Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

“Bob Dylan: New York” by June Skinner Sawyers (Roaring Forties Press”/”Bob Dylan:Like A Complete Unknown” by David Yaffe ( (Yale University Press)

The celebration of Bob Dylan’s milestone 70th birthday continues unabated in the nation’s bookstores, with a wealth of newly written material, newly reissued material, and of course old favorites sharing space on the shelves. Here are two recent additions which have caught my attention.

“Bob Dylan: New York” is part of Roaring Forties’ “MusicPlace” series which, to quote their own blurb, “unravels the relationships between musicians and the cities they call home.” In other words, the theme of June Skinner Sawyers’ book is to examine Bob Dylan’s early years on the New York folk scene by looking at his life in the City and the work he produced there, exploring the relationship between the two. This could well be the subject for a weighty academic tome, but Sawyers has instead given us a more readable, informal glimpse of the New York neighborhoods in which Dylan spent his first productive, dare I say most innovative years, the clubs and shops he frequented, the people he hung with, and so on.

What it may lack in depth, it gains in capturing the feeling of young Bob finding his way around Greenwich Village, seen from the vantage point of the settings which figured into many of his songs. It is an atmospheric history with enough detail to make you feel at home in Dylan’s world. Indeed, it could well be used a travel guide, since addresses and maps are provided, though most of the places mentioned are long-since out-of-business, serving other uses, or torn down. You can carry it with you on your own Dylan history walk, if you wish, since it does not bog the reader down in analysis or technicalities, which when viewed in relation to so many of the current crop of Dylanological works, is actually downright refreshing.

Sawyers has done the vast majority of her biographical research in other people’s books, so you should not expect amazing new insights, previously uncovered facts, interviews with long-lost Dylan pals, or the like. Sometimes, it’s all in how you arrange the material you’ve learned from other sources, and the first two-thirds of this book is very good in this respect. If you’ve read a lot of Dylan-oriented books, you may well know most, perhaps all, of the actual facts presented here already. Even so, they’re assembled from a fresh perspective, one of time and place, so as to trace Dylan’s growing consciousness of what he wanted to do with his career and how he proceeded in turning those ideas into reality. It is only after Dylan, and subsequently the book, leave New York City proper and move upstate a bit that things become spotty. The details seem more haphazard (two words - “Nashville Skyline”), the observations more obtuse, the settings less easy to grasp. One wishes the author would have clung more assiduously to her original concept of Dylan in New York City, without worrying about his later career.

But up to that point, this is a lively look at young Bob Dylan and the scene that spawned him. I have no qualms about recommending this to anyone looking for a jargon-free and agenda-less introduction to Dylan and his early career.


David Yaffe’s “Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown” is likewise relatively jargon-free as University Press books go, but it is jam-packed with agenda. One might say it is ALL agenda. The dust-jacket blurbs are lavish in their praise from authors and academicians. Yet, while I will confess to having had a good read, I am left with the feeling that I haven’t really learned much that is shockingly new, that other folks - whether writers, readers, or just fans - haven’t already considered for themselves. Having said that, I would suggest you might wish to give it strong consideration, if only because Yaffe phrases his interpretations in a fresh, original manner. Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how well you say it that makes a book significant.

Yaffe divides his book into four sections (not counting an Introduction and an Afterword). In the first, he discusses how Dylan’s singing voice has altered so often through the years, and how these changes in vocal quality have mirrored changes in Dylan’s song material and worldview. Haven’t we all made this connection already? Even so, it’s certainly worthwhile to have a thoughtful look at this phenomenon from someone who has obviously put a great deal of concentrated thought into the matter, who expresses his ideas well, bringing a sense of intellectual weight to a topic we may have thought about casually before dismissing it from our minds.

The second essay - I say “essay”, not “chapter”, as there is little to tie them all together; it’s really a collection of four essays - looks at Dylan in the movies. This is not a comprehensive look at all of Dylan’s screen roles; don’t expect tales of “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid”. Instead, Yaffe looks at the way Dylan is portrayed in specific documentaries (most notably “The Last Waltz”), and dramas (“I’m Not There”, “Masked and Anonymous”), plus “Renaldo and Clara”, which I’ve never seen, but which would seem to be somewhere in between truth and fiction. Yaffe is less concerned with Dylan’s performances as musician or actor - though these aspects do figure into the discussion - as he is with what these films tell us about Bob Dylan the Man, Bob Dylan the Changing Persona, Bob Dylan the Artist. From a strictly personal viewpoint, I feel I learned more from this essay than the others, because this is an area of Dylanology with which I happen to be less familiar. I feel I now have enough of a handle on “Masked and Anonymous”, as to warrant pulling out the DVD for another look. So for me, Yaffe did exactly what he set out to do.

