Sunday, March 1, 2015

Pop Journalism: Books on Bob Dylan, The Band and Paul Simon

“Definition of rock journalism: People who can't write, doing interviews with people who can't think, in order to prepare articles for people who can't read.”

Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

This quote from Frank Zappa has always struck me as funny. Funny because, having written several thousand words of music reviews over the years, it might even apply to me. Of course I rarely if ever interview anyone, it’s all just my opinion. I might borrow a controversial quote, like this one, and use it as a springboard into a discussion about something or other. But does Zappa speak for all rock journalism? I just finished reading the third of a series of new books published by Rowman & Littlefield about rock music. American rock music specifically. The publisher has selected a cross section of important American artists and matched each of them with an appropriate author to come up with books on Bob Dylan, the Band, Paul Simon and others yet to come. I have read the Dylan, Simon and The Band books. They stand individually, but they also sometimes lean on each other for support. The first book in the series is Bob Dylan: American Troubadour by Donald Brown. Brown is a theatre critic and book reviewer at the New Haven Review. He also teaches at Yale. His book begins with a timeline contrasting important events in the history of the world (Dec.7 1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbour) with important dates in the life of Dylan (May 24, 1941 born as Robert Allen Zimmerman to parents Abram and Beatrice in Duluth, MN). A similar timeline appears in the Paul Simon book but is inexplicably missing from The Band volume. 

Brown provides a fairly straightforward biography for a beginning Dylan scholar. Since I grew up with Dylan on the radio, turntable and bookshelf and have read volumes of biography and criticism Brown’s material seemed a tad shallow. Nevertheless, the facts are all there. Included in this biographical material are assessments of each of Dylan’s albums, one at a time, presented chronologically. Brown looks at virtually every song, describing them both musically and as poetry. For instance he mentions “Dylan’s evocative harmonica, suggestive of a life on the trail” when looking at “John Wesley Harding” and follows that with this comment, “We are given a miniature of Harding, something we can look at in various lights until perhaps we can begin to see what he was like.” Really? We can begin to see what this outlaw, whose name Dylan doesn’t even give us correctly, is like? Was John Wesley Hardin “a friend to the poor”? He claimed to have killed 42 men, and although he sometimes stayed with family and friends while on the lam, was it friendship or fear that led to this hospitality? I’m picking nits here because interpreting Dylan’s lyrics can become a personal obsession. So Bob Dylan: American Troubadour is more a useful introduction to Dylan Studies.

The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music is written by author, educator, percussionist and photographer Craig Harris. Harris actually played with Rick Danko (The Band’s bassist) so has a close personal kinship with the group. It helps since his volume is more visceral than Brown’s Dylan book. Harris begins by setting the stage of where American music was when The Band first came on the scene. He describes the Folk Music revival of the early 60s and the arrival of Bob Dylan in New York. He tells of the growth of the folk music scene through interviews with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul & Mary) and others who played the coffeehouse scene. Dylan buys an electric guitar and finds a band, who have been backing Arkansas rockabilly singer Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. Harris captures a sense of how remarkable The Band really were in his descriptions of their songs and music. They managed to include influences from the folk music boom, mixed with blues, ragtime, and even jazz. They were, perhaps, the most American of all music groups, even more astonishing since four of them hailed from Canada. Harris’s interpretation of the songs takes us down similar roads to Donald Brown’s, although Robbie Robertson’s lyrics are never as obscure as Dylan’s. The real revelations come in passages from interviews with Danko and Helm, asserting their role in creating the unique sound of The Band. And, of course, the incredible creativity of Garth Hudson on any number of keyboards brought something new to the table. “’Garth got some distinctive sounds [on "This Wheel’s on Fire"],' said Helm, ‘by running a telegraph key through a Roxochord toy organ. He just hit that key when he wanted that sound.’” We also discover that Robertson’s lyrics for “Chest Fever” were improvised for rehearsal and never rewritten. The feel was everything. And who can deny the power of “Chest Fever”? Harris’s book takes its place alongside Barney Hoskins’ marvellous Across the Great Divide, and Levon Helm’s essential This Wheel’s On Fire.

In Cornel Bonca's Paul Simon: An American Tune, you quickly see how Simon seemed closer to the classic American Songbook writers like Hoagy Carmichael rather than Dylan who arose from the Woody Guthrie tradition, despite the fact that both happen to play acoustic guitars. Cornel Bonca is professor of English and comparative literature at California State University. Just the kind of person to assess the work of Paul Simon, whose lyrics carry the tone of a student of comparative literature. Bonca is a fan of early and late period Simon. He sees the One Trick Pony and Hearts & Bones years as the weakest in Simon’s repertoire. I have personally always had a soft spot for those two albums. The funkiness of a real live R&B/jazz band (Stuff) and the maturity of subject matter (not unlike Dylan’s divorce album Blood On the Tracks) set the stage for the wonders of Graceland but Bonca calls them “mistakes on top of mistakes on top of mistakes.” Admittedly his view is the popular one, but I have returned to these albums time and time again. Bonca’s book is an improvement over previous Paul Simon biographies (by Marc Eliot or Patrick Humphries), and his interpretations are educated and thought provoking.

Kudos to Rowman & Littlefield for taking this path and providing this new series of critical books on American music. But there was one called British Invasion: The Crosscurrents of Musical Influence, which I assumed would deal with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Searchers, Gerry & the Pacemakers, et al who tried to bring an English voice to American music. However, the book was more an evaluation of the reaction of American musicians to that British Invasion and dealt primarily with The Byrds and Bob Dylan again. It was nevertheless an interesting read, and also served to flesh out the topic. Other titles in the series include Bruce Springsteen: American Poet & Prophet, Patti Smith: America’s Punk Rock Rhapsodist, Ska: the Rhythm of Liberation and Bon Jovi: America’s Ultimate Band. There’s a title for you! There may be more to rock journalism than Mr. Zappa thought!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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