A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan 
by Wilfrid Mellers.
Faber, 255 pp., £6.95, November 1984, 0 571 13345 2
Show More
by Jonathan Cott.
Vermilion/Hutchinson, 244 pp., £20, October 1984, 0 09 158750 6
Show More
Show More

At certain moments, which, given there is less and less time to think, may be fleeting, one question surely crosses the mind of most adult readers: do we actually need to hear from professors? Do we, for example, need professors of music to tell us about the songs of the Beatles, or professors of philosophy to tell us that philosophy is dead, or professors of linguistics to tell us about children’s speech, or professors of film to tell us how the sign system is working in Psycho? Aren’t there moments when we are all liable to turn into Uncle Vanya, and start wondering where we left that revolver?

Doubts about professors (as against, say, prophets) don’t always mean doubting individuals who are ‘professors’. There are some remarkable examples, in contemporary English academic life, of professors who are hitting the streets, almost like buskers or crazed Beaverbrookian newspaper hacks, part of whose authority comes from a deliberate vulgarisation of matters of import, a de-professionaliation of the professor’s role. The danger of course is that this act may be a trick, just another extension – into the rough – of professorial hegemony. But it does seem increasingly difficult to take a certain kind of confident professor seriously. A happy professor of political science, for example, must be a very weird cat. As with (almost) everything else, Bob Dylan has something to say about this. In ‘My Back Pages’, a fine song that connects scepticism with a sense of becoming increasingly youthful as the years pass, he recalls:

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool.

Writing about Dylan, as against listening to him, is not easy and it’s useful to have Wilfrid Mellers’s ‘backdrop’ to Dylan, after his recent offerings, Twilight of the Gods, about the Beatles, Bach and the Dance of God and Beethoven and the Voice of God. For people without musical training, of whom this reviewer is one, the musicological contributions made by Mellers over the years, and over a wide range of musical forms, have often proved extremely helpful. But musicology isn’t the same thing as musical understanding, and part of the problem with Mellers on Dylan is that he is bound to step out of his ‘backdrop’ at certain points, and have palpable interpretative designs upon us. And here the difficulties are real, since he can suddenly become Professor Wilfrid Mellers giving a lecture about a perfectly accessible popular artist, and (maybe) getting it wrong. Some of his interpretations, at least for one person who has listened to Dylan almost every day of his semi-adult life, do seem painfully in error – error to do with professorial over-interpretation.

The first part of A Darker Shade of Pale (terrible title) looks at the legacy of American folk culture and the musical forms that have infused it, and which continue to do so. It’s rather like reading one of the 18th-century Scottish conjectural historians, with a Hegelian musical gloss. Mellers is well known for his interest in American music of all kinds, and here we have a tour through various Celtic importations, through the ballads of deprivation, American hymnody, the music of the Shakers, on to ‘a therapy of corporeal assent: music for scraped and plucked strings’. There follow discussions of banjo, guitar, cowboy music (especially the ‘lonesome’ feel), Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams. The link into Dylan, the subject of Part Two, is Elvis Presley. One’s doubts about how illuminating all this is, in relation to the beginnings of Dylan’s own contribution, are reinforced by this division in the text, but no doubt Mellers could reply that this is what a ‘backdrop’ is.

Mellers is continually anxious to synthesise, and he keeps up his epic scale in looking at Dylan’s career, as we move from ‘grass roots’ to, inter alia, ‘Love and Loss, Redemption and the Myth of the Wild West’, Dylan’s Christian conversion, and his appearance as ‘Jewish Amerindian and White Negro’. It is all a bit too much, but at least Mellers takes care, unlike Jonathan Cott in his expensive, over-reverential tome: one more coffee-table book. It may seem a bit Dylanesque (i.e. slightly cruel) but I finished Cott’s book without being able to remember what it had been about. Mellers has, at the very least, used his ears. And yet, generous, large-minded and, in a certain sense, learned though A Darker Shade of Pale is, it misses out on so much. Annexing Dylan to an idea of America, and of American folk culture, avoids the necessary attention to the tiny accuracies, the interior logic, that this apparently rambling genius finds in his own writings.

