Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dylan-Garcia Redux

Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that I wrote a short letter to The New York Review of Books a few months ago. It challenged Dan Chiasson's claim that Bob Dylan's foundering career in the 1980s was related to his decision to work with Jerry Garcia, one of several "minor talents" whom Dylan characteristically overestimated. I concluded that while there's no disputing taste, the Dylan-Garcia combination wasn't a case of a major talent mistakenly working with a minor one.

Before making a mountain out of a molehill, let's admire the genius of Chiasson's dismissal. It not only allows him to attribute Dylan's shortcomings to others, but it also makes Dylan's mistake resemble a virtue: namely, excessive generosity. If only Dylan had correctly assessed Garcia's talent deficit, the 1980s would have been another monument to Dylan's greatness.

Anyone paying attention, of course, will recall that Garcia and the Dead were thriving at this time, that Dylan needed them and not vice versa, and that Dylan praised Garcia's talent accurately and beautifully in his 1995 eulogy. But Chiasson would probably maintain that this assessment was just Dylan being Dylan again. Thoughtful critics would avoid his excessive generosity and consign Garcia to the minor leagues.

After sending off my email and posting it here, I turned my gaze to other matters. But while reading the current issue of NYROB yesterday, I saw an exchange in the Letters department that I have to mention.

"I find it ridiculous that [Chiasson] stigmatizes Jerry Garcia and Tom Petty as 'minor talents,'" writes Rick Holmes. "Dylan also collaborated with Roy Orbison and George Harrison in the 1980s. Perhaps Chiasson also considers them insignificant." And so on.

Here's Chiasson's reply.

I'm glad that Jerry Garcia and Tom Petty have such passionate and knowledgeable defenders, and there's no disputing taste. I think they are minor in relation to Dylan, though compared with other radio acts of that era--ZZ Top and Wang Chung, for example--they do seem like great geniuses.

OK, let's pause for a moment here. Jerry Garcia was a radio act of this era? Also, ZZ Top and Wang Chung? Is Chiasson completely ignorant of Garcia's work, or does he only assume that we are? Notice, too, the sarcasm in the crack about "great geniuses," a phrase that isn't synonymous with "major talents." The slippage reinforces the original insult, but I also sense some anxiety here, a kind of critical "tell," even if the reference is primarily or exclusively to Petty and not to Garcia.

Back to Chiasson's reply.

"Roy Orbison and George Harrison are indisputably major, but when was the last time you cranked a Traveling Wilburys tune? That was a lifeless, sleepwalking ensemble, and you know who I blame? Tom Petty."

Too bad Holmes gave Chiasson so much room to maneuver. First, he let the Garcia part slide and worked the Tom Petty angle. That made it easier for Chiasson to dismiss his objection, I think. Second, Holmes introduced Orbison and Harrison for no apparent reason. That permitted Chiasson to concede a symbolic point while sticking to his original judgment.

I lost a bit more respect for Chiasson, in part because I detect an attempt to disguise what my dissertation director called "contempt prior to investigation," which he regarded as an intellectual sin. Nothing Chiasson wrote in the article or reply suggests he knows anything about Garcia. And the diction in this reply seems designed to
compensate for this weakness. Indeed, it's very much of a piece with the original dismissal--clever but not wise.



At 4:36 AM , Blogger TF said...

Peter -- Nice piece. Dan: when you're at the bottom of the hole, stop digging.


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