Clip: Singing the praises of rock
Singing the praises of rock
February 3, 2005
BY HILLEL ITALIE
NEW YORK -- In 2001, Martin Amis, Rick Moody and other authors and artists
gathered in New York to honor a peer they regarded as a giant of the times.
They compared him with Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Arthur Rimbaud. They
called him a bard, a shaman and a master of ''art as revenge.''
That man was Bob Dylan.
Had he lived in England, he'd be Sir Bob Dylan, maybe even Lord. Scholarly
books have compared him with Dante and Keats; admirers lobby for him to get
the Nobel Prize. At a 1997 Kennedy Center ceremony, where fellow honorees
included dancer Edward Villela and opera star Jessye Norman, President
Clinton thanked Dylan for a ''lifetime of stirring the conscience of the
Now, Dylan has been knighted by the nation's book reviewers. His memoir,
Chronicles, Vol. 1, is among the finalists chosen last month by the
National Book Critics Circle, which has given awards to such writers as
John Updike and Philip Roth. Dylan's competitors this year include Stephen
Greenblatt, a leading Shakespearean scholar and author of the best-selling
Will in the World, and historian Ron Chernow, cited for Alexander Hamilton.
''Bob Dylan is unfairly talented. I've written a lot of books and after
reading Dylan's book, I realized I would never write a book that good,''
says critic Greil Marcus, a former Critics Circle finalist whose Dylan
book, Like a Rolling Stone, comes out this spring.
''I expected a big, oversized book with lots of pictures and memorabilia.
Instead, here is this modest object, with no illustrations. It's not very
long. Its tone is humble. It's literate. This is a real book, written out
of an immersion in literature.''
In Chronicles, Dylan not only celebrates the influence of Woody Guthrie and
other musicians, but also states that he recorded an entire album, which he
does not identify, based on some stories by Chekhov. Elsewhere he praises
Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke and others as ''visionaries,
Before Dylan, rock stars and literary writers were considered
contradictions in terms, the pure division of mind and body. Even Dylan was
mocked by Updike for looking ''three months on the far side of a haircut''
at a concert in the early 1960s.
But by the late '60s, English teachers were reciting the lyrics of Dylan,
the Beatles and Paul Simon with the kind of reverence usually shown for
John Donne. Meanwhile, rock stars became more self-conscious (and
pretentious) and literary, from the ''rock theater'' of the Doors to the
''rock opera'' of the Who's ''Tommy.''
''For people of that time, some of the rock lyrics were more important to
us and occupied us more than reading the great poets, even those of us who
went on to study those poets,'' said T. Coraghessan Boyle, whose many books
include Water Music and World's End.
Musicians were becoming authors -- the Doors' Jim Morrison wrote poetry and
Dylan issued a surreal work of verse, Tarantula -- and authors were writing
about musicians. An Elvis-like character was featured in Harlan Ellison's
Spider Kiss; Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street concerned a rock star's
attempted escape from fame.
As more fans came of age, rock novels proliferated, including Roddy Doyle's
The Commitments, Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and Salman Rushdie's The
Ground Beneath Her Feet. Dylan inspired a key character in Scott Spencer's
The Rich Man's Table.
Boyle, who included a Michael Jackson-like character in A Friend of the
Earth, wanted to use some lines from the Doors at the start of his 2003
novel about a hippie commune, Drop City. He worked out a deal that allowed
him to use the lyrics for free by contributing liner notes to a Doors
Not only have writers taken to rock as a subject, some have tried making
music themselves. Rushdie collaborated on songs with U2's Bono, and
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon worked with Warren Zevon. A CD
compilation released in 2004 by Soft Skull Press, a Brooklyn-based
publisher, featured lyrics by Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood and Paul
Auster, and music by the band One Ring Zero.
''Let's face it, I don't think there's a single one of us who didn't want
to be a rock star when we grew up,'' Boyle said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, literary attempts keep coming from rockers: poetry by Jewel and
Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan; novels by Jimmy Buffett; children's books
by Madonna; science fiction from Ray Davies; horror from Greg Kihn; short
stories by Graham Parker, David Byrne and Eric Burdon.
As surely as Dylan helped persuade songwriters to move beyond the
three-minute single, they now strive to rise above the rock star screed.
When Simon & Schuster, Dylan's publisher, announced a two-book deal last
spring with Elvis Costello, it proudly stated that the English rocker had
''resisted the rewards for writing a traditionally scurrilous and
scandalous biographical memoir.''
His first book, currently untitled, will be a ''series of intimate
narrative chapters taking their cue from the styles, themes and characters
found in a number of Costello's lyrics.''
The second book, more in the spirit of a three-minute single, was billed as
a ''work of comic philosophy'' called How to Play the Guitar, Sing Loudly
and Impress Girls ... or Boys.
BOOKS ABOUT ROCK
Spider Kiss, a Harlan Ellison novel about a young rocker from Kentucky and
the travails of fame.
King Jude, David Helton's tale of a 6-foot-6-inch, 12-fingered rock star
Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo's novel about a rock star's flight from
Paperback Writer, Mark Shipper's fictional history of the Beatles.
The Commitments, Roddy Doyle's novel about a group of Irish kids who form a
band dedicated to performing 1960s soul classics.
Say Goodbye, a novel by Lewis Shiner that follows a Texas singer and her
struggles in the 1990s music industry.
The Rich Man's Table, Scott Spencer's novel is narrated by the illegitimate
son of a celebrated rock star who more than slightly resembles Bob Dylan.
ROCK ABOUT BOOKS
''The Dangling Conversation.'' Simon and Garfunkel's virtual anthem of
highbrow depression includes somber nods to Emily Dickinson and Robert
''I Am the Walrus.'' John Lennon said he based this Beatles song on a
character from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
''White Rabbit.'' Lewis Carroll was also the inspiration for this Jefferson
Airplane LSD ballad.
''Sympathy for the Devil.'' Mick Jagger has said this Rolling Stones
classic was inspired by his reading of Baudelaire, but many have noted
similarities to Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita.
'My House.'' Lou Reed met Delmore Schwartz when he was an undergraduate at
Syracuse University and has cited the poet as a key influence. In ''My
House,'' he recalls his former mentor and likens their bond to that of
Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom from James Joyce's Ulysses.
''The Ghost of Tom Joad.'' Bruce Springsteen has long been an admirer of
John Steinbeck, and this song's title refers to the young hero of The
Grapes of Wrath. An earlier Springsteen song, ''Darkness on the Edge of
Town,'' was inspired by passages from The Grapes of Wrath.
''There She Goes, My Baby.'' Australian rocker Nick Cave's song works in
references to Karl Marx, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.
''Summertime in England.'' Van Morrison's ode to the English countryside
features references to James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and one of the all-time
literary pickup lines: ''Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge,
''Brownsville Girl.'' Bob Dylan's lyrics were rich with references to the
Bible and other texts. This epic tribute to a girl with ''Brownsville
curls'' gets special mention because it was co-written by a figure from the
literary world -- author-playwright Sam Shepard.