Title: Watching the River Flow: Observations on Bob Dylan's Art-in-Progress, 1966-1995

New York: Omnibus Press, 1996

Description: 255 p.; 24 cm. Hardcover edition in dark blue cloth binding with gold lettering and no dust jacket. No photographs, except for a picture of Dylan on the cover of the paperback edition.

Notes: Of course the title of this book is taken from the Dylan song of the same name, and it is an appropriate title for a collection of essays on Dylan's art. It's even more appropriate when you also consider a comment Arlo Guthrie often makes about Dylan in his concerts. One version quoted in the Paul Zollo interview of Dylan in the Winter 1991 issue of Songtalk goes like this:

"Songwriting is like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something. And I don't think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything." --- Arlo Guthrie

This book is a collection of Paul Williams' thoughts about what Bob Dylan caught over a period of thirty years. Most of the essays were previously published as album or concert reviews in other publications. Here they are gathered together in one place, in chronological order, with a brief (current) introduction to each by Paul to put them in context. The result is a survey of much of Dylan's work, especially his official albums.

Each essay is printed exactly as it was originally published, in most cases just after the release of a new album. This really gives the reader the flavor of the times, as one follows Williams' reactions to Dylan's ever-changing art. As he points out in his introduction, Williams was mostly inspired to write about albums and performances he liked. He wasn't bound by the critic's duty to report on each new release, regardless of its importance. So most of these essays are enthusiastic about Dylan's work, with the albums he didn't like when they first appeared (Budokan & Down in the Groove) receiving little mention.

The centerpiece of the book is a complete reprinting of his 1979 book, Dylan---- What Happened? Williams attended seven of the fourteen shows at the Warfield in San Francisco in November 1979 that were the first live shows featuring Dylan's Christian songs. Though not a Christian himself, Williams was inspired by Dylan's new commitment and new music, and so he sat down and wrote a book in two weeks that answered the question (in the title) that everyone was asking.

In 1990 Dylan said, "People can learn everything about me through my songs, if they know where to look." This 1979 book by Williams may be the best example of this idea. By carefully studying Dylan's music from Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Street Legal, Renaldo & Clara, Slow Train Coming and the Warfield shows, Williams pieced together a very plausible theory about what happened. In fact, even Dylan seemed to like it, as he had his secretary order 114 copies of the book.

One of Williams' basic assumptions about Dylan songs is that they are not works of fiction, that they are based upon his own experiences. Thus he writes: When he says, "I would have done anything for that woman/ If she just would have made me feel obligated." I know he's not talking about some incident that never happened or some woman who never existed (p. 145.) When one approaches Dylan's art in this manner, one sees that, contrary to the popular notion that Dylan is secretive about his life, he actually reveals far more very personal things about his life than most people.

Another milestone reprinted in this book is his review of All Along the Watchtower in which he was the first to discuss the way in which "we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order," as Dylan put it ten months later.

Another high point of the book is his enthusiastic review of the brilliant and unusual performance of Hard Rain from the "The Great Music Experience" in Nara, Japan in 1994. He points out that this show was unique in that Dylan was singing to an essentially fixed arrangement under the direction of a conductor, because of the requirements of the full orchestral accompaniment. Rather than resulting in an awkward, stiff, performance, as one might expect, Williams correctly describes the Hard Rain performance as an absolute triumph, and quotes Andy Muir who said that it "might be the best Hard Rain ever."

As is always the case when Paul Williams writes about Dylan, one is constantly inspired to listen again to many old familiar songs. Rather than a book of essays, this might be better thought of as extensive liner notes to the many albums, an art form in itself that seems to have disappeared with the replacement of the vinyl disk by the smaller CD format.

Subjects: Dylan, Bob, 1941-; -- Criticism and interpretation -- Performances

ISBN: 0-7119-5570-0 $39.95 (signed & numbered limited edition hardback-1000 copies) or $17.95 (paperback). Either edition can be ordered directly from the author.


Introduction ..... 9
1. Understanding Dylan (Blonde on Blonde) ..... 13
2. Time and Bob Dylan ..... 22
3. God Bless America (John Wesley Harding) ..... 25
4. Nashville Skyline ..... 32
5. Before the Flood ..... 33
6. Blood on the Tracks ...... 37
7. On Learning to Listen ...... 41
8. Dylan's in the Basement ...... 44
9. Hard Rain ..... 50
10. Who Pagan Became ..... 55
11. Dylan---What Happened? ..... 63
12. One Year Later ..... 134
13. The Endless Road---Highway '86 ..... 152
14. Bob Dylan and Death ..... 158
15. Those Talking Crazy, Spilling My Buttermilk, Not One More Kiss Blues (Under the Red Sky) ..... 162
16. Good As I Been to You ..... 172
17. You've Got to Hear This Tape! ..... 180
18. World Gone Wrong ..... 190
19. The Supper Club Shows ..... 201
20. Live and in Person ..... 211
21. "Hard Rain" in Japan ..... 214
22. Unplugged ..... 220
23. Prague and Glasgow, spring '95 ..... 231
24. The Paradise Lost Tour ..... 248

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Last updated: 3/23/97
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