Bob Dylan is that very rare thing, a completely genuine charlatan. He is defined by a peculiar kind of knowingness. He knows; we know he knows; he knows we know he knows. He always knows a little more than us, and specifically, he knows where he’s going next. The other thing that defines him is movement. He may not have started out as an authentic hobo, like the old bluesmen were supposed to be, like his twitching mentor Woody Guthrie, but he has been one ever since.
I’ve used that opening line before, an attempt to pin down another reclusive Mid-West minstrel, another ‘avant-garde conservative’. I argued that Scott Walker was a late example of the trubar clus, the small group of Occitan troubadours who instead of singing out their loves and loyalties, camouflaged them in obscurities and enigmatic inventions. It works for Walker. It works to a surprising degree for Dylan as well. The phrase, though not the argument, is stolen. It’s something that Isaiah Berlin allegedly said of an approaching colleague, allegedly George Steiner. This works for Dylan, too. The sombre sage of ‘liberty’ meets the extraterritorial quick-change artist. Bob could probably whip up a song out of that. He’s tried, over the years, pretty much every style of modern music, except jazz. There’s an interesting question right there. Why, when he has attempted rock and roll, folk, blues, bluegrass, swingbeat, Appalachian, Southern, South-Western styles, and why when he’s constantly presented as the polymorphously perverse Trickster of Americana, has he never attempted what most critics even now like to claim as the one unambiguously American form. The answer? Too much freedom, maybe. Or too many rules.
The Berlin line is stolen. Dylan also steals. The shorthand version is that his thefts, rather than mere borrowings, are the proof of his ‘genius’. He takes from the old bluesmen, from Woody Guthrie, from the border ballads – ‘Where have you been, my blue-eyed son?’ – from Jacques Prevert and Francois Villon, from Rimbaud. He took a Hank Snow lyric and passed it off as his own poem. Former friends will say he stole stuff from them as well. Most of his thefts inevitably involve some misreading or naïve misunderstanding. It’s thought that distinctive nasal (non-)singing voice, which is as different to the speaking voice as Michael Jackson’s was, or as fellow-Minnesotan Prince’s is, was borrowed from Woody Guthrie when Dylan mistook, as others did, Woody’s Huntington’s croak and quaver for the ‘authentic’ sound of the country blues. Dylan not only steals, but colonises his surroundings with an almost autistic, or regal, intensity, and in doing so he seems to clinch the charlatanry, that inside the carefully arranged rags and tatters – the emerging Dylan used to spend hours in front of a mirror, making sure he was just raggedy enough – there is nothing real, that the persona of ‘Bob Dylan’ is a shell, that he really is, in the words of a recent film in which he was played by a woman, a black boy, etc, ‘not there’. His own film Renaldo & Clara played around sophomorically with masks and displaced identities, but played around with them so determinedly and for so long the sophomoric element melted into a bleak grandness that proposed at the very end that we will not know Bob Dylan until the masks are off, until right at the end, when he’s laid out flat with just his guitar, singing a song. Or is that another put-on?
‘Bob Dylan’ is the most outsize and enigmatic fictional creation in American culture since Moby-Dick. (That line is also pinched; Al Alvarez said it of Norman Mailer.) He is unreadable and unreachable. He may be in the grip of a psychopathy so profound he really has virtually no sense of self or home – try for a moment to imagine Dylan snapped candidly in a domestic situation: it’s almost impossible – or it may just be that he is the only American, apart possibly from Thomas Pynchon, who has found the answer to the problem of fame. Are drugs an issue? There are moments when the amphetamine gypsy predominates (everyone gets to invent one two-word tag for Dylan, something that might generate a study: Amphetamine Gypsy: The Pharmacology of Bob Dylan) and there are moments when either hallucinogens or narcotics are suspected, but these play a very small – weirdly small – role in the bibliography. His past is a black hole, represented by the vast pit left behind by the ore workings in the Iron Range that provided the only significant labour in Hibbing, Minnesota, but it is also a carefully/lessly inscribed palimpsest of legends, contradictory versions, repeated half-truths and factoids, putatively ‘autobiographical’ poems, or what Robert Lowell called half-poems crutched with a guitar. Lowell may not have met Dylan when he said it, but couldn’t have missed him on the radio or in the paper may have been aware that Dylan had taken a few classes at the University of Minnesota with John Berryman who had briefly been, in the strangely competitive world of American letters, ‘number one’.
