A review of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown
By David Yaffe
Yale University Press
June 2011, ISBN: 9780300124576

In this concise, concentrated and erudite book David Yaffe focuses on four key facets of the great singer-songwriter.

He devotes a chapter to Dylan’s voice, an incredible instrument, the thing that primarily differentiates him from a poet of the page. Another chapter, the second, looks at Dylan and cinema: films he has made (e.g. Renaldo and Clara), films that have been made about him (e.g. Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There). The third chapter touches on Dylan’s knotty relationship with ‘blackness’ or the African-American experience: his deep immersion in the blues, his involvement in the civil rights struggle and his support, much later, for Barack Obama. Remember that ‘Blowing in the Wind’ was the one song Sam Cooke wished he’d written. Finally, chapter four is all about Dylan as plagiarist, as joker and thief. It is clear, of course, that between these four aspects there is some overlap. For example, Dylan as bluesman: that could just as easily be described as cultural appropriation = theft (in a sense). And he wasn’t above taking credit as the author of a traditional blues song. Come to think of it, there was also that commotion over Dylan’s use of Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, which for some reason Yaffe omits to mention.

It’s a solitary oversight, however, and Yaffe undoubtedly knows his onions as far as Dylan is concerned; and he generously shares his knowledge and insights. His prose fairly flows too; he writes very well indeed.

Just when it seemed I would not be warranted in making even a slightly negative comment about the book, I came across the description of ‘High Water’ as a ‘standout track’ on Love and Theft. Now why the word ‘standout’ and not the perfectly normal and well-established English word ‘outstanding’? What virtues and fine qualities does this new-fangled, now alas all-too-common coinage possess? Please explain someone.

Place this lapse aside, however, and you have a well-nigh perfect study of Dylan and his art. At the end of the book you’ll be in no doubt as to why Dylan matters.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com