Hooked on the singer and song

Bob Dylan
January 4, 2008

Bob Dylan is the literary critics' favourite rock star, his lyrics analysed by tweedy dons and chic cultural theorists alike. Refreshingly, Lee Marshall will have none of their attempts to induct the singer into the literary pantheon. "Dylan is an extraordinarily talented user of words," he argues, "but he's no poet, and tired cliches arguing that he is 'as good' as Keats are an attempt to justify popular culture through alien concepts." What Marshall attempts in Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star is, rather, "a sociological account of Dylan's stardom", a narrative of the 45-year "battle about what the concept 'Bob Dylan' means" that sees him whole, in his own terms, and in the context of the music industry that sustains him.

This is a rich, highly readable cultural history of popular music from the early 1960s to the present, read through and around Dylan's remarkable public career (his "stardom"). Marshall makes provocative claims about both the significance of Dylan to musical history (forget the Beatles, it was Bob who, by "plugging in" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, laid the foundations of "rock" as a musical and cultural form) and of musical history to Dylan's career. Thus the post-punk fragmentation of the musical mainstream is, he claims, as important as Dylan's religious conversion(s) in explaining his ragged fortunes in the 1980s.

This isn't just the sociological study Marshall claims, but the book is all the better for that. In part it is a fascinating, passionate account of his own engagement with Dylan through what has obviously been a lifelong obsession. Marshall, it is clear, is a Dylan fan - not in the modish, detached manner of many a previous writer, but a hard-core fan's fan who can speak with authority of how "the Dylan community" responded to a particular interview, an album cover or a nuance of delivery in performance. And his commitment to his subject is written on every page. He casually observes that "in November 2005, I saw Dylan play five consecutive shows at the Brixton Academy", oblivious that such behaviour might need explaining. But then, I would suggest that, at some level, Marshall is writing for an imagined reader for whom the natural response to such a claim is not "wahoo, nutter alert!" but "lucky man - I could only get to three".

The stated ambition may thus point towards a rigorously theorised academic account of Dylan "as a concept", but Marshall's instincts as a fan keep drawing the story back to why he (and probably most readers) became interested in the subject in the first place: the complex, perplexing, engaging qualities of Dylan the performer. That's not to suggest that this isn't a rigorous academic book - it is; but thankfully it never succeeds in reducing its subject to a concept.

Both Marshall's Dylan and the Marshall who tells us about Dylan remain very human figures. So, while we follow the twists of Dylan's creative and commercial fortunes, Marshall himself is always already written into the account. He argues with critics, reminisces about the impact of particular albums and generally carries things forward with the authority that comes from both an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and a deep emotional response to the endeavour. "I know the words and the sound of all ... Dylan's released records," he claims tellingly at one point. "They are embedded in my consciousness perhaps more deeply than anything else." Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star is as much a study of fandom as stardom, and as such it is a compelling read.

Greg Walker is Masson professor of English literature at Edinburgh University. His Writing under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation was published in paperback by Oxford University Press in 2007.

Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star

Author - Lee Marshall
Publisher - Polity Press
Pages - 300
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 9780745636412 and 36429

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