Lee Marshall, Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007)
ISBN 9780745636429. £14.99. 300 pp
Michael Hinds (Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University)
We have evolved to the point where we might talk about Dylan Studies as a distinct academic discipline; certainly enough has been published to justify such a claim. So academically at least, Dylan is describable legitimately as the dominant musical artist of the post-war twentieth century. Between his work, legend and life story, he has generated more writing (both in terms of critique and narrative) than Elvis, Miles Davis or Arvo Pärt. And no other lyricist of the twentieth century has prompted a critical response even remotely akin to Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin; indeed, out of all twentieth-century writers, only Beckett has got the kind of attention from Ricks that he gave to Dylan.
And yet that book is highly problematic, in that it cuts so directly and uncompromisingly through received notions of what it is to be a popular artist, which is how most readers of Dylan still seem to want to perceive him. Ricks offered very little of what a reader of rock criticism or rock history conventionally expects, and took certain aspects of Dylan-related knowledge for granted, particularly matters of the historical and cultural contexts for the production and reception of the music. Furthermore, Ricks did not bother with the canonical question of whether Dylan was as good as Keats, rather he gave him the same intensive reading that he gave Keats as if it was the obvious thing to do.
But it was not that obvious to a lot of readers, who found the intensity (and the brilliance) of Ricks’s method to be simply alienating. This was too much Ricks’s Dylan, and not their own. Which brings us back to the fundamental problem with Dylan studies, and indeed, practically all studies of popular music. The notion of subjective ownership that prevails in the mind of the music fan is a hard idea to deconstruct, all the more so today when technologies license you, me or Irene next door to talk about “My music” more than ever before. Nearly anyone working or writing in Rock Studies is primarily a fan, which means that their messy subjectivity is in the way of any argument you might want to put by them, and more aggressively so than if you were indeed writing about Keats. Part of the sometimes muted and other times aggravated reception of Ricks’s book was surely that his Dylan was too powerful for anyone else’s comfort. (An important example of the resentment that I am talking about is in Sean O’Hagan’s review of Dylan’s Visions of Sin for The Observer, September 14, 2003.)
Lee Marshall’s Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, part of Polity Press’s Celebrities series, shows an awareness of the dangers inherent in theorizing about your own fanhood. He writes in his acknowledgements firstly of his hard-earned membership of a fan community — “it is a remarkable feeling to arrive at a show alone in the safe knowledge that I’ll soon bump into someone I know,” but then says of his book that “[I]t was something I said I would never do”. That he then says he is glad he did needs to be recorded, but that prior confession of initial reluctance is telling, not least because the suggestion that his integrity as a fan may be damaged by the kind of analysis that such a book requires. How Marshall gets over this anxiety is by adopting a theoretical apparatus to deal with the Dylan phenomenon that will afford him a necessary dispassion. He opts to read Dylan as a star-text, in accordance with the recently evolved discourse of Star Theory (all thanks to Madonna and the Beckhams). This makes the sensible argument that stars are not self-sufficiently authoritative, and that they are most aptly discussed by attending to the variety of contexts within which their star-image is constructed. The self-reflexivity that has dominated a thousand years of western culture has therefore to be expanded to include the role of the audience and also for the social circumstances in which the stardom of Dylan is organized. Any mistake, any perceived horror or embarrassment, can still be read as a fascinating contribution to Dylan’s star-text.
A problem with this is that in practice Marshall finds Dylan to be much more interesting when he is still in some kind of authorial control rather than when he is viewed as so much product, as when he talks about the deliberately ironizing tricksterism of Dylan’s recent output. Authority is precisely what Marshall sees as constitutive of Dylan’s greatness, although he is anxious to claim that this authority is different to the literary understanding that we attach to the term. But who did not accept this already? Furthermore, for all its theoretical resistance to those who read Dylan’s work as poetry, Marshall has the good taste to quote Ricks when he needs a telling reading of the lyrics (which we know he is disinclined to do himself). He also repeatedly situates Dylan’s work in literary contexts such as Romanticism in order to understand him. This is partly encouraged, of course, by Dylan’s own stated enthusiasm for Shelley, Rimbaud and Byron; but there is also a laboured exposition of Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and Wimsatt’s “intentional fallacy”, principally because Marshall cannot think of theoretical reference points for his analysis that are extra-literary. Arguably, this is good scholarship, but it is also very ponderous, even patronizing, as are the potted accounts of American History which emerge from time to time in the text (moments when Marshall should give that frail being “the general reader” a little credit for a little general knowledge).
Marshall’s problem with the idea of Dylan the poet arises because he is working with a limitedly academic definition of what a poet and poetry is. In his assertion that performativity provides a language more apt for reading Dylan than something text and hide-bound, he forgets that performativity is a fundamental of both lyric and epic singing. Marshall persuasively argues that stardom is made flesh through the voice, and performativity means that words should be looked at in terms of their expression rather than context. So, Marshall insists upon performativity productively, but is nevertheless sometimes too hung up on explaining the disaster of contemplating Dylan in other ways to convince entirely with his performance analyses, and a more complicated sense of what a Dylan Performance might mean does not really emerge. Too often this book comes close to saying “but you have to be there really”; this may be true, and to an extent I agree, but it is a pretty impoverished ground for analysis and argument.
Stardom is all very well, but it is just as necessary to write about the complexities of fandom, without which stardom flickers out very swiftly. And fandom is different to the notion of an audience, as fandom is not the collective experience that we might glibly assume it to be. Screaming out “Judas” in Manchester Free Trade Hall, or peeing yourself because you are screaming at The Beatles is a personal business, no matter how many other people are doing it simultaneously. The fan in Marshall does not quite get to come out in this book, as he is too overcoated with his responsibilities as a teacher and interpreter to enjoy himself. The Ricks text is such a wonder because of the ire it produced — the kind of ire you can prompt by plugging in an amp — but also because it is in fact an unapologetic and unworried fan-book, which is playing hard and fast with the riskiness of trampling on another fan’s readings. A curious effect of Marshall’s book is that you feel that his anxiety over ruining Dylan for himself (and others) never quite disappears.
Marshall asserts that “rock” is the key term for interpreting Dylan, because Rock (as opposed to rock n’ roll) did not effectively exist until the Electrification at Newport. It is a convention of rock criticism that youth is a necessary index for rock music. Marshall’s book forces a realization that this might have been alright for the past, but now rock is effectively a mode of understanding lost youth, and is no longer as meaningful a category as it once was. Marshall claims he will focus on Dylan’s latest work, from The Never Ending Tour onwards, but more often than not ends up talking about the 1960s, perhaps proving that Star-Dylan cannot shake off the role he had in the 1960s, or rather that Dylanists cannot shake it off, no matter how many other roles he may attempt to conjure. But maybe that is only true for those who grew up with him. That Dylan stood for something (or a variety of things) is not open to doubt, but whether this is something that we needed to be reminded of is surely debatable; and if we are being frank, he also means nothing at all to some people, like our children. Or rather, he stands for the very kind of music that our children associate with being old.
Marshall is unfortunate in one specific regard, as he did not have time to incorporate Todd Haynes’s star-crossed I’m Not There into his book, as the film would have provided a perfect match for his analytical framing, not least in the way one Hollywood star after another acts their pants off in the pursuit of “their” Bob Dylan, only to leave you more curious than ever about the real thing, Dylan himself. Ultimately, however, this book will not make you view Dylan any differently from how you viewed him already. Dylanists, as you were. He remains a problem, spilling out of whatever specificity that we may try to impose upon him. Gratifyingly, the man himself is still producing work that is more interesting than anything we might have to say about him.