Ian Bell explores Dylan's unparalleled second act in a quintessentially American career. It's a tale of redemption, of an act of creative will against the odds, and of a writer who refused to fade away.
Excerpted from Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell. Copyright © 2014 by Ian Bell. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
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 Dylan was still being badgered by an interviewer from Rolling Stone magazine for his reflections on ‘his’ decade, the one with which he was ‘so identified’.
Dylan granted he had been there, 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 Self Portrait. 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 one 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 age, 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 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. Tantalizing 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 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 tour d’horizon.
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 bobdylan.com, 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 defenseless 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 $660,000 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.
Just before Philadelphia, Rolling Stone has published its interview. In the piece, Dylan notes that he ‘saw and felt a lot of things in the Fifties, which generates me to this day. It’s sort of who I am.’ But those times, the people, places, ideas and beliefs they contained, are long gone. The ‘60s, the era dominated culturally by a music industry that took transience and novelty for granted, wiped them out. Bob Dylan wiped them out. The songs made by the youth who emerged from the late 1950s continue, however. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, the kid’s first calling card, closes the Philadelphia show. That’s performance number 1,145.
What kind of charge can the song still contain? Even the younger members of Dylan’s audience, their perception fresh, are unlikely to be hearing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ for the first time. Its alluring melody might still provoke an emotional reaction. The singer’s ability to wring the sense of a contemporary meaning form words that are half a century old might still be arresting. The contrast between the verses of youth and the septuagenarian’s gnarled, attrited vocals is, for some of us, invariably affecting. But in this, time is no illusion. It has done its work on Dylan, his songs, and on how those songs are heard. He has played Philadelphia 30-odd times in his career. In 2012, there’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1,777 performances), ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ (1,057), ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (2,006) and, perennially, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (2,101). The roughest arithmetic tells you that many millions of people have experienced these songs in concert halls and arenas. To those for whom it matters most, the entrancing novelty of 2012’s show in Philadelphia is the chance to hear 1964’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ receive only its 54th public performance, if bobdylan.com’s busy researchers are right.
But what, as they say, is that all about? Dylan resists the legend of the never-ending tour fiercely. Something about the idea seems to offend him. In the Rolling Stone interview, but not for the first time, he asks rhetorical questions of those who wonder over his attachment to the life of the itinerant performer. ‘Is there something strange about touring?’ he asks Mikal Gilmore, his interviewer. ‘About playing live shows? If there is, tell me what it is. Willie [Nelson]’s been playing them for years, and nobody ever asks him why he still tours.’
It’s a fair point. But if the giving of concerts is just one of those quotidian things, why does Dylan’s faithful website transcribe the set list for each and every show, or track the public performances of each and every song all the way back to 1960 and the Purple Onion pizza joint in St Paul, Minnesota, where the 19-year-old Dylan picked up a pitifully few dollars a night singing the likes of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Sinner Man’? That kind of detail, that extreme attention to the minutiae of an existence, appeals most to those who keep alive the disputed myth of an Odyssean tour-without-end. Some of the fans have near-metaphysical notions about Dylan’s activities, yet he—or whoever acts in his name—is both dismissive and complicit.
Anyone who has ever written so much as a postcard has to pay attention, at some point, to the person who did the writing. Who was she? What was he thinking? The poet who inters his earliest verse in the file marked ‘juvenilia’ also inters his younger self. Yet Dylan, in his 70s, elects to confront the words of a 20-something nightly. In some fashion he contends with time itself and leaves you to wonder what the songs still mean to him, if they can still mean anything. He says this to Mikal Gilmore: ‘A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all.’ He engenders feelings, in other words, but is—the old, alleged virtue of the allegedly authentic folk stylist—impersonal. Can that be true?
The music business can offer at least ten comebacks for every penny. Most draw their inspiration from the creative agency of accountants, from managers sniffing a moment ripe for nostalgia or from the chance to exploit another greatest-hits package. Only rarely do performers renew themselves. Writers, equally, are reluctant to be reborn in late middle age. Lazarus never did explain how the trick was done. Nevertheless, Shelton covered his bets well enough. The late poetry of W.B. Yeats might certainly count as one parallel with Dylan in his second coming; all those old or ageing blues players who were ‘rediscovered’ in his youth could stand as another set of precedents. Equally, you could dismiss all such comparisons. When Dylan rose again, he did it on his own terms.
Among his contemporaries there is a short list of those who have simply ploughed on—Neil Young, Paul McCartney, the egregiously avid Stones—and a vastly long list of the faded and fallen. His case was different. Beginning with his initial work on Time Out of Mind in 1996, and pressing on to Tempest in 2012, he forged another of those 16-year careers, became still another ‘Bob Dylan’, and vindicated himself. Critics fell into the habit of exhuming and adapting a famous line form Minnesota’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and his unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941). As it turned out, there was a second act in at least one American life.
In these pages it will be argued, among other things, that in the process Dylan created a body of work—less sumptuous, less startling, less intoxicating—to match any of the products of his 1960s. He did it, moreover, while contending with everything, the whole accreted mean. He did it while contending with age, with the fact of time, and with the burden of memory.
So we look again for the answer to the old, plain and perplexing question: how did he do that?