“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second, I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet…” said Bob Dylan in 1978. It is Chris Gregory’s first quote and a line to remember throughout his ‘Determined to Stand-The Reinvention of Bob Dylan’. Poets view their work as living, they are never finished. That constant striving for perfection is what lies behind this book about Dylan’s revival that led to some of his finest work. In a combination of scholarly analysis with vivid examples from various Dylan shows Gregory shines his perceptive light across the boundless sweep of Dylan’s musical and literary hinterland. It is not hard to get drawn into this fascinating tale.
By the early 1990s Dylan was going nowhere before 1997’s ‘Time Out Mind’ represented a distinct change of direction. Since then Dylan has made some of his finest records that tell stories of romance, disillusion, humour, vision, apocalypse and murder that together form his oblique commentary on 21st century America. Using as his source material ‘Time Out of Mind’, ‘Love And Theft’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘Together Through Life’, ‘Tempest’ and ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ Gregory digs deep into this reincarnation with his forensic song by song examination.
Critical to this detailed evaluation are the short excerpts on specific Dylan shows. A welcome breather from the studies they allow Gregory to show examples of how Dylan is always recreating and redefining his work. Like Shakespeare, Dylan sees his work as a living entity. There are so many superb illustrations starting with Hyde Park, London in July 2019. For those at shows who despair at new interpretations please refer to Gregory’s account of Dylan’s rendition at this show of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’. A song that had begun life as a “relatively light-hearted ditty” is an example of “the striving for perfection, rather than the reaching of perfection itself that defines a great artist”. “Dylan insists his real masterpiece is yet to come.”
In turn, Gregory considers the main themes behind this late-career revival. After a succinct introduction, Gregory defines Dylan’s “sound poetry” that draws extensively on his obsession with every facet of American popular music; blues, country, pop, folk, gospel, the Great American Songbook. Adding great substance is Dylan’s vast literary sweep. Whether the Greek epics, the King James Bible, Shakespeare, the romantic poets to the Beat Generation we see an artist in his seventh and eighth decade relentlessly pursuing perfection.
Such gargantuan musical and literary wisdom can only come with age, an aspect that features regularly. The young Bob would have had little time for the Great American Songbook but today’s Dylan sees himself very much Sinatra’s equal. From ‘Love And Theft’ Gregory takes two examples of Dylan’s pre-rock musical style in ‘Bye and Bye’ and ‘Moonlight’, both 1930’s ‘crooners’. Similarly ‘Soon After Midnight’ from ‘Tempest’ is deeply romantic and as Gregory notes dips into genres that predate anything to do with pop or rock n’roll that “deconstruct a cultural divide which he himself had, in his younger years, done much to create.”
Americana fans will probably feel more at home when those romantic dreams turn to disillusion. Here Gregory gets to work on Dylan’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the blues, the music of romantic disillusion. ‘Time Out of Mind’ is full of despair, romantic regret and revenge. Dylan completely understands the transformative power of the blues to which he adds southern gothic and bluegrass. From that album Gregory shows how much country has in common with the blues, the original forms of each both relying on performers writing their own songs. Dylan holds Leadbelly, Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie “in as much veneration as the great literary artists of the past. He sees them all, quite correctly, as poets.” Humour has featured throughout Dylan’s lyrics, usually dark and often carefully aimed at a specific target. While very much a component of his reinvention, as he ages Dylan accepts the joke is on himself. Gregory delves into this self-deprecation, examining the comic juxtaposition of ‘Highland’ from ‘Time Out of Mind’ where, for a few lines, he becomes Robert Burns.
Gregory moves up a couple of gears in his chapter subtitled ‘Monstrous Dreams and Twilight Visions’. Again, there is nothing essentially new here, many of Dylan’s most evocative work reflects various dreams and visions. But this rich stream had long since run dry. Would Dylan ever repeat the perceptions of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ or ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’? Gregory selects ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ as the most evocative illustration of Dylan facing up to his writing struggles before asserting, “the most prominent theme of his later work are the shadows of the past cast on to the present”.
Gregory keeps his finest literary criticism to last with fifteen pages on ‘Murder Most Foul’ from last year’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’. At 17 minutes the song was never going to be skipped and it does sum up the book containing everything that encapsulates Dylan’s later style; the allusions, quotations, the writers, literature, music of every type including every song mentioned.
To conclude. From his penultimate paragraph, Gregory describes Dylan’s art as “the spontaneous communication of direct and authentic emotion through a medium of sound poetry that he has distilled himself from a plethora of influences”. His most vivid show example however comes halfway through the book. At the Beacon Theater in 2018 the fans loudly cheer the way Dylan has completely changed ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ in the full expectation it will sound different still next time. “Our destinies will catch up with us all eventually. The little guy with the frizzy hair on stage who’s pushing eighty knows this as well as we do, but until that happens – with that buzzing energy still flowing through him – he’s determined not to waste a second.” That perfectly sums up this absorbing and excellent book.
Chris Gregory’s ‘Determined to Stand-The Reinvention of Bob Dylan’ is published by the ‘plotted plain press’.