Monday, 11 February 2019

Bob Dylan : Behind The Shades : Take Two - Clinton Heylin

Another of the music-orientated books which was sitting rather forlornly on my shelves was this Bob Dylan biography by Clinton Heylin. This particular edition was published in the year 2000.

Apart from my admiration for the music, my knowledge of Dylan had been somewhat sketchy. This tome filled in many of those gaps. It contains some interesting material about the subject's family background, his upbringing and his early musical forays.

This was the first Heylin work that I had read, and I quite liked the style. He spends a lot of time putting various myths and legends into perspective, presenting the basic facts.

I absolutely loved the story of Dylan's gradual immersion into folk music, and reading about it has spurred me to explore that scene more thoroughly myself. Heylin makes the story seem real, as the Dylan legend can sometimes appear overpowering. His path to greatness was not radically different to everyone else's.

To be honest, I didn't always agree with the author's opinions on music, or his pronouncements about certain artists, and the relative merits of some of Dylan's "competitors". Having said all this, Heylin's observations did instill a certain food for thought as regards who was truly "innovating" or "making the pace" in the mid-Sixties. The depth and vision of Dylan's albums of that time was unusual and challenging, and it is worth remembering how much reverence other artists had for the man and his music.

The author's take on Dylan's artistic progression certainly solidified my regard for the Blonde On Blonde album.  That record has a reputation for being enigmatic and less than immediately accessible, and I think that Heylin may have enabled some people to see its true strengths more clearly.

From the version presented here, it seems that being around Dylan and his touring entourage in the years 1965/1966 was not always the healthiest or pleasantest pastime. On the surface, it must have been a relief for him to escape from that whole scenario.

A feature of this book is the space and detail which it dedicates to Dylan's life and work following his 1966 motorcycle accident. The "Basement Tapes" era is looked at in some depth, and this section of the book provided me with some indications as to how The Band made the strides to the mastery of Music From Big Pink. 

The "lost" periods such as, let's say, 1970-1973 are a sizeable part of the fascination. I got quite engrossed with the journey which Dylan was on, as his work became perhaps more overtly influenced by his private life and by those creative individuals with whom he was associating.  Another feature of this book is that the author's views on what constitute Dylan's strong creative times do not always correspond with the general public consensus.

The Rolling Thunder Revue, at least in its earlier guise, seems like it was a lot of fun, both onstage and off!

I enjoyed the chapters which addressed the 1980s, although they occasionally felt slightly compressed; or maybe it was just that less of originality and note was really occurring? The tale of stagnation and marginalization, and of several false dawns, is sometimes painful to read. His interactions with the newer artists make for illuminating reading. Most of those people owed a great debt to Dylan, even if some of them did not realize it or appreciate it at the time.

As I followed the story from the early 1980s onwards, I increasingly wondered to myself how much of all this was actually fun. He seemed to be searching for something, but perhaps he didn't really know what that "something" was, hence the bewildering array of collaborations and backing musicians.

This is an interesting read, particularly for someone who is a Dylan fan, but not obsessively so.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Born to Boogie (1972 film)

I recently watched the 1972 film Born to Boogie, which is essentially a concert movie documenting a performance that year by Marc Bolan and T.Rex, with some added "extras".  The film also stars Ringo Starr and Elton John. Ringo also produced and directed the picture.

The movie was made at the height of T.Rex's fame and commercial success, and watching it prompted some random thoughts from me about Marc Bolan and about music generally.

Concert footage is interspersed with various vignettes and sequences. Born to Boogie does capture some of the dynamism,charisma and self-assurance which Bolan exuded at his peak, as well his own peculiar brand of showmanship. Again, one is reminded of the idiosyncratic appeal of the T.Rex sound, even in a "live" setting.  The rhythmic underpinnings, Bolan's chunky guitar-playing, and the anthemic and infectious flavour of the songs themselves.

Although the concert sections include the obligatory images of audience hysteria, I find the bits filmed at the concert a little tame.  The stage-sets and presentation seem rather sparse and under-cooked. It was only later I suppose that rock concerts became prolonged, slickly stage-managed multimedia extravaganzas.

The scenes inserted in among the concert footage are strange, and even self-indulgent. One or two of them remind one of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, unsurprisingly perhaps, given the presence of one Ringo Starr. Some of these sequences were dated, even by 1972.  Personally, I would have preferred more conventional behind-the-scenes material, including interviews, in the vein of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. In fairness, there is some fun film of Marc jamming in the studio with Ringo and Elton John, but this part is quite brief.

One or two people have pointed to Ringo Starr's involvement as a symbolic "passing of the torch" to the new leader of British pop. Ironically, within a year of the film's release Bolan and T.Rex had entered a decline in their commercial fortunes.

Bolan did not exhibit the same capacity as some of his contemporaries, notably David Bowie, to grow and adapt artistically once success, fame and fortune had been attained. It seems that Bolan just wanted to be famous (and rich), and he lost his way soon after this stage was reached.  Perhaps the pretentiousness of parts of this film should have served as a warning that complacency and a certain smugness were setting in?

So, this movie is emphatically far from a masterpiece, and it left me expecting more, and strangely enough, wanting more. It does, though, act as an interesting snapshot of the glam-rock period.