Book review: The Lives Of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell

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NERVES of steel and an unhealthy dedication are the least requirements for any expedition in search of pop’s most slippery enigma, and Ian Bell has already proved himself.

Time Out Of Mind: The Lives Of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell

Mainstream, £20

But if his account of Bob Dylan’s first 35 years (Once Upon A Time) was acclaimed, volume two was always going to be tricky. Its subject, after all, is not the whip-smart, spin-on-a-dime singer who beguiled a 1960s generation, but an ageing baby boomer who has spent most of the intervening years confounding and disappointing his fans. In short, a perfect enigma.

If you want to know Dylan’s shoe size or the sounds of the streets he walked, the quality of his stare or of his friendships, this is not the book for you. Bell declines to dream up a man from gossip and guesswork – a disinterest he shares with his subject, whose best-selling book Chronicles is, Bell observes, “mis-called a memoir”. Time Out Of Mind, too, is mislabelled a biography; this is an exhaustive artistic appraisal.

So while the workings of Robert Zimmerman remain a nagging rhetorical question, we follow the mid-life evolution of “Bob Dylan” via a critique which is frankly partial, historically expansive and not without a certain Calvinist rigour. The artist who sashayed through a lucrative Victoria’s Secret commercial in 2004, for example, suffers as sharp a reproach as the Nobel judges who annually veto his award.

Time Out of Mind is blessed, though, with the story arc of Dylan’s late renaissance (Modern Times in 2006 was his first album in 30 years to top the charts). We may not get to the bottom of the human impulses behind this creative recovery. But it is characteristic of Bell’s achievement that he delivers instead a compelling account of the ways in which the musician, and popular taste, and the world itself have changed – and how, extraordinarily, it is Dylan’s radical mid-Sixties music that can now be seen as an aberration, in a career beguilingly entwined with the great traditions of American music.