Tangled up in the myth of Dylan
Age hasn’t withered Dylan. He was always running towards it, arms open wide.
This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Rock stars don’t get old and grey. Yet on 24 May, Bob Dylan turns 80. If this birthday comes as a shock to Dylan’s fans, there is good reason to think the man himself will be only slyly amused by it. Like Orson Welles, whose rococo visuals are echoed in the fractured nonsense of Dylan’s best lyrics, Dylan has always enjoyed playing older than he is. He’s wrinkly by disposition, not default. Even at 20, when he was just starting out as a phoney folkie, he sounded grizzled and raddled. Age hasn’t withered him because he was always running towards it, arms open wide.
There’s no gainsaying, though, that custom has staled his less than infinite variety. Dylan’s albums of the past twenty years have all sounded worryingly samey — gently buzzing dirges spiced with rogue guitar twangs. Not that the sameness worries Dylan’s worshippers. Like teenagers swooning over a pop idol they applaud him unquestioningly. He can do no wrong. Dylan is their Messiah, their visionary, their philosopher king. Despite his regularly reminding them that “the answer is blowin’ in the wind”, they insist on believing that the answer is blowing from his lips.
Dylan’s lyrics are what the fans obsess over. A pop lover and Sinatra aficionado, Dylan has long styled himself “a song and dance man”. But the Dylanolaters, who are out in force for their man’s eightieth, go on telling themselves he’s a poet first and always. Here, for instance, is The Chameleon Poet in which the late John Bauldie, an English teacher turned rock journalist, descants on the treatment of “the dilemma of the individual and some of the problems inherent in their relationship to the world in which they find themselves” in the Dylan oeuvre. It’s “The Mighty Quinn” meets The Great Tradition.
Bauldie’s basic tactic is to take a Dylan lyric and then quote something on a similar theme from Shakespeare to suggest by elision that because Bob and the Bard are writing about the same thing, Bob and the Bard are on the same level. You might think you’re listening to a rock song. You’re really listening to a musical variant on King Lear or Macbeth. Not that Shakespeare is Bauldie’s only reference point. That moment when the narrator of “Tangled Up in Blue” “stop[s] in for a beer” owes “perhaps more than a little,” says Bauldie, “to Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf” in which the hero also goes to a bar for a drink.
If such cap-doffing analogies sound old hat — incidentally, Bauldie also finds room to mention that old fraud Carl Jung — then you should know that The Chameleon Poet was written more than forty years ago. But even if the book had been published then it would have looked dated. By the late ’70s structuralism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction were ruling the literary roost, leaving Leavisian liberal humanism looking like fuddy-duddy fustian.
John Updike said Dylan “had a voice you could scour a skillet with”, but Dylan wasn’t being silly when he said he was just as good a singer as Caruso
But the bigger problem with Bauldie’s approach is that no song — whether folk, rock, Gershwin or Porter — is all that susceptible to the lit-crit approach. Songs aren’t poetry. They aren’t meant to be read. They’re meant to be heard. Songs have tunes and harmonies and vocals, and their lyric is just one component in an overall arrangement. The Chameleon Poet is subtitled Bob Dylan’s Search for Self, but why not take Dylan at his word and accept that what he’s been searching for these past six decades isn’t his soul but his sound – what he calls the “thin … wild mercury sound” he hears in his head but only rarely comes close to recreating in the studio?
A vital part of that sound is Dylan’s voice — at once corvine and quacking, and one of the most potent instruments in the history of music. John Updike wasn’t wrong when he said Dylan had “a voice you could scour a skillet with”, but that doesn’t mean Dylan was being silly when he told a reporter from Time magazine that “I’m just as good a singer as Caruso”.
Dylan’s voice is the putative subject of Paul Morley’s You Lose Yourself You Reappear. Putative because the actual subject of all Morley’s books is Morley’s book. Morley who a few years ago knocked up a 500 page opus on David Bowie in ten weeks flat doesn’t so much write prose as discharge it.
