Authors: Ian Bell
Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan
Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson – A Biography
For Amanda, who has heard it all …
I WANT TO THANK MY EDITOR, CLAIRE ROSE, FOR SAVING MY AUTHORIAL
skin more often than I can count. As she knows, counting is not my strong suit. Her work has been impeccable. Any remaining errors are my doing.
I also want to thank my publishers, Bill Campbell and Peter MacKenzie, for patience bordering on saintly. Since that word has never before been used in their vicinity, call it a gift to the memory of Mainstream Publishing.
I don’t know him because I don’t think there
I don’t think he’s
Allen Ginsberg, 1976
IT HAD BEEN A STRANGE TRIP, BRIEF AS A LUCID DREAM. AT ONE INSTANT
Bob Dylan was no one from nowhere; at the next he was prophet-designate. In the depths of a bone-freezing New York winter a ragamuffin from the Minnesota outlands was notable only for his unfeasible ambition. By the following year’s end, as a gilded decade commenced in earnest, all the talk was of poetry and poets, of a prodigy with a supernatural facility in the songwriter’s art. In the capsule history, genius suffered no birth pangs. Everything that happened to Dylan happened at the speed of recorded sound.
For a brief while in the 1960s he had seemed to alter daily, changing in manner, speech, style, sound and physical appearance almost as casually as most men changed their button-down shirts. No sooner had the image of one Dylan emerged from the emulsion than the outline of another was becoming visible. His identity, such as it ever was, had resembled a shimmering ghost. In the beginning, ‘Bob Dylan’ was less a person than a manifestation, a series of gestures.
For him, a single decade would become a life sentence, but in truth he had spent little enough of the 1960s in the public eye. By common consent it had been his era, once and ever after, and yet somehow, for much of the time, nothing to do with him. As late as late October 2012 a 71-year-old was still being badgered by an interviewer from
magazine for his reflections on ‘his’ decade, the one with which he was ‘so identified’.
Dylan granted he had been
, as though times and places were one and the same, but said none of it had meant that much to him. As he told the journalist: ‘I really wasn’t so much a part of what they call “the Sixties”.’ The assertion sounds strange but rings true. You can pick out dates to prove it. For years on end, even – especially – at the height of his influence, Dylan had been silent, elliptical, gnomic or just absent. Hindsight says that his had been a comet’s path. After the first dazzling flare he had all but disappeared from view.
A folk and blues record had been released and ignored in March of 1962. Critical acclaim had begun to form in a bubble around him with the appearance of
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
in May of the following year. True fame, the global kind, had descended with a trio of extraordinary albums issued in the space of 14 months in 1965 and 1966. Then he had exhausted himself, and shredded his nerves, and self-medicated, and crashed a motorcycle, and changed his way of thinking, and retreated into family life, and ducked from sight as though dodging a bullet: theories had abounded. The chronology says simply that he quit the concert circuit and the hoopla.
Three years and a matter of weeks: that, properly speaking, had been it for ‘the voice of a generation’. His time spent clad in the Nessus-robe of the ‘protest singer’ had been briefer still. After girdling the globe in a few mad months in 1966 for the sake of audiences stranded somewhere between admiration and outrage, Dylan had withdrawn from the stage, injured several times over. He did not return for the best part of eight years. By the decade’s end he had become a country crooner, of sorts, one liable to call an ill-assorted collection of standards, covers and pastoral experiments his self-obliterating
. Estranged fans had taken it as a bad joke. The fact remains that an artist whose name is entwined, supposedly, with the 1960s and the decade’s concerns was involved only briefly with either. As the 1970s began he was, resolutely, a private citizen who sometimes – but not too often – wrote songs.
Even at fame’s apex he had not created many truly big hits, as these things are measured, not for himself. None of the albums recorded during ‘his’ decade reached number one in his homeland. No chart-topping singles appeared under his name. Often enough the record industry’s shiny gold and platinum certifications would arrive only after years of steady sales. Dylan had acquired vast influence among his contemporaries. He was talked about endlessly by the journalists, academics and self-designated radicals who wanted to bestow significance on pop music. Some people spent a lot of time – a peculiar enough notion – trying to explain him and his work. Too often, however, ‘Bob Dylan’ was a cipher, the blurred face in a piece of monochrome footage deployed just to mark a date.
His ’60s had amounted to three fast, torrid years at the eye of the storm. The rest had been preface and footnotes. Some of the latter had been strange, some private, some important, but their meaning had only begun to become clear when the decade was done. For long stretches, Dylan had simply not been around. Assumptions, myths and guesswork had stood in his stead. In the 1960s, he had compressed time. By the 1970s, as ‘youth culture’ awoke to a hangover and worse, time seemed to stretch ahead of him, demanding to be filled.
There is plenty to be said, of course, about what Dylan had done along the way. He had challenged the folk tradition with his embrace. He had inspired the imitative flattery of a horde of singer-songwriters. He had destroyed the assumptions of Tin Pan Alley and raised the craft of song to the level of literary art. Then he had given the academicians of literature a few problems of definition and assimilation. Dipping out of sight, refusing the assigned roles, he had produced some of his finest work and some of his worst. But still those who treated history as a public-relations exercise for one big idea or another refused to let the 1960s go. When clocks began to tick again, Dylan’s reputation was marooned in time.
