the text.

I don’t have any plans to publish it: that all seems too much like hard work. But I would love it if any friends or readers feel like reading it. At 52,000 and some words, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. It’s not like it’s Moby Dick. I’ve put the latest PDF version of it here on Google Drive, and you’re welcome to read it there or download it to your own computer or device. I would love to hear how you get on with it, what you think of it, if you made it to the end or gave up (and why) — in fact any feedback at all.

So, if you have been, thank you for reading!