Bob Dylan


Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan:A Biography (1972?); another one from my cousin’s closet, part of the same cache that included Fear and Loathing. This would have been in the very early 1990s. I had always loved Bob Dylan, always–one of the earliest songs I remember taping off of the radio was “Like a Rolling Stone.” I had to call in to request it. I recorded it at the end of my first (and only, at the time) cassette tape–a copy of Dire Strait’s Brothers in Arms that my dad had taped from his vinyl for me. By the time I got a hold of Anthony Scaduto’s fantastic bio, I knew a bit about Dylan. I already had a couple of Dylan albums, including one of the first CDs I ever bought, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (still my favorite). Like Fear and Loathing, this book was a door-opener to me. Interestingly, I was mostly enchanted by Dylan’s voice and wordplay before I read this book; that is to say his cult of personality hadn’t really effected me yet. This book changed that.


(I took the edition on the left. The one on the right you can buy online or in your favorite bookstore)

Any true Dylan fan has probably already read this book, but if you consider yourself one (a true fan, that is), and you haven’t read it, make amends. You won’t be disappointed. The book is particularly good if you bookend it with viewings of DA Pennebaker’s extraordinary documentary Don’t Look Back.

 Dylan in his later years (i.e. nowadays) is as perplexing as ever. He’s made three of the best albums of his post-60s career, making up for some questionable output. He’s slowed down on the touring quite a bit (saw him about 10 years ago and he blew my mind — who knew what an accomplished guitar player he was?), and made those weird Victoria’s Secret commercials a few years ago. Recently, he made a ruckus when he attacked modern recording techniques in a Rolling Stone interview with one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Lethem

One of the best things Dylan has done lately is his “Theme Time Radio Hour” on XM satellite radio. The show is thematic; Dylan riffs on the bible, coffee, the weather, all sorts of stuff. His musical taste is fantastic (saying Bob Dylan has good musical taste is sort of like saying water is wet), but it’s really his voice that mesmerizes. It’s a gleeful mix of the sinister with the playful. He actually kind of sounds like the late comedian Mitch Hedberg, especially in a comment from a recent show on the bible: “Nine out of ten Americans have at least one bible in their home. What’s up with the other guy?” Doesn’t look funny in print, but his delivery is unexpectedly hilarious.

If, like me, you can’t afford to subscribe to fancy satellite stations but still want to hear the word of Dylan, never fear! Check out White Man Stew for free downloadable mp3s of complete Dylan shows. You can get the shows as  zip files full of divided mp3s, or as one long mp3.

James Weldon Johnson — Part II

In 1912, James Weldon Johnson anonymously published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. It was later republished under Johnson’s name in 1927, at the acme of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man strikes me as a thoroughly postmodern move. This fictional novel is presented as the true life story of a talented man who chooses to “pass” as white so that he might have greater–or at least equal–access to opportunity in America. Autobiography is a fictional novel “passing” as another genre, autobiography. This mirroring wasn’t intended as just a fancy rhetorical device–it was a subversive, incendiary gesture on JWJ’s part, meant to question the mores of white America. In fact, after it’s initial publication, several reviews were written suggesting that the book was a hoax, the premise of these reviews being that a black man could never pass as a white man–let alone marry a white woman and become a landowner of some importance.

Ultimately, the voice in Autobiography problematizes all easy readings. The ex-colored man is a bona fide narcissist with an almost preternatural ability to succeed at everything he attempts–except of course when he is thwarted by racist social norms. The reader seems most encouraged to sympathize with the narrator at these times, when the ex-colored man’s natural and cultivated abilities are confronted or ousted by the dominant system. At other times, the narrator condescends working class blacks he terms “inferior”; he also frequently wishes to sanitize “primitive” forms of black art, such as spirituals and ragtime music, by recasting them in a classical, canonical mode. The ex-colored man clearly feels frustration that the acumen of his genius is constantly delimited by his color, but this frustration sometimes seems aimed at his fellow blacks.

All of this makes for a challenging but brisk and enjoyable read. Paired with JWJ’s real autobiography, Along This Way, a savvy reader can come up with all kinds of ironic, postmodern readings. Or straightforward readings. Or whatever. Read it yourself.

James Weldon Johnson — Part I

Everything in Jacksonville, Florida should be named after native son James Weldon Johnson.


Well, maybe not everything–that could get confusing. But as it stands, the only thing we Jacksonvillians have bearing that great man’s name is a middle school, and an obscure plaque somewhere downtown–which is great. People love plaques.

James Weldon Johnson Middle School feeds Stanton College Preparatory School, an excellent school that JWJ served as principal of from 1894 to 1902. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I’m a proud graduate of the Stanton School (go Blue Devils!). Under JWJ’s plan, Stanton became the first black high school in Florida. In his autobiography, Along This Way, JWJ discloses the genius of his plans for educational reform: he simply asked the eighth grade class to come back again, partitioned off some rooms, and based the new high school program on the curriculum of his alma mater Atlanta University (now known as Clark). The real genius of this is that he didn’t bother to ask the all-white board of education, who undoubtedly would’ve found some way to say “no.” He just did it, and then let the board come see what he had done. Brilliant.

Why isn’t there a single prominent statue of JWJ in Jacksonville? Or a library named after him? Or even a street? It seems to me that the average Jacksonvillian simply isn’t aware of JWJ, or has only a passing knowledge of who he was, not realizing that he was born and raised here.


1. I will continue writing about James Weldon Johnson on this blog.

2. I challenge every Jacksonvillian to read a book by James Weldon Johnson.

 3. Maybe if we read his books, we’ll come to feel his genius, celebrate the fact that he is from our hometown, and honor him appropriately.

Kinski Uncut


I took this from the book swap at my NOVA school in Shinjuku. I swapped in a video tape of a Nick at Nite Cosby Show marathon. This was immediately disappeared to great controversy. 

I later found out Kinski Uncut actually belonged to one of the Japanese students at Shinjuku-nishiguchi, who had given it to a teacher there. I didn’t know who Klaus Kinski was but I loved the pink cover. Also, at the time I consumed just about anything written in English. Since then I’ve seen him in a number of films, including his famous turn as the titular character in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God.

Kinski Uncut (the punning title recalls the South Park movie) is actually a really cool, twisted autobio about a true weirdo. Kinski describes the destruction of his family, his POW internment in post-WWII Germany, acting out Goethe on tavern tables, trying to kill Werner Herzog, not getting the respect he deserves…and fucking lots and lots of different women. Kinski doesn’t seem to be able to not have sex with women, and if his claims in this book are true, he puts Wilt Chamberlain to shame.

I suspect that Ricotta Park, a notorious biblioklept, may be in current possession of this book.