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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Saluting two writers...

A quiet salute to two writers, one who has just died and one who hasn't. Paul Nelson, co-founder with Jon Pankake of Little Sandy Review back when Dylan was scuffling around in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St.Paul, was found dead on July 5, according to the New York Times. There's a respectful entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia; sadly, it needs updating now. But the birthdate it gives for him, January 21, 1936, is correct - so he reached the age of 70, not 69 as all the obits seem to have said. One more No Direction Home interviewee gone.

Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, wrote a terrific 'Diary' column for the London Review of Books which I managed to miss when it came out in 2003 but discovered online when Googling her the other day. Here's an excerpt, a terrific piece of writing about country music, place and space:

"For me, country's definitive song might be 'Long Black Veil', whose way with time is straight out of the Brontës. A dead man sings ten years after his hanging for a crime he didn't commit, but his only alibi is unutterable: 'I'd been in the arms of my best friend's wife,' who when he died 'stood in the crowd and said not a word'. Now she wanders the hills in a long black veil and, well, visits his grave where the night winds wail. Hills and the night winds are still there, are reliable, are what you have in the end. 'Wanted Man', which Bob Dylan wrote in 1969, is a boastful list of all the places a criminal is wanted, a recitation that includes Albuquerque and Tallahassee and Baton Rouge and Buffalo, 'but there's one place I'm not wanted/Lord, it's the place that I call home.' Nothing ever made it clearer that geography is compensation for society, and the song raises the question of what, when you love these places, do they give you back? The answers sound American, too: freedom, solitude, communion with creatures and the inorganic creation, space to think.

Not that it's all so overwrought. A couple of days later, in Utah, I was still driving east, through canyon country so stark nobody seems to live anywhere but along the cottonwood-shaded oases of rivers, but I could pick up a great classic country station. Around where I saw the sign warning 'Eagles on Road', it broadcast a song by David Frizzell, a barfly's monologue repeating his wife's extensive home remodelling proposal that begins: 'I'm going to hire a wino/To decorate our home/So you'll feel more at ease here/And you won't need to roam.' It's scathingly funny, but it's still about discord, abandonment and restlessness.

I've been trying to get at the heart of this geographical passion for years, through the compilation tapes: an early one was called Geography Lessons, Mostly Tragic; one about drinking and rivers The Entirely Liquid Mr North (after an alcoholic composer in Tender Is the Night); and the most recent, from a line in one of Johnny Cash's final recordings, 'Hurt', is My Empire of Dirt. I love the place names, too; before I left, a friend - who'd also lived in New Mexico - and I induced a nostalgic haze in each other sheerly through place names, places we'd been, places to go, and there's a passion for place in this music that's also my passion."

Yes indeed. Rebecca Solnit was, naturally, subjected to some nitpicking here. The following issue of the LRB published this:

"Rebecca Solnit refers to '"Wanted Man", which Bob Dylan wrote in 1969' (LRB, 9 October). The song is generally credited to 'Bob Dylan and John R. Cash', and Johnny Cash's performance makes clear enough how much he contributed to its composition. Perhaps more to the point, though, is the absence, in both the Knopf edition of Dylan's lyrics and on several websites with Cash's lyrics, of the line that Solnit quotes. I'd be interested to know what version she refers to.
Leon Lewis
Boone, North Carolina"

to which she replied, disarmingly I thought: "I was quoting Nick Cave's version of the song from memory."

Meanwhile the official UK & European publication date for The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is today.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes a truly great piece of writing. Thanks for bringing it to your readers attention. What a great line concerning The Bronte's and Long Black Veil - Perfect! The sort of thing one must have felt intuitively and unconsciously.

Thanks again


11:47 am  

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