Archive for July, 2021

The Dylan Review, Vol. 3.1, Summer 2021

The by now well-established Dylan Review has a new issue online – Vol. 3.1, Summer 2021, at:

The various authors scrutinise multiple aspects of Bob Dylan’s work. The issue opens with a timely multi-author set of tributes to the artist on his 80th birthday, by Anne Marie Mai, Timothy Hampton, Alessandro Portelli, Michael Gray, Alessandro Carrera, Andrew Muir and John Hughes. Jacqueline Osherow contributes a tribute poem. The articles include pieces on Dylan and Wallace Stevens (Jim Salvucci) and the influence of evangelist Hal Lindsey on the Christian Dylan (Jeffrey Lamp), and an in-depth analysis of ‘Gates of Eden’ (Sarah Gates). David Thurmaeir reviews the recently issued three-disc set Bob Dylan 1970, while the books reviewed include Luca Grossi’s Bob Dylan in Hell: Songs in Dialogue with Dante and Alessandro Portelli’s Bob Dylan, pioggia e vento: ‘Hard Rain’, una ballata fra tradizione e modernità (both reviewed by Michele Ulisse Lipparini); Jim Curtis’s Decoding Dylan (reviewed by John H. Serembus); and The World of Bob Dylan, edited by Sean Latham (reviewed by Christopher Rollason).

The last-named review being by myself, I have posted on it in a separate entry on this blog (today’s date).     


Reviewed: The World of Bob Dylan, edited by Sean Latham

Published in the latest volume of the Dylan Review (3.1, Summer 2021, pp. 37-47) is my review of:

Sean Latham (ed.), The World of Bob Dylan, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021, xix + 349 pp., ISBN 978-1-108-49951-4

The review can be found online at: For DR 3.1 as a whole, see my note on this blog (today’s date).

A extract from the review and summary of the book chapters follow.


The volume under review is a multi-author study of the figure and work of Bob Dylan from an extremely wide range of points of view. It is edited by Sean Latham, Walter Professor of English and Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa – also home to the Bob Dylan Archive and the Woody Guthrie Center – hosted the major conference held from 30 May to 2 June 2019 under the title ‘The World of Bob Dylan’ (in which this reviewer was a participant), although it should be stressed that this volume, despite the shared name, is not the proceedings of that conference. It may also be useful here to distinguish between: the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies (an academic research cell); the Bob Dylan Archive (a collection of over 100,000 objects for consultation on appointment, purchased in 2016 by Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with the University of Tulsa, and held at the city’s Gilcrease Museum); and the Bob Dylan Center (to be the public face of Dylan in Tulsa, scheduled for opening to the general public in 2022).

The World of Bob Dylan is presented as ‘the first published project to emerge from the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies’. It brings together 28 texts (introduction, chronology and 26 chapters proper) by a total of 26 contributors, the editor included. 18 are male and 8 female, while 22 are described as based in the US, one in Canada, two in the UK and one in Denmark. Most chapters appear to have been purpose-written for the volume. Two at least, however, originate in the 2019 Tulsa conference. The chapter by Greil Marcus is explicitly credited to his Tulsa keynote speech; that by Ann Powers, another keynoter, reads as if the publication of her text from the event; and there may be more. The role of the archive as a new determinant in Dylan studies is reflected in the fact that two of the contributors quote and formally credit material retrieved via their personal research activities there (…)


