Jesse Jarnow

paul williams on bob dylan

I love Paul Williams’ writing on Bob Dylan. Like the baseball columns of Roger Angell, it’s clear that Williams is a fan and can completely communicate that experience. Frequently, of course, he gets carried away. Nonetheless, it is always valuable. In the best stretches of his multiple books about Dylan, it really seems as if Williams holds the key to understanding what Dylan does.

Here, Williams unpacks what is amazing about live performances. He is speaking generally, though what says is more easily applicable to Dylan’s linear/one-man style than most other types of musicians:

The performance is a unit of time. If you think of a movie camera recording the painter’s every brush stroke from the moment and place where s/he starts on the canvas to the place and moment where s/he finishes, you will understand that every painting is a kind of straight line, a movement, a performance, compressed upon itself… as the painting compresses time into something that can be felt all at once, so the performance takes human experience and stretches it out so that instead of just feeling it altogether (as we do in life) we feel it a morsel at a time, in a sequence. (from Performing Artist, 1974-1986)

He resorts often to hyperbole, though it is of the most beautiful, infectious sort. On the July 1st, 1984 rendition of “Tangled Up in Blue” that I can’t really imagine being objectively very good (though am certainly willing to check it out):

The version on Real Live (from London, July 7) is so similar I’m not sure I can articulate what makes the two performances different; yet the difference is as unmistakable as that between an ordinary starry night and the same instant after a lightning bolt has shattered the sky. (from Performing Artist, 1974-1986)

Williams is passionate in his adversity, too, publishing a book-length defense of Dylan’s 1978 conversion to Christianity titled Dylan — What Happened?). Purportedly, Dylan purchased copies to distribute to his friends, letting Williams act as his surrogate. When most fans were abandoning Dylan, Williams committed to Dylan’s new music as hard as he could without becoming a disciple of Christ himself, and in the process teased out some great stuff about what it really means to be a listener. “Some people see this is a threateningly anti-intellectual move from someone they’ve always related to on an intense intellectual level,” he wrote.

The old thing of all of us being in the same psychic space at the same time listening to the same new record albums just doesn’t work anymore. Not that I think Dylan expects it to — but I think that’s what a lot of us still expect of Dylan, that he’ll bring us the news. And that’s why we’re so confused and upset about the news he brought us this time. We keep thinking his news is our news, you see. (from Watching the River Flow, 1966-1995)

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