I said I'd post some extended thoughts on Elijah Wald's Dylan Goes Electric! and Stephen Witt's How Music Got Free and by God I'm going to do it. But, if you haven't read my review of those books in the Los Angeles Review of Books, do that first, otherwise none of what follows will be in context. And hey, show LARB some love. I enjoyed working with my editor Michael Goetzman on what became a long review essay of something like 3700 words. Usually, as I work, I keep a "notes and outtakes" document running; that document for this essay was nearly 12000 words. There's a lot to discuss, but some of it I'll hold off on because it may show up in the chapter on Dylan I'm writing for Nothing Has Been Done Before.
When I decided to review the two books together using the theme of transgression with Great White Wonder as the link between them, I underestimated just how much I was tackling. So I had to make some hard decisions about what made the cut and what didn't. With both books, some of the more typical "book review" elements got cut. That's not uncommon with review essays, which function in a different way, but I've included a lot of those below.
There was much less leftover from my reading of Witt than Wald's book, so I'll start with How Music Got Free. Witt's writing style is brisk without being terse; he writes in clear, journalistic prose, and this, combined with the stories he's telling, makes for a compulsive story. But he uses almost no direct quotes from any of sources; there are maybe 6-7 uses of dialogue, and hardly any scenes created. Likely this is because of the scope of his story. Still, it's a little off-putting.
Witt inserts himself into the story only at the beginning and in the epilogue, aside from a few very small parenthetical notes and what become tiresome snarks at the music he's writing about. Although he claims to have collected 100,000 mp3s, Witt talks about music the way a lot of his sources do: it's a certain kind of product, not particularly special. This isn't a book about music as an art, or even a popular artform; it's a book about just what is says: industry and technology and culture (or Morris, Brandenburg, and Glover, respectively).
For artists' responses to the crisis of digital technology, music piracy, and the internet, I suggest Greg Kot's Ripped, which offers a wider range of perspectives. Another one is Alex Sayf Cummings' Democracy of Sound, which takes a more historical perspective on copyright and music piracy. I also referred to Clinton Heylin's Bootleg: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Recording Industry which is excellent regarding the early history of rock bootlegs. (Heylin is also one of the journalists for Dylan history.) I was using the original 1994 edition, so I'm not sure just how updated the 2010 edition is.
I need to leave out certain ideas about Dylan and transgression, since that's what my chapter on Dylan is about in Nothing Has Been Done Before. As with Witt, I had to cut some basic criticisms of Wald's book, which for me begin with how much detail is provided in the book. On the one hand, Dylan Goes Electric is extraordinarily detailed in its focus on the folk revival scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There are a few drawbacks, though.
As I mentioned in the review, I think Pete Seeger gets lost in the mix; since he was the driving force behind the revived Newport Folk Festival, presumably the festival stands in for him, but I'm not satisfied by that nor do I think it's fair. It would have been interesting to have at least one chapter about Newport be seen through Seeger's eyes. The more serious problem, though, is when Wald comes back to Seeger at the end of his book. Instead of finding convergences with broader aesthetics, the conclusion of Dylan Goes Electric! tidies up what the book has just spent three hundred pages trying to fray. After a frankly embarrassing allegory of Dylan-as-Jesus who "finally died so rock could be redeemed," Wald breezily argues that Dylan and Seeger acted out a "central conflict [that] was timeless" and reconciled the opposing ideal each represented: Dylan as freedom and individualism, Seeger as democracy and the common good. This universalizing all's-well-that-ends-well undercuts the value of art, its disagreements, and its power to create the new, a power that doesn't need to be resolved—which was Dylan's point.
He concludes by saying Dylan and Seeger "long ago recognized that the challenge was not to defend one [ideal] against the other but to reconcile the two," and that each met the challenge, Dylan by continually circling back to roots music, which isn't nearly the same as Seeger's conservationism, and Seeger by "grounding himself in local issues" like his Hudson River cleanup project, which was personal but consistent with his marriage of activism and music. Seeger does not seem to have been as radically transformed by Newport '65 as Wald suggests. Like the footsoldier he was, he just continued on.
Secondly, critical events lack emphasis. Consider this brief chronology of Dylan's musical career between 1964 and 1966:
Another Side of Bob Dylan recorded in June 1964, released in August.
Bringing It All Back Home recorded in Jan. 1965, released in March.
"Like a Rolling Stone" recorded in June 1965 and released July 20.
Highway 61 Revisited recorded between June-August 1965 and released August 30.
Newport set on Sunday night, July 25, 1965.
Blonde on Blonde recorded between October 1965 and March 1966, released (probably) in July 1966.
That's an incredible two years. Yes, Blonde on Blonde comes after Wald's stopping point, but overall I think Wald skims through or obscures crucial recordings, especially those signs of what was to come like Another Side of Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and the Bringing It All Back Home sessions. It might be too much to ask from a book of cultural history, but focusing more on the music would have only further demonstrated Dylan's changing attitudes and ambitions. Even the journey from June 1964 to August 1965 is remarkable.
Another axe to grind is that Wald could have acknowledged the Village's diversity better in an effort to complicate what we think we know about it. Carly Simon was there though her career has little to do with the scene, The Mamas and The Papas more or less met there, John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful was there. African-American singers like Odetta, Richie Havens, and the legacy of Elizabeth Cotton are not discussed much, though Odetta takes a lot of heat in the book from folkies. My personal axe-for-grinding is the omission of the 1961 "Beatnik Riot" in Washington Square, during which the crowd led by Izzy Young of the Folklore Center protested by singing a folk song, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Also, Wald, who collaborated with Van Ronk on his memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, spends little time developing Dylan's relationships with Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger. You can argue the importance of some of what I've listed, but when Wald opens up the floodgates and tries to touch on so many names, you're invited to wonder "Then why not include this?"
A minor point, but one that stuck with me: Wald catches the "playful, almost flippant" manner of Dylan's 1964 performance at Newport, describing the singer as "giddily cheerful and possibly high, but also in full control." But when I watch Murray Lerner's documentary The Other Side of the Mirror, I see a Dylan trudging through "Chimes of Freedom"—at that point unreleased on record—until he loses interest and starts laughing, as if to say, "Jesus, this is a long and strident song." He's already fixed on the future. For Wald, it signifies the beginning of the break; to me, it seems like the rupture has already happened.
Finally, there's the Big Event itself: Dylan going electric. I let Wald off the hook here, I think, not taking him to task for buying into a certain amount of historical revisionism. Frankly, this had to do with my essay's overall ambition, which accepted Newport '65 as an aesthetic transgression of the highest order, and so I moved past some of the ways Wald favors the after-the-fact stories of why people booed, such as the bad sound system or a large contingent aping the booing of a small contingent up front.
It's one thing to examine these claims as public memory and make a distinction between them and what was written at the time, but Wald recedes into ambivalence about what really happened. He doesn't take much time to question why people might have changed their stories; and frankly, I should have questioned that more. He even says Dylan wasn't the one really transformed by Newport '65, though he quotes Dylan telling Maria Muldar that he can't dance with her because his hands are on fire. (She tells this story in No Direction Home, too.) And there's no lack of evidence that people immediately argued about Dylan's set as a betrayal of the folk audience, its principles, and an embracing of pop culture. Of course we remember things differently years later, but we also craft those memories in public, for the public. In other words, this is a distinction between history and myth, and Wald lets the two equate with one another.
None of that changes what I wrote in the essay; my conclusions are the same. But making a better case about it would have only supported those conclusions. I'm planning to revisit this in the tirelessly mentioned Dylan chapter in my book, so that's all I'll say for now.