Will Self on Bob Dylan

A tribute to the American songwriter
Bob Dylan on the set of his music video Subterranean Homesick Blues. Photograph: Tony Frank/Corbis

In a New Statesmen article from 2003, Will Self reviewed Neil Corcoran's collection of essays, Do You, Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the poets and professors. Skeptical of the book's aims, he attempted to wrestle Dylan's lyrics away from the rabid interpretations of the academic establishment. Self picks this moment to elaborate on his own private fondness for Dylan's music, and the personal significance it holds for him:
[...] My Dylan needs must remain mine alone. From the proleptic punk who snarled Highway 61 Revisited (the first of his albums that yanked me into consciousness, aged 16 in 1977) to the keel-on-shingle, warbling eschatology of Time Out of Mind (the last one of his albums I bought and played to death), I have neither felt the need to justify my Dylanism, nor to qualify it even to myself.

Yet it has been profound. At times - usually bad ones - his has been the only contemporary music I will listen to at all. If I think of my relationships, my children and even my own books, each can be associated with a Dylan album. If I were to reread my own work I'm certain I'd find many tropes I have stolen from Dylan lyrics, and not only the ones I filched with intent. And given that I was able to encounter Dylan - apart from a few sonic outcrops - in the full flower of my musical youth, and given that not belonging exactly to his generation has meant that I've felt no need to keep in step with his output, I've been liberated from any Nick Hornbyesque nerdiness. I can pick 'n' mix my Dylan, and still own probably less than two-thirds of his total output. I've seen D A Pennebaker's luminous Don't Look Back umpteen times, but skilfully dodged Renaldo and Clara. Before this book, I had never read more than liner notes on his work (the best are Greil Marcus's for The Basement Tapes), and I don't think I'll be reading anything more for a long time to come. Christopher Ricks, I do not know you.

Because not only is there a desire to protect my own private Dylan, there is also an acute consciousness that to deconstruct his words would be to open up a Pandora's box of lyrical ills. Dylan's greatness as a writer teeters constantly on the edge of righteous nonsense and awesome self-parody: "On the back of the fish truck that loads/while my conscience explodes" indeed. And yes, I have always understood - something that many of the contributors to this book felt they had to remind me of - that Dylan is a white-faced minstrel, a Jewish, middle-class Middle American who has invented multiple musical personae with which to plunder the rich storehouse of folk music. Yes, even at 17, I grasped intuitively that "Highway 61 Revisited" was a modern jeremiad against the hypocrisies of imperialist Uncle Sam; and yes, I've never felt the least requirement to place his misogyny within the context of his misanthropy. All of which is by way of remarking that Dylan, like the greatest and most universal of writers (whether poets proper, novelists, essayists or songwriters), so powerfully transmutes his idiolect into the contemporary discourse that his songs have no need of any interpretation save for themselves. [Read More]