Reading: It's the Singing, Not the Song | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: It's the Singing, Not the Song 

Bob Dylan's true genius is as a performer, says critic Paul Williams. His songwriting is only preparation for the moment of creation.

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Most music criticism is in the 19th century. It's so far behind, say, the criticism of painting. It's still based on 19th century art--cows beside a stream and trees and "I know what I like." There's no concession to the fact that Dylan might be a more sophisticated singer than Whitney Houston, that he's probably the most sophisticated singer we've had in a generation. Nobody is identifying our popular singers like a Matisse or Picasso. Dylan's a Picasso--that exuberance, range, and assimilation of the whole history of music. --Leonard Cohen

Paul Williams's Bob Dylan: Performing Artist gives Cohen what he's looking for, and then some. Williams was the perfect man for the job. He founded Crawdaddy!, the first serious rock magazine, in 1966, largely as a response to the horizons expanded by Dylan's visionary art. Williams's critical study--the second volume was published this year--makes limited use of biographical detail, yet it's the truest biography on the very long shelf of works devoted to the life of Bob Dylan.

"The illusion we all suffer under," he writes, "is that the person backstage, the private person, has the answers, holds the key, to the mysteries of the public person. This is not so. The two are difficult to understand. The man on stage speaks to us constantly of his inner life; the private man, on the other hand, seldom knows much more than we do about the mystery and power of his public self."

Williams also swims against the assumption that Dylan's primary genius is as a writer of words: "Had 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' been published as a poem and never sung, it would have attracted little attention, not only because the public is not interested in poetry as such (we weren't much interested in this sort of folk song, either, until Dylan came along) but because so much of the art, the true poetry and power of the song, is in the combination of words and music, particularly the hook, the pop song/rock and roll building tension and gorgeous release in chorus. . . . Take that away, take away the sound of Dylan's voice as he sings the verses supported and shadowed and colored and commented on by the insistent strumming of his guitar, take away the melody that gives flesh and substance to the spoken images, take away the cadence of performed language, and you might possibly still have a sketch for a masterpiece . . . but nothing like the real thing. Those who think of song as a simplified form of poetry might find, if they could survey the true history of human literature, that the converse is closer to the truth."

Dylan's genius is, Williams contends, as a performer. The act of composing the song is only preparation for the moment of its performance. At that moment, the artist is telling us everything we need to know about his art and his life.

This performed art, "art that is written in the air rather than on paper or canvas," is by nature gone with the wind. Or used to be. The contemporary proliferation of audio and video technology allows for documentation of performance artists like Dylan to a degree historically unthinkable. The first few years of Dylan's professional life were hit and miss; but since 1970 nearly every performance he's given has been captured on tape recorded by audience members or pirated from record-company vaults. Paul Williams saw enough of those shows to earn a Deadhead's respect. And what he didn't witness personally, he's lived with on tape. Consequently Bob Dylan: Performing Artist is a staggering act of scholarship and devotion.

As Williams follows his exhaustive trail through 26 years of Dylan music--records and studio outtakes are considered alongside stage performances--he offers real insight into why Dylan's musical persona keeps changing in the often mysterious ways it does.

For instance, on Dylan's 1978 tour, "the songs had new arrangements because he believed in them as living creations, he was celebrating their elasticity and universality, and he was also insisting that he be allowed to sing them as the person he was at the moment. It wasn't so much that the new arrangements were more representative of who he was now than the old ones--it was that he had to consciously strip the songs of their nostalgic value in order to be able to freely perform them as a singer, a living artist, rather than as some kind of phonograph."

Or this on Dylan's famous habit of keeping his accompanists in the dark and off guard: "Dylan believes in spontaneity . . . and knows how easy it is to fall into a sleepwalking groove. So he invented a way to create a dynamic between himself and the song he's singing, one that can change each time depending on the mood or spirit of the moment, but at the same time is structured and familiar enough so it doesn't have to be thought about." It is a process Williams describes elsewhere as "a sort of spontaneous combustion."

