[2 January 2010]
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.