New Dylan Bio Balances Feeling and Intellect


One could stuff a good-sized bookshelf with tomes on Bob Dylan. I’ve read a number of them, and that’s still only some: most notably Anthony Scaduto’s 1972 biography Dylan, the first book to tell the artist’s story up to that date and one of the first serious and credible bios of a famed rock musician; and No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton, the former New York Times critic whose 1961 review of the young Dylan was pivotal in winning the budding folk singer his Columbia Records deal and elevating him out of the Greenwich Village nightclubs to wider attention.

Now Together Though Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan by Chris Morris joins the upper ranks of must-read books about (as I see it) the greatest songwriter of the past half century or so, recently designated the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Before I go further, a few words of disclosure. Morris is what I would call a professional friend with whom I share a calling as a music journalist. I’d also say he’s a peer though on reading Together Through Life I find myself rating his prose above mine, and happily so. It’s great (and inspiring) to see a fellow writer really dig into the language and stylistically soar. And Morris does that indeed in this book.

It’s also unlike any other Dylan book on the market. He combines personal memoir, cultural history and musical assessment (rather than criticism) in a way that helps open up Dylan’s music anew even for devoted listeners.

The book started as blogs on his Tumblr page. Each chapter covers a Dylan album release in rather short but exceptionally pithy essays. It’s easily read cover to cover in a few settings, but I found myself consuming it bit by bit, almost one chapter/album at a time. It’s one of those books that you can keep beside the bed, or stow atop the toilet tank or throw into a shoulder bag for spare moments outside the home – I’ve read it in all three contexts.

We learn about Morris’s background as somewhat of a red diaper baby and then as we follow him into his college years learn of his life and loves – great fun when you know the author, yet his interwoven personal story is one many can relate to. And where he really shines is in how he writes about the music.

Oddly yet quite honestly, he says, “I lack the poetry to wrestle with their explication” when writing about the songs “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” on Bringing It All Back Home. “[T]hose songs are so vast that even now I can only nibble at their edges.” It’s a perfect image for how daunting it is to try to parse large barrels stuffed full of quicksilver inspiration.

Not too many pages later he aptly describes John Wesley Harding by saying how “[T]he music inside was denuded, impossibly spare, nearly monastic” – nailing its essence in a mere five words.

One beauty of Morris’s approach is that it begs those of us who also came of age with Dylan’s music to recall where we were at when we first heard those albums. And what they meant to us then. It efficiently opens up the cultural contexts for those listeners of later generations. And takes an approach that I imagine Dylan would heartily approve of that focuses on what the music meant and still means for the listener rather than rummaging around within their lyrics to try to divine the sometimes infinite mystery of what he intended while writing them.

Together Through Life strikes a piquant balance between feeling and intellect that’s essential to really appreciating the finest and most inspired music. And brings the reader back to listening to Dylan’s music with enhanced appreciation.

Populist Picks

CD: All The Singles by The Turtles – The 1960s Los Angeles based hitmakers were more than just a pop act – and among the first to take a Dylan song to the upper reaches of the charts – and the many pleasures and qualities of their recorded work are gathered together in this 48-song collection.

Feature Film: Southside with You – If you haven’t seen this delightful film about Barak and Michelle Obama’s first date in theatrical release, do catch it when it hits the home market. It’s sweet, touching and insightful.

Documentary Film: Morphine: Journey of Dreams – More disclosure: This doc about the 1990s “low rock” band Morphine was directed and produced by one of my best friends. It’s not just a tale of music business struggle, triumph and tragedy, but also a love story, and an evocative and loving tribute to a rock band that was like no other.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2016

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