It’s no surprise to me that Ron Rosenbaum would be drawn to Bob Dylan. Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler, and The Shakespeare Wars interviewed Bob for Playboy in 1970, and has referred to him several times in his current blog, for starters. After reading his books on Hitler and Shakespeare, I see where Bob Dylan fits into a peculiar sequence: a life in which the relation between effects and mortal facts seems so disproportionate as to create an aura of mystery that demands a sensible narrative. Now I’ll be accused of deranged or careless hyperbole: the paragon of evil, the ultra-touchstone of western culture, and a singer-songwriter with an uncharacteristically long career, all together. But there is a quality of extremity to the actions and productions of some lives, and in the imaginations of their contemporaries and those that follow them, the extremity fashions the individuals into symbols, myths, and places of violently contested meaning. While researching my dissertation on the Holocaust, I came to find Franz Stangl, Rudolph Hoess, and Heinrich Himmler much more terrifying men than I found Hitler, but that is because I saw them as three natural men making choices in their knowable lives, none of the three was already implanted in me as the inexplicable symbol of the conditions they governed. Certainly theater companies, actors, scholars, will argue about the most authentic or effective way to stage and perform Ibsen’s plays, but the piety and passion that goes into the quest to identify Shakespeare the man and identify the gospel versions of his plays is a one-of-a-kind argument in culture. Rosenbaum’s books tell stories about the drive to explain extremity, without competing for an explanation.
I have a bookcase full of books about Bob Dylan. In one of them, you can find a capsule summary of nearly every documented action of Bob Dylan’s life and history from 1902 to 1995. In another one, you can read a chapter titled “Is Bob Dylan Also Among The Prophets?” In another one, you can read detailed descriptions of ordinary people’s accidental and fleeting interactions with Bob Dylan: what he said, what he wore, the expressions on his face, how tall or not he appeared. It is not hard to find evidence that this life is already fashioned in popular and critical imaginations as a kind of extremity.
Lee Marshall’s 2007 book, Bob Dylan: The Neverending Star tells a story about Dylan’s life that tries to theorize the extremity without entirely simplifying it. The theme that coheres his story is stardom, and his method is contemporary critical theory. What we talk about when we talk about Bob Dylan is values and beliefs that appear authentic and self-justifying: “Stardom is intricately bound up with two key ideologies of modern society: individualism and democracy,” Marshall writes. Modern society creates the star as the representative of these ideologies. We impute to stars the quality of being “an ultimate individual” whose greatness depends on luck, talent, and effort, rather than the nominal and automatic superiority that’s the aristocrat’s stardom. A star is a commodity, a star feeds commerce, and the biggest stars are entire commercial solar systems on their own. Stars must be representative within their fields, they must become symbols, and symbols are easily reproduced and commodified, for they bring their whole constellation of values and meanings with them every time their image appears in any context. And stars “unite subjectivities”–here I think we do not have a modern/postmodern idea: It is a very non-modern fact that public individuals create communities around their presence and actions, and these communities may be manipulated to benefit those in power.
And so Marshall uses these definitions to narrate the peaks and valleys and plateaus of Dylan’s career in terms of Dylan’s stardom: the argument is not so much whether New Morning is not as good as Blonde on Blonde. Marshall’s critique would ask us to see how the changing relationship between Dylan and his audience, based in part on changing values and meanings for rock music, tells us how these albums are different. Marshall stays head to head with Dylan’s persistent and mercurial stardom, and Marshall respects Dylan’s own acute consciousness of himself as a symbol. [N:B: Here I have to say that I didn’t know what to do with the fact that Chronicles only appears here in as an example of Dylan’s late output, and is not used as a source throughout the book. Chronicles is Dylan’s record of his consciousness, he is merciless in exposing his *subjectivity* across decades of shifting winds of change. Why omit his voice? What is Marshall doing here that I’m missing in my ignorance?]
Marshall confesses to being something of a fan, and this saves him trying to occupy the captain’s tower, the fantasy land of most contemporary theory from which the writer surveys the tiny swarming creatures below him or her with very heavy dull tools. He really wants to respect Dylan’s songwriting and performance gifts, and set those gifts into widening circles of cultural shifts, politics, social change. This sounds not at all new when I set it out like this. The most original bits are when Marshall works hard to make the concept of performance, the singular here-and-now of a singer singing a song, integral to his examination, and his discussion of NET, which I want to deal with on its own.
Here’s the thing with stories: it just is a fact that when you come into a story midway, you’re at a loss. In a story, events cause other events, and you need to follow the pathways of meanings according to a sequence. The great bloviating world of postmodern *thought* has plenty to say about false narrative and let’s just not invite them to this party. Because our party is going on full swing without them, if indeed one became a serious Bob Dylan fan anytime in the last, oh, 30 years. Marshall is spot on about the unique achievement of the NET–unlike other long-lived stars, Bob Dylan has created a new audience for himself in the latter chapters of his story, an audience that does not understand that they shouldn’t get the story because they started it late. There are those among us who became interested in Bob Dylan through hearing Blood on the Tracks, or Time Out Of Mind, or–and I testify these people exist–Self-Portrait. These albums become keystones in these fans’ own relationship with Bob Dylan, and each of these relationships should have its own chronology. If a person is turned on in a big way to Dylan when Planet Waves came out, or after being dragged to a show in 2007 with a friend who couldn’t give away an extra ticket, then for both of these people hearing Highway 61 Revisited will be a chapter in a story about Dylan and his audience that can’t be captured by the historical narrative.
I’ve heard Bob Dylan perform what I’d call irreverent versions of Desolation Row on 175th Street in Manhattan, and at 211 Stockwell Road in London. In my own small way, I’ve become part of what Marshall calls the “NET cocoon,” and it’s the way that time and space are oddly collapsed in this cocoon that’s what I have to address next.