The branch-line of Dylan studies (his literary seriousness, pace Lowell, who is both wrong and right with his assessment, was confirmed when he was touted for a Nobel Prize) is very similar to Pynchon studies in the 80s, an oddly airless and paranoid place, in the strict sense of paranoid that means a need for connectedness. I opened Once Upon A Time prepared - or possibly determined - to hate it. Another guidebook to the Never-Ending Tour. What virtue in another ghost-busting episode, another shuffle of the pack, another ID parade of influences and muses, another series of loyalty tests that would reveal nothing more than that the ‘real’ Bob Dylan isn’t vouchsafed to us, either in song or in person? And for a moment I really did dislike it. It seemed easily as long as Renaldo & Clara, and with just a touch of free-associatin’, talkin’-cure, Tarantula prose. But then, ten pages in, Ian Bell wrote down ‘adrenalised contempt’, and I was hooked and on board. The tone is properly sardonic. There’s no whiff of the lecture room, as there was in Aidan Day’s Jokerman, the last Dylan book of Scottish provenance that I can recall. There’s certainly more reference to the Scottish provenance of the songs. And there is more than usual merit in the way Bell hunts down his prey, a smiling, two-legged Captain Ahab.
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On May 17 1966 (the day after Blonde on Blonde was released in the US) a young man called John Cordwell shouted ‘Judas’ at Dylan during a concert in Manchester when Dylan unveiled his ‘new’ electric sound to British audiences. It was significant that it was British audiences that protested against the amplified Dylan, rather than back home where there seems to have been less dogmatic tribalism attached to the new folk movement that Dylan had very largely represented, in the public mind, at least. Not the least reason to suspect the opening pages of Once Upon A Time is that Bell should have fixed on this strange, ambiguous moment for his opening tableau. It’s well-trodden territory. Some will tell you that the protests against Dylan had been orchestrated by the British left and that ‘Judas’ was meant to suggest Bob had forgotten the proletarian origins of his music and ‘sold out’ to commercialism. The consensus view has Cordwell (I don’t think Bell names him, but I may be mistaken) was protesting against Dylan’s use of electric instruments. The late Ian MacDonald and more recently Rob Young have pointed out that Cordwell was a folk singer himself and was objecting not so much to Dylan’s new repertoire as to the loud, snashy noise that accompanied it, an electric stew that in MacDonald’s version broke a long-standing contract between performer and audience. Oddly, Bell has MacDonald’s Beatles study Revolution in the Head in his bibliography but not The People’s Music. He doesn’t mention Young’s essential Electric Eden, either. Nor do any of them make much of the irony of these events taking place in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. The original bootlegs were wrongly provenanced to the Albert Hall, which suggests a more obvious imperial scenario. ‘Free Trade’ is delightfully suggestive. The cultural balance-of-trade between New World and Old is part of the Dylan story. So is cultural protectionism. So are the vectors of corn and cotton, iron and coal. There is a long-standing issue about who ‘owns’ this music. It has been levelled at everyone from Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin to Moby. Dylan simply put his name to and copyrighted what he wanted to make his own. In doing so, he found himself defined by other men’s lives. Owned in turn, if you will.
