‘Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine’

Paul Wilner

“It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.’’

— Bob Dylan, to music journalist Paul Zollo

Indeed. But as the late great Professor Irwin Corey (who once famously doubled as a stand-in for Thomas Pynchon at the National Book Awards) might say, “However.’’

Despite his relenteless, if unconvincing, attempts to dodge the limelight—including dodging the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 2016—the Minnesota bard’s career has invited explication from obsessed fans, academics, and fellow musicians, all asking different versions of the same question: “How does it feel, to be on your own.’’

Good question. The latest addition to the ongoing canonization is Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine (Callaway; 607 pages). Written and edited by Mark Davidson and Peter Fishel, the book is an official publication of the American Song Archive’s Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (The archives of Dylan’s boyhood hero, Woody Guthrie, are also housed there by the same group.)

A doorstop of a volume with a $100 price tag to match, it’s a compendium of archival material: scraps of lyrics; notebooks with phone numbers of the rich; famous and obscure players Dylan has crossed paths with along the way; fan mail from George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Johnny Cash; correspondence with old folkie friends like Tony Glover and Happy Traum; and photographs by Dylan chroniclers Jerry Schatzberg, Richard Avedon, Daniel Kramer, and Woodstock neighbor Elliott Landy.

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The artifacts are a jumping-off point for essays by, among others, Michael Ondaatje, X co-founder John Doe, country crooner Allison Moorer, punk poet Richard Hell, Greil Marcus (described in Rob Sheffield’s New York Times review as “the Herman Melville and the Captain Ahab of the Dylan quest’’), Lucy Sante, Peter Carey, Greg Tate, and Ed Ruscha.

Like the Subterranean Homesick medicine referenced in the title, it’s a mixed, if lavish, bag, as various contributors march down the fruitless path of influence-chasing. Novelist Griffin Ondaatje (Michael’s son) writes on the putative resemblances among Dylan’s tune “Black Diamond Bay,’’ Joseph Conrad’s Victory, and the true inspiration for the famously clueless “Mr. Jones.’’

Larry (“Ratso’’) Sloman, previously the author of an account of the Rolling Thunder Revue that Dylan blurbed as “the War and Peace of Rock and Roll,’’ elevates, at considerable length, “Handy Dandy,’’ a tossed-off effort from Under the Red Sky. (One wonders why he didn’t address a far better track, the sublimely brokenhearted “Born In Time.”) In the same spirit, Carey offers an exegesis of—wait for it— “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.’’ (Sample lyric: “Tweedle-de-Dum said to Tweedle-dee-Dee/”Your presence is obnoxious to me.’’)

If nothing else, this demonstrates that some of the most talented artists and writers on the planet are not immune to Dylan Derangement Syndrome, a disease only curable, I’m told, by constant exposure to free jazz, perhaps laced with Ayahuasca.

Other avoidable gaffes include a reference to “English modernist James Joyce,’’ a description that might cause Shane MacGowan (let alone Brendan Behan) to rise from the grave. Nevertheless, there are hidden pleasures here. Richard Hell’s piece stands apart from the hagiography. “I, or ‘I,’” he notes, summoning Rimbaud, “wrote about Dylan once before, in 2005, for a music magazine that asked for a few lines about a favorite of his songs. My choice was ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ from Blood on the Tracks, a song that can still choke me up. I chose it because it was the song of his I knew that best exemplified his bewildering powers by having such a distance between its extreme emotional impact and the banality of its lyrics. How can those silly words be so affecting? “Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.’’ Where is the poetry in that? The metaphor is clumsy and the observation commonplace. But in the song it breaks your heart.’’

Fellow punk pioneer John Doe breaks down “As I Went Out One Morning,’’ from John Wesley Harding, with a refreshing focus on the tempo, not the text. “At first it’s a slow waltz, which is abandoned after one take and changed to 4/4 time. … It’s hard to emphasize how radical the transformation is on this particular song. … So many musicians are guilty of wishing they had written Bob Dylan songs,” Doe adds, addressing the anxiety of influence. “Maybe it’s sort of sad?’’

If you’re not worshiping at the temple of canonization in Oklahoma, I recommend Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members (EWP Press), a delicious volume edited by Ray Padgett, who runs a Dylan Substack and has been tracking this madness for years. The literary equivalent of going electric, it bypasses ponderous analyses, piercing the armor of the notoriously private singer-songwriter with true tales of what it’s like to be on the road again—and again—with him. It’s a real-world depiction of life on the Never-Ending Tour with the “poor, bare, forked animal’’ in his natural habitat—switching keys in mid-tune, cutting off sidemen who violate a never-articulated code, and generally living up to his well-earned rep for unpredictability.

Drummer Winston Watson, recruited to join Bob’s band by his punk pals in the Plugz, was suitably unimpressed: “I had heard the songs everybody heard, and made fun of his voice just like anybody else. It was not my thing at all. I was into Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.’’ But sharing the stage was a different experience.

“He’s at best an interesting guitar player, but I love that too. It’s impressionist, for sure. He would say this nonsense about it being math—I think he plays what he wants to play. … He’s not Eric Clapton, which is great. Neither am I.’’

Watson recounts a close encounter between his young daughter, who wandered into Dylan’s dressing room backstage at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. Fearing she was lost, he was mortified that she’d invaded the great man’s privacy, only to find out—once again—that it goes to show you never can tell.

As they’re about to go onstage, Dylan takes Watson aside and says, “We got to do something about that girl.’’ The drummer offers a flustered apology but is quickly set straight. “No, that girl in art class. She’s real mean.” Apparently, Watson’s daughter had confided the sad tale of a classmate who spilled paint on her cowboy boots. Taking time off from reprimanding the Masters of War, Bob was on the case.

Ever the ironist, Randy Newman once satirized musicians—not sparing himself—who refuse to give up the ghost. “I have nothing left to say, but I’m gonna say it anyway.”

I have no idea how Bob Dylan feels about his ongoing cultural mummification. His fellow octogenarians are on the march—the Stones, McCartney, with the comparative youngster Springsteen in the wings, not to mention ninety-year-old Willie Nelson parting the clouds without missing a beat. Call it the last revenge of the Boomers. Nevertheless, the Dude abideth. Take that, mean girls.

Paul Wilner is a contributing editor at ZYZZYVA.

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