I’m always happy to review books about classic rockers. I got an email the other day asking me to review Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues by Spencer Leigh, a journalist, acclaimed author, and host of the weekly BBC radio show On The Beat. I was kindly provided a review copy, thank you so much to publishing company McNidder & Grace! Also from the same publisher, I reviewed Jackie Lees and KG Miles’ Bob Dylan in London. Like with that last review, I’ll be sharing my thoughts and 10 takeaways. If you want to learn more about this book, keep on reading!
Bob Dylan is full of mysteries and not like other classic rock musicians. As the author Spencer Leigh puts it in the intro, almost everything about him is unusual or different and it’s a difficult task to get answers on who the real Bob Dylan is because there are many “false trails and locked doors”. While you may know a lot about him, there’s still that little bit you may not know and knowing those little details can change everything about your perception of him. D.A. Pennebaker said that what Bob Dylan and David Bowie have in common is that they live in a part of the brain we know nothing about, and I think that’s why people love them and keep coming back to listening to them and trying to uncover mysteries about them through their music and lives and why people keep writing about them.
Like any biography on a musician, the story is told in chronological order with chapters on each part of his life, but what Spencer Leigh does differently here is he divides each chapter into two parts. The first part brings something different to the table, giving the background to significant events in Bob Dylan’s life to give you the context and a better understanding of the typical journalism questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The second part, titled ‘So Much Older Then’ (a famous lyric from “My Back Pages”) is your typical biography stuff, his life on a day to day basis.
These background/context portions of each chapter are all very well-researched and taught me a lot of things I may not have known before. Get ready for facts and quotes coming at you rapid fire, I think that would be my one criticism of the book – I love reading one fact after another, but sometimes I need room to breathe. As someone who loves to find the connections between different musicians and songs, I loved all the comparisons and connections, and one comparison you’ll see a bit in this book is with David Bowie and it’s not something I thought a lot about before, but it makes more and more sense as I read this book. Any classic rock or even pop culture history buff will love this.
Some topics touched upon in the history/context sections of each chapter are history of various places Bob Dylan lived and visited, history of blues and folk music, history of protest songs, Bob Dylan and the Vietnam War, Bob Dylan compared to other folk contemporaries like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and cinema, and this wouldn’t be a Bob Dylan book without some discussion of The Band and a history of them.
Simply put, there’s no doubt that you’ll come out knowing more about Bob Dylan and feeling like you understand him and classic rock (and even music) history as a whole after you finish this book. It’s incredibly comprehensive at over 500 pages! You’ll definitely want to have some refreshments and snacks ready as you read it. With Spencer Leigh being a journalist, you can expect lots of interesting quotes from interviews and conversations and interviews with musicians.
10 Things I took away
There’s a lot to take away from this book with it being so long and comprehensive, but here are some things that stood out:
1. He wrote about his hometown
While Bob Dylan is more of a person who happens to be born in Minnesota, rather than someone who is from Minnesota, and is more associated with Greenwich Village, he still wrote about where he came from. Some songs that reference where he was from include “North Country Blues” and “Highway 61 Revisited”. Highway 61 goes from Minnesota to New Orleans.
2. The 50s was a time of renaissance
The common narrative whenever I watch documentaries about the 60s is how much it contrasted with the previous decade: counterculture 60s versus the conformist 50s, but that’s not entirely true. Each decade builds on the last and the musicians of the 60s didn’t grow up in a vacuum. Besides rock and roll’s beginnings in the 50s, another sign of renaissance were the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. All three of these authors influenced musicians of the 60s and beyond.
3. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan parallels
You can’t have a book on Bob Dylan without mentioning Woody Guthrie, one of Bob Dylan’s top influences. Like Bob Dylan, he was political – and in the case of Guthrie even down to his name (Woody is short for Woodrow Wilson), stubborn, and did things his way. Just like Bob Dylan, he left home and roamed around. Bob Dylan hitchhiked, while Woody liked to roam around, a free spirit. Both musicians borrowed melodies from other songs. Bob Dylan got his start copying Woody Guthrie from appearance to sound, but he later came into his own.
4. That symbiotic musical relationship between the US and UK
It’s no secret that musically, American and British musicians bounced their ideas back and forth building upon each other. That cultural exchange was for the good and gave us some amazing music. Some examples of this given in the book are Woody Guthrie influencing skiffle music in the UK, Bob Dylan singing folk songs from the UK after he visited, English folk rock musicians being influenced by The Band, and many British musicians covering Bob Dylan.
5. Writing about Bob Dylan can mess up your career, so be careful!
It’s not easy writing a biography on Bob Dylan. Music critic Robert Shelton helped launch his career in the early 60s, writing positive reviews on him, calling him a promising, new talent. In the 60s, he started working on No Direction Home and there were high expectations from the beginning. The publisher wanted something that would be better than The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, high expectations indeed. In the end, he kept missing deadlines and struggled with a drinking problem, which sabotaged his work. It took 20 years and No Direction Home was published in 1986, selling 60,000 copies in the UK in its first year. The moral of the story? Writing about Bob Dylan is nearly impossible because Bob Dylan is so cryptic and elusive, an unreliable source. Is he being serious when he says something? Only he knows.