The third essay might be considered controversial to many people, as discussions of racial matters often are, particularly when the subject is the “blackness” of a white person. Not only do we get the expected look at blues influences on Dylan’s music and lyrics, as well as his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement (also covered in the Sawyers book). These we know about. But we also get to know perhaps more than we really want to know about Dylan’s sexual exploits with black women, particularly gospel-style backup singers. Elsewhere, we’ve seen plenty of discussions of Dylan the Christian and Dylan the Jew. Now we get to see the Bob Dylan who thinks he’s black. I can’t say I buy into all of Yaffe’s arguments here, yet it’s the one time in the book I come close to being truly surprised by what I was reading.

The last chapter is the most entertaining and thought-provoking to me, because it deals with Bob Dylan the plagiarist. This is a topic we have all become familiar with in recent years, but it’s good to have all the “gory details” of what Dylan stole from what source, all presented compactly in one place. Of course, in the early days of his career, Dylan was simply following the lead of his role model, Woody Guthrie, plus A. P. Carter, Robert Johnson, and virtually every folk and blues performer who lived previous to and during the early 1960’s, by engaging in the “folk process”. There was no copyrighting of folk songs in the days before music became an Industry, but there was a lot of community sharing of musical and lyrical concepts. New lyrics would be set to older melodies (“Star Spangled Banner”, anyone?), new melodies would be written or adapted to previously-existing sets of lyrics, so-called “floating verses” would appear in song after song, to the point where it’s generally (not necessarily always) impossible to know who wrote what, or who did the “original version”. So, we’ll give Dylan a pass on being a part of the time-honored folk-process tradition, though from a purely legalistic viewpoint, it is, as a matter of fact, plagiarism. But when the mature, copyright-conscious, no-longer-part-of-the-folk-tradition (or is he?) Bob Dylan starts pilfering whole passages from other people’s creative works, both copyrighted and public domain, without giving due credit to the originators, both in his autobiography and his recent songs, is it still forgivable? It would seem the media, after making a major fuss about these thefts when they were initially revealed, has pretty much forgotten about them. But Yaffe gives us the details for us to ponder. He has his opinion, I have mine, which doesn’t necessarily agree with his, and I invite you to read this fourth essay to form your own opinion. You may surprise yourself after you decide not to throw the book at Dylan after all!

In any case, this is a Dylan book well worth reading, even if I feel the blurb-writers were a bit hysterical in over-praising it. Whereas Sawyers’ book may appeal more to the non-specialist in Dylan, those who take their Dylanology seriously will benefit from reading and thinking about the Yaffe work.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

“LZ-75: The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American Tour” by Stephen Davis (Gotham)

First off, a few words about the author. Stephen Davis (whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met) and I became music journalists just about the same time, 1970. He’s famous, I’m not.

Partly this was because Davis aspired from the beginning to write for “Rolling Stone”, whereas I was more interested in writing for those rock rags that Davis specifically says he did NOT want to write for - “Creem”, “Crawdaddy”. (I also wrote for such long, long forgotten newsstand zines as “Fusion” and “Zoo World”, which hardly anyone seems to remember, and for a few dozen fanzines, before my music-critic career peaked in general-interest magazines such as “Stereo” and “Audio”.) Partly this was a matter of geography - he spent his time in New York and Boston, I liked living in Small Town USA, and would have been uncomfortable in big cities, even though that’s where the editors and the choice assignments were. Partly it’s because he was aggressive enough to go out and GET those assignments. He also decided to move on to writing books, something I’ve never had any desire to do; haven’t; never will. So here I am in academia and in radio, having a wonderful life, perfectly content to be doing what I’m doing, whether anyone outside my immediate circle has heard of me or not. And Stephen Davis continues to write books.

