Dylan’s Autobiography of a Vocation, Louis.A.Renza (200 pp, Bloomsbury, 2017)
The state of what has been termed ‘Dylan studies’ has changed since the man was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Studies of Dylan and his work continue to flow thick and fast, but instead of seasoned rock journalists, academics are now beginning to take the field. This sanctioned respectability is not necessarily a good thing, however.
The length and breadth of Dylan’s career, plus the richness of his oeuvre, has always ensured sustained theories and theoretical studies, ever since his brief, mysterious disappearance from the spotlight, following his motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. This particular study has a theory to enforce, too, but do not be deceived – it is not aimed at the casual Dylan enthusiast. You will need an awareness of critical theory and a grasp of Stanley Fish and Kierkegaard, as well as a taste for Woody Guthrie and Kerouac if you are to get the most out of Louis Renza’s monograph.
Subtitled ‘A Reading of the Lyrics 1965-1967’, Renza focuses on five chronologically sequential Dylan albums, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding, adopting a vigorous, dense, line-by-line analysis to illustrate what he terms Dylan’s ‘vocational dualism’, as reflected in his songs. This rather straightforward slice of Dylan’s work is, however, problematic from the beginning: The Basement Tapes, although viewed by many as the missing piece of the 1960s Dylan puzzle, was not a group of carefully-planned songs sequenced for release as the others were – but more of this later.
As Professor of English at Dartmouth College, USA, Renza certainly knows his field: he has been teaching a course on Dylan’s lyrics for over 30 years, after all. Unfortunately, like the famous Mr Jones of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, he doesn’t always convince that he knows what is happening. Like thousands of Dylan aficionados all over the world, what happens when I listen to a Dylan song is complicated: yes, there are serious lyrics to be grasped, there is metaphor to be untangled, wit and allusion to note- but crucially, there is also the sound of Dylan’s delivery. ‘Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan’ famously claimed an old CBS ad campaign in the 1960s, and they were right: listen, for instance, to Dylan’s delivery of ‘Misterr Jonzz’ (‘Ballad of a Thin Man’), ‘she’s delicate, seems like Vermeer’ (‘Visions of Johanna’) or, obviously, ‘How duz it feeel?’ (‘Like a Rolling Stone’). There are nuances in his delivery of each of these phonetically rendered lines that reference cynicism, delicacy and spite respectively and that delivery alters the way we hear the songs.
Renza concedes, in his Preface, that there is a ‘sharp disjunction’ between his ‘explications’ of the songs and the ‘vocal-musical performances’ of them. This disjunction (or, maybe, rupture, to choose a more violent metaphor) becomes ever more evident the further you read into the book, and eventually difficult to ignore.
Exhibit 1: ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. This lasting put-down of squares trying to muscle in on the mid-60s action becomes, in Renza’s explanation, a threatening picture of ‘utter social chaos’, the ‘ “naked” self’ in the song becomes a version of Dylan and ultimately it turns away from ‘definitive meanings’. Instead, Renza concludes that ‘Dylan’s song means to perplex any listener to the point where he/she gives up the need to know it’. This seems like wilful over-determination to me: despite the freewheeling images, I would argue that this is a relatively straightforward “finger-pointing” song, easily nailing those attempting to jump on Dylan’s train at the time. There were no shortage of wannabe Dylans and the ripples of his songwriting technique, particularly as demonstrated on Highway 61 Revisited, spread out touching many others who tried to hitch a ride. Anyone who has listened to the song fairly attentively doesn’t find it a hard one to generally grasp, despite the camels and sword-swallowers that inhabit the lyric.
Okay, so how about something more obscure? Exhibit 2: ‘I’m Not There’. Originally a mythical ‘lost’ Dylan masterpiece, this unfinished song has since been hoiked out of The Basement Tapes to become the title track of Todd Haynes’ 2007 Dylan film. There seems to be only one (unfinished) version, with muffled lyrics, but it is utterly compelling on every musical level. It was eventually cleaned up slightly and released as part of The Bootleg Series Volume 11:The Basement Tapes, in 2014. For Renza, this lost song demonstrates Dylan’s ‘subjective turning away from listeners’ ultimately resulting in an ‘inward movement away from the song that records it’. This just won’t do: firstly, there was no intended listener for the Basement Tapes songs, not even the serious ones – this was Dylan and the Band having fun, away from the demands of a rapacious audience. Secondly, to suggest on any level that this song doesn’t communicate mystery, elegy and desolation, despite its unfinished status, makes me wonder if Renza has actually listened to it. He finds parallels with, of all songs, ‘Get Your Rocks Off!’, a pretty disposable joke-song that probably took Dylan all of two minutes to riff together. This is selling ‘I’m Not There’ seriously short and ignoring the mysterious, ominous beauty of both Dylan’s delivery and the Band’s accompaniment. Clinton Heylin, another kind of Dylan scholar entirely, notes both of these.
All of this brings me back to another major flaw in Renza’s approach: his treatment of The Basement Tapes. Renza acknowledges the ‘old, weird America’ thesis of Greil Marcus, but then subjects the songs to sustained exegeses just like the carefully-chiselled takes on Highway 61 Revisited, and this doesn’t really work. A cursory listen to the wildness and chaos captured by Garth Hudson on his reel-to-reel tapes (now legitimately available as The Bootleg Series Volume 11) immediately revealed a looser, more relaxed Dylan, just having a blast without envisaging a carefully-curated public release of the songs over 45 years later. The multiple takes of songs on the previous two albums, now released as The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Cutting Edge, revealed just how much of a perfectionist Dylan could be. He was also capable of abandoning songs mid-take and not returning to them – ‘Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence’ and the various attempts at ‘I’ll Keep it with Mine’ attest to this. Renza’s readings of The Basement Tapes’ songs treat them like linked scraps of a larger fabric, rather than a concerted retreat from the public stage. He concludes with ‘Sign on the Cross’, another mythologised song, calling it a ‘mission statement’, reminding Dylan to ‘keep his attention focused on the…final anonymity of his self’. If it ever was such a thing, why did Dylan keep it in the vaults for so many years?
There are other questions, too. If Renza’s thesis really is the full story of Dylan’s quest for subjective anonymity, then why do the later semi-autobiographical twists and turns of Dylan’s career still have compelling power to listeners? Does this drive towards a kind of anonymity really explain Blood on the Tracks or Saved? Why does a supposedly anonymous artist continue to plough on with his ‘never-ending tour’ year after year, endlessly recasting and re-presenting his songs?
It has to be said that Renza is scrupulously precise as he tackles complex reiterations and metaphorical patterns in an attempt to chart Dylan’s calling as a songwriter. It’s also true that one of the fascinating things about Dylan is his endless ability to dissemble and seek out ambiguities – hence the richness of many of his songs. Dylan’s delivery of those songs, however, is indissolubly bound with their raw material: this is why precise, technically superior cover versions of his songs rarely transcend those originals. What Dylan uniquely has, and what remains a barrier for many, is a distinctive voice as well as a compulsion to write songs. Renza’s readings of those songs manage to ignore this all too often in search of decodings and ingenious metaphorical patterns. You oughtta be made to wear earphones, Mr Jones, in other words.