6. Bob Dylan only wrote political/protest songs for a short bit before evolving and this was part of the reason for his love-hate relationship with Phil Ochs
In this book, you’ll get an understanding of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan’s more political rival. The two had some similarities: writing political songs, being of Jewish descent, and both of them visited Woody Guthrie in hospital. Phil Ochs wanted more fame and wanted a movement and revolution, but what stopped him from being a bigger musician was him not writing love songs. Phil Ochs in fact, referred to Bob Dylan as being like a frog that hopped around because he wouldn’t sit still when critics tried to analyse him.
Bob Dylan wrote political songs in the early 60s, but stopped and changed to writing more love songs, poetic songs, and having a country phase.
7. But Bob Dylan didn’t stop writing political songs for good
Bob Dylan took a long break from writing political songs, but that didn’t last forever. In November 1971 – a few months after George Jackson was killed, he recorded the song “George Jackson”, which reached #33 on the Billboard charts, about a man who was jailed at 18 for driving a getaway car. George Jackson’s story interested Bob Dylan because he was the same age as him and while in prison, Jackson became a Black Panther and studied Marxism. In 1970, there was a yard riot between the black prisoners and the white prisoners and the guards shot and killed three black prisoners. One of the prisoners was someone he was close to and he was rightfully upset and felt the need to protect his fellow inmates and so he employed ‘selective retaliatory violence’. He was charged with murdering a corrections officer. Later that year, his brother, Jonathan, went to the Marin County Civic Centre with weapons to free his brother and the other two inmates charged. The three were called the Soledad Brothers. While trying to escape San Quentin on 21 August 1971, he was shot and killed. He was 29 years old. That incident at San Quentin inspired the Attica Prison riot, which happened two weeks later. The Attica Prison riot was famously referenced in Dog Day Afternoon.
The other political song was “Hurricane”, another top 40 hit for Bob Dylan, and one of my favourites from him. This song is about boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted of murder. 20 years of his life were taken away from him. This song highlights the racism in the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is rigged against poor minorities: cash bail (if you’re poor, you’re stuck in jail), racial profiling (which in this case led to mistaken identity), police brutality, police defending each other and never calling out the bad apples, all/mostly white juries, the challenges in filing appeals. In the case of Rubin Carter, there was faulty evidence and questionable eyewitness testimony, and you’ll hear about that in the song.
8. Changes came gradually in music – they weren’t big bangs
Change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time, and music is no exception. The move from acoustic to electric wasn’t overnight and Bob Dylan didn’t think of himself as being that far ahead of his time. The 60s wasn’t the first time you’d hear music written under the influence of drugs and music about sex, you’d hear that in the 19th century, yes that same 19th century that we think of as prudish, prim, and proper. Muddy Waters played an electric set at the Newport Jazz Festival 5 years before Dylan played his electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. There are often little nods and references to the past in music of the 60s. While in the 70s, you had an explosion of live albums, there were still live albums released even in the late 50s and early 60s.
Festivals were something that evolved. They weren’t always like Woodstock or Monterey and there were groundbreaking things happening at earlier festivals like Chuck Berry and Ray Charles playing at the Newport Jazz Festival – both would have been very radically different from what traditional jazz fans would have liked, but the younger crowd loved it! This was before R&B really took off in the 60s.
9. The 60s was a time of bonus content in music
Sure, some live albums were recorded in the 50s, but for the most part, you got what you got and the technology wasn’t there yet for bootlegs, and Bob Dylan was one of the musicians of the 60s known for having bootlegs of his shows (we have to mention The Grateful Dead, who encouraged this and were well known for all the bootlegs). Now those would come in the 60s and that was the time of bonus content in music. You’d finally get to hear outtakes and songs that didn’t make the studio albums. Record labels knew that fans couldn’t get enough of their favourites and so in came official live albums.
10. Bob Dylan didn’t just stop at music and poetry, he also wanted to be established in the film world
Bob Dylan isn’t just a musician, he’s a poet, artist, and even tried his hand at movies. He’s not the only musician to try their hand at movies. Movies are a great way to promote music, we’ve seen it with Elvis and The Beatles. Bob Dylan’s most famous role in cinema was doing the soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Not only that, but he appeared in the movie, playing a character called Alias. But that wasn’t his first time acting, he was also in the lost BBC Sunday Night play, Madhouse On Castle Street. In 1978, he, his wife, and Joan Baez were in Renaldo & Clara. He was also in Hearts of Fire in 1987, Backtrack in 1990, Paradise Cove in 1999, and Masked and Anonymous in 2003.
Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues was published in 2020.
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