Bob Dylan Performing Artist 1986 - 1990 and Beyond, Mind Out of Time
by Paul Williams
(Omnibus Press  19.95, 360pp Hardback)


Paul Williams' first two books in the 'Performing Artist' series covered the periods  1960-1974 - 'the early years' - and 1974-1986 - 'the middle years'. Accessible, informative and a bloody good read, at least one of Dylan's band members has used them to get to grips with Dylan's incredibly prolific output. Lay readers hunted down the outtakes and unreleased performances that Williams described so well. Hard on the heels of 'the middle years' came Watching the River Flow, a collection of articles documenting later high points of Dylan's career such as his two acoustic albums of covers in the 90s and the Supper Club Shows in 1994. While it's always a pleasure to read Williams, it made one long for the same chronological, full-length treatment as the first two books. Williams admits that he felt a sense of foreboding about tackling the years which comprise this volume, when Dylan's artistry was frequently at a low ebb, a consideration which may have led to the bitty structure of Watching the River Flow and which, sadly, is true of this latest installment.

Since the release of Watching the River Flow
', Michael Gray's magisterial study Song and Dance Man 3 has been released, which includes an incredibly detailed study of Dylan's later work as well as Gray's assassination of Williams's style: 'And will someone please tell him about the phrase 'performance artist'', he witheringly asks at one point. A good sport, Williams nods to Gray several times, but it seems his nerve is a little shaken to the extent that he spends a page and a half splitting hairs with something Gray has written. What can Williams add?

He begins brilliantly, a review of a performance of 'Visions of Johanna' from 1999 in which Dylan changes the chorus to 'And these visions of Madonna have conquered my mind'. It makes you want to hunt down the recording and keep reading. The opening chapter too covering 1986, is brilliant. It concisely documents Dylan's released output - the dire film Hearts of Fire
- and unreleased output - a revealing interview with the BBC, an aborted attempt at a song for the soundtrack which Williams transcribes and had me listening to and nodding my head to in agreement. There is good discussion too, of his substandard Down in the Groove. This is followed by a clear account of how his short tour with The Grateful Dead redefined what live performance could mean and led to 'the Never-ending tour' which continues to this day.

Following this, however, it falls apart. Way, way too much discussion of average tours with Tom Petty that in no way can begin to interest us as much as, say, The Rolling Thunder Revue or tour 66. Williams gets bogged down in discussing set-lists, an obsessiveness better suited to a fanzine and one which offers only limited insights. While placing songs next to each other can make them resonate in different ways, Dylan's performances of these songs are not as restructured for performance as in 1975, for example. Williams's catch-all expression 'performing artist' - his contention that Dylan is creating a work of art anew each time he performs a song - becomes an excuse to discuss any song he has ever recorded, despite these songs already having been discussed in previous volumes at their time of composition, and there is a drift in focus. While there are interesting juxtapositions, I was longing for more insightful discussion and a move onto more fertile ground. A more concise treatment of this theme would have greatly improved the book.

The discussion of 1989's Oh! Mercy
is interesting, yet there is a huge gulf between a decent work like this and a masterful work such as Time Out of Mind. While in the first two volumes we could read about the relatively lackluster New Morning while anticipating Planet Waves or Blood on the Tracks, here there is no exciting next stage in Dylan's career to serve as incentive. Gray has definitively discussed Under the Red Sky, as well as the 90s folk albums. Gray's comment that we risk cheapening Dylan's achievements if we lavish too much praise on his bad or mediocre work went through my head while reading large sections of this book. Williams concludes the book having covered in depth just  four years, while the previous volumes covered 14 and 12. In these periods Dylan was also far more prolific.

The remainder of the book is given over to Williams' original responses to Time Out of Mind
and 'Love and Theft', which were first published in Crawdaddy! la Watching the River Flow. While he may argue that Dylan is a 'mind out of time', it seems spurious logic to break down the chronology that served so well in the first two books in order to include two reviews that are first impressions. Whatever the logic, they are enjoyable to read because Dylan's work at this point is far more interesting and worthy of discussion than that covered by the rest of the book. Williams admits he does not know how much detail to go into since he does not know who his audience is - whether newcomers or fans who read the internet message-boards to discuss Dylan's lyrics everyday. He ends by promising more commentary of these albums in the next volume. The question is, why didn't he write these chapters properly now?

The answer sadly seems linked to the front cover. While the first two had handsome photographs of Dylan from the periods the books covered, on this occasion there is a picture of Dylan in 2003, instead of from 1986-1990. Dylan wasn't quite as photogenic in that period and Williams financed the writing of this book by accepting donations (a list of donors appears in the appendix). It seems that his publisher would only publish another installment if he covered the albums of Dylan's artistic renaissance in the late nineties. One regrets that Williams did not do the job properly and write Performing Artist 1986-2002
.

Sad to say, this book is not as necessary as the first two. Buy those and Gray's book and this is virtually redundant.         


       Matt Bryden 2004