The Isis Anthology
Of all the books on Bob Dylan why should one read this before Paul Williams' definitive Performing Artist 1 and 2 (and soon 3), Robert Shelton's No Direction Home, the best one-volume account of his art and an education in philosophy and mythology, and Howard Sounes' Down the Highway, the best account of the facts of his life? All these should be read first.
Yet the devil is in the detail. Isis is a fan magazine of 100 issues vintage and some of the glimpses are worth buying this book for alone: percussionist Jim Keltner breaking down in tears of emotion every show of the 1979 Warfield residency; Al Aronowitz' profession of love for the man; Dylan spitting at guitarist GE Smith on stage; the 'It's a Parody of Himself' tour; the influence of Joseph Conrad's 'Victory' on 'Black Diamond Bay'; the ambiguous line of 'Hattie Carroll' 'slain by a Cain/cane'. There is much to pique the curiosity. My favourite titbit concerns Dylan's boat, built in the Caribbean and the occasion of a commemorative postcard. With such diversity it is a shame about the poor proof-reading, as well as a reminder of the achievement of Derek Barker, who has edited Isis for 16 years and created such a professional fanzine on a shoe-string.
The book covers all bases: the folk years, electric period, the ever-fascinating Street Legal, the evangelical years, Time out of Mind and recent tours. The format - the best articles of Isis' tenure as well as specially commissioned new work covering all the formative and transformative points in Dylan's career - has the virtue of cutting to the chase. It specifies. It is still exhilarating to read about the switch to electric music in the mid-sixties. This book covers the 1965 performance at the Hollywood Bowl (conclusion: the band was wrong), one of two concerts in Sydney at the start of the 1966 world tour, culminating in 3 eye-witness accounts of the Royal Albert Hall performance. It is astonishing to think that we have live documents of the Australian leg of the 1966 world tour.
It is the insider aspect that particularly appeals; Mickey Jones, drummer on the 66 tour after Levon Helm jumped ship; Martin Carthy who spent time with Dylan in England and is a staunch defender of Dylan's integrity compared to, say, Paul Simon; erstwhile personal guitar and amp tech to Dylan, Cesar Diaz.; even an interview with Dylan's parents shortly before his father's death; their unfiltered recollections are not shaped with comment by a journalist.
Like other scattershot books such as 'Encounters with Bob Dylan' Bob Dylan has done so much of import that it is possible to compile interesting books about him based on any number of angles; 'Bob's approach to guitars', 'Bob's cover versions', you name it, they will be released very soon.
It makes a difference to the reading of this book that Dylan is on form and writing his own material again. Previous books have petered off ending on a sharp down-curve. Now, however, we see Andrew Muir's article on Time Out of Mind on which Michael Gray based his penultimate chapter of Song and Dance Man 3. Visually, too, there is a pleasing emphasis on the Dylan of more recent years besides assorted signatures, jottings, ticket stubs and drawings by the man himself.
The Isis Anthology makes you want to dig out the albums, which is the mark of a successful music book. It makes you hungry for some "Love and Theft" criticism. Here's to the next 100 issues.
© Matt Bryden 2002
Isis - A Bob Dylan Anthology is published by Helter Skelter (£14.99)