From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan’s “Together Through Life”

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 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):

12 replies on “From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan’s “Together Through Life””

I don’t hear the second coming of Love and Theft in Together Through Life. I hear Nashville Skyline for the adopted musical style, Planet Waves for the seemingly effortless production, and John Wesley Harding for the deceptively simple song writing.

I miss his liner notes too. “(give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one)”

Ain’t Talkin’ alone makes Modern Times much more than “so so”.

All these reviewers that are praising TTL…could it be they actually do like the record alot as I do? Could it be that maybe, just maybe this isnt a case of blind idolatry but genuine good feelings for the sound…people (whether they are reviewers or not) do like and yes love music for reasons other than blind allegiance. So you and the Guardian reviewer think that the ONLY reason anyone could like this or give it great praise is through some artificial reasoning runnin through their weak little minds? Give me break.


I don’t know if Together Through Time is one of my favorite Dylan records, but it is one of my favorite blues records. I only wish Doug Sahm, who wafts like a ghost within most of these tunes, were around to hear it.
Paul Metsa, Minneapolis, MN USA

Wes has one of the most luminous minds in popular music, so its nice to see him stirring up the Dylan pot. In his short review he perfectly summarizes how I have felt about Dylan’s live shows and studio releases since 03 or 04. In any event, it will be interesting to see how things evolve with Dylan, because I’d bet even that old frock length coat will get itchy after a while…

Wes, this is a very lazy, superficial review of Together Through Life. Don’t you see anything below the surface? Do you think that reviewing Dylan like he’s a ‘pop singer’ (which you do here) does him justice? The Guardian review you mention was pathetic self-serving smartarse drivel, written by someone who just just does not even TRY to understand Dylan’s work and is more interested in worshipping his own arse hole. A Dylan album (even a comparitively ‘light’ one like TTL) has layers upon layers which gradually reveal itself asa you live with it. As someone with the gall to name yourself after one of Dylan’s greatest works one would think you’d know this. And maybe you should go and listen to Modern Times again. And again. And again.
And…., again. Thing is, Wes, Dylan’s work just isn’t that EASY. He’s not a ‘pop singer’. ‘Modern Times’ is one of his most major works. ‘Ain’t Talkin’, ‘Nettie Moore’, ‘Workingman’s Blues’, ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ and ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ are songs that live with anything he wrote in the 60s and 70s. They stand way way way above work of most of today’s songwriters. But they are not EASY …. You could hardly call them ‘so so’ ….All you have to do is LISTEN and THINK. Fact is, people will be listening to Dylan’s stuff in hundreds of years time when virtually all his contemporaries have been forgotten. As for TTL, you barely skim the surface. Do you expect anyone to take you seriously? I mean, it’s like someone reviewing Shakespeare’s latest play in a few casual sentences. Yeah, man, ‘The Tempest’, hey that’s alright but he’s just remaking ‘Hamlet’ again…..

I could go on…..

I rarely respond to blogs, but for some reason the stench of arrogance hit me in the face. It’s not you in particular JWH to whom I’m responding. It’s alll the wanna be’s and never did anything of artistic substance or cultural significance. Like the music – hate the music – be indifferant to the music, but who the hell do you think you are! Are you so small within yourself that you must judge others to feel better about yourself. I have no pretentions in this way. I’m a simple guy who enjoys the new records as much as the old ones. I grow old with him. I skip songs I don’t like. I suggest you do the same and save your judgements for the mirror. If we lesser forms of life than you enjoy or appreciate the new work we have differant tastes than you and your kind not lesser ones. Get over yourselves!

“So you and the Guardian reviewer think that the ONLY reason anyone could like this or give it great praise is through some artificial reasoning runnin through their weak little minds?” Spot on, Jonnyra. In the Guardian: “Bob Dylan’s music is being suffocated by all the hype, says Alexis Petridis”. Not true. Maybe some “critics” are being suffocated by newspapers. But in Mr. Dylan’s own words: “I don’t write songs to critics. “

I think this is a profoundly interesting debate / phenomenon. There is nothing “wrong” about loving this album. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the premise that, if one doesn’t know Dylan, one isn’t likely to stop in one’s tracks to listen to this.

