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Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is my kind of Dylan book: fun, funny, learned as hell as well as plain smart, and subjective in the best possible sense. Author David Yaffe clearly takes his Dylans to heart, and I say his Dylans because there’s more than one and everyone has their own.


Dylan Studies is a Never Ending Tour, to be cute about it, the critical gift that keeps on giving. Yaffe mentions the “hunger there [is] from the genre of writing Dylan arguably inspired as much as anyone—even the Beatles”, and the most recent Dylan releases alone attest to that hunger. They could fill a few shelves, or gigs or whatever, so I won’t list them here, but this genre includes and/or combines new- or old-fangled biography, lit. crit. academicism, cultural and philosophical discourse, and stylish critical prose.


cover art

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown

David Yaffe

(Yale University Press; US: May 2011)

Touching a bit on all these, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is a scholar’s personal appreciation, minus the arduous jargon and voluminous footnotes. Yaffe is not out to propose conclusions about Dylan; rather he works four approaches or angles, all of them interesting and contestable: Dylan’s singing, Dylan’s relation to race, Dylan cinema and Dylan’s so-called plagiarism.


Dylan’s voice has long been maligned, misconstrued, abhorred, un-adored, hated, berated… you get the picture. Yaffe characterizes Dylan’s vocal delivery as “adenoidal”, which is what some people get hung up on (the word itself whines). As Yaffe points out, “The biggest misconception about Dylan, among unbelievers, is that his cawing derision is somehow an impediment to appreciation.”


I know a lot of people who can’t get around that voice, and it is unfortunate, similar to someone dismissing a Jackson Pollock painting as just a big mess. It is a big mess, but not just one.


Similarly, those who “can’t listen to Dylan” because of his annoying voice are missing the point, or number of points: first, there are many distinct voices; second, each discrete voice contains nuances and subtle inflections and emphases that may be missed on first listen; and third, linked to both of these is the willed aspect of each. Dylan’s voice didn’t change because he was going through puberty. He willfully manipulated it to reflect his musical trajectory.


This vocal shape-shifting was also one way of staying out of the whole “voice of a generation” bag. What generation would want to lay claim to the Kermit-the-Frog-in-the-throat of “Lay, Lady, Lay”?


Yaffe focuses on some of Dylan’s key voices—the early “affected Oakie” as it segued into the druggy “adenoidal stream-of-consciousness vitriol” of the mid-‘60s, the later affected gospel singer, the “swami making you an offer you couldn’t understand”, on into the recent wizened “ancient croak [of] the new millennium”—then delves into each and comes up with some shrewd assessments on specific songs and general eras:


“Blowin’ in the Wind” is “the song that would forever transfigure the way we would comprehend air and velocity”.


“‘Visions of Johanna’ would get naked emotion when [Dylan] could deliver it, and adenoidal mannerisms when he couldn’t. But when there was no barrier between himself and the audience…each peak [was] a plea made with what Keats called full-throated-ease, although there was nothing easy about the material or the performance”.


“If it was a blues number with allegory vaguely inspired by Moby-Dick, Dylan would dig deep into Howlin’ Wolf and Herman Melville, emerging a blues-based obsessive literature reader on amphetamines and brilliance. The mind is ever present in the voice…”.


It’s unfortunate that so many people are turned off by Dylan’s Christian era because his melodiousness, and his sense of phrasing and attack are particularly strong. As Yaffe says, Dylan was “sonically gospelized, immersed in the diction of his African American backup singers [and] pushing his voice further than it should be pushed.”

Indeed, “When He Returns” from Slow Train Coming (1979) is as much a tour de force as the later oft-acknowledged bootleg gem “Blind Willie McTell”, with Dylan pushing his range way past the rafters toward heaven, if it’s up there. It’s as if he’s pleading and wheedling for the Second Coming.


Yaffe continues: “His response was to keep pushing, and before the end of the 1980s, he will have lost an octave […] listening to Dylan in the three decades that followed Saved (1980) is to witness, bit by bit, how he could still summon his greatest powers, not only while he was losing range in his voice but because of it”.


In his chapter on Dylan cinema, Yaffe is at times as summarily astute on filmmakers as he is on Dylan.


On Martin Scorsese and The Last Waltz (1978): “With his units of cameras operated by the best in the business, an artfully lit opera set, and hot Italian blood, Scorsese could make it rain”.


On Scorsese’s orchestration, as opposed to strict directing, of No Direction Home (2005): “As he did in The Last Waltz, Scorsese takes what is normally in the background and makes it explode with fury and demand attention until it becomes foreground—yet it only enhances the narrative. He has a knack for pumping up the volume in a way that feeds the action”.


Yaffe also draws some fine correlations between Todd Haynes’ methods in the Dylan-as-“Sybil” bio-pic I’m Not There (2007) and those of Dylan himself: “Like Dylan, who especially in his later work clipped everything from Ovid to Bing Crosby […] realiz[ing] Walter Benjamin’s model of quotation as discourse, Haynes realized that rather than inventing dialogue for a realist Dylan, he could be freed by pastiche and come closer to his subject […] The idea is liberation, impersonation as freedom.”


Masked and Anonymous (2003), directed by Larry Charles and co-written by Charles and Dylan, is infuriatingly inscrutable to the uninitiated, and hilariously cryptic to those in the know. A piece of self-reflexive counter-mythologizing, somewhat spiritually akin to Orson Welles’ late work The Other Side of the Wind, with Rock Star replacing Movie Director, the film is also a weird re-historicizing in which Yaffe sees Dylan “unearthing America’s sins to a carnival audience […] Something’s happening here and we’re not sure what it is, but it includes a well-turned irony. Dylan uncovers everything in America, even the ugliest history set to the catchiest tune.”


Masked And Anonymous’s many racial allusions and explicit images of blackface minstrelsy are just partial evidence of Dylan’s long fascination with race and African American heritage. Of course, in popular music especially, he’s not alone. As Yaffe states, “Rock and roll is filled with white imitators of black style, but none had contextualized the appropriation of black culture so inimitably”.


From his early race-politic songs, such as “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, where wisely Dylan “stuck to Okie affectations” over the “racial affectations” so fully embraced by later rockers such as Mick Jagger, on through the inverted minstrelsy of his Rolling Thunder whiteface (Yaffe: “[R]eversing the poles of significance and showing the artificiality of the social constructs”), through his conversion into a full-blown yet slant-wise gospelizer, Dylan has always had a streak of blackness in his blues, so to speak.


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