New from McFarland Publishing, Jim M. Curtis’ new book Decoding Dylan: Making Sense of the Songs that Shaped Modern Culture gives us an expert look at the life and work of folk singer-songwriter and cultural icon Bob Dylan. Part biography, part lyrical analysis, part cultural evaluation, Decoding Dylan gives an exceedingly comprehensive portrait of one of America’s most important and enigmatic musicians.
One aspect I loved about this book is how it portrayed Dylan as a figure of both high culture and popular culture. (And Curtis, being a man of the people, wisely refers to it as “popular culture” and not “low culture,” which I thoroughly appreciated.) It explains how Dylan was not only influenced by musicians such as Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, and Elvis, but also figures more commonly associated with high culture such as Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, and Pablo Picasso. In fact, Curtis details the many ways in which Dylan and Picasso had similar upbringings and artistic careers. Then, on the other end of artistic influence, a later chapter addresses how artists such as Bruce Springsteen were inspired by Dylan, cementing Dylan’s place as a pillar of culture.
Curtis does an excellent job of depicting Dylan as a man, flaws and all. When discussing the relationship between Dylan and his father, Curtis examines a quote in which Dylan says that his father was the “best man in the world and probably worth a hundred of [Dylan].” As much as Curtis loves and respects Dylan and his music, he isn’t afraid to suggest that Dylan is overcompensating by saying this (as the two didn’t have a close relationship).
One drawback for me personally was that I wasn’t adequately steeped in Dylan before reading this. I know all of his biggest songs, with “Hurricane” and “Like a Rolling Stone” being my personal favorites. So when Curtis would reference a song I wasn’t as familiar with in detail, I would feel a little lost. In the first section of the book, Curtis dissects in detail Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which I hadn’t heard before. When Curtis would reference something in a specific line or verse, I would have to listen to the song to appreciate his analysis. (One finds this surprising, given the fact that Curtis quotes at length from any source that might have inspired Dylan in any consequential way, but often opts not to quote directly from the songs he analyzes.) Obviously, the burden is then on me as a reader to be more familiar with the subject matter before starting the book, and spending some time diving into Dylan helped me to appreciate not only Curtis’ book, but Dylan’s value as a cultural icon.
That being said, the opposite is just as true. For those who are thoroughly steeped in Bob Dylan’s music, the more obscure references will not be as much of an obstacle. Part biography, part criticism, Decoding Dylan gives us a complete picture of Dylan the cultural icon, and as complete of a picture as we could hope for of Dylan the man. This book is certainly a must-read for Dylan fanatics.