Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Very Pretty Album


Have been re-reading Paul Williams' wonderful book, Performing Artist: The Music of Bob Dylan (1960-1973). This is the first part of his three-volume set on Dylan and includes the high praise of Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Jerry Garcia and Bill Graham on the cover. Of all the critical works on Dylan, it may be my favorite. (Though, granted, I haven't read many in the last decade, after devouring everything I could find earlier in my life.)  As the title implies, Williams doesn't focus on Dylan as a "poet" or songwriter as so many do, but as a performing artist. In doing so, he seems to capture the real essence of Dylan and his creative work. Sadly, Williams died this past March. I would have enjoyed reading what he had to say about Another Self Portrait.

Some selections from his comments on Nashville Skyline:

Nashville Skyline is a very pretty album. That is the best thing one can say about it, and at times it's quite enough. The worst thing one can say about it is that if Dylan had stayed at this level of originality and commitment as a performer, it would be difficult today to make an argument for him as a great artist....

There is an interesting process of simultaneous retreat and advance going on here. In this case, Dylan is retreating from the supposed meaningfulness of his words, from the oppression of his much-trumpeted (by others) influence and power as a cultural hero, while advancing into new concepts of who he might be as a performer and of what music-making is all about.... He even invents a new voice for himself—another retreat from people's ideas of who Bob Dylan is, another assertion of his identity as someone independent of who you think I am.

No one could reasonably say Bob Dylan was playing it safe with this record—it was a radical move, in the context of his career so far, a great risk. But there’s also an aspect of this music, and of the image or public identity Dylan was toying with at the time, that suggest that he was running from something, looking for a place to hide. As elusive as he’d been up to now, he seemed to be searching for a kind of performing that would expose even less of himself, specifically of what he might be feeling inside. I think he wanted music to write and sing that wouldn’t confront him with his inner feelings, wanted to escape the enemy (restlessness might be one name for it) within.

Did he succeed? No, I don’t think so. He just forced himself into a corner where he had less and less energy for performing….

In Nashville Skyline he gives his fans as little of the “old Dylan” as possible … but at the same time is almost obsequious in his desire to be accepted as one of the gang in this new (to him) world in which he fantasizes himself some kind of a) good old boy and b) enduring songwriter and performer creating classic love songs, a cross between Jimmie Rodgers and Irving Berlin.

Inevitably, what Dylan ends up creating is nothing like what he seems to be reaching for. The Nashville Skyline album is almost inconsequential…. And Dylan the country performer is singularly lacking in projected identity—it’s as if he’s used himself up just getting here—sure, he sounds relaxed, but that’s striking only by contrast with who we’ve known him to be, it doesn’t stand by itself.  There are no great turns of phrase on the record, which means none of these songs will be country classics (nothing remotely approaching ‘Your cheating heart will tell on you’). There are no real standout moments in the vocal performances, nothing that provokes awe or sends shivers down the spine. And yet…

And yet this is a magical album. It creates and sustains a unique mood, from the first note on side one to the last note open side two. The whole is tremendously greater than the sum of its parts.
From: Paul Williams. Performing Artist: The Music of Bob Dylan. Volume One, 1960-1973 (Lancaster, PA: Underwood-Miller, 1990), 250-252.

1 comment:

Alexandra van de Kamp said...

Paul Williams seems to be a very astute psychologist of Dylan and the creative process in general. I can see why you revere his work! You have made me think more deeply about the up's and down's Dylan went through as a cultural identity and musical artist with this post.