I've read more than 30 Bob books, and this is among the best.
Intellectual yet accessible, this sociological analysis of what made and continues to make Bob a star is an insightful look into how Dylan's stardom changed over the course of his career and how the social context and his audience facilitated and inhibited his stardom. One thing I truly appreciate about this book is that it does not stop in 1966!
Lee Marshall divides the book into seven major chapters separated by bulleted snapshots of the major events in Dylan's life:
(1) Introduction - Here he looks at stardom as a social system with distinctive functions and characteristics, and identifies those things that make a rock star unique. In other words, he lays out the conceptual framework he will use to analyze Dylan's career.
(2) Stardom, Authorship and the Meaning of Songs - In this chapter he argues that attempts to understand the meaning of Bob's songs through textual analysis or biographical inference are limiting. He argues that how the reader, listener, or audience generates meaning is what really matters. This meaning changes as the social context changes and as the individual's experience with the music deepens. This is especially true for Dylan, whose expression of the music continues to evolve. It's not just the words; it's also the voice, the personality, the music...everything that shapes our feelings and the meanings we construct.
(3) Folk Stardom - Dylan became a star during the second folk revival in this country, at a time when youth were deeply concerned about the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the Vietnam war, and civil rights. Dylan found a way to powerfully express the collective consciousness of the time and developed an image as a political leader (whether he wanted to or not). He broke from the union collectivist notions of the traditional folk movement to "empathetic individualism" - a "belief that only by developing one's individual self-awareness could one change society." He told tales to create an image of an everyman figure, reinforcing the sense that an ordinary person with talent (specialness) can become a star with some luck and hard work. He was ordinary and special.
(4) Rock Stardom - When Dylan went electric, he outraged folk purists who viewed him as "selling out" or going commercial. Marshall asserts that "rock did not exist before Dylan's shift to electric music" - pretty audacious of him! He's referring to the ideology of rock, not the musical structure. He argues that Dylan changed the way songs were written, rock was criticized, and what fans were seeking. He was cool, confident, and authentic. He was "an individual who rejects politics in favour of inner-consciousness yet still manages to be political; an artist who follows his own unique vision regardless of the consequences yet found new audiences and commercial success; a self-conscious artist speaking for no one except his own self yet upheld as the leader of a youth movement." He was a perfect ideological fit for the times.
(5) Beyond Stardom - Dylan's work was canonized after the 1966 World Tour and motorcycle accident in much the same way Marilyn Monroe and James Dean were canonized after their deaths. Fortunately for us, Dylan didn't have to die. As Marshall points out, the idealization of Dylan that occurred in his silence, also contributed to a post-sixties image of a star who never quite lives up to expectations.
(6) Declining Stardom - When Dylan returned to the public in the 1970s, his work was overshadowed by the mythological past and by social changes. His meaning was as a "living legend" and interpreted in nostalgic terms. In the early 1980s, with the release of the gospel albums, his image became increasingly unclear. Meanwhile, the music industry began seeing declining record sales, and looked for major sellers like Michael Jackson's Thriller, which sold 47 million copies worldwide. MTV emerged to help construct star-images. Bob's albums were rarely big sellers, and pop videos never were his medium. Neither of these trends served him well. Dylan seemed out of sync with this new world. As Dylan sang, "But it's like I'm stuck inside a painting / That's hanging in the Louvre. / My throat starts to tickle and my nose itches / But I know that I can't move." Marshall suggests that Dylan developed a deliberate strategy to get out of being a legend - The Never Ending Tour (NET).
(7) Redefining Stardom - The NET (from June 1988 to now) was intended to "transform his relationship with his audience." The audience who came to see the legend wanted to hear familiar songs, and wanted them to sound the way they remembered them. He wanted an audience that was there to engage with the music now. In his first 22 years, Dylan performed 525 concerts, an average of 34.5 per year. In the first 18 years of the NET, he played 1909 shows, averaging 100 per year. While some still show up to see the legend, more keep coming back to engage with the music. His fans are now multi-generational and often attend multiple shows, due to their variety. Less than 50% of the songs are from 1961-66. He finally has the audience he deserves.
(8) Never Ending Stardom - Time Out of Mind and Dylan's hospitalization in 1997 changed things once again. The themes of Time Out of Mind - constant movement, having nothing to say, and aging and mortality - were in sync with his transformed star-image. Many international and national awards followed, including an Oscar for Things Have Changed. His next two albums - Love & Theft and Modern Times - were critically acclaimed and commercially successful. These three albums integrate the rich traditions of American roots music in a way that makes them timeless. Chronicles, No Direction Home, and Theme Time Radio all show a "wise man offering an omiscient view of history." He has managed to find endlessly creative ways of renewing the past.
This is an insightful look at an amazing star. Can't wait for the next concert...
Bob Dylan: No Direction Home - The SoundtrackChronicles: Volume One (Chronicles)Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank SeriesTime Out of Mind"Love and Theft"Modern Times (Special Limited Edition)