Do You Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors by Neil Corcoran

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Do You Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors by Neil Corcoran

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Bob Dylan's controversial award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 led to a re-evaluation of his place in modern culture. This volume of essays was first published in 2002, and is now reissued with a new foreword by Will Self. Some may find the concept of this book pretentious, especially those who consider him overhyped and overrated. For fans and admirers like myself, it is a book to savour 'in small doses', rather than cover-to-cover reading, as all the contributors have something valid to say about someone whose work and lengthy career has never lost the capacity to interest and surprise.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1784706807

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Bob Dylan's award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 'for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition' proved highly controversial. It inevitably led some people in the literary world to take stock and look at his work and reputation with a fresh eye. This volume of essays was first published in 2002, and is now reissued with a new foreword by Will Self.

Reading and writing poetry is a highly personal matter. Many of us will have memories from our schooldays of trying to evaluate or analyse specific works of verse, or at the very least articulate our thoughts on why we liked or did not like them. Some of us will have tried our hand at writing our own, either faithfully following the conventions of rhyme and metre, or else ploughing the stream of consciousness, blank verse, do your own thing furrow.

A few academics have bravely taken on the task of writing about one of the twentieth century's most renowned wordsmiths, renowned partly as a singer as well as a songwriter. Corcoran states unequivocally in his introduction that the essayists who have contributed to this volume 'understand that Dylan cannot be viewed without reserve as a poet'. (Pause to consult google for the official definition of a poet). Self's foreword debates comparisons between a couplet by Smokey Robinson from the lyrics of 'The Tracks of my Tears' and one from a verse taken from one of Dylan's most surrealist examples of wordplay, the mesmerizing 'Visions of Johanna'. It's a bit like trying to explain (let alone take seriously) John Lennon's wilder, jokier flights of fancy in the words of 'I am the Walrus' (semolina pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower, anyone?), or comparing portraits by Rubens and Andy Warhol.

The contributors are a varied group of individuals, and contribute some interesting thoughts on their experiences and perceptions of Dylan's output. Lavinia Greenlaw's ten-page appraisal of the songs on Dylan's 1969 album 'Nashville Skyline', a record with which she has been familiar since childhood, focuses as much if not more on his delivery of the lines than the lyrical content itself. Simon Armitage describes a childhood which embraced The Sweet's 'Blockbuster' as the first single he ever bought, listening to the Clash on John Peel's programme, and trying to slot Dylan into the general picture, even though he stood out 'like a dad at a disco'. In the process he gives us a lengthy analysis of 'Tangled Up in Blue', by common consensus regarded as one of his classic, most enigmatic yet personal and sometimes unfairly overlooked songs. Sean Wilentz takes a microscope to the 2001 album 'Love and Theft', highlighting a number of puns, in-jokes and amusing references to American culture over the years in his lyrics. Aidan Day concentrates on some of Dylan's output from the 1980s and 1990s, particularly 'Time Out of Mind' (1997), and concludes that it is his pursuing the inner reaches of the self with ruthless honesty and intelligence, his 'sheer confessionality', that constitutes one of his major contributions to lyric poetry in English.

As a lover and admirer of Dylan's artistry since my teens, I approached this book with a very open mind. At first glance, the whole concept of this book may seem pretentious, especially to those who may dismiss him as overhyped and overrated. My initial reading of some of the essays left me slightly baffled at first – but on re-reading and thinking through everything, light began to dawn. I then found myself wondering what my English masters at school might have made of it. (My last head of department's passions included the work of John Donne and vintage jazz, so I suspect he might have been intrigued).

Even if you love or admire the man's music, you might find this book heavy going. 'In small doses', rather than cover-to-cover reading, is probably the key. But all the contributors have something valid to say, and I think this is a book that will repay digesting and returning to at suitable intervals. It has certainly given me additional food for thought about the work of someone who was part of the soundtrack of my growing years, and whose work and career all these years later has never really lost the capacity to interest and surprise.

For a detailed look at much of the man's work, we recommend Still on the Road: Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2008, by Clinton Heylin. A children's book, Forever Young by Bob Dylan, based on his 1973 song of the same name, is also worth your attention. For a solid life of one of Dylan's few serious rivals as a North American singer-songwriter and poet, the biography I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons, although pre-dating his death in 2016, is a must-read.

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Buy Do You Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors by Neil Corcoran at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Do You Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors by Neil Corcoran at Amazon.com.


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