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 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! ˆ 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