One of Ireland’s most beloved authors of children’s novels, Ellís Dillon practiced an economy of style in her work that was spare yet incredibly rich in its sense of atmosphere. Despite the fact that her books were intended for a young audience, the level of her writing achieved such distinguished heights that it appealed to an older generation as well.
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Ah, the ‘70s and ‘80s. Or, strictly speaking, the mid-‘70s through approximately 1992.
But then, this was no time to be pedantic. This was the time when the survivors of the hard-nosed ‘50s and taboo-shattering ‘60s settled down to consolidate their gains – and proceeded to blow it all on the biggest, loudest, most over-the-top party Western civilization had ever seen. Yes, even greater than the Roaring Twenties. Did they have Atari back then? Did they? Huh?
They settled down, had some offspring, and bought minivans – that being the only vehicle that would hold all the offspring’s stuff. This (the offspring that is, not the minivan) is the origin story of Generation X. And thus this is their unique dilemma today, some 40 years later, as they begin to settle back and think about consolidation in their turn… and find themselves contemplating the shortcomings of “Greed is good!” as a noble contribution to societal advancement, never mind source of cool stories to tell the grandkids.
Every now and again I get sucked into participating in one of those blogger memes where you have to pick out your favourite book. The thing is, I maintain a LiveJournal, and frankly get just a little bored with trying to ensure my picks show me off as deep and sensitive to a community that includes feminist rants about Firefly.
Thus, charter member of the Junior Iconoclasts that I am, I recently decided to get cute and pluck out something like the most obscure or weirdest book I own.
Cultural historians have given Bob Dylan his fair share of credit for significant contributions to popular music. Dylan’s reinventions of American folk, blues, and Appalachian song stylings have been so significant in rearranging the landscape of music that it could be argued that if not for Bob, Woody Guthrie would be a footnote (an important one but still a footnote) in the pages of Americana.
In The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence, renowned Dylan expert Derek Barker devotes 508 pages to exhaustively and alphabetically catalog every song composed by another artist that has been covered by the man from Minnesota in recording sessions, concerts, and even private parties, from Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre to Carl Perkins’ Your True Love. Barker writes in his introduction:
Bob Dylan had begun listening to music as a child and by his early teens he had immersed himself in everything from rural blues and R&B and from country to rock and roll. These life-affirming sounds first reached young Bobby in his isolated Hibbing home via the knobs and dials of his radio set. When he began playing in the 1950s, rock and roll was his thing, Little Richard was his idol, and live covers of Jenny, Jenny, Ready Teddy, and Lawdy, Miss Clawdy were the order of the day. When he arrived in Minneapolis, essentially to attend college, he quickly traded his electric guitar for a Martin acoustic and set about learning to play every traditional, blues and Woody Guthrie number he could unearth. This material would become the cornerstone of live gigs during his apprenticeship around the folk clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village, and it was from these songs that his own greatest compositions would be born.
Using Barker’s words as evidence, one could easily deduce that Dylan understands and appreciates the circular and collaborative nature of the cultural environment. As Judge Alex Kosinski of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote in an opinion on a landmark copyright protection case: “Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before.”
With that much said, why would publisher W.W. Norton list Dylan as the putative “author” of Bob Dylan Revisited: 13 Graphic Interpretations of Bob Dylan’s Songs?
After more than thirty albums, fifty-eight singles, thirteen live albums, fourteen compilation albums, eleven Grammy awards (including induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame), an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a slot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, does Dylan really need to cop credit for a book he did not author, or did someone at Norton drop the ball big time?
Presented as “a standing testament to the universality and transcendent vision of Dylan’s American music”, Bob Dylan Revisited is nothing more and nothing less than reinterpretations of the lyrics of thirteen classic Dylan tunes by leading contemporary graphic artists, many of them European.
Unfortunately, attempting to appreciate the work on display in this lush coffee table book is like visiting an art gallery without a guide or trying to understand Dylan’s own baffling shape-shifting persona without a fleet of psychiatrists at your side.
“Americans are spoiled,” Bob Dylan declared to an interviewer in the late 1970s, “they expect art to be like wallpaper with no effort, just to be there.”
Oddly enough, Dylan’s sentiment employs the precise verbiage this writer would use to describe Bob Dylan Revisited, a work sanctioned and approved by the artist himself and Sony Music.
There are some outstanding artists onboard, such as Dave McKean of Sandman fame in an epic, operatic (and immensely disturbing) interpretation of Dylan’s Desolation Road, and Gradimir Smudja’s sepia-toned, semi-documentary approach to Dylan’s ballad Hurricane is certainly memorable, but, as the man said, writing about art is like dancing to architecture and to compound matters there is no there there in Bob Dylan Revisited.
