Review: "Refractions of Bob Dylan - Cultural Appropriations of an American Idol"

Whatever you might think of Todd Haynes’ boldly experimental Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” (the contributors to Refractions of Bob Dylan differ in their estimations, though it’s generally agreed to be important), the film’s title is a great place to start when considering its mercurial subject. Not only does it indicate the ellipsis at the centre of the cultural phenomenon ‘Bob Dylan’ (the unlocated, perhaps nonexistent ‘I’) but it also points to the shifting nature of the cultural spaces that ‘Bob Dylan’ occupies: why not ‘here’ rather than ‘there’? Where isn’t this ‘I’ that doesn’t quite exist - or that exists in so many forms that it might as well not? Everything is questionable, troublesome, oblique, difficult - qualities that also characterise almost every concert Dylan has given since the 1980s.

Those questions are particular apposite when considering the volume at hand. Books that adopt an academic approach to Dylan are plentiful, but even the good ones almost always founder on the treacherous rocks of a simple fact: that is, that rock music’s foremost ‘poet’ is not really a poet in the way that rewards conventional literary criticism. I’ll be hated for saying that but, to borrow a phrase from Steve Earle, I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee-table in my cowboy boots and say it.

There’s no question that Dylan has a prodigious verbal facility, nor that his output between 1963 and ’76 (many would put the end of the real purple period at ’67, but that would exclude Blood on the Tracks and Desire, unfairly I think) constitutes a staggering flood of dense, wordy, unruly, allusive, riotous rock masterpieces. But they’re just that - masterpieces of performed song - and when Christopher Ricks makes his claim that "Idiot Wind" puts Dylan on a level with Eliot or Milton it’s difficult not to sense a certain benign disingenuousness, born I suspect of an earnest desire for popular culture to have produced a writer who can compete with the literary greats on their own terms.

Dylan needs to be approached as a cultural phenomenon rather than a poet

"Idiot Wind" is a stunning song with a freewheeling, frenetic, passionate, humorous interest in words - in their meanings and their sonic combinations - but on the page that energy and power is neutered; it needs to be animated by music and attitude, by performance. It may well be that Dylan is the definitive poet of the twentieth century, but in saying that we must make the simultaneous acknowledgement that it’s only so because our age requires a poetry so different to what came before as to be incomparable with it. The very understandable urge to find a respectable cultural totem of the old sort in pop-culture doesn’t change the fact that the cultural projects undertaken by Dylan (and even Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon) don’t truly reward close literary reading in the way that Eliot or Milton do.

"Refractions of Bob Dylan" recognises this problem, as its title suggests, and takes a more productive approach. To be amenable to traditional scholarly or literary attention, Dylan needs to be approached as a cultural phenomenon rather than a poet, and thus this book for the most part takes the implications of the phrase ‘I’m not there’ very seriously. It does this not only by questioning the nature of Bob-Dylan-as-cultural-icon but by looking very specifically at differences in reception in different parts of the world.

Thus ‘Dylan Abroad’, the book’s second section, is to my mind the most productive. The history of Dylan’s presence in Switzerland is genuinely fascinating, fully unpicked here by Martin Schäfer, a bizarre series of appropriations, translations, straight covers and outright plagiarisms. The chapter is an object lesson in how productive it can be to look in detail at a seemingly unpromising backwater of cultural history, and offers unexpected insights into how popular culture crossed borders in the globalised but pre-internet world. Andrea Cossu’s chapter ‘Localising Dylan: political and musical narratives in Italy’ pulls off a similar feat, revealing how the timeline of Dylan’s development (roughly: folk singer to protest singer to electrified contrarian) was reversed or at least problematised in places other than the US and UK.

‘Bob Dylan’ and Robert Zimmerman are two different things entirely

That’s not to say that the rest of the book falls short: there are a number of very enjoyable pieces of criticism here, including Michael Gray’s ‘Dylan’s Americanness in 1960s Britain’; Ben Giamo’s ‘Bob Dylan’s protean style’, which asks the very intriguing question ‘[was Dylan] the shill or the con itself?’; and Rob Coley’s ‘The fabulatory function of Bob Dylan’, which hits the nail on the head when it says ‘Dylan is a performative and productive fiction’.

As usual, though, things get a little more problematic when the close poetical readings begin. ‘Tell-tale signs: self-deception in Dylan’ has some very insightful things to say about what is certainly an interesting trope in Dylan’s songwriting, but one feels one’s eyebrows rising (and spirits sinking) at sentences like ‘we call on Paul Grice’s model of inferential pragmatics to illuminate the strategies of indirect propositionality (or implicature) that Dylan applies to his subject’. It’s not that the authors don’t make intelligent and worthwhile points, but this kind of jargon-laden abstruseness is what has given modern literary criticism a bad name. It’s especially silly since the point is made far more clearly and approachably a few pages later: the authors are clearly quite capable of lucid, readable analysis. There are also some examples of the contributors giving Dylan far too much credit; one can be a committed fan and nonetheless feel very sure indeed that detailed poetic exegesis is wasted here on examples of the songwriter simply needing a convenient end for a rhyming couplet. There are also a couple of surprising blind-spots. A line that Dylan lifted directly from F. Scott Fitzgerald is discussed without acknowledgement of the fact, which seems quite an omission in a chapter whose subject is appropriation.

These are small niggles, though. In the main, this is a book that can teach us quite a bit about Dylan and a fair bit also about the types of cultural processes that have created ‘Dylan’. Quite what Robert Zimmerman would have to say about it is anyone’s guess but, as Refractions of Bob Dylan makes a decent fist of explaining, that probably doesn’t matter terribly much. ‘Bob Dylan’ and Robert Zimmerman are two different things entirely.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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