My first reaction to this book was that it seemed a bit of a high-handed approach to Dylan and his music. Why would I need someone to tell me how to listen to Dylan?! Then I started to read the book and it became apparent that the author, Larry Starr, has some interesting points to make, the main one being that Dylan, and his songs, have been elevated, if elevated is the right word, into something they’re not. In the book’s first chapter, ‘Not by Words Alone’, Starr makes the very valid point that, while Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, no one on the panel for that prize would’ve heard of Dylan were it not for his work as a performing songwriter. Dylan pointed this out himself in his Nobel lecture, saying “Songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read.”
Larry Starr is a professor of Music History at the University of Washington and clearly knows more than a bit about music, and has a good understanding of the music business. He has previously written a book on George Gershwin and is the co-author of “Rock: Music, Culture and Business”, so he speaks from a position of some authority and you quickly warm to his central theme, namely that Dylan is, first and foremost, a songwriter and has to be listened to in that way.
This isn’t a long book, but it is packed with considerable detail in a few, very focused areas. Starr gives us chapters on Dylan’s different singing styles, on how he approaches live performances and how that has changed over the years, and on how he structures his albums. There are two chapters dedicated to his work as a composer, one concentrating on Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, and the second on Musical Form. There’s even a whole chapter given over to his use of the Harmonica and how it has always been an essential “other voice” for Dylan. It’s all very well researched and Starr makes his arguments well, though there is something about this book that makes you suspect it’s aimed more at the die-hard fans and completists than those just casually interested in the artist. Anyone who picks this up expecting recommendations for Dylan’s best albums, top tracks, and what order you should listen to them in is due quite an awakening!
What I enjoyed most about this book is the detail that it goes into. If you’re someone who enjoys close examination of an artist’s music, and if you’re a big Dylan fan, as many of us are, then there is a lot for you in this book. Take, for example, the chapter ‘Bob Dylan in Live Performance’ (Chapter 8), subtitled ‘Documenting a Musical Shapeshifter’! Starr states that “Dylan thrives on live performances of his work, and those live performances, in turn, thrive on the freshness brought by his willingness to experiment with that work”. He then goes on to analyse a series of songs, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘Just Like a Woman’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘I Shall be Released’ and the different ways that Dylan performs these songs, both as a solo artist and in a band setting and at different points in his career. This is the format Starr uses throughout the book; setting up a premise via the chapter heading and then proceeding to analyse different Dylan songs within that setting. It’s a format that can be quite intense but it does draw you in and I did find myself digging out various Dylan albums and listening, to some of the tracks Starr highlights, in a new way.
This book won’t be for everyone and there will be many, I suspect, who will react the same way I did when first confronted with this book. Put the preconceived ideas aside and this is a book that rewards your curiosity and willingness to revisit Dylan’s work with a new perspective.
As an artist, Dylan has reached a position that can be both envied and worrisome. He has a status that the years and his achievements have bestowed but that may be at odds with the man himself and his own views of his work. What Starr’s book does, and does very well, is encourage you to look past the many years of achievement and awards and re-focus on Dylan the songwriter. It makes you appreciate just what an outstanding songwriter he has always been. It’s not just the words – it’s the way the words work with the music and the way he creates storylines and characters in a way that literature can’t do. He may well be a great poet but, first and foremost, he is a great songwriter and that’s what this book makes you appreciate. It is all about the songs as songs, not as literature or lyrics with music. Dylan writes songs and that’s what we should be listening to.
In his preface to “Listening to Bob Dylan”, Larry Starr says, “I simply want to invite you, metaphorically, to sit down with me and listen to many remarkable songs, while I attempt to point out – without pretension and without the employment of musical jargon – both what is readily to be heard and what might be particularly worthy of your notice”. Job very well done.
Larry Starr’s “Listening to Bob Dylan” is published by the University Of Illinois Press on October 12th 2021. The book can be obtained in the UK via Combined Academic Publishing – https://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/9780252086021/listening-to-bob-dylan/
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