LITERARY REVIEW

No more glory days

MUSIC

No more glory days

IN "Ballad of a Thin Man", Bob Dylan dismisses the critics with a contemptuous,

Something is happening here

But you don't know what it is

Do You Mr. Jones?

And yet, he himself, the visionary "poet-laureate of rock" has been of phenomenal interest to writers and academics. Neil Corcoran's anthology Do You, Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors is all about close encounters of the critical kind with Dylan.

Over four decades, he fused folk and rock in a heady combination unmistakably his own. Whether it was the fiercely political "Highway 61 Revisited" or "Blood On The Tracks" where he picks the wounds of a failed relationship, there is a haphazard, ignited quality to all his albums.

And yet, Dylan himself is as difficult to sum up as his diverse, contrary oeuvre. The man who was called Judas for using an electric guitar, the man who casually throws in Biblical allusions, daily news, literary figures, in-jokes and random everyday people into his music — Bob Dylan is the last word in self-reinvention.

Quirky and wide-ranging, essays like Rock of Ages and Jokerman explore the transformation of Minnesota boy Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan (after the poet Dylan Thomas); his goofy stand-up humour, his ambivalence towards women, his conflicted takes on politics and religion.

With laboriously close readings of his lyrics and throwaway allusions to Roland Barthes and Wallace Stevens, it is clearly not a book for the lay reader. More professorial than passionate, it is not the best introduction to the Bob Dylan who defies definition. However, it is definitely a book for the Dylan obsessives, the millions of "Bobheads" who live by his music.

Cultural gatekeepers like "Mr. Jones" have always been the choicest targets for anarchic rock`n'roll. Yet, if you fondly believe that the genre lives on as an assault on the establishment, Fred Goodman's fascinating book The Mansion On The Hill, sets the record straight. A good, myth-busting read, it explores the sordid intimacy between counterculture and commerce. When Jon Landau famously said, "I've seen the future of music, and it's Bruce Springsteen", it was also a hardheaded appraisal of just how much money could be made off him. Through the stories of Dylan, Young, Geffen and Springsteen, the singers and their savvy agents and managers, Goodman analyses the "head-on collision" of rock's revolutionary spirit and the immensely lucrative business that feeds off it. Twenty-five years back, says Goodman, "listening to rock`n'roll was learning a secret language". When you first met someone, you talked about music like you were administering a psychological test. "For instance, a passion for Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth; a girl who listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell could probably be talked into bed but you might regret it later... " It was, recalls Goodman, "a remarkably accurate system."

No more glory days

Today, that secret language no longer exists, and the music industry is arguably one of the most corrupt in the world, he concludes. Writing of Springsteen, he says it is hard to believe that "many of the performers who stake a claim to that old folk ethos — making music with conscience and meaning — are as interested in that message as they are in what it does for their careers as messengers." Goodman's crackling narrative spans the history of rock from its glory days in the early 1960s to its current state of complete co-optation by the multi-million dollar entertainment industry.

This collision between mass-marketed music and independent rock has produced intense conflict over the years, but never was it more heartbreaking and disastrous than in the story of rock martyr Kurt Cobain. Cobain's Nirvana was the ultimate misfit band that both thrived on mass adulation (their "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the definitive soundtrack of the 1990s) and yet, could not deal with the prosperous trappings of their cult status.

Heavier Than Heaven, Charles Cross' biography of Cobain, meticulously peels away the legend to show us another Kurt — a messed-up kid whose story of self-hate and drug abuse makes his music that much more precious, in the very fact that he wrested it from such a bleak, terrifying inner life.

After four years of painstaking research and over 400 interviews, Cross committed himself to tell "the story of his life — of that hair and that note — without judgment". The result is a book that brims over with minute detail. For all the undeniable artistic significance of Kurt Cobain, the biography feels too close to the bone to be in good taste.

All three books are interesting specimens from the wide and various world of rock lit.

No more glory days

From the pedantic to the insightful to the lurid, the genre rests on the premise that rock matters terribly. And ultimately, it is perhaps this conviction that yet preserves the contrariness and the unchained heart of rock, from the tentacles of the corporate machine. Rock might not change the world, but it sure lets you dream.

Do You, Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, edited by Neil Corcoran, Random House (Pimlico), 2003, p.378, �5.80.

The Mansion on the Hill, Fred Goodman, Random House (Pimlico), p.431, �7.95.

Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain, Charles R. Cross, Hodder and Stoughton (Sceptre), p.381, �5.

Recommended for you