Most importantly, though. Stephen Davis is more famous than me because he’s a far, far better writer than I could ever hope to be. Whereas I’m the king of the conversational run-on sentence, hyphenated phrase, and only-partially-relevant parenthetical digression, Davis is concise, controlled, imaginative, witty, self-effacing when it serves his purpose - darn it, he’s entertaining! When he does bend the writing rules, there is a context in place for it. A Stephen Davis book would be interesting to read even if the topic were of little interest, because he’s fun to read. But since he generally writes about reggae and famous rock stars, his topics are interesting as well. (Personally, I prefer to write about obscure topics and unknown people, which may be another reason hardly anyone bothers to read my stuff.)

Case in point - “LZ-75”, a book so breezy, so absorbing, so downright agreeable that you will want to read it all in one sitting, and at 215 pages, that’s entirely possible. Davis has already given us the definitive Led Zeppelin bio, “Hammer Of The Gods”, so there’s no need for him to revisit the subject in a comprehensive manner. What this book is, then, is a supplement to the Big Work, a look at the band’s American tour during the first half of 1975, a crucial part of the story not fully covered in the first Zep book, for the simple reason that Davis misplaced his notebook about the tour. Not long ago, he finally relocated the notes, marked “LZ-75”, which serves as the title for this book. True, it may have been better had he had all the information and reminiscences available when he wrote “Hammer”, but now he can look back and evaluate the tour from a totally mature, less harried vantage point, fully aware of what has transpired over the course of 3-1/2 decades..

The book opens with some important background on Led Zeppelin, parts of the band’s history which may not be familiar to younger readers. (I am always amazed by the fact that so many of my students consider Led Zep to be their favorite band, even though most were born in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. But they rarely have any grounding on WHY the band was crucial to subsequent developments in rock. I’m convinced some of them think Led Zeppelin invented rock’n’roll.) He traces their rise from the ashes of the Yardbirds through their early LP’s, reminding us old-timers how fiercely this band was hated by the critical fraternity. (Another reason, perhaps, why I didn’t fit in with the mainstream of rock criticism during the 1970’s - I absolutely ADORED Led Zeppelin from the first moment I heard them in 1969. I didn’t start writing till the next year, though, not that I would have made much difference.) We watch them sell trillions of albums, perform in front of ever-huger audiences, and begin to indulge in extravagant lifestyles that have served as models for rock-star excess ever since.

Indeed, that extravagance is one of the major themes of the book. Davis witnessed some of it firsthand, having found his way onto their rented rock-star private-jet to cover several stops on the aforementioned 1975 tour on an ill-fated assignment from a famous magazine not known for covering rock stars, extravagant or otherwise. (The story of how he got the assignment is a hoot in itself.) We get to meet a variety of characters, including the band’s relentlessly conniving manager, Peter Grant; the band’s persevering label manager, Danny Goldberg - actually, I HAVE met him, and found him to be as agreeable a record-industry executive as you could hope to find; William Burroughs (whom Davis treated less than honorably, and he realizes it), and a would-be groupie schoolteacher, just to pick out a few of the most memorable people in these pages.

And we get to meet the members of Led Zeppelin as they actually were, seen through the eyes of someone who had a degree of access to them, albeit with definite limits. Well, we get to meet three of them. John Paul Jones tended to disappear once he got offstage, and seemingly no one got to know him during this stage of his life. Despite his fondness for certain substances, Robert Plant comes off as the most average-guy-sort in the bunch, which may be whyl all these years later he remains close to the spotlight. Alas, a cold and subsequent throat problems during the tour dragged down Plant’s performance level for an extended period. (Jones is still active, too, of course, but not as prominently as Plant. Jimmy Page still pops up on occasion as well.) Davis found John Bonham to be downright scary, and preferred NOT to get particularly close to him. Bonham’s over-indulgences were many and rabid, and it’s no surprise he died at age 32. Jimmy Page, however, comes across as the real tragic figure of the band. A guitarist so skilled that he could create wonders in public night after night despite being strung out on heroin, we find him sitting in his hotel room virtually unresponsive, seemingly incapable of getting any true pleasure from his status as one of the music world’s biggest superstars.

Later in 1975, Robert Plant would be in a car accident that set into motion the band’s eventual downward slide. But to most fans of so-called “classic rock”, they’ve never really gone away. Perhaps those fans may find this book a bit disillusioning, though I think most people have a pretty good inkling of what the band’s lifestyle was like in their heyday. But fan or not, this book is a great read, particularly if you’re looking for light summer reading on a rock’n’roll topic, by someone who truly knows how to write. Don’t miss it.

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