His talent, at once undeniable and oddly indefinable, produced a paradox. He inspired a great many people to attempt songwriting, but no one truly followed in his train. You could not trace Dylan’s influence on pop, folk or ‘rock’ in the way you could delineate Louis Armstrong’s profound effect on jazz, or name the borrowed Beatles chord changes in countless pop-type songs. Any number of performers took a crack at mere Dylan imitation, especially in the early days, affecting what they took to be his mannerisms or his diction, settling themselves beneath their harmonica racks and their political assumptions. None survived the inevitable mockery. Dylan, ran the consensus, was not to be copied. Musically, lyrically, there could never be a school of him, or a movement – now there was an obnoxious idea – made in his image. By the time the ’60s were over, when he was eluding all categories, even the person in possession of the name no longer knew quite what to make of ‘Bob Dylan’. But that had been a problem from the start.
How does it feel, as all the best questions begin, to sing the same songs over and over, decade after decade? Dylan’s keenest admirers will tell you that he does no such thing. Those who persist in calling a busy performance schedule his never-ending tour argue that the true and profound meaning of Dylan’s art is to be found on the public stage, in an idea of creative indeterminacy, in songs that are continually reworked, revised and remade. Some advocates of the view go as far as to claim that Dylan’s tours – certain of them, at any rate – will one day stand revealed as his real body of work and as central cultural events of the past half-century. They are comfortable with hyperbole. But these fans find their Dylan in his concerts, in hundreds of bootleg recordings drawn from hundreds of shows, in a precise definition of performance art and in the idea of creativity eternally in flux.
The songs of this Dylan are forever provisional. They never end. They will only conclude, in some manner, when he is no longer around.
It’s a seductive notion, a grand theory, and the perfect excuse for evasions and omissions. It keeps the game of interpretation alive, year upon year. What could be said about a cunning, complex song such as ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, first heard on the 1975 album
Blood on the Tracks
? That would depend on the version under discussion and there are lots of those available to the patient fan. Verses of the song have come and gone down the years. Pronouns have been switched around. Tantalising changes of emphasis have been effected. Dylan’s angle of attack, emotional, verbal and musical, has altered. And the song itself – if it even remains a singular entity – was/is constructed around the nature of time and identity.
Cultural and literary theory of the modern sort opens its jaws and swallows these hors d’oeuvres whole. They are perfect for the times. For Dylan, meanwhile, they provide the solution to another familiar problem. The youngster who once railed against even the idea of interpretation is now the old man whose songs, it sometimes seems, can mean just about anything. Or rather, they can mean something to every variety of someone. There is a critique and a critical school – literary, linguistic, musicological, philosophical, theological, historical, sociological – for every occasion. The priestly sects, academic and amateur, come hurrying over the fields in their droves to pronounce on the words that fall from Dylan’s mouth. And if those words are not always exactly, demonstrably his own – this era’s fan obsession – so much the better. There is a
to be said about intertextuality, originality, plagiarism, tradition, allusion, inspiration, codes, ciphers and the collapse of authorial hierarchies. Anyone who simply likes to listen to a Dylan song now and then is therefore missing the point, or so he or she is liable to be told. In the twenty-first century, Dylan offers limitless scope for the never-ending
Still, if it’s Monday night, 19 November 2012, it must be Philadelphia. At the Wells Fargo Center, a sports and entertainment complex renamed to mark a banking group’s escape from the great financial crash, Dylan offers that same ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ as his fourth number of the evening. According to his own
, this means the song has been performed on 1,273 occasions. That’s a lot more creative flux and rewriting, you might think, than one defenceless poem can easily stand. The truth is that while Dylan never exactly repeats himself in performance, that while he has tinkered often enough with words and arrangements, he does not do so nightly, or monthly, or yearly. Arguably, his shows have not changed to any significant degree in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, by 2012’s end he will have heard himself deliver a version of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ 1,275 times. To what purpose?
It’s a living, certainly, and a pretty good one. In 2012, it would have cost you close to $300,000, reportedly, just to secure Dylan for your festival. He can still sell $600,000 worth of tickets while filling an amphitheatre in Berkeley, California.
Self-evidently, his performances meet a demand from audiences no longer greatly interested in music albums for their own sake. Putting on a show is simply what he does, having found no better, lasting alternative over the years. It’s something, consequently, over which he believes he exercises no real choice: ‘the road’, in Dylan’s accounting, is where he mostly exists. It means he is better travelled than almost anyone now living. The view from a tour bus isn’t perfect, but this artist knows his America far better than most. When the chance arises and the mood takes him he walks around, big towns and small, exploring the heartland. He has seen a lot of changes, seen things appear and disappear, and seen what time can do. That might be relevant to ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, the well-travelled song of departures and arrivals.