on 17 May 2008
Paul Williams demonstrated years ago that there is at least one well-known Dylan commentator who is wholly focussed on what the artist does, rather than on theories of his alleged role as mystic, guru or cultural revolutionary. In other words, he understands what Dylan's art form actually is: the writing and performing of classic songs. So an incidental pleasure in reading this book alongside Dylan's recently-released memoirs, `Chronicles' volume 1, is the confirmation that Williams was always closer to understanding what Dylan was up to than the many pretentious, more arty Dylanologists.
This third volume of an already-superb series maintains that focus and meets the high standards set by its two predecessors. Here he takes up the pen again as if he finished the last volume only yesterday, instead of a decade ago. The continuity he achieves is a considerable achievement, and all the more so since the period covered [1986-1990] was almost certainly Dylan's most fallow. These are the days when Bob was struggling - for inspiration, for relevance and for audience. Williams captures that struggle admirably and, as always, he does not shirk the task. When something was awful he says so bluntly. Some of Dylan's low-ebb 1987 shows, for example, are described, as `a painful listening experience'. This type of candour is unusual among his fellow Dylan scribes, always excepting Michael Gray. But when the opposite assessment is made, it means we can have confidence that the enthusiasm is real and follows real assessment of the work. Listening again to the recordings, it is quickly clear that Williams' ratings are a far more reliable pointer to the quality of Dylan's performances than all those routine whoops and shouts that some find so irritating at many concerts.
Ultimately that is the greatest attribute of all Paul Williams writings on Bob Dylan. He inevitably takes the reader back to the recordings - to the music and its performance. And given his mastery over four decades as a `performing artist' isn't that what Bob Dylan is all about?