Bob Dylan, 1965, London, UK – Image © Tony Frank/Sygma/Corbis
It’s spring, and I need a writing project. Another semester is wrapping up, and soon I’ll have no motivation to keep writing unless I devise a challenge of some kind.
This past semester I finally stopped skirting around my main
obsession interest and took the plunge: I wrote an academic paper on music. It’s for my folklore course, and it’s all about murder ballads, including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1996 album of the same name.
Why did it take me 10 semesters of post-secondary education to write about my principal interest? It’s complicated, but I can identify two reasons. First, I think I feared that using the rationalized methods of the academy to analyze something I love would diminish or disenchant it somehow. I mean, don’t poetry and music exist because not everything can be put into straightforward prose? It’s sort of like how people avoid analyzing humour; sure, it can be revealing, but it ruins the joke. Besides, some people say that the gap between popular musicophilia and academic writing on music is narrowing, so maybe there’s no need to write a formal paper on music.
Second, I didn’t trust myself to come up with anything more than gushing fanboy praise or mediocre music journalism. Music deserves better than that, and anyway, an academic paper has to be much more than either of those things. Yet one or the other is sometimes what happens when people leverage their primary hobby or interest into their area of academic expertise. (Though I’ve had the pleasure of knowing several people who study their love, and do so with admirable rigour.) One of the reasons I chose murder ballads was because I wanted to problematize fandom, and the pleasure that listening to songs about gruesome murders brings listeners.
In the end, I decided to set those fears aside and try it once. You can’t let fear decide everything. And you know what? I’ve enjoyed writing that paper. It’s hard work, but I enjoy it. So I figured I should keep writing about music, in whatever setting I can, more because I need to learn something about myself, and not because I think it will necessarily lead somewhere.
But enough rambling, I’ll get right to the project: my new writing project is to listen and blog my way through Bob Dylan’s studio discography in a chronological yet informal manner.
This all started earlier this month with a trip to the accountant. (I’m a humanities major, so of course I avoid doing my own taxes.) Being a student, I managed to get a larger refund than I was expecting. So I promptly did what any music nerd would do: I placed an order for a gently used copy of Bob Dylan’s Complete Albums Collection, Vol. 1. It’s a career-spanning box set that I’ve had my eye on since it was released in 2014.
Needless to say, I’m looking forward to digging into this behemoth. 35 studio albums (14 of those remastered), 6 live albums, and 2 discs of “side tracks,” plus original artwork and extensive liner notes. Incredibly, Dylan’s catalog is more vast than even this box set, as it now includes numerous hits compilations, commemorative releases, and 12 volumes (and counting) of the excellent Bootleg Series. The man is unstoppable. Right now, he’s gearing up for a tour of Japan. Later this year, he’ll release his 37th studio album, Fallen Angels.
In embarking on this project, I’m taking a cue from an endearingly ambitious Tumblr called “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection.” I don’t have a strict timeline, but I’m hoping to publish roughly one entry per week, with a few breaks here and there, so it could take nearly a year.
Dylan has been a musical love of mine for about 10 years now, and I’ve written about him before (here‘s a concert review from 2008). Strangely, my appreciation for his music only seems to deepen with age. But there have been a few Dylan-related events over the past while that have prompted this new endeavour. The first is getting to know my brother-in-law, Jim. He’s a talented musician from London. He’s also a very knowledgeable music fan steeped in rock history, and a champion of Dylan’s oft-maligned late 70s and early 80s period. He helped me see that Dylan’s catalog is much more than the iconic albums like Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde. As deserving of praise as those albums are, Dylan’s career is perhaps best viewed panoramically, as a journey with highs and lows, and plenty of hidden gems.
Second, I read Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles Vol. 1, last summer, and was entranced by its artful mixture of fact and fiction. So much like the man himself. It made me want to hear even more of his music. But then the question was, where to begin filling in the gaps?
Third and finally, the recent passing of David Bowie has been on my mind. It touched off a growing realization than the next 15 years will witness the passing of a great many icons of rock’s first generation, Dylan included. Perhaps this box set is a psychological bulwark against the sadness that comes with the thought of such a great loss.
I’m looking forward to writing about some of the Dylan albums I’ve been listening to for years. But it will also be fun to write about albums I’m encountering for the first time. A quick count reveals there are 16 Dylan studio albums I’ve never yet heard in their entirety, and a few more with which I’ve only been briefly acquainted. For example, before 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, I know only the iconic hits (I know, I know. A travesty). I’ve also realized that I know very few of his live recordings, so maybe I’ll have to include some live albums as well. Along the way, I hope to make some more general cultural observations. Hell, maybe I’ll even get political with a post on middle-class privilege, box set culture, and the domineering male perspective that runs through so much of rock history and contemporary pop music journalism.