Thursday, June 7, 2012

21st Century Dylan: A Discussion with Eric Hoffman and His Call For Papers

A couple weeks back, during Duluth’s Dylan fest, I saw a link to this call for papers related to two of Bob Dylan’s 21st century albums. The notation indicated that author and editor Eric Hoffman was planning a book of essays centered on Dylan’s 2001 and 2006 albums Love and Theft and Modern Times, which he called “arguably two of his best and most important works since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks.” The book was tentatively to be titled, From Love and Theft to Modern Times: Bob Dylan and the Twenty First Century. Naturally I had to learn more. Mr. Hoffman graciously responded to my inquiry.

EN: Love an Theft is a great album and Modern Times certainly ranks with it. On what basis do you consider these albums the most significant since Blood on the Tracks?

EH: From at least 1965, Dylan's relationship to his audience, and particularly his relationship with the media, is ambivalent at best, caustic at worst. It's arguable that since that time Dylan has been actively working against any preconceived notion of who he is, or what he represents, not the least of which is the moniker "the voice of a generation." You need only look at his 1965 San Francisco press conference or, much more recently, his interview on 60 Minutes or footage from No Direction Home, to get a sense of this. Yet the albums better than anything illustrate this ambivalence. In 1967, you have him disappearing into the countryside to record music he never intended to professionally release, then you have John Wesley Harding, a considerably more stripped down style of music than his mid-60s work, the introduction of a new vocal style in Nashville Skyline, the intentional attempt to derail his career with Self Portrait.

What you had in the mid-1970s revival is an instance where Dylan finds himself re-energized through collaboration, in particular his collaboration with The Band. Blood on the Tracks seems the natural outcome of Dylan having the joy brought back into his music as a result of this collaboration. Following that, I believe Dylan's music again took a downturn as a result of his divorce, probably numerous other reasons . . . who knows. Nevertheless, the gospel era, whatever its strengths (and they are myriad), did mark another slow descent into mediocrity, similar to the one descent that occurred a decade before. What re-energized him was again collaboration, this time with the Grateful Dead. Though there is not much to recommend the music Dylan performed with the Dead, he did come to realize that their model of performance (ongoing live concerts and touring) was a viable alternative to maintaining and fostering a core audience of devoted fans. It also took some of the pressure off of coming up with new music to record, something Dylan was at pains to do from the mid-80s to mid-90s.

Then came a different sort of collaboration, this time with the folk tradition, both in live concerts (notably the Supper Club performances from '93) and the two albums of folk "covers", Good As I Been To You in 1992 and World Gone Wrong from the following year. Essentially, Dylan managed to brush aside the immense weight of living up to the work he produced thirty years before (describing himself in one interview as digging in the trash outside the palace of past triumphs). As Neil Young related to Charlie Rose, Dylan no longer knew the young man who wrote those songs. Accepting that he would never again ascend to those heights freed him from the burden of trying and, ironically, allowed him to once again to produce in a decade's time a trio of albums (Time Out of Mind in 1997, Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006) of considerable merit. They weren't nearly as good as the stuff from '65 and '66, admittedly, but they were still substantially creative efforts that had the added benefit of being performed by a more self-assured musician than anything since '75.

EN: How did you choose these two and neglect the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind or the sequel to Modern Times, Together Through Life?

EH: Love and Theft and Modern Times are the focus because these are the two most significant works Dylan produced since the start of the 21st century. Together with Time Out of Mind they arguably form a "trilogy" but Dylan in his Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Lethem thinks the link tenuous and arbitrary, and largely media-originated, and doesn't agree. I happen to think he's right. That said, I don't think I in my introduction or what I have seen so far from the abstracts I have received, will in any way "neglect" either Time Out of Mind or Together Through Life, nor any other of Dylan's work before or after. But I want those two albums to be the focus as I think, and this is my opinion here, that these albums are the two most significant works Dylan has produced in the last nearly forty years and certainly worthy of scholarly attention. Most of the books on Dylan focus on the sixties stuff (though there has been a refreshing number of books taking on later material, most notably Lee Marshall's and Sean Wilentz's) to the neglect of the later material. Together Through Life I find an unconvincing and uninspired album, mostly, though I do appreciate the musicianship involved. What's more, the album is largely a collaborative effort (this time with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter) and it leans more toward Down in the Groove than Love and Theft. I don't really see Together Through Life as a sequel to Modern Times any more than Love and Theft is a sequel to Time Out of Mind. But again, that's my opinion.

EN: Would you consider Dylan to be one of the two or three most significant people in music of the last half century? Why or why not? What is it that has kept Dylan's music so influential, especially since the times have SO CHANGED since he first emerged?

EH: Dylan expanded the musical lexicon so significantly that even now I don't think we fully comprehend the impact. And I mean the impact on both a cultural and social level. I mean, sure, to many, even maybe to himself, he's an artifact of the 1960s, and in some ways emblematic of that decade's cultural smugness and pretension. But I think if you really look at it closely, Dylan largely rejected the 1960s counterculture, even more than he did the folk and coffee house scene where he first made a name for himself. He transcends all these boxes that we put around him which I think points to the universality of his music. People listened to the songs and heard different things because they were written in such a way that it lent itself to all these myriad interpretations. And that to me is what great art does, or should do.

Deadline for abstracts: June 2012
Deadline for final papers: October 2012

Dylan art by Ennyman

No comments: