Much has already been written, both positive and negative, of Bob Dylan’s thirty-fifth studio album Tempest. Some critics consider the album a vibrant continuation of his “come back” era, a shocking decade of post-2000 artistic relevancy from a founder of modern rock music. Others have called it barely-listenable self-indulgence that, at times, even veers into plagiarism. That we have such varied opinions of a cultural icon only proves that he still retains the ability to cause confusion and stir dissent within the critical community. In other words, he’s still a part of the larger cultural conversation.
Bob Dylan is, of course, the most literary of American rock legends. Beginning with his protest/topical song heyday in the coffee houses of the early sixties, to his most recent deconstructions of American folk memory, it’s difficult to find another American musician with comparable literary strength in their musical output. Dylan almost single-handedly took popular music from the beaches and backseats of American teen culture to the campuses of the intellectually and economically ambitious mid-century middle class. If you’re a music listener like me, then you probably enjoy complete immersion in the signs and symbols of each new Dylan creation, revelling in the continuity that his poetic vision has maintained through the decades, while being simultaneously excited by the shifts in focus that each album adds to his catalogue. And since Dylan IS the most literary of rockers, it makes sense, to me at least, to provide some sort of reading list as a companion to each album. Here’s one for his latest:
Famous Trains (Dover History Coloring Book) by Bruce LaFontaine
Dylan has been known to write a train song or two, playing up on their mythic strength as stand-ins for the mystery of change and motion or machines that transport us into a shared sense of national nostalgia. But he’s almost always FUN about it, so why not a coloring book?
Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5)
Although his new song Early Roman Kings isn’t literally about actual Roman aristocracy, it’s fun to occasionally read history like Dylan does, as a shared mythology that perpetuates itself into contemporary themes. I’m sure we can find a parallel or two here.
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic by Allan Wolf
Many books have been written about the Titanic disaster, but this is one of the few that offers a similar emotional intensity to Dylan’s nearly fourteen-minute-long (and without a chorus!) epic. Wolf’s book is touching in its complexity, benefiting from his clear-eyed look at the foibles, illusions, and tenderness of the victims.
Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta by Gore Vidal
I think that Pay In Blood is possibly Dylan’s most overtly political tune since the sixties, and what better companion to a song about people who lay down the lives of others for their own nefarious gain than the late Gore Vidal’s take on last decade’s neoconservative folly?
Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties by Ian MacDonald
Dylan ends his album with a tribute to John Lennon. Although people have made careers writing about The Beatles, it’s MacDonald’s song-by-song chronology that stands out as the best. It’s worth buying just to read the introduction alone. No other Beatles book so accurately places the band within it’s social and musical context. And it’s a joy to read!
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
No one expresses the feeling of life having been lived as well as Bob Dylan, and Maugham’s classic novel of a World War I veteran’s voyage of self-discovery is a perfect companion to that same sense of wandering and hard-earned self-knowledge.
The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin
Larkin and Dylan are similar poets in that they use everyday language in new and fresh combinations to pin down and display those domestic revelations that are so close to the tips our noses we tend to look right past them.
The Humbling by Philip Roth
Many of the characters in Dylan’s songs that most resemble Dylan himself are too aware of time gone by. They seem almost haunted by a past that they can’t outlive and can barely outrun. Roth’s novel of a once-great actor who is living out a nightmare of drained power and confidence could be right out of a Dylan song.
Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition by Adam Gussow
People have made much of this album being Dylan’s most dark and violent in quite some time, but all this murder and blood fits nicely into the tradition of American folk and blues music. Gussow’s study looks past the superficial notion of Blues music as being just forlorn cries of lost love, and instead claims that they’re responses to the spectacles of race violence in the South. He makes a compelling argument that also seems to apply to Dylan’s blues-lyric influenced oeuvre.