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A review of the new archive-sourced, famous fan-populated Bob Dylan book ran on this page late last month (with the proper cover). Why go again? This is a review done for the Sydney Morning Herald that goes into some other areas, or says some other things. There's always more to say, so why not?



Written and edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel

IF YOU CAN'T BE GENIUS, then the next best thing would be to claim you spotted genius in its pupate state elsewhere, well before anybody else did. Failing that, particularly if you arrived far too late to this party, identifying genius in the early, unknown or ignored-at-the-time works, might suffice. The career of Bob Dylan offers many such opportunities; this 608-page, 1100-photo, hefty urban gorilla of a book drawn from the shelves and archives of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa Oklahoma practically demands it.

And yet, among the 30 essays inspired by the centre’s artefacts within Mixing Up The Medicine – some written by authors of significance like Michael Ondaatje and Peter Carey; some by Dylanologists such as critic Greil Marcus, academic Anne Margaret Daniel and writer Larry Sloman; others by some of the smartest thinkers in music journalism, Alex Ross and Amanda Petrusich – are two which play very human.

Marvin Karlins, who for a few months across 1959 and 1960 at the University of Minnesota taught “folk guitar” (every Wednesday at 2pm) to student Bob Zimmerman, regretfully recalls thinking then “in the short time he had been my student it had become obvious to me that Bob didn’t have a gifted voice or a great command of the guitar”. Lee Ranaldo, guitarist from New York avant-garde rock band Sonic Youth, wanted to see revelation in a Christmas Eve 1956 recording, on two 78 rpm sides, made by Zimmerman and friends from the Herzl summer camp. But reality tells him “I need to throw out my whole romantic theory … It’s juvenilia, plain and simple”.

Ah, yes, but not insignificant. “My life has revolved around those magic black discs since forever, and none more so than Bob’s,” writes Ranaldo. “So many of our lives have. The object is important.”

(Bobby Zimmerman, seated right)

And objects there are aplenty here. Typed and handwritten lyric drafts; letters to (but almost never from) Dylan, penned by contemporaries like poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beatle George Harrison and New Jersey fan Bruce Springsteen; ticket stubs and posters; studio running sheets and scrawled notes on the back of favoured records; shots of a round-faced schoolboy Zimmerman clutching a hand drum and card shark Dylan backstage on tour in the 1990s.

It is minutiae, sure, and it runs the risk of overwhelming with insignificant detail, though you’d have to suspect that for the kind of fan diving into this – and who else would buy this but a fan, or the long-suffering partner of such a fan – there is little detail that would be insignificant. Keep in mind that one of the Dylan books written by Marcus is “about” one song, albeit a six minute one, Like A Rolling Stone. That’s madness, obviously; it’s also fascinatingly good, and very likely owned by anyone buying this.

However, even for those put off by the bulk and the cost, there are saving graces in this approach. Not least among this is the accumulation of detail, set out roughly chronologically, helping this book operate as something of a loose history, a kind of primer for more extensive dives you can conduct elsewhere. Maybe one sparked by a Picasso-esque 1970 Dylan drawing of a guitar, the full program at the Newport folk Festival 1964 (where the already legendary roots guitarist/singer Elizabeth Cotton and Muddy Waters played on the first night and Dylan closed the last), or the ripped lyric sheet for a song about transgressive comedian Lenny Bruce, “Punk surfer/Comet of vomit/Over there/Lenny Bruce/Bill collector”.

(Bob Dylan 1978. By Morgan Renard)

Then there is the undoubted attractiveness, the almost tactile sensation and bowerbird thrills in the high-quality reproductions or the low-level oddity of images such as Liberace and Dylan with their arms around each other, a shirtless Black Panther Huey Newton, in almost a beefcake shot, holding a copy of Highway 61 Revisited, and still frames from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 tour documentary Don’t Look Back.

Within all these are the anchor points of the essays which might argue for re-evaluation of a hitherto dismissed record, as Sloman does with 1990’s Under The Red Sky, or, as singer/songwriter Allison Moorer does, explore the complexities of a song like Not Dark Yet in poetic terms that concludes that “we bow our heads in recognition and respect, as if we can now acknowledge the funeral procession approaching us too”.

Some, such as Peter Carey’s, take on the rhythm and fevered manner of Dylan’s own writing in the mid-60s, others such as that by Griffin (son of Michael) Ondaatje fully inhabit the obsessive literary fan/nerd, seeking in Joseph Conrad’s Victory the roots of the mysterious, clueless Mr Jones mocked with venom in Dylan’s Ballad Of A Thin Man.

You might consider that excessive, but really, does that word really mean something in the context of this book? A book that embodies what Raymond Foye, in his essay on Dirge which references Catullus, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Leonard Cohen, calls “the tangled roots of ardor”.

(Bob Dylan 1963. By Richard Avedon)

Bob Dylan Mixing Up The Medicine is out now, published by Galloway


ALBUM REVIEW: Rough And Rowdy Ways

A version of this review was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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