Take first ‘disguise’, disguise starting with his name – he was born Robert Zimmerman. The creation of an accompanying false self, call it Bobby or Zimmy, is not, in any obvious way, a device to enter the great hall of American fame. It could be one way of keeping people at bay; it could be to do with American Jewish ‘identity’; it could be meaningless. It could be one of the last ways of keeping a secret. Then, take the influence of black music, black history. Indeed, it is there, and Dylan has consistently addressed himself to the social fate of American blacks. But Mellers’s mythic-mindedness leads him to not even discuss ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, because its account of William Zanzinger’s murder of the slantingly-described black woman, Hattie Carroll, is not obvious, cannot obviously be cited as part of the backdrop. Dylan is brilliant in allowing poetic space, in his songs, for hints and clues to be followed, and this starts with his own invisibility:

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest.

                 ‘With God on Our Side’

On the vexed matter of Dylan and politics, Dylan and the Sixties, Dylan and the ‘sellout’, Professor Mellers is quiet, and one cannot blame him. It could be that Dylan is the secret reactionary artist of the age, penetrating the consciousness of a ‘rebel’ generation, only to expose its political fraudulence and to restate the need for Christian revivalist alternatives. But maybe not. The irresponsible, plain silly bits of Dylan’s utterances – a bit of Tarot here, a bit of I Ching, a bit of the Bible there – have never damaged his permanent concern with the cruddy world of work and social injustice (garbage, ashtrays, cheap labour, immigration, asylums, prisons), and, after all, the wheel’s still in spin. Nor has he ever lost sight, over more than twenty years, either as son or as father, of the possibility of a third world war.

The musicological mode helps Mellers to avoid certain issues – for example, that Dylan has always been some kind of Christian, without always having been allowed to be one. Mellers says that ‘very sophisticated poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, sometimes listed among his sources’, seem to have little affinity with Dylan, yet 11 pages later attributes to Dylan the claim that ‘in my end is my beginning.’ This kind of sliding around matters, partly because Dylan has talked about first and last things (including recordings) in striking ways, and partly because Dylan has seen Pound and Eliot ‘fighting in the Captain’s tower’. The mythic dimension, and the placing of Dylan within it, allows for avoidance of nastier things. No one can propose that Dylan’s writings, or the means by which he fought his way through to public authority in the Sixties, are free of blood, hatred and bad feeling. Dylan has written about diurnal anger with ferocity, often to banal effect, but also, particularly through vocal counterpoint, with chilling precision (‘Positively 4th Street’). Professor Mellers, with his backdrop, tends to keep away from this smaller, darker place, and, in any study of Dylan, this is an act close to cowardice. It won’t do to opt for the cinematic, hobo, Wild West alternative, at the cost of saying little about the world of pain. After all, the pain that produced lyrics entirely to do with homelessness and not belonging must, somewhere, connect with Dylan’s Christian concerns.

Dylan’s Shakespearean sense of rain, of when and where it falls; his ability to write of the permanent emergency of sexual relations, in both love and hate; his sense of humour (for example, about getting through weekends); his hostility to museums; his aching sense of how someone can be ahead of his time and also behind his time: none of this figures in A Darker Shade of Pale. (To put it simply, for Dylan listeners, ‘One Too Many Mornings’ is not even mentioned.)

The album Self-Portrait (1970), with its strange and very unfolky selection of songs, is just about absorbed into the schema, the long day’s journey that sees Mellers turning Dylan into a Jewish Amerindian, but with New Morning, also 1970, things go badly wrong, and it hurts. For example, the lines in ‘Sign on the Window’:

Build me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘Pa’,
That must be what it’s all about
That must be what it’s all about.

Of the repeat ending, Mellers writes: ‘The music seems doubtful: the intermittent metrical affirmations of a IV-I cadence in 2/4 time are no answer to the wandering wondering instability of the bulk of the song, which was notated originally without bar lines and tonally strays from its G flat major bass to triads of C flat and E double flat!’ Musicologically, this analysis may indeed be accurate but, as I’m sure many Dylan listeners would agree, it misses the affirmative point of the repeat ending, which, taking the song as a whole, is not doubtful or insufficient.

