THINGS HAVE CHANGED: Review – Stephen Scobie, ‘Always Other Voices: Writings on Bob Dylan in the 21st century’

Review of Stephen Scobie, Always Other Voices: Writings on Bob Dylan in the 21st century, Gateshead (UK): Two Riders, 2018, 215 pp

Since the work of Bob Dylan, in so many ways an archetypal twentieth-century artist, entered the twenty-first century, things have changed – as he reminds us continually in the song thus titled which has in recent times become his permanent concert opener. Today’s perspectives for informed commentary on Dylan now need to include a multitude of developments in the Dylan world since 2001. A non-exclusive list would include: the publication in 2004 of Chronicles, Volume One, with all the reliability issues that memoir raises; the Theme Time Radio Hour programme that ran from 2006 to 2009 with Bob Dylan as DJ; the fixed or near-fixed setlist phenomenon that has characterised recent tours; the evidence of Dylan’s composition methods revealed in the work-in-progress material on various Bootleg Series releases; the debate over the literary borrowings on “Love and Theft” and Modern Times; the enigma of 2009’s surprise Christmas album; the unexpected retro turn to Great American Songbook covers starting with 2015’s Shadows in the Night; and, last but not least, the award in 2016 of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the resultant polemic. All of these issues merit reference in Stephen Scobie’s book.

 

There has indeed been a pressing need for new studies that would take on board all this and more. A major contribution to filling this gap occurred with the publication in 2017 of Why Bob Dylan Matters (US title; in the UK, Why Dylan Matters) by the Harvard classical scholar Richard Thomas, which took full account of Dylan in the 21st century. Stephen Scobie’s new volume may be seen as playing a parallel role, in terms of Dylanological up-to-dateness and rigour, to that of the excellent Thomas study. I have reviewed Richard Thomas’ volume on this blog (entry: 1 June 2018),  and here note that there is a significant interplay and echoing of viewpoints between it and the book now under review, notably on such live-wire topics as plagiarism/intertextuality, Dylan live today and the Nobel award. At the same time, there is a significant methodological difference between the two works, as Thomas’ book is a continuous narrative while Scobie’s is a collection of (mostly) previously published material ranging for the most part (there are a pair of incursions into earlier times) from 2003 to the present day. The date of 2003 is significant as that year saw the second edition (Alias Bob Dylan Revisited) of Scobie’s book-length study of Dylan, originally published in 1991 as Alias Bob Dylan: incidentally, I reviewed Alias Bob Dylan Revisited at the time, in The Bridge (No. 22, Summer 2005, pp. 82-92).

If anyone is qualified to write on Dylan simultaneously from the viewpoints of academic and literary credentials and enthusiastic fandom, it is Stephen Scobie – on the one hand, a retired professor of English literature at the University of Victoria in Canada and an acclaimed poet and 1980 laureate of the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry; and, on the other, a devotee of Bob Dylan (and Leonard Cohen too) across half a century, who can not only confess: ‘I have been listening to Bob Dylan for over 50 years now, and writing about him, and, whenever possible, going to his concerts’ (p. 205), but also emotively declare: ‘Thank you, Bob, for the soundtrack album of my life’ (p. 8).

The book consists of 20 chapters, all from the period 2003-2018 except for two from 1991 and 1998 respectively. The material comprises an interview with Andrew Muir from 2004, a concert review from 2017, three conference papers, and 15 straight articles. Three of the items are previously unpublished and one had appeared before in German but not in English. For the remainder, the organs of original publication range from conference proceedings to Judas!, Hobo, and The Bridge. Frequent cross-reference to Alias Bob Dylan Revisited makes it clear that in some ways at least, the author sees this volume as a kind of lengthy postscript to that book, albeit differently arranged.

Scobie sees in Dylan’s work – here as in the two editions of Alias – a constant displacement of meaning and the endless creation of multiple selves: ‘All of Dylan’s career, I have repeatedly argued throughout my writings, is saturated with this motif of the double: alias, mask, shadow …’ (p. 41): not in vain does Arthur Rimbaud’s celebrated (and ungrammatical) pronouncement ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is another’) recur across this book’s pages. At the same time, Scobie declares Bob Dylan’s voice to be ‘the greatest expressive instrument of its age’ (p. 121). Thus, the themes of this volume embrace, on the one hand, textuality – the generation of ever-new meanings through the written and sung word – and on the other, performance, be it in concert or on film.

The performance elements include, cinematically, reviews of or articles around three Dylan films – Masked and Anonymous, No Direction Home and I’m Not There – and an extended paper comparing Dylan’s work with the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard; and concert-wise and the last chapter in the book, a vibrant review of Dylan live in Vancouver on 25 July 2017 – in which Scobie endeavours to get to grips with the fixed setlist phenomenon, speculating that ‘perhaps, in advanced age, he finds it easier to remember the same set every night’ (p. 209), and turning the whole thing to Dylan’s advantage by implying that concert and setlist become a work of art, that ‘this concert (like, I assume, many recent shows which I have not seen) [and which would have the same or almost the same setlist] presents in memorable form a summation of where Bob Dylan and his music now stand’ (p. 206).

