Sunday, October 07, 2007

Book Review: Bob Dylan - The Essential Interviews

I have been making my way through Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews and I have to recommend it as a crucial piece of reading for anyone interested in the written word and the history of modern music.

Adjectives that come to mind when reading this guys' interviews include: Insightful. Modest. Brilliant. Genius Wordsmith. But also removed and disconnected at times.

The interviews span from his very first in the early 60s, when he was really creating his image, all the way to the present, where he's in the middle of a resurgent body of work.

For a guy who has the reputation of being a guarded recluse, he provides frequent glimpses into what makes him tick and to why he did certain things in his life. He is consistent over the years in not calling his career a "career." Rather, he says it's a path he chose - to be a songwriter, when it was not fashionable to be one. To interpret his words, it sounds like he got super successful early on and then just sort of kept going.

He's frank about the times where he lost focus, including the seven year stretch in the early 90s where he didn't write any new songs. I love his comment that "The world doesn't need any more songs."

Dylan says in a few interviews how he can't do certain songs anymore because he can't get into the headspace necessary from when they were written. But then he'll take other old songs and change lines, melodies, structure, feel and just re-invent them onstage. He never listens back to his records because he feels like they are just snapshots of the songs at that time. A song is never static. It is always up for reinterpretation on every level, and that includes changing it so that is not recognizable to the recorded version.

Also fascinating is his observation that he never was any good at recording in the studio until recently and most of his 60s and 70s albums were put together quickly so he could get the 'song sketches' down and get on the road. Funny to hear him talk about songs like "Idiot Wind," "Isis" and "Hurricane" as 'sketches.'

But he also acknowledges the brilliance in some of his songs, saying that when he looks back on some of them he has no idea where they came from and is often a bit blown away. You get the sense that he is really a conduit, tapping into something that normal people can't access.

All the hackneyed stereotypes about Dylan come through in these interviews, too. He's aloof, answers questions with questions, is often evasive, etc.

But I also got the sense that the guy is sort of a nomad. A wanderer, observer and storyteller who has an immense gift. I get the sense that Dylan is really from another era. Like 100 years ago or more.

It's also fascinating to read interviews that span a 45 year period. You get a feel for his evolution as an artist and human being, just by looking at what interests him over the years and his take on our life and times.

Having said this, I am still acquiring a 'taste' for Dylan. I still often prefer other people's covers of his music over the originals. But I also smack myself in the face every time I hear a new (to me) Dylan album because if I could write just ONE song as potent and brilliant as this guy, I could stop trying.

I once got an inspirational email that said "write for the garbage can." Meaning, you need to get through all of your bad writing to finally break through and write something good. So just get started and get all of the garbage out of the way so you can crack through to the good stuff.

I feel like Dylan never wrote for the garbage can, or if he did, he did it in the womb.


Barbara (aka Layla) said...

Thanks, this sounds like a good one that I will have to add to my library. Did you by chance read Chronicles? What did you think?

harmolodic said...

This sounds like a book I should check out. Also, if you're itching for more Dylan info and haven't plowed into it yet, I highly recommend Clinton Heylin's "Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited." It's a tome, but it's thoroughly fascinating from start to finish and is about as comprehensive a Dylan bio as you're likely to find.

What Dylan records do you have so far? Where are your tastes in his material leaning?

Isorski said...

Layla, I did read Chronicles and I thought it was fantastic. Instead of telling a linear autobiographical story, Dylan chose five periods in his life and expounded on each of them. Great idea. Like five short stories that interlock. And the way he writes is so vivid. Even if you’ve never heard a Dylan song, reading one of those chapters shows you how brilliant the guy is.

Harmolodic, a few months back I decided to fill the gaps in my Dylan collection and got everything from his first album to Blonde on Blonde and am still getting through all of that period. Just in that short span you have such an evolution and divergence of styles.

I also have his last five albums, so I could really absorb this new roll he’s on. I think his new CD in particular is fantastic. And I especially love the song Mississippi from Love and Theft. The ascending chord progression is brilliant.

In between, I have what you’d expect, and have had them for years and years – Oh Mercy, Blood on the Tracks, Hard Rain, Infidels (one of my favorites because of the dual guitar knockout of Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler), and even some crap like Down in The Groove.

Been digging some of the bootleg series as well but the one that stuck with me so far is the CD from the Rolling Thunder tour. I also like, believe it or not, Real Live, which I have on vinyl. That was the album where I first heard him re-make his songs, For example, the re-vamped Tangled Up In Blue. It hit me that he’d change a classic like that so drastically, lyric-wise. Very cool.

Isorski said...

Oh, and thanks for the tip on "Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited." I will check that out for sure.