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A Darker Shade of Pale : A BACKDROP TO BOB DYLAN by Wilfrid Mellers (Oxford: $19.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback; 255 pp., illustrated)

November 03, 1985|Tom McSloy | McSloy writes about music and programs computers in the Netherlands. and

This book is flying false colors. Though it claims to be a study of Bob Dylan, and features his photographs on the front cover, the author doesn't get around to talking about Dylan until p. 111. When he does, you'll wish he hadn't.

"A Darker Shade of Pale" is really a soapbox for the author's own political and cultural views, which are pretty much the usual it's-all-white-racist-America's-fault cant. The title reference is not to Procol Harum's song or William Blake's poetry, but to music as an expression of white ("pale") guilt over the oppression of ("darker") Indians and blacks.

Wilfrid Mellers says "eupeptic" when he means "cheerful," just so he can pair it with "euphoric." He uses "cantillation" for "singing," "minatory" for "menacing." He also calls Dylan's female backup singers a "girlie chorus," which should irritate most of his girlie readers.

And the jargon! Listen to this:

"The verbal and metrical equivocations are also reflected in the ambiguous tonality: Although the song is notated as though it were in D major, the tune behaves melodically, and is harmonized, as though it were in a Lydian G major--D major's subdominant with sharpened fourth. It can only be fortuitous, though happily so, that the Lydian mode was traditionally associated with healing."

Mellers stresses the wrong songs; namely, Dylan's protest and "born-again" songs. Most of the protest stuff wasn't very good when it was written and is certainly obsolete now. And Dylan's brush with born-again Christianity appears to have had little lasting effect on him or on his music. Most of Dylan's finest work appears on other albums and addresses other concerns. Yet Mellers whizzes through these, for he has political and religious theories that he wants to use Dylan to vindicate.

For example, Mellers quotes three whole stanzas of "With God on Our Side," a banal diatribe with little bearing on Dylan's artistic development. If you must quote a song from Dylan's "protest" period, "The Death of Emmett Till," which got a lot of kids involved in the civil rights movement, would be a better choice. But I suspect Mellers doesn't know the song. His research appears to be barely deeper than his record collection, and "Emmett Till" only appears on obscure bootleg albums.

Mellers devotes a single page, by contrast, to his entire discussion of the extremely important and complex "Like a Rolling Stone," perhaps Dylan's greatest song. That's just as well, I suppose, because his analysis does not arouse an appetite for more. He says that "Like a Rolling Stone" is about a girl who "wanted to gobble (Dylan) up like a lollipop." This stony, cold, unrelenting put-down song, this hymn to vengeance, Mellers regards as "affirmative," and "an anthem for youth in the sixties."

Even on the later albums, Mellers likes the political songs, especially "Hurricane." The song is about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a contender for the middleweight boxing championship, whose career was ended by a conviction for murder and armed robbery. Carter said he was framed, and Dylan took his side. Mellers says "Hurricane" is the "true story of the victimized Negro boxer, Rubin Carter." Well, some people don't agree, either that the story is true, or that Carter was a victim. That aside, it is intellectually dishonest of Mellers not to tell us that Carter received a new trial, largely through Dylan's efforts--and was convicted again.

Other errors arise, I think, from sheer ignorance. How can you talk about "Subterranean Homesick Blues" without mentioning that it was Dylan's first rock song, his first trip to the Top 40, and the song that started his break with the folkies? Or that a line from the song--"You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows"--inspired (and named) the Weathermen radicals.

There are a lot of research errors, too: Dylan's first album was released in 1961, not 1962; the New York folkie is Bruce Langhorne, not Longhorne; the bass player in The Band is Rick Danko, not Danco. Mere peccadilloes, you may say, but I say careless research is a sign of careless thinking.

What we have here is a British college professor, with too much empty erudition in his head, listening to record albums in his study, and trying to use Bob Dylan for his own ends. I think the book's a stinker. They had to pay me to read it.

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