John Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our Q&A with him.
John Wesley Harding: I’ve been enjoying the new Bob Dylan album, Together Through Life. The press reaction has been insane, a trend that started on 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, continued through 2001’s “Love And Theft” (a great record, remade here for the second time) and that reached ludicrous proportions for 2006’s very so-so Modern Times. The best piece I’ve read on Dylan for some years is Alexis Petridis’ review of the new record in The Guardian, not so much for his opinions of the record, but for the elegant and witty skewering of the current state of Bob worship. All the eulogies are particularly galling to Dylan fans of my vintage, who got into him when Dylan couldn’t buy a good review. 1981’s Shot Of Love didn’t get one; 1983’s Infidels was slammed; 1985’s Empire Burlesque was reviewed (quite fairly) on the basis of the “sports casual” jacket he was wearing on the cover; and then the albums got progressively worse before Dylan figured out how to connect to music again with the two traditional albums. None of this is Dylan’s fault. Critics are often an album or two behind. Together Through Life is perfectly fine, a lazy and charming record, full of old licks, mostly borrowed and blue, befitting an old man who’s done everything. If that’s what people want, then this is certainly worth five stars. It’s almost like Dylan has become fictional. I yearn for the next incarnation, beyond the moustachio’d Mr. Piano Man huckster, but I fear that this frock-length coat is very comfortable. I certainly agree with my friend Nige however, who prefers the sardonic resignation of “It’s All Good” to the more self-consciously pompous songs on Modern Times. My favorite track, “Shake Shake Mama” (a popular choice on the new record), is great fun, no better or worse than “Wiggle Wiggle” on 1990’s Under The Red Sky, a much-mocked track on a universally damned album.
I recently bought Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript, Barry Feinstein’s gorgeous book of photos, with Dylan’s text, forgotten since 1964 (even by Dylan). And wondrous it is, just like his liner notes all the way from 1964’s Another Side Of to 1993’s World Gone Wrong, a style that found its apotheosis in Dylan’s awesome 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Vol. One. The world wasn’t purely gloomy to Dylan in 1964, though there was plenty to be angry about. Nowadays, it’s all gloom, the corollary of which is nostalgia. Music isn’t what it used to be in Dylan’s youth; people aren’t in love like they used to be, ears are less impressive nowadays—just not quite as well-shaped. Beyond that, I don’t hear much being said. Nor is there any reason it should be. Why reviewers are, by and large, reviewing a different record, with stunning hooks, withering putdowns and hilarious jokes, I do not know. I honestly liked it more when Dylan was pissed off at you for not reading the Bible more closely. One more thing: the writing credit on the new record: “Bob Dylan with Robert Hunter.” What does that mean? Have you ever seen that credit ever anywhere? The specific word used in the Rolling Stone interview was “hired.” Does that mean, “I asked him to write some songs with me”? Or, “I paid him to work-for-hire rather than take royalties”? It was better, really, when it said, “Words and Music by Bob Dylan.”
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” (download):