Greville St Bookstore

Joan & Bob
September 12, 2009, 5:28 am
Filed under: Music

Dylan - Revolution in the Air

by Clinton Heylin
HB $45

No matter how big the corpus of writings on Dylan grows, it seems that each year brings us a weighty new tome that challenges or expands our perceptions of his career to date. Clinton Heylin is no stranger to Dylan, having published several previous books, including the classic Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades – Take Two. But he’s maybe outdone himself with this new project, the first of two books that will look at every song that Dylan has written, beginning with ‘Song to Brigit’, rumored to be the first ever song Dylan wrote circa 1956-57, through to 2006.

This first volume recounts the stories behind 300 songs Dylan wrote from his earliest days up until Planet Waves. Heylin goes to great lengths in his introduction to distinguish his book from others, in particular his decision to set out the songs in the order in which they were written rather than recorded. He includes every song Dylan is known to have written, including those never recorded, and for the latter, where possible, he tracks down original manuscripts of lyrics rather than relying on transcripts from live concert recordings. For each entry or song, Heylin provides the story, the context, the background, stylistic or other influences, and provides data on first performance, first recording, and prior publication of the lyrics. Song entries run from half a page to half a dozen pages.

It is probably fair to say this is not a book for reading cover to cover, certainly not in a single sitting. Heylin’s research is meticulous and exhaustive, and probably best approached whilst listening to the songs on a particular album, perhaps with a copy of the 1985 or 2004 collected lyrics to hand. But for anyone making the effort, there is much new information to be found here, Heylin’s aim being nothing less than “providing an authoritative history of the most multifaceted canon in twentieth century popular song.”

There are few artists who warrant this sort of attention. In last month’s Rhythms, Brian Wise spoke about a friend who’d lashed out on a Blue Ray DVD player, just so as to spend the next few months rooting around in Neil Young’s Archives Vol I. So too does Dylan deserve that special attention, perhaps more than any other popular recording artist. The more we listen, read and learn, the more we uncover, which is the sign of any great artist. In what is an increasingly crowded marketplace, Heylin’s new book rightfully takes its place on the shelf as one of the dozen essential books on Dylan’s remarkable career. As Dylan said in a 1985 interview: “It’s not for me to understand my songs… they make sense to me, but it’s not like I can explain them”. Thankfully, we have Heylin for that.
Joan Baez

by Joan Baez
pb $34.95

For better or worse, it has been Joan Baez’s lot in life to have her name indelibly linked to that of Bob Dylan’s. I imagine this must grate at times, given their personal relationship was nearly half a century ago and lasted little more than three years, up until his triumphant tour of England in the spring of 1965. Of her first meeting with Bob, she remembers: “I first saw Bob Dylan in 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. He was not overly impressive… He spat out the words to his own songs. They were original and refreshing, if blunt and jagged. He was absurd, new and grubby beyond words”. She was soon in love, introducing him at her shows, promoting his genius to whoever would listen; a favour not returned once his own career took off.

Baez proffers at the outset her gratitude to have been born gifted with a remarkable singing voice, a soprano pure as the driven snow. To that we could add her striking good looks, the product of Scottish and Mexican ancestry. Given her somewhat lower profile these days, it’s easy to forget just how big she was at the dawn of the sixties, debuting as a nineteen year old at the Newport Folk Festiv
al in 1959, selling out concert halls in New York and Boston by 1961, featuring on the cover of Time magazine in 1962, and eventually seeing the decade out in style at Woodstock. (Oh, and she tells us her name is pronounced more like “Bize”, rather than “Buy-ezz”).

Joan Baez first published her memoir in 1987, and my only complaint with this re-issue is that it hasn’t been updated to account for the past twenty years. However, that said, there’s more than enough living in her book to account for half a dozen lives. She is candid about her years with Dylan, and the pain he caused her, including her return match as part of Bob’s mid-seventies Rolling Thunder review, which saw her perversely dress up and perform onstage as his twin. She details other relationships, in particular her first husband David Harris, who was in prison for draft dodging at the time Baez performed at Woodstock, and her sister Mimi, wife of talented novelist Richard Farina, who was tragically killed in a motorcar accident in 1966.

But perhaps Baez has been defined more than anything else by her commitment to non-violence and politics. So po-faced and unwavering is she in pursuit of justice for all, that it’s easy to see why comic artist Al Capp felt impelled to poke fun at her by creating the character of Phoanie Joanie in his sixties strip Li’l Abner. Baez recounts her opposition to the Vietnam War, her visit to Hanoi, her role in Amnesty International, her support for mothers of the ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, her concerts in post-Franco Spain. She lectures and cajoles her audience from the stage between songs that, well, pretty much carry a political message anyway. Some of her personal memories, su
ch as her friendship with Martin Luther King, remain moving; others, such as her wide-eyed admiration for the walrus-mustached Lech Walesa, seem, with hindsight, past their use-by-date.

To its credit, Baez’s memoir goes out in style, as she performs in the circus that was Live Aid. Believing it to be the Woodstock for an eighties generation, she hitches herself to Sir Bob Geldof’s bandwagon. In reality, it turns out to be anything but, as rampant egos fight it out for best dressed and access to the ‘red mike’ during an all-in rendition of ‘We are the World’. She knows that the best of her career is behind her, and that, unlike Dylan, she’ll be forever relegated in people’s minds to the ghetto of sixties folk music. But she’s happy to be there, to be part of it all still, singing hand in hand with Chrissie Hynde, whilst eyeing off the “charismatic hunk of maleness” that is Don Johnson, having stayed true to her beliefs, and to the gift that she was born with.

—reviewed by Des Cowley


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