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Hang around an ink well: Writing about Bob Dylan

March 31, 2009 | 10:38 am

Dylan_togetherthrough
People are writing about Bob Dylan again; the 67-year-old musical icon is releasing a new record next month, "Together Through Life." The cover, above, features a vintage photo of an awkward yet absorbing backseat makeout clinch. John Lewis at Baltimore Magazine writes that he's seen the image before -- on the cover of a book by Larry Brown.

Larrybrown_bigbadlove Larry Brown's short story collection "Big Bad Love" featured the same photo on the cover -- the 1991 Vintage paperback edition did, at least.

Brown, a Mississippi-based writer, died of a heart attack in 2004 at age 53. His writing was fondly remembered by both bookish types and musicians (a tribute CD was released in 2007). The shared image is not just a coincidence, according to Lewis: a mutual friend quotes Dylan as saying, "I've read every word the man has ever written."

But as Galleycat has pointed out, any stock photo is fair game for designers: they've found covers of completely different books that share the same iceberg, the same paparazzi, the same poignant photo of a door standing in a field of wildflowers. Exactly how the designer came to use the photo on the cover of Dylan's "Together Through Life" is something scholars could puzzle over for years.

Scholars puzzle over many aspects of Bob Dylan in  "The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan," out next month. They take on Dylan and gender, Dylan and religion, Dylan as performer and songwriter and cultural icon. Editor Kevin Dettmar from Pomona gathered an interesting mix of contributors: Michael Denning teaches at Yale, Martin Jacobi at Clemson; Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone; Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and Carrie Brownstein played guitar in Sleater-Kinney.

With so much ink already spilled over Dylan (and by Dylan, who has published the autobiographical "Chronicles: Volume I"), why this collection now? The answer lies in the first essay, by David Yaffe of Syracuse University. "If you're reading this for Rock & Roll 101, take notes but do not plagiarize," he writes. "Leave that to Dylan (but more on that later)." It's built for college classrooms, a primer for people who were born into a world that didn't need to invent Bob Dylan because he was already there.

More on "The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan" after the jump.

That said, there is genuine scholarship here. "This expansion will take two forms," Martin Jacobi writes.

The first follows a commonly accepted argument in literary theory, that works of art are the result not of individual artists working in isolation but rather the result of the collaboration of artists with their various historical, social and personal influences; the second uses performance-studies theory to claim that artists remake themselves and create (perceptions of) reality through their performances, including live as well as recorded or written performances.

And Jacobi seems to be in dialogue with Lee Marshall from Bristol University, who kicks against the academic convention of addressing pop music as a cultural artifact.

If cultural studies is an intellectual attempt to wrest cultural status away from the dead, white, European males, then one of the ramifications of this is a tendency to study more marginalized forms of cultural production . . . questions of aesthetic quality became sidelined as questions of relevance and use became more prominent. . . . The claim that Dylan was worth studying because he was good was conspicuously absent.

. . . academic work produced on Dylan is still dominated by a literary studies approach that is inappropriate for his creative output.

Is it a cop-out to say that Bob Dylan should be studied in an academic setting because of his complexity, contradictions and cultural importance? Should we simply say he's the best -- compare him to Shakespeare, as this book does -- and say that his aesthetic supremacy makes him worthy?

The problem is that this will inevitably lead to a musical-taste food fight: Is Dylan aesthetically better than the Rolling Stones, than Dolly Parton, than Dr. Dre?

The second part of the book, made up of short essays on eight Bob Dylan albums, tries to position his creative output through multiple perspectives. This leaves out 25 albums (including "Together Through Life," not counting live records or bootlegs); it's anything but comprehensive.

This is not a definitive book that will answer any possible question a college student might have about Bob Dylan. But with the kind of open spaces it leaves -- between the records, and in the contradictions that develop between its chapters -- it's the kind of textbook Bob Dylan deserves.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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