Is the Cult of Rootsiness Ruining Dylan’s Songs?

O.K., here’s my idea: Maybe it’s time for Bob Dylan to shift from writing more songs to writing more books.

O.K., here’s my idea: Maybe it’s time for Bob Dylan to shift from writing more songs to writing more books. Chronicles, the first volume of his memoirs, was brilliant; Modern Times, the new album, a wildly overhyped disappointment. I don’t want him to stop singing and playing, just spend more time writing Chronicles-level prose rather than giving us more of the doggerel verse of Modern Times—songs that only hard-core Bobolators could praise.

“Bobolators,” you might recall, is the phrase I coined for the sycophants who lavished praise on his leadenly pretentious film Masked and Anonymous (The Observer, July 28, 2003). It marked the moment of my exile from Bob-land, the Dylan-industrial complex restricted to those who never say an unkind word.

But I think we owe it to an artist to be honest with him, and it doesn’t seem that Dylan is getting the straight truth from the Bobolators. (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I derived the word from “Bardolators,” the term for those who insist that everything Shakespeare wrote is touched with the same level of genius. A tendency the critic Frank Kermode warned was self-subverting: If we are unable to say Shakespeare wrote badly or at least less well at times, it detracts from the credibility of our praise for the Bard at his best.)

But Bobolatry is back with Modern Times. This is the Emperor’s New Album, yet unstinting is the praise for its finery. I think it’s worth exploring the origin of the particular form of Bobolatry that has evolved—the Rootsiness Fallacy—in what I think of as the Great Schism in Dylan culture. Because it has begun to seem that uncritical reverence for “rootsiness” for its own sake has had a deleterious effect on Dylan’s work.

I feel I have some credibility to comment on the matter as a longtime Dylan admirer and exegete. Check out, if you will, the long quote from my interview with Dylan in Louis Menand’s thoughtful recent (Sept. 4) New Yorker essay. The quote in which Dylan eloquently describes the sound he’d been seeking and uses what has become a resonant signature phrase, “that thin, that wild mercury sound.” Mr. Menand punctuates the excerpt from my interview by saying, “There’s not much to add to that.”

The new album not only does not add much more, it subtracts from Dylan’s legacy. There’s no blood in these tracks. No “thin wild mercury” but rather thin mild mediocrity. It’s the kind of album that only the most brilliant of critics could find the resources to make a case for. And they have tried, they have, many of the best and brightest, but what a strain. And at what cost.

Because one feels the faults of this album come precisely from Dylan listening to the misguided flattery of his chorus of Bobolators and diminishing his music because of it. If he continues to listen to them, with their self-satisfied worship of “rootsiness,” he’ll just go on producing more uninspired albums like this. His flatterers have defined Dylan down: His excellence now is measured by the way his music corresponds to his cultivation of their cult of rootsy “authenticity.”

And by the way, aren’t you getting a little tired of being lectured about the greatness of rootsiness by rock critics? If everything has to be rootsy—i.e., backward-looking—no new roots will ever grow.

But back to Modern Times: The new album is possibly the worst since Self Portrait, with songs that rarely rise above the level of Dylan’s low point (“Winterlude”)—and everybody seems afraid to say so.

The Great Schism

The Great Schism in Dylan culture consists, on one side, of those who believe that everything that Dylan has done—but especially his recent so-called “trilogy,” of which Modern Times is the alleged capstone—is worthy of sanctification. (Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft are the other two). This late “trilogy” (to my knowledge, Dylan himself never called it that) has become virtually a Trinity, a holy Ghost World.

The other pole of the schism consists of those who believe that there is, in effect, a schism, or at least a Great Division within Dylan’s work. That while there is much that is worthy, even great, in Late Dylan (“Dark Eyes,” “Every Grain of Sand”), still, cumulatively, it doesn’t approach the astonishing, dazzling “thin wild mercury” breakout period around Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and (skipping a few) Blood on the Tracks. When Dylan was doing things that hadn’t been done before, couldn’t be derived from, determined by or predicted from his “roots.”

I’d argue that the incandescent originality of that earlier “trilogy” has never been equaled by Dylan, precisely because it wasn’t “rootsy.” Yes, it had influences, but it made a quantum leap beyond them, grew its own unique roots. That has to happen every once in a while: The old roots don’t have to be the only roots.

That’s what makes him especially interesting. Exceptional—not following the rote rootsy rules but breaking them, growing his own. Hamlet had “influences” in the old Elizabethan revenge-tragedy tradition. But we don’t value Hamlet for its roots in the revenge-tragedy tradition, but for the way it transcended them. I’m not equating Dylan with Shakespeare, mind you, just trying to critique the cult of rootsiness.