Introduction – Sean Latham

A Chronology of Bob Dylan’s life – Kevin Dettmar and Sean Latham

The Biographies – Andrew Muir

Songwriting – Sean Latham

The Singles: A playlist for framing Dylan’s recording art – Keith Negus

Folk Music – Ronald D. Cohen

The Blues: ‘Kill Everybody Ever Done Me Wrong’ – Greil Marcus

Gospel Music – Gayle Wald

Country Music: Dylan, Cash and the projection of authenticity – Leigh H. Edwards

Rock Music – Ira Wells

Roots Music: Born in a basement – Kim Ruehl

The Great American Songbook – Larry Starr

American Literature – Florence Dore

World Literature – Anne-Marie Mai

The Beats – Steven Belletto

Theatre – Damian A. Carpenter

Visual Arts: Goya’s Kiss – Raphael Falco

Borrowing – Kevin Dettmar

Judaism: Saturnine Melancholy and Dylan’s Jewish Gnosis – Elliot R. Wolfson

Christianity: An exegesis of ‘Modern Times’ – Andrew McCarron

The Civil Rights Movement – Will Kaufman

The Counterculture – Michael J. Kramer

Gender and Sexuality: Bob Dylan’s Body – Ann Powers

Justice – Lisa O’Neill-Sanders

The Bob Dylan Brand – Devon Powers

The Nobel Prize: The Dramaturgy of Consecration – James F. English

Dylan: Stardom and Freedom – Donald R. Shumway

The Bob Dylan Archive – Mark A. Davidson

Shadow Kingdom: Bob Dylan In Performance, 18 July 2021

The streaming event announced to much fanfare as featuring Bob Dylan’s first public performance since Washington DC on 8 December 2019 turned out to be less a live concert as such than a 50-minute film, self-defined as an ‘exclusive broadcast event’, signed by Israeli-American director Alma Har’el and titled Shadow Kingdom – The Early Bob Dylan.  The show had an audio and a video component: the video has not been universally liked and we will not discuss it on this occasion, but for many, including this reviewer, the audio – for purposes of this review we will still call it ‘the concert’ – exceeded all expectations and marked a triumphant return to performance by the now octogenarian Bob Dylan, a feast after a year and a half’s fast.

The concert was made available for streaming, subject to purchase of a ticket priced at $25, at 2 pm Pacific Time on 18 July 2021, remaining accessible for viewing or re-viewing for the next 48 hours. Dylan’s performance consisted of 13 songs at a venue believed to be in Santa Monica, California, accompanied by a five-piece band and (for the video and as a symbolic audience) a select cohort of actors. The instrumentation included acoustic and electric guitar, bass, accordeon and mandolin: Dylan played guitar or harmonica on some of the songs (there was no piano). Musically the concert was excellent, occupying a terrain somewhere between the worlds of country and electric blues. Above all, Dylan’s singing was remarkably good. No blurred vocals this time round: ‘every word of those words rang true’, with the clearest of enunciation and the sense that Bob Dylan, no longer tired of his creations, was revelling in the power of his own wordcraft.

This review will look at the 13 songs played from the viewpoint of two different kinds of sequencing that both inevitably mark Dylan concerts – first, the order of the songs played as reflected in the setlist, and second, the historical chronology of the originals of those same songs.

The show opens with ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, which will prove to be the only song repeated from Washington 2019: for the rest, the setlist will be totally refreshed. ‘Masterpiece’ is given a country-rock treatment and features some rewriting of the lyrics as compared to the original, the most arresting change being that the lions now have a ‘mean and hungry look’, which is interestingly close to Cassius’s ‘lean and hungry look’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Dylan’s clear enunciation already impresses.

Next up is ‘(Most Likely) You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’, in an arrangement with accordeon resulting in a countrification of the Blonde and Blonde original. ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ follows, slower and more reflective than on Highway 61 Revisited. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is done fast and a shade raucously. The Highway 61 album is then again raided for ‘Tombstone Blues’ (Dylan sings five of the six stanzas, omitting only the fourth) and ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ (done complete), in both of which he caresses the words almost conversationally.

‘To Be Alone With You’ has been almost completely rewritten, with little but tune and title phrase remaining from the Nashville Skyline original. The new lyrics appear as if from the mouth of a later-Dylan narrator from Time Out Of Mind or Modern Times: ‘Did I kill somebody? / Did I escape the law?’, ‘I’ll hound you in death / That’s what I’ll do’. This is virtually a completely new song that will require time to assimilate.

A complete contrast follows with ‘What Was It You Wanted?’, performed with a keen sensitivity (all seven verses complete) in a rendition close to the original with eloquent harmonica: this song, from 1989 and Oh Mercy, will prove to be the show’s most ‘recent’ number. Next comes a heartfelt ‘Forever Young’, followed by ‘Pledging My Time’ – perhaps not the profoundest song on Blonde and Blonde but certainly a surprise – whose classic blues sound, again, does not diverge far from the original.

The surprise factor continues with a moving rendition of ‘The Wicked Messenger’, probably this concert’s darkest song – and arguably its highlight. Against an arrangement denser than on John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s vocal is word perfect, with a dramatic elongation of ‘burning’ at the end of stanza two.

Next comes a rollicking ‘Watching the River Flow’, with some lyric changes but an atmosphere close to the original. Then Dylan returns to slow mode with an eloquent rendering of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ – a suitably valedictory song to close the show. There is no encore and, indeed, it’s all over.