Dylan’s literary dimension receives the requisite attention with two pieces on Chronicles, Volume One (one a straight review and the other written somewhat later, in the wake of the book’s success), and a detailed (and necessary) essay on the Nobel which powerfully fuses the public and the personal. Scobie notes the particularities of Chronicles: not a conventional linear autobiography; brimful of textual and musical allusions; and brilliantly titled, between the biblical associations and the open-endedness suggested by ‘Volume One’. The two essays taken together form an eminently valuable explorer’s guide to Dylan’s inexhaustible memoir. Chronicles of course raises the more general issue of intertextuality versus plagiarism (as also do the vexed issues of ‘Love and Theft’/Junichi Saga and Modern Times/Henry Timrod and Ovid), and Scobie enters that debate – in the Godard piece and elsewhere – to come down (very much as Richard Thomas’ analysis does) firmly on the side of intertextuality: ‘The borrowing enriches, rather than diminishes, his own text. Plagiarism attempts to steal credit; Dylan (…) [attempts] to incorporate and extend credit’ (p. 191). The theme of inter-authorial relations also inspires an intriguing piece comparing the art of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, from which we learn that if Dylan has covered Cohen (one song only: two performances of ‘Hallelujah’ in 1988), Cohen in all his life never once covered anything by Dylan.

That did not prevent a Cohen soon to leave us from disinterestedly praising Dylan to the skies when he learnt that his rival had won the Nobel – and Scobie duly quotes Cohen’s image of the award as ‘pinning a ribbon on Everest for being the highest mountain’. Scobie aligns himself unequivocally with the pro-Dylan cohort in the ‘did he deserve it?’ debate, commenting on Cohen’s comment: ‘In other words, something so overwhelmingly right and obvious that it brooks no disagreement: it is simply a force of nature’ (p. 203). The article on the Nobel is finely balanced across multiple perspectives. Scobie begins by telling us how he heard the news in the intervals of sleep and woke up to ask himself, ‘Had I dreamed it?’. He goes on to give full credit to the long-standing Dylan-for-Nobel campaign and its protagonists – Allen Ginsberg, Gordon Ball and the Norwegians Reidar Indrebo and Gunnar Lunde – while also delightedly relating his own part in the nomination (a letter of support included in the official package). He goes on to narrate the by now well-known roller-coaster history of Dylan’s response to the award, while not failing to take up the cudgels against those who would claim that song and performed verbal art cannot be literature (‘Any definition of “literature” which excludes both Homer and Shakespeare is, to put it mildly, suspect’ – p. 199).

And then there are the songs. The serious study of Dylan began in 1972 with Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man, in other words with the detailed examination and appreciation of his mastery of language – literary close reading of sung text and text on the page – and it is only fitting that Scobie’s book should also contain passages of such analysis. Not, be it added, of the most obvious material: there is a detailed take on the early (and little-known) ‘Long Time Gone’ and its biblical sources; a careful dissection of a single stanza of ‘Farewell Angelina’; an impressive exploration of the symbolism of the door in three songs, ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’ and ‘Forgetful Heart’; and a probing account of ‘Scarlet Town’, considered by Scobie the best song on Tempest, which offers a valuable starting-point for the still-absent full analysis of what remains Dylan’s most recent album of originals (alas dismissed out of hand, for reasons never clarified, by someone as qualified to do it as Michael Gray …). Finally, and on a more light-hearted note, the volume includes the only serious review I have seen of Dylan’s holiday album ‘Christmas in the Heart’, an album no doubt seen as infinitely forgettable by most but which does not lack its merits (and in some ways, we can now see, prefigures the ‘Sinatra albums’). It is certainly interesting to note that, in a link which Richard Thomas curiously does not make, Scobie should pause over Dylan singing in Latin on the carol ‘Adeste Fideles’ (‘O Come All Ye Faithful’), and make the connection with his youthful membership of Hibbing High School’s Latin Club (p. 147).

Walt Whitman wrote of himself: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’. Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra, ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety’. Stephen Scobie’s new book pays homage to the tentacular reach of Bob Dylan’s artistic genius. What might appear eclectically diverse is in reality a tribute to the multitudinous nature of Bob Dylan’s world, and his admirers may receive Always Other Voices as a more than valid follow-up to Stephen Scobie’s two Alias books, and a multifaceted testimony to the infinite variety of Bob Dylan in the twenty-first century.

July 2018 – rollason54@gmail.com

Note added 14 August 2018: 

This review has now been published in ‘The Bridge’ (Gateshead, UK), No 61, Summer 2018, pp. 104-108.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Bo Jamgles on 5 July, 2018 at 04:41

    Christmas in the Heart is a great record. A true family favorite! I don’t know most, but everyone I know that’s heard it, loves it.

    Reply

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