Bob Dylan Revisited just lays on the page like yesterday’s dead fish wrapped in the Sunday funnies; absolutely no artist bios appear in the book and no creative or mission statements from the thirteen artists are anywhere to be found. Also absent is any form of an introduction to provide a framework for the collection. How were the artists selected? Were any of them major league Dylan fans before coming aboard the project? Why did I have to conduct my own online research to get background on these artists? Who the hell knows because those and many other questions are left unanswered.
The press materials that W.W. Norton sent out properly list the thirteen artistic geniuses as the authors of the book but everywhere else one looks—on the copyright page in the first American edition, in the listings at Amazon and Barnes and Noble online—Bob Dylan is cited as the author.
Sure, Dylan wrote the lyrics that incited the “artwork…filled with inspiring political messages, surrealistic flourishes, and deeply moving meditations” but that certainly does not entitle him to authorship over this work of spellbinding original art.
It is well-known that the gifted Dylan is a difficult and controlling public persona so one cannot help but wonder if his endorsement of the unique project came at the cost of overshadowing the artists involved in the creation of the book, keeping the focus entirely centered on the man and his lyrics.
As much as I admire Dylan—his music forms a virtual soundtrack to my life—this promising book reeks of a vanity project that seeks to downplay the artistic contributions of others while further promoting an artist who needs no further promotion and who most certainly did not arrive at his mythical status all by his lonesome.
The true authors of Bob Dylan Revisited are as follows: Alfred, Francois Avril, Bezian, Jean-Philippe Bramanti, Christopher Benjamin Flao, Jean-Claude Gotting, Mael Le Mae, Raphaelle Le Rio, Lorenzo Mattotti, Dave McKean, Henri Meunier, Thierry Murat, Nicolas Nemiri, Gradimir Smudja, and Zep.
It is certainly no secret that I am a frequent correspondent with and major journalistic supporter of veteran screenwriter and novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, as any close reader of my Deconstruction Zone column for PopMatters will note.
My friendship with Rudy grew out of a months-long e-mail correspondence that began in late 2008 as an informal interview; that correspondence (as well as subsequent telephone conversations) formed the basis of my 6 February 2009 column, “Conversing with Rudy Wurlitzer: ‘A Beaten-Up Old Scribbler’”.
In a 30 July 2009 column, “Rudy Wurlitzer, Bob Dylan, Bloody Sam, and the Jornado del Muerto”, I explored Wurlitzer’s debut novel, Nog (1969, re-released this year by Two Dollar Radio), and wound up creating a meditative essay on Sam Peckinpah, the death of the American frontier, Bob Dylan, and the stormy production of Peckinpah’s 1973 masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer). It’s easy to veer off in different directions from the path originally intended when writing about Wurlitzer and his remarkable body of work because his themes and preoccupations invite a sort of Beckett-esque circular exploration.
Wurlitzer, in my opinion, is one of the finest American writers produced by the tempestuous and troubling counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, certainly ranking up there with his celebrated colleagues Joan Didion and Robert Stone. I intend to write about Wurlitzer again in my December column because, frankly, my exploration of the somewhat reclusive author and his literary canon is not yet complete.
With that much said, imagine my surprise this morning when I awoke to find e-mails from two colleagues pointing me to an article in the online edition of the Los Angeles Times written by Sam Adams and titled The Resurgence of Rudy Wurlitzer. From the LAT article:
These days, however, there’s something of a Wurlitzer resurgence in the works. His films have found new life on DVD, and the independent press Two Dollar Radio has begun to bring his writing back. In 2008, the publisher released “The Drop Edge of Yonder,” his first new novel in nearly a quarter of a century; earlier this year, it reissued “Nog.” Now come “Flats” and “Quake,” collected together in one double-sided volume (244 pp., $17 paper). For the first time in more than three decades, it’s possible to investigate the interplay between Wurlitzer’s novels and his screenplays, the way his radical experiments in one informed his canny deconstruction of the other.
Now, compare and contrast the above with my own text from Conversing with Rudy Wurlitzer, written for The Deconstruction Zone at PopMatters a full nine months earlier:
Indeed, there is something of a Rudy Wurlitzer renaissance going down in the pop culture zeitgeist; not only through the Criterion releases but also through a well-deserved re-examination of Wurlitzer’s long-forgotten work as a masterful novelist, with independent publisher Two Dollar Radio preparing to re-release the out-of-print novels Nog (1969) and Quake (1974) in late 2009. Two Dollar also plans to release Wurlitzer’s Flats (1971) and Quake in a single “69 turnover” edition (two books in one binding) which pleases Wurlitzer immensely because both novels, the author says, “seem related as they were written back-to-back expressing a sort of post-apocalyptic vision that I was consumed with in those days.”
You gotta love Adams’ canny use of the noun ‘deconstruction’ in his last sentence. A subconscious slip? The hell if I know, but I did take great comfort in what a colleague wrote to me after analyzing both articles:
“One thing I learned in marketing: if you are the person who brings ideas to the table, it doesn’t matter what falls off; the table is always yours, and the thieves need you. Keep plowing the high ground.”