HOW do you solve a problem like Bob? There is, hidden within the 588 pages of this gnarly, splenetic biography, a simple solution, proposed by the subject himself. It occurs at a press conference held to promote Dylan’s 1969 appearance on the Isle of Wight.
Once Upon A Time: The Lives Of Bob Dylan
“What is your position on politics and music?” the singer is asked. “My job is to play music,” Dylan replies. “I think I’ve answered enough questions.”
In that answer lies the riddle. Dylan plays music. He raises more questions than he answers. His autobiography, Chronicles, though beautifully written, was a bit magical realist with the verité. No Direction Home, the Scorsese documentary made with the approval of Dylan’s management, was celebratory, not penetrating. The less he talks, the more Dylan disappears beneath the pondweed of his reputation. The longer he plays, the more the algae multiply. These days, Dylanology is a swamp of intrigue, with Bob as its frog king. But even as a croak-voiced deity, Dylan presents a problem, as Bell notes, wearily. “The famous mystique, like the abhorrence of interpretation, is founded on an implacable reticence.”
Which leaves us where? Well, this is not a biography of revelation. Those hoping to discover what really happened when Dylan crashed his motorcycle will be disappointed. (“There was an accident. Or rather, there was an accident.”) The gory details of his heroin use (or non-use) are not contained within. At times, Bell derides the notion of biography itself, referring dismissively to “biographical stalkers”, a class of writer he puts on the rack of contempt next to rock hacks.
There is, perhaps, a problem of method. Bell shows every sign of being the best kind of Dylan fan, with a questioning spirit and an abiding fascination with the music. He has inhaled the songs, examined the run-out grooves of countless bootlegs, and scoured the library for clues to Dylan’s motivations. But if he has done any first-hand research, he’s not boasting about it.
It’s a given, of course, that Dylan himself wouldn’t help. And it’s true that there exists among Dylan collaborators a polite omerta. But it wouldn’t have done any harm to seek out the likes of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Pete Seeger to probe their memories of the Greenwich Village scene; Dylan’s reverence for Woody Guthrie; or the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan (apparently, allegedly) offended the folkies by making an electric rock racket.
Part of this can be credited to Bell’s clinical distaste for gossip, but he does borrow from existing interviews and books. Suze Rotolo’s 2008 biography, for instance, helps establish her as an important figure in Dylan’s creative development. (That other famous girlfriend, Joan Baez, is cast less sympathetically).
The book’s insights are elsewhere. At its heart, Once Upon A Time is a literary biography, centred on a fictional character named “Bob Dylan”. (The inverted commas are part of the deal). So “Dylan”, for Dylan (nee Zimmerman), is a continuing act of reinvention. Bell writes: “His ‘Dylan’… was cast in line of descent from Huck Finn, John Ford, Steinbeck and Woody [Guthrie]. He was, even in 1961, a recognised American type, a ghost from the back roads. And Bobby Zimmerman wished he had been that type. It was the only way he could make sense of himself.”
Viewing Dylan as a set of characters is not unusual, as evidenced by Todd Haynes’s baffling film, I’m Not There, in which six actors competed to misunderstand the Myth of Bob. But Bell’s literary bent is his book’s strength. He brings fresh insight into the poetic qualities of Dylan’s verse, examining the rhyme scheme in Subterranean Homesick Blues, and detecting hitherto unknown value in his book, Tarantula (its verbal experiments led, Bell argues, to the triumph of Like A Rolling Stone.) Bell is also interesting on the writers who influenced Dylan (notably Kenneth Patchen), and as a one-line summary, his quote from Hunter S Thompson’s 1961 essay on the “fraudulent farmers” of Greenwich Village is hard to beat: “Dylan is a goddamn phenomenon,” frothed Thompson, “pure gold, and as mean as a snake.”
Bell is a muscular critic, too. “That unaccountably popular dirge” Masters Of War, he says, has “one of the dullest melodies Dylan ever stole.” If his dismissal of Dylan’s country-influenced 1969 LP, Nashville Skyline, as “a symptom of artistic paralysis” is too cruel, it prompts him to reveal his view that “ultimate seriousness lies in the blues and the ancient wisdom of folk music.” Likewise, his hostility towards DA Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back is overstated; though it does trigger a defence of TIME interviewer Horace Judson, who is subjected to a patronising assault in the film by the cool, cruel Dylan. “An ignorant journalist was treating him as a pop-culture mystery,” Bell writes. “That wasn’t exactly unreasonable.”
Not exactly. In truth, Judson was a patsy, and Bob, hopped up on something, was in no mood to explain. He rarely is. Bell’s book, by unpeeling the masks, goes a long way to proving something that should be obvious, but isn’t always: Dylan’s most compelling fictions were songs. «