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Published: 2009/08/26
by Jesse Jarnow

Featured Column: Where Did You Go, Paul Williams?

BRAIN TUBA: Where Did You Go, Paul Williams?

It took me five years to get around to reading the most third and most recent volume in Paul Williams’ ongoing Bob Dylan: Performing Artist book series. That’s okay, because it took Williams nearly 15 years to get around to writing it, covering (as it does) four years of Bob Dylan’s career, from 1986 through 1990. That is, 302 pages on only the years between Knocked Out Loaded and Under the Red Sky, a period even many committed Dylan fans can’t bring themselves to delve into. But that’s okay, too. As it turns out, reading Paul Williams write about Knocked Out Loaded is way more fun than listening to Knocked Out Loaded. (Oddly, the other 40 pages, about 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love & Theft aren’t nearly as satisfying.)

Williams approach to Dylan is, in some ways, heroic. It is deeply reassuring to read an interpretation of the world in which Bob Dylan’s actions are still considered high art, that his memory lapses might (as Williams describes a 1990 version of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”) lead the band to take a song and “reclaim it and reinvent it.”

“They reduce it to almost meaningless fragments,” Williams writes, “and then seem to have no difficulty making those fragments speak, as music and as lyrics. They demonstrate that music is or can be a collective, seemingly telepathic, expression of the moment in which it is performed, a representation in chords and beats and words and harmonics of an individual’s or of a group of individuals’ true experience of life in this vale of tears, on this ball of dirt spinning around a ball of fire.”

Never having heard that particular version of “Rainy Day Women”—though enough of a Dylan dork to appreciate some early ’90s performances—I’m still pretty sure I’d never in a million years describe it any way remotely like that. (He spends three pages doing it.) In a way, what Williams does with Bob Dylan’s music is no different than what Greil Marcus does when he translates Basement Tapes cast-offs into Civil War fantasias: he makes it his own. Sometimes, though, he gets it right. In 1980, after Williams published Bob Dylan: What Happened?, an extended meditation on Dylan’s then-new Christianity, Dylan purchased around 100 copies to distribute to friends to explain his change. Being a self-contradictory grump, though, “right” is a bit of a stretch here.

Whatever it is that Williams is offering, though, is sweet and rare. As founder of Crawdaddy, the first rock magazine, Williams has been tracing Bob Dylan’s initial mission, step-by-step, into the present. He’s not the only one. (Clinton Heylin’s Revolution In The Air, for example, uses forensic evidence to reconstruct the chronology of Dylan’s songwriting, achieving a far bitchier level of scholarship.) Like in real life, most fan/artist relationships end in divorce, but Williams and Dylan have clearly lasted. And while cynical record executives might refer to Dylan as the archetypal “legacy artist,” the idea of a musician providing a lifetime’s worth of contemplation—actual contemplation, that is, not just lip service to the idea—is practically non-existent.

Besides the Grateful Dead and Phish—and, to a lesser extent, their jamband progeny—who has lately inspired that kind of attention? Sure, people obsess over Radiohead, maybe even collect bootlegs, post on message boards, but has anybody gone so batshit as to analyze every one of Radiohead’s performances, live and in studio, into a coherent multi-volume interpretation? It is a kind of fandom that few artists can inspire, and under contemporary conditions, even fewer. Or maybe lots of bands—Pearl Jam? R.E.M.? Springsteen? U2?—have those kind of listeners, but they’re simply too deeply entrenched in fanboy-fortified foxholes I’ve never had interest in entering. Does anybody write these sorts of theses about, say, the Around the Sun tour?

It seems like a fundamentally important kind of fandom, the truest way of experiencing a band, and the kind that every listener might aspire to in an age of one-tweet wonders. It feels good to be so far inside an artist’s music that eight pages of analysis of a fundamentally awful rearrangement of “Gates of Eden” seems more than perfectly alright. This is what it means to be into an artist. One couldn’t ask for more. Except (at this rate) another four five volumes.

What is not okay, not okay at all, is that those volumes will almost definitely never arrive. Williams, who also served for a time as Philip K. Dick’s literary executor, is suffering from Alzheimer’s and unlikely to complete them. Who is going to listen to every gig of Dylan’s post-guitar/post-Larry Campbell years and tuck them into an everything-in-its-right-place/Panglossian scheme? I want desperately to like Dylan’s recent shows, but feel like I need Williams to explain WTF is going on. Ditto 2003’s Masked & Anonymous, 2006’s Modern Times, 2008’s Together Through Life—and, ye Gods—especially this forthcoming Christmas album (especially as it relates to Dylan licensing his songs to ads, getting taken in by a New Jersey cop, the constantly shifting Never-Ending Tour line-ups…) Not that I won’t have my own interpretations, but critical continuity is exotic in this niche-pocketed climate. Paul Williams remains the original specimen.

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