Yet Dylan is worth revering, studying, and enjoying. And there isn’t any comparable music out there, and hasn’t ever been. Sure, there has and always will be comparably GOOD

Most importantly, the point that, respectfully, I think this review (and the Guardian) misses is that we are damn lucky that Bob Dylan, at age 70, is making and releasing this music — i.e., music to which we can at least close our eyes and smile. (I rather doubt that he needed R. Hunter do do so; I suspect he did so for his own enjoyment / satisfaction.) I think it is this that is generating the hyperbole and exuberant reviews — even if the reviewers don’t stop to understand, admit, and/or say this.

They should. Bob Dylan is releasing new music that can be enjoyed, or disliked, and always discussed. Sad to say, that won’t be the case for much longer.

Thanks for the comments.

Just to repeat: of course there is nothing wrong with enjoying Together Through Life. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying anything, and there is every reason to enjoy this particular record. But if it weren’t made by Bob Dylan, and rather by some relative unknown, would people find such depth and brilliance in it? Of course not. And do we all have to agree about everything anyway (ie that Modern Times is fantastic)? No, we don’t.

I was just trying to think a few thoughts beyond the basic fact of my enjoyment and open up a general debate that takes for granted all the generalisations (see Chris’ comments above). That Dylan has become a cultural icon of a stature that dwarfs the actual impact of the music he has been making recently is, I think, indisputable. The spectacle of some of the live shows – like the powerfully mediocre Brooklyn Bandshell show last summer (and I’ve seen him twice since then) – confirms that people are happy just to see him rather than to have him actually entertain them. The lyrics, since they are more or less inaudible live, can only be enjoyed if you know them by heart – as so many of us do.

As for Doug Sahm, not only do I wish he were around to hear “Together Through Life,” I wish he’d been around to *make* it. I can’t stop listening to my Sir Douglas Quintet “Complete Mercury Recordings”.

“Bob Dylan is releasing new music that can be enjoyed, or disliked, and always discussed. Sad to say, that won’t be the case for much longer.”
Amen. Though they were probably saying that in 1981 too!

Chris Gregory: claiming too much for Dylan does him a worse disservice than modest praise. Some Dylan songs, simply, are “easy”. If you think “Shake Shake Mama” (which is awesome) is “difficult” to understand, then you are overcomplicating a wonderfully simple song. And I have to say: Bob Dylan is, far more clearly than he is anything else, a pop singer. He may be other things as well, but we can surely all agree that he is a singer of popular song.

I’ve been reading Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1; the man himself is highly critical of certain work of his own, and goes on and on about having lost his sense of how to connect to himself, his music and his audience for years. With a long and varied career like his, it seems reasonable to me that he misses the mark now and again. A review like this at least gets us to think through the assumption that he’s only able to hit bulls-eyes and evaluate the music differently, even if we totally disagree…or not. I must admit the anyone who can sneer like Dylan did on the cover of Highway 61 seems infallible to me, and that’s just unfair.

Thank you to Chris Gregory for helping to expose the petty and petulant iconoclasm that we hear often in Dylan’s detractors. It seems easy to distinguish between the weak reviews that are simply the result of one or two careless listening sessions, and then that ugly urge to be the one who reveals the tricks of Dylan’s appeal to his endlessly gullible followers. The possibility that Bob Dylan may simply be able to provide with peculiar reliability such great pleasure to his audience, at a high level of intelligence and wit and feeling that is not self-consciously intellectual or portentous, seems quite objectionable to some people. That this pleasure has to be *bought* with attention and openness and a willingness to be moved and delighted and amused–maybe this is a lot of work.
Sing it, Bob. And thanks for giving us this music so soon after Tell Tale Signs.

“Sing it, Bob. And thanks for giving us this music so soon after Tell Tale Signs.”
Do you actually think Dylan is reading this? Or you regularly talk to him one-to-one? Either way: slightly frightening.

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