Such perceptions would be irrelevant if the process described had not yielded performances that continue to touch and influence us, that in fact remain more powerful than most of the subsequent works they inspired.

In 1975, for example, a lot of us heard in Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" what seemed to be the Next Move: roughly, Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as played by one of Van Morrison's better bands. These days when I listen to "Blinded by the Light" I hear the move more than the music. But when I listen to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" I hear "the whole history of music": past (Chuck Berry), present (Dylan himself), and future (any rapper). And the song contains hidden futures; this kind of dazzling wordplay set to a sound nobody had ever heard before is a combination that the most forward-looking hip-hoppers dream of achieving.

Reassuring as it is to find the classics undiminished under Williams's scrutiny, it is in the second volume (1974-'86) that Williams's scholarship pays its most revelatory dividends. Prevailing wisdom has it that Dylan hasn't done much of comparable worth since Blood on the Tracks in 1975. Sure, he's spit out product as regularly as any workaday Joe, but it has lacked some crucial artistic context; the musical equivalent of a new Woody Allen movie. Williams denies this viewpoint with a vengeance. The only thing lacking, he claims, has been you.

Of course, he can't deny that Dylan hasn't exactly been making it easy for you. With the singer now fully committed to himself as a performing artist--as the expression "Neverending Tour" implies--recording sessions have become just one more tour stop, and the resulting records stand, at best, a haphazard chance of being the right performance at the right time.

Williams contends that definitive performances of many of Dylan's newer songs do happen; it's just that these days they're more likely to happen in Memphis or Montgomery than in Columbia's studio A. Williams wades through hundreds of hours of tape to discover and pinpoint them, and the critic finds in this the final proof that "the essence is not automatically present in the words and music of a song," that it requires the right performance to complete the circuit and bring them fully to life.

Paul Williams has an easy, intimate style that makes him the ideal Neverending Tour guide. Describing a 1979 performance of "What Can I Do for You?" he says "There are a number of places in the song where Dylan has trouble making the words mean what he wants them to say. He sings them anyway, and so powerfully that the listener feels the intended meaning, and (usually unconsciously) scrambles the words to make them fit the felt truth."

The felt truth. What a wonderful way to describe the destination point of that chain dance of emotional sparks and evocations that a great work of art sets off.

These books can be read as the liner notes to the ultimate Bob Dylan box set, validation of his standing as one of the 20th century's preeminent artists. A Picasso, as someone once said. Williams convinces me of this on the strength of his descriptive writing about performances I've never heard.

I'm more than willing to take his word for it. Because as I go back to check the supposedly inferior album versions of the songs (which is all that's presently available to me), I'm getting a big surprise. Even in the weakest versions I'm finding strong echoes of the brilliance Williams hears elsewhere. I'm hearing these songs fresh, and finding all kinds of things in them I'd previously missed. This is the greatest gift a critic can bestow upon a reader.

He's given me Bob Dylan back.

This study makes a case for the art of Dylan in the largest sense. It explores the impact his work has had (and, Williams makes you believe, will continue to have) on our culture. It examines big questions about the relationship between artist and audience.

But it also makes its case in a much smaller sense, chronicling the impact of the artist's lifetime of work on one man. This is the Bob Dylan that these books have returned to me. My own personal Dylan. The Bob Dylan who incites passion and inflames imagination. The Dylan who, most of all, has never stopped telling me that reinvention of self is not just some cheap show-biz trick, or even the exclusive province of the "artist." It is a way of embracing life, getting inside it, a way of expressing hope and acting on it.

We're lucky to have Bob Dylan. And Bob Dylan is lucky to have Paul Williams.

Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: The Early Years 1960-1973 by Paul Williams, Underwood Miller, $15.95.

Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: The Middle Years 1974-1986 by Paul Williams, Underwood Miller, $15.95.

Paul Williams has recently revived Crawdaddy! in a subscription-only newsletter format. Copies are $4 per issue, or $12 for a year's worth, and may may be obtained from Crawdaddy!, PO Box 611, Glen Ellen, CA 95442.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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