Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe

Four topical essays: two hits, two misses
David Yaffe’s 2011 book Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is divided into four chapters, each of which is a thematic essay focusing on one aspect of Dylan’s art. The subjects are Dylan’s singing voice, Dylan and film, Dylan and blackness, and Dylan and plagiarism. Yaffe attacks these topics in a manner neither chronological nor systematic, but rather in a free-form style that often mimics the cadence of Dylan’s own writing, cherry-picking whatever bits of his encyclopedic knowledge of Dylanology is required to support each essay’s thesis.

The first two chapters were quite disappointing. Though I would consider myself an ardent fan of Dylan’s music, I’m certainly not a scholar on the subject, nor would I even call myself an aficionado, yet still I learned almost nothing new about Dylan from these first two essays. They are not so much about Dylan as they are about Yaffe’s opinions on Dylan. Their primary purpose is not to educate the reader but to showcase Yaffe’s writing, as if a clever turn of phrase were of the utmost importance. The chapter on Dylan’s vocal development is really just Yaffe giving you a summary of Dylan’s recording output while coming up with creative adjectives to describe the singer’s voice, “adenoidal” being the author’s oft-repeated favorite. The chapter on Dylan’s life in film also yielded little new information. The reader learns more about Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes than about Dylan himself.

Fortunately, the latter two essays are a vast improvement over the first half of the book. Here is where the reader begins to see how a music critic approaching Dylan from a cultural studies perspective can actually enlarge your understanding of the man’s music. Essay number three, “Not Dark Yet,” examines Dylan’s relationship to African American musical culture, his periodic adoption of a “blackish” performing persona, and even his preference for African American women. Yaffe enlightens the reader on music history and makes insightful points, like when he draws parallels between Dylan’s emulation of black blues singers and the history of 19th and early 20th century minstrel shows. The final chapter focuses on accusations of plagiarism against Dylan and his penchant for alluding to or lifting from existing lyrics and melodies. Here one learns much about the sources of inspiration for many of Dylan’s songs. Though Yaffe points out there is some truth to the plagiarism rap, particularly in the case of Dylan’s borrowing from a contemporary Japanese novelist, in general Yaffe sees Dylan’s cut-and-paste songwriting in a positive light (as do I) and portrays Dylan as an artist who has deftly mined the public domain to become a master sonic assemblagist, a sort of Robert Rauschenberg of American music.

Yaffe finishes the book with a list of what he considers the 70 most important Dylan songs. His choices are not unexpected and pretty much trumpet the usual suspects, with selections heavy on the Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on the Tracks albums. He doesn’t really draw attention to any unsung gems, so again, not much to learn here. Every fan has probably already made up his or her mind what Dylan songs are the best. Likewise, if you are conversant enough in Dylanology to want to read this book, chances are you already know much of what is contained herein. Still, there are nuggets of insight here and there to make it worthwhile for hardcore fans.
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