There remains to be considered the second sequencing, namely the order of composition of the originals (all 13 are Dylan songs, no cover versions). The earliest song, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, dates from Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, the latest, ‘What Was It You Wanted?’, from 1989: confounding many fans’ expectations, there is nothing ‘new’, nothing from Rough and Rowdy Ways. At the other end, there is nothing from the first four albums, thus nothing from the ‘folk period’. Overwhelmingly, the songs chosen date from between 1965 and 1971: that is the case for eleven of them (if we include the rewritten ‘To Be Alone With You’, with only two hailing from later than 1971. In addition, Dylan has not on the whole chosen the most famous songs from the period preferred – there is no Like a Rolling Stone, no Mr Tambourine Man: this is a 60s Dylan mainly for connoisseurs.

The Dylan of this concert is essentially the ‘rock Dylan’ of the second half of the 1960s: this is confirmed by the director’s subtitle, ‘The Early Bob Dylan’. That period, though not the era of Dylan’s first fruits, is now sufficiently far away in time to be considered ‘early’. The ‘shadow kingdom’ of the title may, then, suggest a Bob Dylan revisiting the shadows of that faraway time when he was a rock idol and the hippest person on the planet – a confrontation with the past which he has, in this excellent performance, magisterially shared with his audience.



When I Paint My Masterpiece (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)      

(Most Likely) You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

Queen Jane Approximately (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (John Wesley Harding, 1968)

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

Tombstone Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

To Be Alone With You (Nashville Skyline, 1969 – rewritten)

What Was It You Wanted? (Oh Mercy, 1989)

Forever Young (Planet Waves, 1974)

Pledging My Time (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

The Wicked Messenger (John Wesley Harding, 1968)

Watching the River Flow (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)

Salman Rushdie, Essayist: Review of ‘Languages of Truth’

Salman Rushdie, Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020

London: Jonathan Cape, 2021, 356 pp., ISBN 978-1-787-33193-8

Salman Rushdie is not only a major presence in contemporary world literature as the author of fifteen works of fiction (one of them alas with non-literary fame attached): his non-fiction count is now, with this new volume, five, and this is his third essay collection, following on from Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 and Step Across This Line: Collected Non-fiction 1992-2002. This note will concentrate on the new volume, but we may presume that the set of three essay collections will now prove invaluable to Rushdie scholars seeking to map his ideas over four decades.

Languages of Truth takes its pluralistic title from one of the book’s essays, ‘The Liberty Instinct’, in which Rushdie declares: ‘The magic of the languages of truth is the only magic in which I believe’ (256). Most of the pieces have been previously published, though in a Note on the Texts the author adverts: ‘All the pieces in this book have been thoroughly revised. None of them appear in their original form’ (354). The book differs from its two predecessors in that the pieces are not systematically dated, though dates may be attached to some via brief presentations or internal data. All this suggests that Rushdie would prefer scholars and critics to use his updated versions when citing his opinions on their subject-matter. 

Many of the texts relating to issues of literature or liberty (or both) are institutional in origin, reflecting Rushdie’s established status as major writer. A number originated in lectures given by the author at Atlanta’s Emory University during his stint there as distinguished writer in residence from 2007 to 2012. Other pieces reflect his active participation in PEN America, of which he was president from 2004 to 2006, founding the PEN World Voices Festival. ‘Another Writer’s Beginnings’, in which he relates how he became a novelist, was given in 2016 as the Inaugural Eudora Welty Lecture at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Other literary pieces include tributes to Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Gabriel García Márquez and Philip Roth (we learn that the last-named emailed Rushdie in 2017 to congratulate him on his then latest novel, The Golden House, which Rushdie ‘was … surprised and flattered to know that Philip had read and liked’ – 85), and a disquisition on Cervantes and Shakespeare marking the death quadricentennial of both in 2016. There is an obituary for Rushdie’s fellow contrarian Christopher Hitchens, written on the day he died in 2011 and including his heartfelt thanks for Hitchens’ support in the worst years of the fatwa, praising him as ‘the most indefatigable of allies and the most eloquent of defenders’ (238). There are also pieces on photography and visual art, including a detailed account of the classic collective work of Mughal art, the Hamzanama. Politics as such does not get a major look-in, but Rushdie’s hostility to both Trump in the US and Modi in India is evident whenever either is mentioned.

Rushdie is known to dislike feeling obliged to discuss the fatwa today, a position more than understandable if one recalls that The Satanic Verses, his fourth book to be published out of today’s toll of twenty, appeared over thirty years ago. Nonetheless, significant evocations of the matter appear in the Hitchens obituary and the Pinter tribute, in ‘Another Writer’s Beginnings’ (in relation to the Cambridge history course on the origins of Islam where he first learnt of the legend that was to underpin his novel: ‘Twenty years later … I found out just how good a story it was’ – 71); and in a passage in ‘The Liberty Instinct’ where he argues that in reality the novel ‘wasn’t really even about religion. It was about migration’ (252) – an authorial reading evidently alien to his detractors, even though the Islam-related parts which all supposedly ‘know about’ occupy only some twenty per cent of a 547-page novel. Meanwhile the word ‘fatwa’ occurs a mere four times in the collection, and all in all the reader may conclude that Rushdie has successfully decentred the fatwa as leitmotiv, while, equally, not attempting the impossibility of occluding it altogether.

