Dylanology (or Idiot Wind): A Discipline Out of Tune

A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks, by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard. Da Capo, 246 pages, $25.

‘Do You, Mr. Jones?’ Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, edited by Neil Corcoran. Pimlico, 378 pages, $14.95.

Bob Dylan studies are in a bad way. Thirty years after he emerged from a Manhattan recording studio with the rough draft of his best album, Blood on the Tracks, Mr. Dylan’s legacy is being picked over by a throng of critics and academics who mistake breathlessness for insight. These two books-one of which is quite bad, the other harmless and utterly unnecessary-are a sure sign that it’s time for a moratorium on additions to the canon of Dylanology.

A Simple Twist of Fate, the work of Dylan aficionado Andy Gill and onetime Dylan sideman Kevin Odegard, takes its name from an engaging little song that leavened the generally cheerless disposition of Blood on the Tracks. Recorded after his split with Sara Lownds, Mr. Dylan’s “divorce album” is a wonderfully dark mood piece, fueled by equal measures of venom and regret. A good book about Blood on the Tracks would have been a good book indeed.

A book subtitled “The Making of … ” is bound to focus on the nuts-and-bolts details of the recording sessions-and lo, Messrs. Gill and Odegard have delivered a slim volume that will be of greatest interest to two groups of people: Dylan fanatics and anyone obsessed with mid-70’s recording-studio equipment. Readers curious about the musician’s mind-set are more likely to find themselves confronted with an engineer taking inventory of the studio gear: “The kick drum mike was a Shure M57, and the drum set overheads were two Neumann KM86s, small condenser mikes we also used for strings …. For the B-3 organ, we had a PM86 on the Leslie, and an SM5 on the regular speaker. The piano mikes were stereo, probably U87s or 451s.”

For the less technically adept, there’s a perfectly icky analysis of the fractious relationship between Mr. Dylan and his brother, David Zimmerman. Drawing on the insights of a self-help book about birth order and a rabbi who appears convinced that the brothers are the spiritual descendants of any number of truculent biblical siblings, Messrs. Gill and Odegard tell us what we already knew: It must have been hard being Bob Dylan’s brother.

The book is littered with hyperbole, overwrought sentences and annoying rock-critic lingo. Mr. Dylan is “the most famous musician on the planet”; Blood on the Tracks (not merely a record, but a “song-cycle”) is “the most moving, bittersweet collection of songs about love and art and pain ever committed to tape”; a drummer does not simply play the drums, he provides a “feather-light hi-hat tattoo.”

Messrs. Gill and Odegard remind us (unintentionally) of just how little rock journalism has evolved in the last 30 years. Who reviewed Blood on the Tracks for The Village Voice? Robert Christgau, of course. Rolling Stone, for its part, printed its first notice of the record in “Random Notes,” a feature that still limps along like an old pensioner. And in keeping with a long-standing tradition at RS, the obligatory five stars awarded to the album feel out-of-step with the relatively restrained accompanying review.

A Simple Twist of Fate may be pointless, but as we discover the moment we open ‘Do You, Mr. Jones?’, it’s no worse than the more highbrow drivel being written these days. Neil Corcoran, an English professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, proves it conclusively in his regrettable anthology of essays about Bob Dylan by poets and academics.

Here’s Christopher Butler, a professor of English and the author of a book on modernism, explaining why he and his ilk are suited to the task of decoding Dylan: “It may well be that it is post-Derridan theory that allows the academic critic to see such metaphoric excess as liberating a polymorphously perverse identity.”

Richard Brown, a James Joyce scholar, surely agrees: “In an oeuvre as extensive, diverse and axiomatically self-contradictory as Bob Dylan’s, the naïve readerly search for reductive kinds of significance or ‘message’ has typically been frustrated by a series of playful enigmatic turns which define the authorial intention as provocatively evasive or perverse.”

Mr. Corcoran, who takes a wider view, shares a glimpse of Mr. Dylan’s geopolitical significance: After recapping the singer’s apparently nonsensical speech at a 1991 National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences ceremony, he suggests that Mr. Dylan’s incoherent rambling might have been a calculated insult hurled at the United States for fighting the first Gulf War. “[H]e is possibly rebuking his audience and, through them,” Mr. Corcoran writes, “the American nation which, arguably, is only self-interestedly pursuing its foreign policy in the Gulf.”

Which calls to mind Greil Marcus’ oft-quoted line about Mr. Dylan’s 1970 album, Self Portrait: “What is this shit?”

The book is not entirely bad, actually. Princeton professor Sean Wilentz contributes a nice piece on the allusive Love and Theft (2001); British poet Lavinia Greenlaw winsomely recalls her discovery of Nashville Skyline (1969); and the poet Simon Armitage is funny and irreverent when recalling how he made room on his shelf for Bob Dylan alongside the punk rock and new wave.

“Bob Dylan doesn’t need the literary establishment to accredit his writing,” declares Mr. Armitage, who perhaps should have had a word with Mr. Corcoran before ‘Do You, Mr. Jones?’ went to press.

Kevin Canfield has reviewed books for The New York Times, the National Post of Canada and other publications.

Dylanology (or Idiot Wind): A Discipline Out of Tune