Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 03 Dec 2017

Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

When I read several early and extremely positive reviews of the Classics scholar, Richard Thomas’ book about Bob Dylan I was pretty keen to get hold of a copy. I was particularly intrigued to get the chance to find out how the Classical literature of Greece and Rome had influenced the work of the singer songwriter, especially in his more recent output.

Thomas is also an unabashed fan and something of an anorak and there are absolutely loads of snippets and background information on Dylan’s life and interpretations of some of his songs that is genuinely fascinating. But having said that I have to admit that, taking the book overall, it was something of a disappointment. There are a number of reasons why I find myself unable to show the sort of enthusiasm many other reviewers have lavished on the book.

Firstly, I find his fandom way too intrusive. He positively gushes over Dylan’s genius and never seems to tire of telling us just how great he, his lyrics and his music are. There just doesn’t seem to be a critical bone in his body when it comes to Dylan and I find it hard to go along with the view that, as an artist, Dylan made no missteps. His devotion to Dylan makes him say some downright silly things and I offer this as an example:

It is an essential part of Dylan’s genius that he is constantly evolving as an artist. This is not true of artists of similar longevity, say Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, or Bruce Springsteen.

This is a patently absurd statement that the author makes very early in the book and signals that this is going to be more hagiography than critical appraisal..

The overall shape of the book gave me the impression that a number of almost freestanding essays have been strapped together into book form. The flow of the book is interrupted by repetition and a structure that I found hard to follow. The effect is to make the experience lumpy and irritating when we find similar issues and repetitious descriptions of albums constantly cropping up.

The one certain fact about Dylan is that when it comes to talking about his lyrics, his music or his life he’s massively unreliable. This leaves anyone writing about him on extraordinarily shaky ground and having to make assumptions or interpretations that have very little evidence to back them up. Thomas’ book is full of phrases that are built on assumptions about what Dylan did or thought without any evidence to back them up and I lost count of the amount of times he came up with the sort of sentence that starts  ‘We can’t know for certain what Dylan said (or did) but surely he …’

Despite making the linking of Dylan’s oeuvre to Classical texts a key selling point of his analysis there just isn’t enough of this in the book. Every time he sets out on an exposition relating to the Classics it soon seems to crash into the buffers. Too often this central aim drifts out of sight in favour of a wider and somewhat more random analysis of a selection of his songs and I don’t really know why some of Dylan’s output gets so much more attention than others.

However what kept me reading was the enthusiasm and the uncritical excitement Thomas clearly has for all things Dylan. You can’t help but admire his fanatical love for the songs and it’s enough at times to take you along on the crest of a wave and I suspect that all Dylan fans, including me, have an unscratchable itch when it comes to the background to the songs and the biographical details that most of us don’t usually get to know.

I still think this book doesn’t merit the fanfare reviews it has received but I guess that might just be me – maybe my expectations were just too high. I can’t help but feel this should have been a really good book but what we have is a curate’s egg – good in parts.


Terry Potter

December 2017