Tag: bob dylan

I Is Someone Else: The Ever-changing Persona of Bob Dylan

“Je est un autre,” “I is someone else,” is one of Bob Dylan’s maxims. With 34 studio albums, over 500 songs, and a career that spans fifty years Bob Dylan’s voice is one recognizable to generations. Generations that each have their own memories of a different Dylan, a Dylan that belongs to each of them because he is both someone and someone’s. In David Yaffe’s Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown audiences glimpse some of the factors shaping each version of Dylan. From his film career, to his voice, to his appreciation of African-American culture, Yaffe describes some of the major personal and cultural turning points in Dylan’s music throughout the years.

One characteristic that has remained constant throughout the years, Yaffe notes, is his authenticity. Authenticity and change are not two things common to most musicians, perhaps embodied more recently only by Madonna. With songs that have been influenced by everything from Proust to slave songs, Dylan’s authenticity is nothing short of a marvel. In exploring this effort Yaffe found that Dylan, instead of trying to fit the culture of the times merely took it upon himself to create his own culture. Dylan’s authentic sounds, then, come from within. It comes from the years of being Bob Dylan with all the experiences, drugs, and alcohol that life encompassed.

The experiences Dylan had, the books he read, the music he listened to, and the movies he saw (or starred in) were influential to his work, Yaffe devotes an entire chapter to discussing the influences and samples of other works that have appeared in Dylan’s work over the years. In a culture where sampling is a dirty term in the music industry and the illegal art form has built an entire subculture, how has Bob Dylan’s managed to make it work so well? As Yaffe states, the work is seamless.   Dylan has the ability to masterfully turn something that was not his into something that he fully owns. From Irish folklore to Proust to Mark Twain Dylan is able to fit together pieces from his box of inspiration to compose songs that speak to millions. Like the work of underground sampling mastermind Girl Talk, the borrowed pieces are transformed into something that speaks to an entirely new audience. In a recent interview Girl Talk said, “For me, often times the goal is to make something transformative . . . . I want it to be kind of removed from the original context. I want it to sound like something else.” Much like Dylan, Girl Talk is not one to change to satisfy someone else. After all, it was Dylan who said “To live outside the law you must be honest.” In both the laws of the country and the laws of popular culture Girl talk and Bob Dylan have found a space where they can transform ideas to speak to a new generation without losing themselves.

Like a complete unknown, one can never be sure which Dylan is going to appear onstage or in a recording next. In shrugging off the confines of culture and the traditional music industry standards Dylan is constantly evolving. Bob Dylan fans follow this evolutionary path, not always preferring the path he has taken, but loyal to him all the same. In reading Yaffe’s book, this is what makes Dylan, Dylan. The ability to consistently tour, sell albums, and be a benchmark of music for millions is overshadowed by the loyalty and the fervor of Bob Dylan fans across generations.

A Little Less Unknown: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown: David Yaffe Bob Dylan does not want us to know who he is. He recently turned seventy, and if no one has figured him out by now, nobody probably ever will. The Andy Warhol Factory’s Screen Test of Bob Dylan, filmed in 1965 attempts to get close to him, figure out what is underneath the voice and lyrics. He sits impatiently, looking down most of the time, unsmiling. He could be anyone, which is really the point of being Bob Dylan. As David Yaffe points out in Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, the screen test demonstrates that “[b]eing Bob Dylan has apparently already gotten old.”

Yaffe does not set out to find Bob Dylan’s core, but instead gives us a series of portraits that peel back enough layers to understand what the various cores look like. One of these layers is Dylan through the medium of film, which includes numerous documentaries and an appearance singing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. (The oddness of the commercial diminishes—slightly—after reading this report which claims that in the same year he made Andy Warhol’s film, Dylan said “ladies’ undergarments” might be the only thing that would entice him to sell out.) Even in the cases where the singer was not directly involved in a movie, he still used the production to further complicate his image.

He wrote, directed, and starred in his own a movie, which still has no official video or DVD release because the four-hour-long Renaldo and Clara was, as Joan Baez called it, “a giant mess of a home movie. What makes it worthwhile to Yaffe is that Dylan appeared as another self-constructed version of himself, even if the rest was a surrealist disaster. Documentary makers have tried to show that in film, as in concert, the musician “had a black self, a symbolist poet self, an outlaws self, a misogynistic matinee idol self.” More recently, he gave full reign to the director of I’m Not There, allowing a wide assortment of actors, including a woman and an African American, to add new representation to both his real-life and onscreen character. He is as much one person’s reaction to him as he is all the faces he has willingly presented to his fans.

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan! YUP’s Newest Icon

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown: David Yaffe It’s the 70th birthday of Bob Dylan, once known as Robert Allen Zimmerman, and as part of our Icons of America series, David Yaffe, a music critic and professor of English at Syracuse University, has uniquely written about the musician in Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown. The subtitle may seem paradoxical for such a ubiquitous persona, but as Yaffe observes:

He exists on stage and in our dreams, our fantasies, our real and concocted histories, our colleges, our state fairs, and our concert halls at the same time. He exists as history, and yet he lives, walking into that dark, foggy unknown.

In the book, Yaffe explores Dylan’s complicated relationship to blackness (including his involvement in the civil rights movement and a secret marriage with a black backup singer), the underrated influence of his singing style, his fascinating image in films, and his controversial songwriting methods that have led to charges of plagiarism. These are the makings of Dylan’s iconic status, as part of the American postwar culture that continues to fascinate contemporaries as well as new generations of fans: in 2009, Dylan’s new album Together Through Life debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, and you can count on his concerts to fill their venues with scores of people, young and old. Check out today’s article on The Daily Beast, where Yaffe has written on Dylan’s legacy and the peculiarities and controversies that have made him such an important and lasting figure in music and pop culture.