Bob Dylan: Hiding In Plain Sight

In The Shadows...

In the shadows...

In the TLS, Wesley Stace picks up on all that stuff about Dylan’s skill at hide and seek:

With an eye on posterity, he has become more productive in diversity: the first volume of his autobiography (Chronicles, 2004), a book of drawings (Drawn Blank, 1994), an exhibition of paintings (The Drawn Blank Series, 2007 – the same drawings coloured in), a Broadway musical (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 2006), a lengthy stint as a DJ (Theme Time Radio Hour, 100 episodes and counting), and a readiness to pursue more obvious commercial opportunities, which has led to associations with Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret and the Co-Op. His song “Things Have Changed” from the film Wonder Boys (1999) won him the Oscar that he displays on his guitar amp at every concert – an average of about 100 shows a year for the past twenty-one years. He is hardly the hermit of old, who managed one full concert between 1966 and 1974, yet still somehow an enigma, hiding in plain sight.

One of the functions of all that productivity, of course, is an ever-widening sense of what it is Dylan does. Yes, he of course remains primarily a songwriter – but how many other things, too? And with what tone, what emphasis? The traditional ‘era-ising’ of Dylan’s career – folkie, protest singer, rocker, Woodstock hippie etc. – has always been a simplification, but it contributed to a sense that he couldn’t be nailed down. Now he fills many roles even in the same superficial period. He’s one minute the chuckling granddad on the wireless and then the great American man of letters. Then he releases a Christmas album for charity. No, really.

Fittingly, much of Stace’s piece is a take-down of Clinton Heylin’s recent Revolution In The Air, which I’ve been flicking through since I got it months back and which I would charitably describe as tendentious. The book seeks to catalogue each and every one of Dylan’s songs (up to 1973) in order of composition, and with in-depth notes about exactly what was influencing Dylan at the time. As Stace puts it, “A by-product of this rationalism is that almost nothing is allowed to happen in Bob Dylan’s imagination.” This need to attach tags to everything Dylan has produced, as if his work is something to be parcelled up into its constituent elements, annoys others, too. The interplay – between references and original lines, influence and imagination, role and reality – is the thing. It’s the gaps between them in which Dylan still hides away – and with luck always will.

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