You can find reflections, gleams of that wild mercury glory in the later work, but it is those gleams, not that work as a whole, that make him more distinctive than any number of good contemporary songwriters that you could name. “Brownsville Girl,” much as I kind of like it, is no “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” I liked Time Out of Mind, but I rarely have replayed it (I wonder if even the Bobolators do). But I’ve replayed the earlier trilogy and its wild, mercurial live incarnations (Live 1966 and Live 1975) incessantly.

But let’s try to listen to the new album to illustrate this Schism Theory of mine in practice. The first and only non-embarrassing song on the album, “Thunder on the Mountain,” is an example of the automatic-pilot Late Dylan chugga-chugga-rootsy-rootsy rote groove that got praised to death on Love and Theft. It’s derivative of a derivative.

On the second song, “Spirit on the Water,” he actually sounds like—can I get a witness?—he’s holding his nose while singing certain portions of the relentlessly insipid lyrics. Not just Dylan’s sometimes-annoying Budokan nasality, but like he’s holding his nose in actual distaste for his own work.

The third song, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” is a pointless though perhaps loving theft of Muddy Waters’ “roll and tumble” riff—the kind of thing that the rootsy cultists like best about Late Dylan. It gives them something to name-check from their vast repertoire of rootsy references—they’re Steve Buscemi in Ghost World. Nothing wrong with that, but they want to give us Dylan as Steve Buscemi in Ghost World (a movie I loved, by the way—I just think there’s more to Dylan than the Ghost World aspect.)

But the Ghost World acolytes of Late Dylan praise a Dylan whose virtues are basically “curatorial” (the critic Alex Abramovich’s useful term for the cult of authenticity). This song, for instance, is curatorial electric blues.

Yes, let’s call the Late Dylan faction of the schism the Curatorial Dylan Faction—those who judge the worth of his work by whether or not it revives revered old bluesmen, crusty old country singers like Bob Wills, or the sacralized “old weird America,” fascinating as it is. (It’s the “O Dylan, Where Art Thou?” Dylan.)

The other pole of the schism might say that at his “thin wild mercury” best, Dylan was inventing, not imitating. Inventing a new weird America that still hasn’t been fully explored because the Ghost World faction has convinced Dylan he’s better off as a curator of the Old. Yes, the Cult of Originality can be as problematic as the Cult of Origins, but without any originality there would be no origins.

Moving on, there’s more rootsy chugga-chugga on “Someday Baby,” and O.K., “Workingman’s Blues #2” has a surprising touch of old Dylan love-song magic.

But the low point, the defining low point is “Beyond the Horizon,” which manages to lift (or, cough, pay homage to) the insipid melody of “Red Sails in the Sunset” and to do something one would have thought impossible: saddle that tired horse with even more insipid moon-June lyrics than the original. A stunning achievement! It makes “Winterlude” seem complex.

ENOUGH! I FEEL BAD HAVING TO SAY THIS sort of thing, but somebody does: Dylan seems so insulated by his coterie of flatterers. So let’s turn to Dylan the non-song writer. Dylan the writer-writer.

I thought Chronicles was so good, that Dylan wrote so brilliantly about the bohemian New York culture in which his early work evolved, and wrote better than anybody before about the painful process of producing his music, about music itself. This was not “give him extra credit because he’s not really a writer.” It was superb writing. Period.

Which is where a remarkable quote from Jonathan Lethem’s recent Rolling Stone Dylan interview comes in. Mr. Lethem wrote a dazzling celebration of Dylan in his Times Book Review essay on Christopher Ricks’ book. And Mr. Lethem’s interview contains some telling revelations (Dylan believes the late Jerry Garcia was the one person who could see into the soul of his songs and find the arrangements most true to them—who knew?).

But most of all, there is that genuinely touching passage in which Dylan talked to Mr. Lethem about writing books, and the reception of Chronicles.

“Dylan savored the reception of Chronicles,” Mr. Lethem writes, and then quotes him saying: “Most people who write about music, they have no idea what it feels like to play it. But with the book I wrote, I thought, ‘The people who are writing reviews of this book, man, they know what the hell they’re talking about.’ It spoils you … they know more about it than me. The reviews of this book, some of ’em almost made me cry—in a good way. I’d never felt that from a music critic ever.”

You gotta love the guy for the honesty of that—“some of ’em almost made me cry.” Mad props to the book reviewers! Back to your root cellars, rock critics.

I doubt Dylan read my appreciation of Chronicles in these pages (Oct. 11, 2004). After my attack on Masked and Anonymous, I don’t think anyone in the Dylan-industrial complex would show him anything with my byline. But I must admit that I wish he had read it. Few Dylan experiences can top evoking from him, face to face, that resonant “thin wild mercury” quote and the ensuing lyrical description of the “sound” that he distilled from New York’s streets. (Read the passage that Mr. Menand quotes—it’s almost an anticipation of the inspired prose of Chronicles.)

I wish he had read my review of Chronicles so I could say I made him cry. In a good way.

Is the Cult of Rootsiness  Ruining Dylan’s Songs?