Dylan's visions of sin
[ bookreviews ]
So obsessive is his fan base, no imprint has ever lost money by publishing a new approach to Bob Dylan. There have been 500 books on the man and his music, a number that will only increase as he makes the platform step from concert set list to the reading lists of American literature studies, or that more rarified, and less settled arena where poetry, music, rhyme and liner-note converge.
Christopher Ricks' long-due appreciation of Dylan's oeuvre came second place to Mike Marqusee's recent Chimes of Freedom: The politics of Bob Dylan's art, both in the literary reviews and the Sunday papers. Marqusee's book focuses on Dylan's ground- and mind-breaking songs in the political culture of the late 1960s, work that lies at the heart of his legend - but which the musician subsequently abandoned without once looking back.
Ricks' book takes what may amount to a longer view of Dylan's value. He adopts techniques of poetic analysis, sharpened through a lifetime of reading and writing about Milton, Keats, Eliot and Tennyson, and applies them to songs ranging from 'Song to Woody', one of Dylan's first folk compositions, through the "wild, mercury sound" classics to the doldrum years of born-again Christianity and the fixin'-to-die stoicism of Time out of Mind, released in 1999.
Ricks has stripped out 43 of Dylan's songs from a career of more than 40 years and submitted them to the kind of clinical, if tender, analysis they can expect as they teeter between the two fates that inevitably await them after their maker's death: admission to academia or consignment to the folklore archives, along with the work of Big Bill Broonzy and Dave Van Ronk. In between, he explores Dylan's evolving relationship to art, rhyme, the unconscious and composition through the several - but not many - interviews about working techniques that he has given to journalists over the years.
Not everyone will appreciate Ricks' nimble, punning, erudite style. "Granted, it is possible that all this is a mere coincidence, and that I am imagining things, rather than noticing how Dylan imagined things," he concedes after teasing out the verbal tricks of gambler/better, sense/cents and sense/coincidence/coin that, he thinks, inhabit just two lines in 'It's all over now, baby blue'. Alex Ross of the New Yorker has accused Ricks of "fetishising" Dylan's recorded output, and there is certainly something in that argument. It was Ricks who first introduced in the 1970s the idea that Dylan was just as much as 'poet' as Keats.
But I defy you to be irritated for long with the gleeful exposition of a professor who manages to discover five distinct 'rhyme-schemes' - aabbaa/ accaaa/edadaa /adadaa and aeeaaa - in a country standard like 'If not for you', and who then goes on to examine the gender of the rhymes. There are similar felicities on every page.
The Boston University professor is a fan, and a playful one at that; Dylan's Visions of Sin is not literary criticism but literary appreciation and you will be hard put to discover a single derogatory statement within. Nothing Dylan writes ever falls short of Ricks' expectations of excellence, in spite of the songwriter's patchy performances in the 1980s and early 1990s.
He lays out his stall at the start. The selection of the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues and three heavenly graces as a means of grouping his analysis of Dylan's writing, he admits, is nothing more than a convenient literary conceit. Indeed, he abandons it as soon as he encounters 'Greed', around which he can not rally a single song in its entirety, though the fruity sexual innuendo of 'Country Pie' has its day in court. But it is a justifiable choice. Among all the songwriters of the 20th century, Dylan inhabits a clearly defined moral universe that has been embellished - some say 'hardened' - through his involvement in the civil rights movement, evangelical Christianity and approaching death.
It is an appropriate device that allows Dylan's work to be assessed without reference to his life and performances. As such, it deserves a place in any fan's library, particularly if s/he has a companion interest in literary cock-and-bull.
One further thing is worth adding. Though the singer has often denounced Dylanologists who "dissect my work like a rabbit", Ricks does something that the other 499 authors of Dylan books never do. Not once in Dylan's Visions of Sin does he try to interpret or draw conclusions either on the "meaning" of Dylan's lyrics and metaphors, or any connection they may have with the details of his own life.
He is interested only in the rhyming and the singer's unconscious weaving of words, music and enunciation into something that is cousin to older verbal art forms. "So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle wording and timing that I suggest," he writes, "then I am perfectly happy so say that he probably isn't. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist, but more."