These two books are the faint traces of a long obsolete argument that nevertheless refuses to die. It was Dylan’s distinct misfortune to become a wordy, allusive pop star at the very point when early pop culturists were attempting to stake out pop’s position among the ‘fine arts’ of literature and poetry. Yet as time has shown, the pleasure of pop lies in the fact that, as an Afro-American form, it is separate from these essentially European traditions: this realisation has come too late for Dylan himself, who has been hoisted on the poetaster petard ever since.
‘Bob Dylan is alloy; he is true folk and fake folk, and has the Caruso voice. He has lines, but I doubt if he has written whole poems. He leans on the crutch of his guitar’, the Handbook quotes Robert Lowell as stating in 1971. But that’s exactly the point. Dylan’s writing – as collected in Lyrics 1962-1985 – was not intended as poetry, but as journalism or as sounds to be heard in conjunction with voice, guitar and/or electric band. Dylan was not a poet but – at his finest, between 1965 and 1966 – an international pop star, fired by the rock ‘n’ roll he had grown up with in Minnesota.
The great pop formalist Bo Diddley instinctively understood that any pop lyric is ideally buried under great blocks of sound: this is, after all, the architecture out of which pop creates its own environment. Dylan wasn’t averse to a bit of mumbling and slurring himself: the words printed so baldly in Lyrics are only part of the story, the rest being filled by nuance, mood and intonation. Within the context of a song like ‘Visions of Johanna’, the lyric ‘Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while’ sets up resonances which still percolate today. Whether it stands up on its own is irrelevant: the words are indivisible from the song.
The problems of redacting the sung lyric on to the page aren’t exclusive to Bob Dylan. They make me, however, considerably less sympathetic to the lit crit of long-time Dylan exegetes like Christopher Ricks, whose essays ‘Cliches That Come To Pass’ and ‘What He Can Do For You’ adorn All Across The Telegraph. The specialist nature of this Handbook reflects the shrunken constituency of the Dylan-as-literateur tendency: gobbets about who Mr Jones really was, where Positively 4th Street really was, and what dogs Dylan kept are piled on with a trainspotter-like dedication to detail. This makes the book user-friendly to Dylan maniacs from whatever period, but pretty incomprehensible to those outside the magic circle. In contrast, Lyrics– a thorough update of the 1973 volume Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan – conveniently collects all his writings up to and including the 1985 ‘Empire Burlesque’ album, and is handy for consultation along with the records.
Neither book quite loses its musty flavour. Since Dylan’s commercial and ideological heyday, the intrusion of sociology, semiology and post-structuralist thought has sent the litcritters yelping into their corner. Despite their frequent misapplication, these approaches offer a way of describing the peculiarly postwar phenomenon that pop music is; their very ambiguities reflect the tensions at the heart of pop – between ideas of mass art and high art, between the fact that pop, as, in Dave Marsh’s phrase, ‘a voice and a face for the forgotten and disenfranchised’, is presided over by huge, multi-national corporations. In the face of such questions, these two books now seem rather quaint.