Dylan Lyrics Provide Text For Two New Storybooks

'The Superhuman Crew' pairs his song 'Desolation Row' with controversial James Ensor painting.

Bob Dylan has joined the ranks of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak on the children's shelves in bookstores.

A Dylan song provides the text for "Man Gave Names to All the Animals," a children's picture book that sets that song from Dylan's Slow Train Coming (1979) to bright art from illustrator Scott Menchin. Another Dylan song, "Desolation Row," is the basis for "The Superhuman Crew," a picture book aimed at an older audience.

The former book, published in November, is the more traditional of the two, with large, vibrant images mixing both photos and illustrations accompanying Dylan's simple storytelling: Man "saw an animal that liked to growl/ Big furry paws and he liked to howl/ Great big furry back and furry hair/ 'Ah, think I'll call it a bear.' " "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" was from the first of three albums reflecting Dylan's born-again Christianity.

Targeted to a vastly different audience is "The Superhuman Crew," which intersperses details from Belgian painter James Ensor's controversial 1888 work "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889" with Dylan's 1965 opus "Desolation Row" (RealAudio excerpt), originally released on the album Highway 61 Revisited (1965). The book came out in October.

"We very consciously decided not to try to find one-to-one correspondences," John Harris, who oversaw the project for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, said. "It would be corny and make the painting seem like it was subservient to Dylan's song. ... It was more important to let them play off each other in a fairly random way and let the reader make connections."

The 8-by-14-foot painting is large enough to match the breadth of Dylan's 11-minute song, which comes as a CD single with the book.

And the large cast of characters who populate "Desolation Row" is odd enough to match the broad array of distorted people in Ensor's work.

When first shown, the painting was considered so garish and so critical in its social commentary that Ensor was expelled from a group of Brussels' most progressive artists. Among other things, it's a devastating mockery of the prim and proper Impressionist movement.

The work depicts a public fanfare for Jesus so overwhelming that Christ himself is lost and ignored in the middle of the pageantry. A gaunt mayor surveys the scene from a podium as a marching band passes by. Ensor, who died in 1949, when Dylan was 8, painted the rich celebrants in masks (a recurring theme for him) or as pigs.

Some of the more than 100 people in the work were well-known figures of the day. Compounding the audacity of the project, Ensor painted himself as the Christ figure.

"He dares you to look for yourself in there," said rock critic and Addicted To Noise columnist Greil Marcus, a Dylan expert who recently lectured on "The Superhuman Crew" at the Getty Museum.

"Desolation Row" also is peopled by real figures (Nero, Albert Einstein, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot), along with familiar literary characters (Romeo, the Phantom of the Opera, Cinderella). At the heart of the song is Ophelia, whose "sin is her lifelessness."

In a sense, Dylan, too, plays with masks. "All these people that you mention," he sings, "yes I know them, they're quite lame/ I had to rearrange their faces/ And give them all another name."

"At this time [in his career], Dylan was being playful," Marcus said. "It was, 'Let's see what I can get away with.' "

The fact that neither piece was conceived with the other in mind strengthens the whole of "The Superhuman Crew," Marcus said.

"To do one work of art about another is starting out to write with your hands behind your back. It kills the momentum in yourself."