Now at some point in saying things about Dylan, one is up against the exhausting ingenuity of (Professor) Christopher Ricks. But it has to be said, too, that even if Ricks is making an ideological raid, as it were, on ‘low culture’, to carry off our man into the Cambridge University English Tripos, his attention to the language that Dylan uses nimbly avoids the flattening generalisations that Mellers’s musicology brings in its (fast) train. The attention paid to American English, and the way that it can become British English, is the right kind of attention, for Dylan and others, just as attending to cliché (as against Edenic Amerindian male-assertive unisonal musics) is right, since it looks at ordinary language and the renewals that happen within ordinary language. It is distressing how Ricks, who has seen Dylan as ‘everybody’s’, has somehow paralysed the rest of us from feeling smart enough to speak out, or even feeling clever enough to understand Bob Dylan. But he isn’t in the way. His Dylanesque performances with Dylan’s recordings are electrifyingly un-professorial.

The dominance of the Amerindian background in Mellers’s account leads to other omissions. Let’s take Dylan on the royalty of certain individuals, the entirely un-American activity of election to personal monarchy. Often, in Dylan, such personages are women, from the past, who can be relied on as historical guardians, whatever the vicissitudes of any current situation: ‘Queen Mary, she’s my friend/Yes I believe I’ll go see her again,’ in the extraordinary song ‘Just Like a Woman’, or:

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

               ‘Queen Jane Approximately’

Dylan has always had a sense of ‘gifted kings and queens’, and seems to have come to see modern America as a place where queens are dismissed, made to disappear, with a flick of the wrist. And the sense of royalty in others fits with the Hamlet-like lyrics of the mid-Sixties, making an elusive connection with Shakespeare. (I seem to remember that he said he’d come to play the Isle of Wight in 1969 so that he could visit Tennyson’s house.) Mellers’s vast American theme not merely misses the cutting edge: it underestimates Dylan’s transitions, his movement across borders, frontiers, into other countries. The Christian concerns of recent Dylan may (or may not) parody the vanities of royalism, but, given that Mellers takes the song ‘Changing of the Guards’ (on Street-Legal, 1979) as marking the move into Christianity, isn’t one allowed to think about the place where everyone comes, in the end, to watch this change?

No one interested in Dylan can pretend that there aren’t good bits and bad bits, times when he hits it and times when he really doesn’t. So it’s a pity that Wilfrid Mellers misses the times when he does hit it, maybe because some of these are not about America at all. It would be difficult just to quote from ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ without listening to Dylan sing the lines, but he really sees Spain. And it is unfortunate, given the attempt to place Dylan that Mellers has made, that Infidels should have appeared since the book was written. The loneliness of some of the recent Christian songs and the dreadful hollowness of Saved (1980) have been replaced, not with vapid evasions, but with a return to the mixture of doubt and religious longing that only a poet of Dylan’s stature can manage. Infidels is also explicitly opposed to certain aspects of modern America: greed, to take one example. (A song about the sun going down on the Union is taken by Jonathan Cott to be merely about the trade unions.) The record advances Dylan’s concern for events in the Middle East (the contemporary singer he most admired was the great Egyptian popular singer, Um Kalthoum, ‘Daughter of the Prophet’), as well as finding new ways of describing past love and its echoes in the less than perfect present. Professor Mellers misses his chance to make us feel that it’s Dylan he cares about, as against a theory of American music in general. Whatever else he has done (and Dylan has more than his share of erratic nonsense), Dylan threw himself on God’s mercy. To smother this in proto-anthropology is to serve nobody; it also fails to bring alive the power of Dylan’s work: its playing and creating a twinned-self (sometimes the internal persecutor), one that has journeyed thousands of miles, walked on dozens of stages, changed shape, loved and lost. The true Christianity in Dylan is the Christianity that awaits the disappearance of this self, that will bring to an end all the phoney jealousy, the false findings, the hidden menace in social diplomacy, bring an end to exegesis. It is Dylan’s gift to himself to have had a genuine companion in life: the man he made who wrote his songs. That they address themselves to the mystery of this doesn’t mean that the work is mysterious.

We love Dylan, for all the ups and downs; it needs no ghost to tell us when what he does doesn’t work, and when it – often miraculously – does. He is new, every morning, in his respect for past majesty, the majesty of what he once called ‘evening’s empire’, and in his capacity to make it simple, to say it straight. He knows that love can come. He can renew. ‘Hamlet is a name,’ wrote William Hazlitt in 1817, ‘his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet’s brain. What then, are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader’s mind. It is we who are Hamlet.’ The same for Dylan, as real as my own thoughts:

The guilty undertaker sighs,
The lonesome organ grinder cries,
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you.
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn,
But it’s not that way,
I wasn’t born to lose you.
I want you, I want you,
I want you so bad,
Honey, I want you.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences