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Non-fiction reviews


Bob Spitz - Dylan: A Biography; Bruce Welsh - Rock'n'Roll I Gave You the Best Years of My Life

17 October 1991

Dylan: A Biography
Bob Spitz
Michael Joseph

Rock 'n' Roll - I Gave You the Best Years of My Life
Bruce Welch

Published in The Australian

With rock in its Ken Done period (decorative, vacuous, market-driven) it is probably opportune to take a look at happier times - when artists, generally speaking, did more than appear half-naked for three minutes on MTV.

Bob Dylan, a middle-class Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minnesota, somehow found his muse amid the debris of New York City in 1961. He went on to transcend himself, and his era, with a felicity which rock stars try to emulate to this day. Those who know nothing of Dylan's work beyond Blowin' in the Wind characterise him as a passe sixties "protest singer". Nothing could be further from the truth. Dylan single-handedly introduced modernism into rock and roll. While the Beatles were singing "Love, love me do/You know I love you/I'll always be true..." Dylan's work was informed by TS Eliot and Rimbaud, contained a social polemic that bites even 25 years later, and embodied what were, quite simply, the best love songs ever written. His influence is so significant, even now, that the two most successful groups of the eighties - Dire Straits and U2 - struggle with mixed success to free themselves of it.

In what must be the dozenth Dylan biography, Bob Spitz has worked harder for his information than most of his predecessors. There are real gems for aficionados here, many of which have not appeared in earlier books. However Spitz's analytical abilities leave much to be desired - and his style is that confused, rushed, hip superficiality characteristic of so many American writers thesedays. One has nothing against zany, crazy language or gonzo journalism: but they need to be done with panache, or not at all. Phrases like "Little Richard's subhuman voice was fired up like an overheated Harley" and "David Whitaker [an early Dylan influence] was a truly special cat - wired, juiced and ready to fly" are frequent and wearying.

Spitz, like so many rock writers, makes the mistake of trying to translate rock's chaotic urgency into prose. You can't.

The author's list of sources is long and impressive - but it also reveals the lack of discernment which is this book's undoing: he quotes a long, muck-raking passage on John Lennon by the fabricator Albert Goldman, whom he unblinkingly describes as "John Lennon's biographer".

If Spitz had merely researched this book, and left the thinking and writing to someone more capable, it may have been very good indeed. The minutiae he has eked out is often superb. He (for instance) interviewed witnesses to Dylan's 1957 performance of Jenny Jenny at a school "Jacket Jamboree": their responses give a unique picture of how "normal" people reacted to the Devil's music in those dim, dark days before Coke ads and Richard Wilkins-style DJs rendered it a universal sedative. ("The most shocking bit of exhibitionism ever to hit Hibbing," said one citizen.)

But generally the writing is insensitive and overblown. Dylan's first girlfriend, the now-legendary Echo Helstrom, will be charmed to see herself described as being "as devoted to him as a cocker spaniel in heat". Another early love is delicately depicted as being "stacked to the rafters". The psychoanalysing is even more gauche. Spitz explains that the young Dylan's compulsive leg-twitching was "clinically...similar to the habitual adolescent practice of masturbation to relieve tension."

Dylan stole records from his friends, once walked right past his own parents in public, and treated his women abominably. Well, some lead great lives, others produce great work: the two don't often go together. Dylan clearly cannot be accused of leading a great life. So if it were a choice between spending $45 to wade through details of his repeatedly disastrous personal relationships - or roughly the same amount for the three albums "Highway 61 Revisited", "Blonde on Blonde" and "Blood on the Tracks" - I know what I'd do.

BRUCE WELCH has been rhythm guitarist with the Shadows for thirty years. Interest in his book will turn on whether you think Cliff Richard and/or the Shadows were very important. I actually don't. There are, however, some revealing tit-bits. If the Shadows toured South Africa today, as they did in 1960...

We would, in effect, be blacklisted into submission. It would be almost impossible for us to make records, to appear on radio and television, or to give a concert in any British theatre... Cliff Richard gets around the situation thesedays by taking his gospel tours to South Africa, spreading the word of Jesus.

Thankfully, the poor standard of writing in this book doesn't impair its realism. Welch discovered fellow Shadow John Rostill in this condition, one day in 1973:

I found John in the middle of the floor, slumped at a strange angle, lying with his bass guitar strapped around his neck. His hands were touching the strings as if he were still playing the instrument. He was surrounded by a tangled mass of high-voltage wires and cables. His body was stiff. He...had apparently been electrocuted.

Bruce Welch's honesty redeems him: "I have travelled the world through my ability to play three chords (in any key)". Still, you would have to be keen on 1960s elevator music to get carried away by this one.

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