Monday, June 24, 2013

Bob Dylan... The Never Ending Star

This month Bob Dylan completed 25 years of his Never Ending Tour. On July 9 he will be performing in Duluth for the third time on this 25 year odyssey, and the second outdoors in our beautiful Bayfront Park. In the next couple weeks leading up to the concert I will likely make a few extra posts on Dylan-related themes. Just because. 

I am currently relishing Lee Marshall’s 2007 Dylan bio titled Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star. And liking it very much.

Lee Marshall's book on Dylan is more than a book about the artist/musician. It is an examination of the meaning of stardom and its impact. Bob Dylan happens to be the organism under the microscope here. Marshall argues that the meaning of a song is not just in the lyrics, that how those lyrics are sung conveys as much if not more than the words alone. In addition, the fact that it is a star, a celebrity performing, has a bearing on the overall impact, significance, meaning. 

In his intro Marshall outlines a number of premises.
1. Stardom is an inherently modern phenomenon. (EdNote: cf. William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive.)
2. Stardom fulfills ideological functions.
3. Stardom fulfills industrial functions.
4. Stars unite subjectivities.

In the light of these propositions Marshall’s book therefore approaches the career of Bob Dylan from an entirely new angle, and as faces shift with the movements of shadows, so this new angle offers new insights into who Bob Dylan really is and what he’s about.

Lee Marshall’s introduction to the book asks many good questions.

“Dylan has been a star for a very long time, and the meaning of his stardom has changed over that period. What affected his emergence and these changes? How was the meaning of his stardom facilitated by particular historical circumstances, and constrained by others. Why did a ‘Bob Dylan’ emerge in the sixties? What impact did his emergence have on others, or on his later stardom?”

At the end of this intro Marshall writes, “I look at how Dylan’s stardom was constructed in such a way that made it impossible for him to shake off his mythical history. This problem was most acute in the 1980s when Dylan seemed out of place in the remodeled music industry. His way of managing this problem was to begin the ‘Never Ending Tour’, an extraordinary project that successfully redefined his stardom, resulting in a remarkable return to the limelight which began in 1997.”

In chapter 1 Marshall devotes himself to demonstrating that how we engage poetry or song lyrics has changed over time and that meanings aren’t always what they appear. Dylan frequently sings from the first person point-of-view, using the word “I” in so many of his songs. But Marshall shows that “I” does not always refer to Dylan when he sings it. I think here of short stories that are clearly not about the author’s experience. It is a first person narrator, but someone else. And Dylan’s many stories in song are precisely the same. 

Look at all the variations of House of the Rising Sun, or Man of Constant Sorrow, two famously covered tunes that Dylan has also recorded. I don’t think he’d gone back to New Orleans to live out the rest of his life in the House of the Rising Sun when he sang it. In fact, when recording it on his first album he chose to sing it from a woman’s first person perspective.

Goethe wrote that he carried within his breast all kinds of persons, from vagabond to saint, and by tapping into these he could create characters for his stories by becoming them. Method actors like Daniel Day-Lewis do this. So, too, has Dylan, himself a master storyteller. 

I've always been fascinated with Dylan’s lyrics, the poetry and word play. But I wholly agree with Marshall when he asserts “Dylan songs evoke feeling rather than meaning.” Perhaps this explains why the surreal "Changing of the Guard", which no one can fully unravel intellectually, is fully comprehensible as a heart-to-soul experience, and repeatedly satisfying as a song.

I had a friend who said “Dylan can’t sing” which strikes me as the silliest of assertions when you see how he consumes a song into himself and through vocal projection reveals its emotional content. Sure, the voice box has gravel in it, and for some this is off-putting, but you can choose to let it slide. It’s up to you.

All this to say that I find Marshall's book compelling. And most likely I will share more from it here.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Don't be a bystander. Embrace it!

Check out my My Dylan Art Collection on Flickr.

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