Though never a confident handler of hecklers Dylan responded to the shout. ‘I don’t believe you … You’re a liar’. Then someone says – and there is a suggestion it was a roadie rather than Dylan himself – ‘Play it fucking loud’, and they’re off into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and a new era in popular music. His spoken words were a strangely lame introduction to the epoch and the performance itself is lacking in production values. The mismatch has always allowed us to speculate what Cordwell (who wasn’t interviewed about this for a long time) might have meant, what ‘Judas’ stood for in the overall narrative of Dylan’s life. Did it have the anti-semitic resonance of ‘Christ killer’? Or did it make reference to Dylan’s having turned away from his own Jewish roots? In the first case, it makes an irony of Dylan’s later, apparently unexpected Christianity, and the two born-again albums Slow Train Coming (wonderful) and Saved (not). In the second, it serves as a reminder that somewhere behind ‘Bob Dylan’ was Rob-ert Allen Zimmerman and somewhere in the psychic hinterland of Robert Zimmer-man was Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, his bar mitzvah name. Perhaps like Norman Mailer, who spent a lifetime trying to get away from the ‘nice Jewish boy from Brook-lyn’ tag, Dylan’s career has been little more than a complicated escape from the internment of cultural inheritance, a ghetto of expectation. Or perhaps he’s more similar to Leonard Cohen, who owns property in Judaism, Catholicism and Zen Buddhism, and has even adopted monastic robes in the last of these. Dylan says he has ‘never felt Jewish’, but then Dylan plays interviewers better than he plays guitar and capable of playing a motorcycle crash (was it ‘near fatal’ or was it ‘minor’? accounts still vary) as a version of death-and-resurrection.
There’s another legend here. He started out playing rock and roll on piano. There was a Gulbransen spinet at home. Then he got an electric guitar. Only then did he unplug and start to play ‘acoustic’. It’s hard to remember now that everyone, the business included, thought rock was dead by 1959. Dylan’s adoption of folk music wasn’t an expression of the Steinbeck/Beat lifestyle to which he laid claim. It was simply where the energies were. Whether he was ‘discovered’ by John Hammond II or created by him is now hard to judge. Bell dwells long on the relationship and the strange artefact that put Bob Dylan (artist and title) on black vinyl and square packaging for the first time. It’s pretty clear, as Bell says, that ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ wouldn’t have been a hit, and certainly not a world-striding, universally adopted hit, at almost any other time in American history. It is a slight song, but it is in its way no slighter than the much darker song ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ that bookended the second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. They are claimed to be the words of a man facing the apocalypse. They are unmistakably lines lifted pretty much at random from a notebook, applied to a borrowed tune, as most of them were, and then assigned massive, disproportionate cultural value some way after the fact.
The other key to Dylan is longevity. He has been with us for most of our lives. Every generalisation and contradiction now moves backward and forward in time. We’re at the stage of post-post-post-revisionism. We might just as easily be dealing with four or five artists, instead of one. There’s nothing unusual in this. Paul McCartney made avantgarde music as ‘Percy Thrillington’. Prince went out pitch-shifted as ‘Camille’. But with Dylan, the imposture is the reality. Which makes a task like Bell’s impossible by definition. There are quibbles, or perhaps one big quibble that embraces them all. If Dylan set out in emulation of the Industrial Workers of the World, Once Upon A Time has all the marks of World Wide Web. The internet became the perfect vehicle for Dylan studies, with deep analysis of every line, every named location, every putative source. It is also a place that offers rapid and random assemblages of cultural data and from them any number of false teleologies. If ‘context’ is everything, most context is by definition retrospective. Bell’s too subtle a writer and too fastidious a researcher to rely even on those internet sites he warmly acknowledges in his text, but I would have trusted him to write a much shorter book on Bob Dylan and deliver just as much of the brilliance, pain, snarling joy, ‘adrenalised contempt’, old rags and emperor’s new clothes. Even as it bulkily stands, it’s the best reworking you’ll ever find of the cliché that Dylan is not one but legion, and that he comes perilously close, as we must have to say at the bottom of our allotted length, to being not a ‘latter-day Rimbaud’ or ditto Keats, but definitely and definitively a genius.
ONCE UPON A TIME
MAINSTREAM, £20, ISBN: 97817805757735