From the Rushdie/fatwa issue it is but a step to the ever-present topic of freedom of expression, and it will be to no-one’s surprise that Rushdie defends that freedom in these pages with all the commitment and eloquence which his readers have come to expect of him as internationally known free speech icon. The issue is dealt with in the PEN pieces (the anti-free speech climate generated in Modi’s India is especially targeted), and again in ‘The Liberty Instinct’. In that essay, Rushdie offers a discussion of the First Amendment which, unlike far too many second-hand evocations of a brief but complex text (which he quotes in full, and how many do?), unequivocally recognises that the amendment simultaneously protects freedom of expression and freedom of religion: ‘Religion and freedom got married on the northern American continent, the First Amendment was the marriage certificate, and the United States was the result’ (245). Elsewhere critical of religion, Rushdie nonetheless recognises the very particular symbiosis between religion and free speech that exists in his adoptive land.

At all events, in the general texts on literary matters the accent is on Rushdie as professional, as a practising  writer with the weight of knowledge and experience, acquired over decades, which that implies. Particularly interesting in this regard are the essays ‘Autobiography and the Novel’ and ‘Wonder Tales’ (both originally delivered at Emory). In the former, Rushdie inveighs against those readers and critics who insist on an autobiographical or roman à clef reading of every novel that falls into their hands, arguing that even where a narrator or character has origins in the real, the creative process confers on the characters an autonomy that allows them to break loose from their real-life antecedents.  Rushdie laments in particular that two of his novels, Midnight’s Children and Fury, were received by many as thinly disguised autobiography, and rather than incur such misunderstandings vows never to use own-life material in fiction again: ‘Nor will any image of the author be discernible in any future fiction I may succeed in writing. I have learned my lesson’ (158).

In ‘Wonder Tales’, Rushdie explores the phenomenon of magic realism, stressing how it is neither fully magical nor fully realist, and is thus a particularly suitable fictional form for signifying cultures imbued with a story-telling tradition of the marvellous. He evokes the Indian origins of the text that started it all, the Thousand and One Nights, and traces how the tradition of the wonder tale, as embodied in that celebrated book, migrated from India to the Arab world and then to Europe, and later from Europe into the Latin American novel and its famed magic realism – and then how Rushdie himself, influenced by García Márquez, repatriated that tradition of the marvellous back to India through the success of Midnight’s Children. Rushdie affirms his pride in this act of bringing it all back home: ‘When  I, in my turn, used some of those devices, I had the feeling of closing a circle and bringing that story tradition all the way back home to the country in which it began’ (10).

Languages of Truth closes on a note different to those sounded earlier. Technically, the last piece in the book consists of two pages of answers to a magazine questionnaire. However, much more substantial as a proper ending are the twelve pages of the eminently contemporary essay entitled ‘Pandemic: a Personal Engagement with the Coronavirus’.  Here we learn how in March 2020 Rushdie contracted what fortunately proved to be a mild form of Covid-19, how he felt under the diagnosis (‘It was dispiriting, but I was lucky’ – 341), but also how he fortified himself in self-isolation by revisiting his favourite auteur films, and how he came out at the other end  (‘regained my health and strength’ – 348) with a renewed vitality of which this book’s existence is the proof. The greatest fear was that the person who had survived Khomeini would succumb to Covid. Instead, we have the voice behind Languages of Truth, a resurgent and resilient Salman Rushdie ready to confront, as ably as ever, both the act of writing and the pressing realities of our day.


Note 1

For a portrait of today’s Rushdie, see his conversation with the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, published on 15 May 2021:

Note 2

I regularly track the allusions in Rushdie’s writing to Bob Dylan, and for Languages of Truth can report that in the essay ‘Heraclitus’ (original publication date not given), Rushdie mentions Dylan’s portrayal of a character named Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s film of 1973, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In the same breath, Rushdie’s text offers an embedded Dylan quote, in the form of ‘knocking on heaven’s door’ (51) – that is, the title of Dylan’s celebrated song first heard on the soundtrack of that same film.

Note 3

This review has now been published in revised form in:

International Journal on Multicultural Literature (Thodupuzha, India), Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 2022), pp. 143-146.

(See entry on this blog for 19 June 2022)