Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Critic As Fan -- Paul Williams' Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol. 1: The Early Years

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post in which I titled A Dylan Reading List: 12 Recommended Favorites From My Bookshelf. The first two comments on this post chided me for leaving off Paul Williams' books. "How could you leave off Paul Williams?"* It became immediately apparent that I needed to read Williams and I proceeded to purchase the first two volumes of his Bob Dylan: Performing Artist series.

For those unaware, Williams was the founder of Crawdaddy, possibly the first national U.S. rock music rag, though 1966 seems rather late for the publishing world to see the value of such an assignment. Though the first issue was only ten pages and mimeographed, it became immensely influential.

Perhaps more significantly was Williams' discovery of the sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, making a significant contribution to advancing awareness for Dick's original work, bringing them to a wider public. (A dozen of his stories have become feature films including Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report.)

It didn't take long to understand why Dylan fans like Paul Williams. Williams is both informative, and accessible. And, his writing is about his own observations and impressions. That is, the unique thing Williams brings readers is a point of view, and it is the point of view of a fan. (Not that other books aren't written by fans. The Dylanologists emerged from one fan's discovery that he was part of a much larger body of fans.)

A recurring theme for Williams is his amazement at Dylan's power as a performer. Early in the book he writes, "Throughout Dylan's career we will find that although he has a reputation as a master of words, his mastery is more specifically of performed language--separated from his performance, his words can lose their power and even their meaning." (p. 33)

Performing Artist, Volume 1 is a sequential presentation of Dylan's recordings and performance from his youth through to the threshold of his Rolling Thunder Revue. It includes a section on his book Tarantula as well as films which Dylan appeared in, either as actor or performing.

"What makes the difference in his work, what in fact liberates his genius, is his sincerity. This is what burns in "Gates of Eden" and "Desolation Row and all his major work, what illumines even his minor work: he cares about what he's saying and the way he's saying it." (p. 171)

Later Williams elaborates. "Each set of circumstances creates its own artistic possibilities; Dylan's triumph is his honesty, his commitment to being himself in each situation and finding a way to speak his heart."  (p. 244)

Williams is not such a fan that he ascribes a sacred quality to everything Dylan says and does. In the paragraph above he clearly acknowledges that there are major and minor works, but the major achievements truly were major, especially this fertile and ground-breaking section of his life in which he produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

The book is available on Amazon.com where you can also read reviews by other readers, currently beginning with this one by writer Jeff Suwak titled, A Great Artist Writing about a Great Artist... Don't Miss

This is my first discovery of Paul Williams' writing. Not only is it an extremely informative work on one of the greatest artists of our age, but the writing itself is a true pleasure to read. I fell in love with Williams' voice in the first ten pages and immediately went to find more of his works. In doing so, I discovered that he passed on a few years ago. His writing was so intimate and his passion made so plain, that it actually bothered me on a personal level to find he was gone. It really did draw me in that much. Read this book is you're a Dylan fan. Even if you know it all about Dylan, it's not just the information (though that is considerable and often amazing in depth) that makes this a worthwhile read, it's the passion for the subject and for music and for LIFE in general. Come for the great musical artist being discussed, stay for the artist discussing him. Yes, I suppose this isn't so much a review as it is my personal letter to Mr. Williams. From one writer to another: Mr. Williams, you were one hell of a wordsmith, and I hope someday to reach your level. Just when I was beginning to doubt the work and sacrifice of this path, I find your book and remember that this is a goal worth striving for. Thank you for your work. I hope you're having a hell of a time up there.

* * * *
Having read Williams' book earlier this summer, acquiring it very shortly after having it recommended to me, I'd been aiming to write this review ever since, but kept delaying. Little did I know that this past week the Dylan marketing machine would release yet another "must have" sets, The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12 which covers the period at the heart of this book, 1965 and 1966. The Cutting Edge will be available the first week of November, though you can pre-order now, which means it will be pre-shipped to arrive at your door on the date of its release.

Meantime, life goes all around you.

*A third comment, later removed by its author, pointed out that one of the books listed was not a reliable information source.


vagma said...

Williams is one of my two favourite Dylan authors. (The other is Andrew Muir.)

Ed Newman said...

I understand why on both counts.
Thanks for the note.

Bo Price said...

Great article. Paul Williams is my favorite Dylan author and he was a major force in my diving deep into Dylan's catalogue when I was younger. He's like an excited and accessible tour guide that makes you want to go further and further down the river of Dylan.

I remember his gushing praise of the solo piano take of "She's Your Lover Now". I was dying to get my hands on it. This was in the mid 90s and it wasn't easy to find these things back then. But when I did, I saw what he was talking about. THIS was Dylan at his absolute peak form, and this was performance unlike anything I'd ever heard. The stuff of goosebumps. No other writer has approached Dylan with this emphasis and I'm grateful for all his work.

It's a shame he isn't around to hear the full 18CD version of these 1965-1966 sessions.

Jeff Suwak said...

Ha, so neat to find my review of that book here. I like the article. Always good to meet people of like mind.

Ed Newman said...

Hey, thanks for checking in and leaving a comment. Yes, fun to run into likeminded folk now and then.

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