Bob Dylan includes several Texans in his new book of 66 songs from the twentieth century, mostly American pop songs that he likes.
He clearly appreciates Townes Van Zandt, noting that “one way to measure a songwriter is to look at the singers who sing their songs.” He notes that the best have written about Van Zandt, including Neil Young and Garth Brooks. Another measure, Dylan adds, is whether the person’s songs are still being played. “Towns has,” he writes. “Every night, in small clubs, in lonely bedrooms, and everywhere the brokenhearted watch the shadows lengthen.”
Analyzing Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, Dylan focuses on the pathetic facts about the songwriter’s mental health issues. However, despite using this biographical approach, he does not claim that Pancho & Lefty is a creative autobiographical depiction of Van Zandt’s bipolar disorder – a romantic who wants to ride off into the sunset but fears he will sell out and end up . a cheap motel room in some cold northern city. Interestingly, Dylan chose a version of “Pancho and Lefty” not recorded by Van Zandt but by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – two singers, he gratefully says, who could “hum the phone book and make you cry.” In the hands of Nelson and Haggard, Dylan writes, the song is “an epic panoramic story, beautifully sung and beautifully produced, featuring two of today’s most iconic singers.”
Willie reappears in Dylan’s commentary on “On the Road Again”, which is notable because Dylan, like Willie, has been known to be on the road almost non-stop for decades. According to Dylan, the strangest thing about touring is that “you never go anywhere, you just stay on your bus, get off, perform for a few hours and move on.”
In the same vein, Dylan appreciates the incoherent spirit of “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” by Billy Joe Shaver, who came from Corsicana and whom Dylan once mentioned in one of his songs “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”. “It’s the mystery of the song,” Dylan writes, and he does seem puzzled by how she’s captured him. While listening to Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”, Dylan marvels at the “operatic rush” of the singer’s voice, who grew up in Vinck, west of Odessa. And “I’ve Always Been Crazy” by Littlefield’s Waylon Jennings leads Dylan to the insightful comment: “A love song can hide all kinds of other emotions, like anger and resentment.”
The sixth Texas-related song that Dylan singles out is the 1959 Marty Robbins ballad “El Paso,” about a naive barn who falls in love with Felina, a dancer from Rosa’s cantina. His conclusion here is a bit odd: “In a way, it’s a genocidal song, being led by the nose into a nuclear war, to ground zero, in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was tested.” It seems like too much of a stretch. The cowboy does go to New Mexico, but to get there away out of trouble, not to be found. What replaces the bomb in the song? Dylan’s weighty metaphor smothers a classic love story.
Dylan does not write about himself in this book – at least not directly, but sometimes indirectly. I would say that his commentary on the Robbins song is an example of this. I don’t think “El Paso” is anything about developing the atomic bomb, but I suspect that Dylan’s ballad “Senior (Tales of Yankee Power)” actually is, especially given the 1978 subtitle of that song. The lyrics of The Señora are ambiguous, but Dylan’s narrator appears to be one of two aging bandits riding in the mountains of New Mexico on July 16, 1945, when they accidentally witness Trinity’s atomic bomb test detonation. just to the west of them. Dylan doesn’t say it directly in the song, but he does have one of the men asking the other in a verse with a catchy rhyme, “Can you tell me where we’re going/Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?” There’s a clue: Lincoln County, New Mexico, is just east of Trinity.
Reading this book was like riding with Dylan on his tour bus late at night after one of his shows. I imagine Dylan sipping a good red wine from California and talking about his favorite songs and artists. He pays tribute to singer Rick Nelson and guitarist Ryu Cooder. And he loves Frank Sinatra.
On the other hand, he blithely dismisses virtually the entire roster of influential musicians who have recorded for Chess Records. “Of all chess artists, he [Little Walter] could be the only one with real content,” Dylan claims. It’s the surprising dismissal of Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolfe. On top of that, the book stumbles upon a few minor but bizarre historical inaccuracies, such as when Dylan incorrectly lists the year the US government executed 38 Santee Sioux in Minnesota.
But it could just be a second or third bottle of wine, talking about miles running under the wheels of his tour bus. Perhaps he means that this book is not about facts, but about his opinions. “The bottom line on the road is that you don’t get caught up in anything,” Dylan writes. “You give pleasure to other people and keep your grief to yourself.”