It may be that the only good book about Dylan is the one he wrote himself, Chronicles: Volume One — you don’t even have to care about his music to appreciate the insight into the mercurial process of artistic influence explored there (not to mention the effortless creation in prose of an inimitable voice). All the other ones I’ve tried have been weirdly evangelical in their fervor for the man. The worst one I’ve encountered by far is Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, an English professor who specializes in specious interpretations of the lyrics and ignores the fact that Dylan is a musician altogether. He is one of those critics who has to outperform whoever he is writing about, so he indulges in all sorts of performative linguistic free association that often verges of schizophrenic glossalalia. What Ricks accepts as evidence for his interpretations usually seems entirely arbitrary, the product of sheer accident and the delusions that eventually emanate from obsessive concentration. Lately I’ve been reading Paul Williams’s Bob Dylan: Watching the River Flow : Observations on His Art-In-Progress, 1966-1995, in which Williams actually claims that Under the Red Sky is a great album, and offers defenses of the rest of 1980s work too. Williams has a religious faith in Dylan’s genius, and will take it upon himself to find deep, compelling insight in the most banal and hackneyed of his offerings. To Williams, Dylan can do no wrong — that is the fundamental tenet — so if something seems off about Down in the Groove the problem must therefore lie with the listener. This pushes Williams to some inspired bits of improvisational explanation for, say, “Wiggle Wiggle” but it at the same time compromises his critical credibility. But then some Dylanophiles probably appreciate reading material that preaches to the choir, that elucidates the wonders of the faith from the perspective of the already converted. Within the confines of the devotional literature, the cult of personality can be unchecked and revealed without qualification, allowing readers to bask and indulge in the high solemnities of hero worship. But if you don’t see Dylan as an oracle, a cosmic combination of Picasso, Jesus and Casanova, these hagiographies can be wearying. So why do I keep reading? Probably because I get tired of musical agnosticism at times and want a taste of pop-star idolatry, but in a high-minded quasi-intellectual iteration. I like immersing myself in a literature that takes a familiarity with such songs as “When He Returns” and “Dead Man, Dead Man” for granted and repays me for the vast, pointless knowledge I bring to it. It makes me feel like my many hours of listening and keeping up with record after record has earned me entrance into a small self-selecting community – the books give me a sense of belonging, even if I think the majority of what’s in them is total bullshit. I get the pleasure of belonging without it spoiling the even more satisfying pleasure of disagreeing.
I’m the sort of superfan who enjoys discovering the worst of the worst in an artist’s oeuvre and forgiving them for it; it’s a way of reenacting unconditional love without the danger. I draw up lists in my mind of the worst songs and the worst albums; this seems like a far more devotional act than deciding what’s best — picking the best seems to lead to a greatest-hits mentality of fandom, it leads to filtering out the rest and taking away only the cream. Not that the greatest-hits mentality is wrong; in 99 percent of cases it seems perfectly appropriate. There is only so much time to listen to music after all. But it seems worthwhile to preserve that other one percent as a realm in which one can test one’s own capacity for throughness and to open up the possibility of having solidarity with a small group of fellow obsessives. Everyone should be in at least one fan club.
Dylan’s worst songs? Not counting covers, I say Neighborhood Bully, Clean Cut Kid, Man Gave Names to all the Animals, Rainy Day Women, and The Ugliest Girl in the World.