He made his name on the NME in the late seventies by shoehorning references to Barthes and Foucault into pieces on The Who and Grace Jones. Here he works references to Derrida and Marx into a series of overwrought ramblings on the sounds Dylan makes with his tongue and throat. Occasionally an insight fights its way out. Morley is quite right, for instance, to say that the relentless jabber that is hip hop has its roots in Dylan’s syllable-crammed lines. But to come upon such nuggets you have to wade through what one Dylan song calls “Too Much of Nothing”.
Too much already is one’s immediate response to The Double Life of Bob Dylan — fully the eleventh book Clinton Heylin has written on Dylan. Indeed, Heylin’s earlier biography of Dylan, Behind the Shades, has gone through three editions. What more can he possibly have to say? Given that he is the first writer to make use of the personal archive Dylan sold to the George Kaiser Foundation in Oklahoma a few years back, quite a lot. Though his latest research doesn’t change the broad shape of the Dylan story, it does subtly alter the lines of approach.
I, for one, was thrilled to learn that Dylan once played ping-pong with Henry Miller backstage at the Hollywood bowl. And I’m still giggling over Dylan’s exchange with the producer John Hammond as they worked on Dylan’s first record. After a few days in the studio, Hammond wondered whether Dylan couldn’t perhaps try “a few different chord changes, ’cause [on every song] you’re using the exact same chord changes”. Dylan shrugged, said “Yeah, they’re the ones I use,” and carried on strumming.
Thanks to Heylin we also know that Dylan’s stories of his Huck Finn-style origins are baloney. He wasn’t brought up by foster parents, didn’t do time in reform school, and far from running away at the age of 12 he never ran away at all. The fact is that Dylan grew up comfortably middle-class in Hibbing, Minnesota.
Nor is Dylan’s account of his time in college to be trusted. Yes, he did drop out of Minneapolis’s University of Minnesota after a single year. But he was far from being the solitary rebel visionary — part Baudelaire, part Bogart, part Brando — he’d have you believe. The truth is, says Heylin, who has fine-tooth-combed the college records, the campus was bursting with Dylan’s friends and family.
Still, though it is good of Heylin to set the record straight on Dylan’s reveries, he would have written a better book were he not so dismissive of anyone else who has dared venture on to what he regards as his terrain. To be sure, Howard Sounes’s Down the Highway, a tittle-tattling tabloid-style life first published twenty years ago and now updated with a few pages on how Covid put a stop to Dylan’s endless touring, deserves the kicking.
But Heylin’s dismissal of the late Ian Bell’s two-volume Dylan biography (Once Upon a Time and Time out of Mind) as “pseudo-historical” is puerile whataboutery. Bell mightn’t have done any original research, but by synthesising the work of his predecessors into a stylised yet critical dramatic narrative, he gave Dylan his most sympathetic and persuasive life yet.
Heylin looks still sillier when he hauls Dylan himself over the coals for playing fast and loose with his story in his memoir, Chronicles. Dylan once said that he’d learned as much about songwriting from Paul Cezanne as he had from Woody Guthrie. Well, he goes full-on Cubist in Chronicles, tumbling and tangling time and memory in a Woolf-like whorl that comes far closer to lived experience than the standard-issue historical biography allows.
And anyway, Dylan has never enjoyed being what his song calls a “Wanted Man”. If he tells tall tales it’s only to keep his more deranged fans off the scent.
Then again, even those of us with a level head find it hard to keep up with him. Anyone who has seen Dylan live recently can testify that he’s not doing bad for a man his age. He’s trim and spry, and while he’s a little clumsy on his feet (does he play piano as much as guitar these days to hold himself up?) he hasn’t slowed down overmuch. That thin wild mercury sound is doing all right by him. Even today, on the cusp of his ninth decade, Dylan is still outrunning the pack.
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