by Jochen Markhorst
Following the publication of my most recent book, I Contain Multitudes, our publisher Tony Attwood suggested that I take a little break from my Never Ending Song Reviews and write an exposé on the how, what and why with regard to all those articles and books about our common passion – the songs of Bob Dylan. Which indeed did beg a somewhat confrontational question: why have I been writing all these essays on Dylan songs for years now? There are some six hundred of them by now, most of them published in my fifteen Dylan books and/or on Untold Dylan, and there is no end in sight as yet.
At least on a technical level, the beginning is clear: in February 2015, Tom Willems, one of the most knowledgeable and passionate Dylanologists in the Netherlands, and perhaps in Western Europe, published on his blog my first article, a short essay on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. As a Dylan fan, I had been following and enjoying Tom’s blog, filled with fun facts, Dylan news, reviews and witty columns for years. I did, however, have one small point of criticism. Well, comment, if you will: Tom’s site was mainly filled with The Stuff Around Dylan. And so rarely, and at best sideways, reflected on the songs themselves. Tom replied what every webmaster then replies: “Go right ahead. Be my guest.”
I immediately discovered the pleasure of it, of studying Dylan songs, and forcing oneself to put one’s findings in writing: it opens gateways and vistas, it awakens neglected loves and forgotten knowledge, and it deepens the love for Dylan songs.
Still, “February 2015” is a historically accurate but somewhat overly dry fact. “It took me two hours to write, but fifty years to live,” to paraphrase Dylan. The run-up, Dylan means, is much longer and more important than the actual writing. Imperative, even.
Dylan’s music has always been a main contributor to the soundtrack of my life: it quite literally rocked my cradle. I was born in 1964, and around then my parents must have had The Freewheelin’ and The Times – I suspect because The Beatles had said they listened to and admired The Freewheelin’. In the following years, Blonde On Blonde and especially Greatest Hits joined the record collection. That latter record (the first Greatest Hits, the European version, the one with “Bob Dylan’s Blues” and “Highway 61 Revisited”) just about everyone in the family had, so we heard it at every birthday party from Hannover to Arnhem to Frankfurt to Amsterdam. The first record I bought myself was Street-Legal, the one I still cherish as a First Love.
When I had written some 40 short essays on Dylan’s songs for Tom’s blog, Tom suggested that I compile them into a booklet. And I have continued to do so, ever since. Initially because it gives a maybe petty, but still pleasant, paternal kind of pride to have a Real Actual Book with your own name on the front, later because it also gives a nice focus; you’re working towards something.
In August 2018, I sent a first English translation of a Dutch article to Untold Dylan. Tony was kind and complimentary and cordially invited me to send more. Translating previously published articles was easy enough, and the sympathetic response from Dylan fans around the world was a pleasant motivator; I ventured into longer, deeper digging analyses of untouchable, terrifying landmarks like “Desolation Row”. A song that proved far more fruitful than expected; after 1,500 words, I hadn’t even got past the title (an ordinary essay is about 1,200 words). And only after 17 chapters, 30,000 words, did I feel I had done some justice to the monument – and had material for an English book for the first time as well (Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965). The initial approach was, of course, to compile a book about Highway 61 Revisited. But with such word counts, that would become far too thick, unwieldy a book. The album analysis, like Rough And Rowdy Ways, probably will eventually be completed in parts, though.
The joy of this hobby, for a hobby it is, is multicoloured. For a start: digging into such a Dylan song opens up vistas. Without “Crossing The Rubicon” I would never have delved into Juvenal’s Satires, thanks to Dylan, Little Walter has become a regular on my stereo system, because of “Desolation Row” there is now half a shelf of Jack Kerouac on my bookshelf, and since “I Contain Multitudes” I know Walt Whitman’s “Song Of Myself”. Currently, I am concentrating on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, which has taken me, so far, to Boz Scaggs’ discography, a Van Morrison biography, Jimmy Reed (obviously), the movie Inherit The Wind from 1950 and “Shake, Rattle And Roll” – and I only just started digging.
Second, it renews the acquaintance with forgotten beauty. All those old records from my grandfather and from my father – Little Richard, Hank Williams, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves… if it weren’t for my Dylan digging, those records would have long since ended up in the grab-bins of local thrift shops. Revaluation might be a better word, by the way. For which, credits should go partly to DJ Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour too, I suppose. Something similar applies to Rimbaud, Shakespeare, Under The Volcano, Ovid, T.S. Eliot, Freud, Grimm’s fairy tales, Caesar and all those others: without “Too Much Of Nothing”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Ain’t Talkin'”, “Visions Of Johanna”, “Series Of Dreams”, all those titles and names would have long since been covered in dust, degenerated into empty notions somewhere in the back corner of the brain, where high school knowledge slowly dries up and crumbles.
And perhaps the most pleasant by-catch: I get to meet nice people from all over the world. Somehow, most Dylan fans tend to be friendly, likeable people with open minds. Over the years, I have corresponded with intelligent, inquisitive Dylan friends from New Zealand and New York, Finland and Norway, Belgium and Argentina, Berlin, Canada and the British Isles, and everywhere in between. I get invited to radio programmes, book launches and Dylan events in my part of Europe (and occasionally beyond), and everywhere you meet kind, interesting, driven compadres.
Meanwhile, 15 books have been published in English, German and Dutch. The source has not yet dried up. I guess I’ll just keep on keepin’ on.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece
- I contain Multitudes: Bob Dylan’s Account of the Long Strange Trip