Riff Raff

Talkin' Bob Dylan Academic Conference Blues What the man with the bald pate was talking about was unclear. He was Englishman Christopher Ricks, a professor at Boston University and an author of books on Milton, Tennyson, Eliot, and Beckett. The Stanford Humanities Center had invited the professor to speak about Dylan -- not Thomas, Bob -- at an all-day academic conference dedicated to examining topics like Bob Dylan's religious quest, Bob Dylan and black singers, and (a subject only an academic could love) Bob Dylan and academia. Ricks played a tape of "Whatcha Gonna Do," an obscure early Dylan song, in lieu of an introduction or any expository information. After that, only bits of the rambling paper he read from made sense. On his way to explaining the similarity of a cut on Dylan's new record and Keats' poem "Ode to a Nightingale," Ricks made references to "Byronic half-rhyme," "Cromwellian power," Robert Burns, Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens, "the open sadism of Charles Lamb," "an analog, not a source, Beckett," and a Dylan lyric "too Dylan-esque." Ricks could quote entire verses of practically any Dylan song mentioned and even used the word "penultimate" in a sentence correctly, which made him a smarter person than Riff Raff. We were hoping that an average intelligence and a working knowledge of Dylan's catalog would be enough to get us through the day. We were wrong, though there were hints early on that it might. Tino Markworth, the Stanford doctoral student responsible for the conference, began the run of seven academics and two laypeople with a mildly self-effacing comment acknowledging that Dylan hated academics. (He once said colleges were like old-age homes.) Markworth asked, rhetorically, "Can we talk about Dylan's work without obscuring it?" The rest of the day, the speakers pounded home the answer. Events flashed from the obtuse (Allen Ginsberg's role in the Dylan film Renaldo and Clara, delivered by an academic "in search of publishers") to the pathetic (a college version of the teacher in Beavis and Butt-head, crushed by liberal guilt and quoting Noam Chomsky, talking about Dylan's political songs) to the absurd (Stephen Ronan, a layman in Wayfarer sunglasses, delivering an hourlong snoozer proving that Dylan read Rimbaud and liked Jack Kerouac). At this point a mentally hyperventilating Riff Raff was looking for a paper bag to stuff our head into. Amid the heady proclamations, the too-long papers, and the jargon, the jargon, the jargon, Riff Raff came away with one memory -- a single image from early on in the Stanford auditorium. On one side of the room boomers with lyric books under their arms and a couple of teen-agers still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes lined up to pay $14 for the eight-hour affair. On the other, a professional photographer in a Washington Post polo shirt crouched down and turned his camera away from the bright light coming in through the glass doors. His subject: one of a half-dozen identical black-and-white photographs of a mid-'60s Dylan, Ginsberg, and Michael McClure posing by City Lights. He moved his lens closer to the snapshot until the glare disappeared, and clicked the shutter. (J.S.)

Selvin Watch: Memo to Joel: Riff Raff really liked your Jan. 9 Chronicle story on Courtney Love titled "Proof of Love." In the course of the article, you managed to turn what might have been an actual reported piece about Hole's long-awaited, long-overdue third album into an assortment of peevish complaints and ham-fisted conclusions about Love. We suppose that's what happens when you notice Love's face on a couple of magazine covers and turn that observation into a 700-word essay. Love is "famous for being famous," you wrote, although it's not clear exactly how you managed to make the giant theoretical leap from there to conclude that the upcoming album is irrelevant already. It's possible that, in the midst of all your pointless assertions about Love's Hollywood lifestyle -- I guess it is crucial that we know she bought her house from Ellen DeGeneres -- you just got sidetracked. Sigh. It was very pop-culturally savvy of you to realize that, what with her movie career and all, and her blond hair, Love -- may we quote you here? -- "wants to be Madonna." Way to work that deductive reasoning, Joel! After all, any female, business-savvy, image-conscious, provocative entertainment figure must want to be Madonna, right? We mean, who else is there? Not to be nitpicky or anything, but when you say that Hole's new album "will probably debut at No. 1 on the charts and land Love on magazine covers around the world," and then wonder whether she even has a fan base anymore, it sounds, well, sort of inconsistent. But that's OK, since the main point of your article was really that Love's multifacetedness upsets you. We know it's awfully confusing when musicians don't keep doing the same thing over and over, and you incisively addressed this dilemma with a clever fashion analogy: "The last time she toured, she was still given to the occasional headfirst dive off the stage into the front rows -- not something you want to try in haute couture." Funny you should mention that, Joel. We read Love's thoughts on that same idea three months ago in Rolling Stone's "Women of Rock" (not "Women in Rock," as you cited). Here's what she had to say: "Somebody wrote, 'How can she rock in a Versace gown?' Well, easy -- let me show you. You can do what you want. Wear what you want. If you're great, it doesn't matter." Wow, that's pretty direct, we thought. As for your contention that Love's fame has absolutely nothing to do with her talent, charisma, or outspoken feminism, well, we just don't know what to say. Again, thanks for a fab article. Sincerely yours, Riff Raff. (Andi Zeisler)

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