The Duchamp of Pop

Chronicles: Volume One
Bob Dylan

Chronicles Vol. 1Sometimes it’s simple.

I’ve written before about the laxity with which generational cohorts are bandied about. Demographically a Baby Boomer, there’s no better evidence of my good standing in Generation X than my willingness, need even, to tear down the ridiculous heroes of the generation that ruined America.

Front and center is Robert Allen Zimmerman, the Marcel Duchamp of pop music. Lest you think that’s a compliment I’ll be blunt: Duchamp was a fraud.

Yes, that’s pure opinion but I’ve never seen evidence that Duchamp, unlike say, Pablo Picasso, actually had any ability to draw or paint or translate the visual in a way that most humans cannot. To me, that’s what makes a visual artist in the same way that a musician hears and plays notes that most humans–even many like me who have some rudimentary playing skills–cannot. There has to be a difference to earn a label and playing the ‘I’m me’ card just doesn’t cut it.

But back to Bobby. I am obviously not a huge Dylan fan. But I think he was Madonna before she was, constantly reinventing himself in a way that kept the media interested and his career going. I read the book as a marketer to see how he’d address those issues. He didn’t.

In fact, for a book labelled Volume One there’s a curious absence of anything that would leave one yearning for Volume Two. What there is is about two hundred pages of living in Greenwich Village, recording and playing hooky in New Orleans, and driving from Woodstock to the Berkshires and back. If you thought you’d get some insight into the man think again.

The book was praised at the time of publication. I can only chalk that up to hagiography. Your heroes can’t fail, right? Maybe they can. First, there’s this weird voice he assumes. Part gee whiz, I’m just a simple guy from the midwest, part autodidactical display, to me it was pure hokum.

It also changes from section to section. Only 5 chapters long, the first and last deal mostly with his Village days. In between he moves to Woodstock although you’d never know (unless you’re supposed to know everything about him already) that a motorcycle accident preceded that move.

In the New Orleans section we see him working with the musician/producer Daniel Lanois and there are these curious gaps. Early in that chapter he suggests that ideas from an initial meeting hemmed him in when it came to recording. But that thought is never pursued to its end. Do editors edit anymore or is it considered unseemly to call writing by celebrities sloppy? I can’t answer that question but I can point out the slop.

There’s this one noticeable tick that has to be called out. More wind blows in this book than in Florida during hurricane season.  The first time I encountered a wind blowing in the deserted streets of the Village in January I thought it was a neat way to tie in his canon. By the umpteenth windstorm I found the whole thing tiresome.

And then there’s this near-plagarism thing. This was called to my attention by self-declared Dylan-fanatic Steve Locastro. (Steve’s a musician himself, check out The Brownies).  Gently reported as ‘borrowings,’ and ‘games’ it appears that whole chunks of other writer’s work have been apporporaited by Dylan. This isn’t reassembly into a new work of art, this is cheating although it’s increasingly a new norm.

I don’t know anymore about Bob Dylan after reading this book than I did before. He still can’t sing. He still can’t play. And I’m not sure he can write. He doesn’t make my  short list of the great American songwriters born in the pre-Baby Boom generation. That list includes John Phillips, Brian Wilson, and the man who can sing, play and write the others under the table–Willie Nelson.

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3 thoughts on “The Duchamp of Pop

  1. I agree about Dylan. I disagree about Duchamp. (If anyone is the Duchamp of pop, by the way, it’s one David Jones.)

    Nice read as always.

    • No, Mr. Jones can actually play that damn saxophone. And he’s a pop star pure and simple without the denial You can proffer the evidence about M. Duchamp and I am happy to review. I don’t mind the con, I mind the dishonesty.

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