We are amazed because we assumed these things would never happen. Rock’s furnace surely burnt too brightly: the flames of the monster consumed its young with too frightening a frequency. Survival actually seemed an unlikely option. Planes fell from the air, cars hurtled off roads, drink and worse defeated the would-be gods who take on the challenge of pop immortality. And when the ravages of accident or intoxication or self-immolation were averted, assassination, fanaticide even, lurked around the next corner.
Yet Bob Dylan has resisted the fatal demons that came to haunt so many of his contemporaries. On 24 May 2001, that giant of the Sixties reaches 60 himself. How easily though, rock’s grim reaper, so regular a visitor to these parts, may have knocked on his door. The excesses of 1965-66 existential experimenting in the cocktail cabinet of illumination culminating in a motorbike smash could have comfortably have seen Dylan join the pantheon of the deceased. A different scenario, as lethal bullets felled two Kennedys, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, might even have seen the political Dylan brought down in his prime, too.
But his constitution triumphed over his indulgences and his motorpsycho nightmares. And his instincts guided him away from the potential dangers of the campaigning soapbox before the racists or the warmongers had a chance to pin the star of death on his frayed lapel.
The weekend before Dylan’s milestone, writers, academics, and fans gathered in England’s pop capital to cast a nod in Bob’s direction. The conference wasn’t strictly about his 60th birthday, it wasn’t strictly about Dylan. But his presence hung heavy over the third Robert Shelton Memorial Day staged, as ever, in Liverpool.
Robert Shelton was the American critic who played a central role in propelling Dylan from cult Village troubadour to generational spokesman, a mantle he has generally resisted but has found difficult to cast off. It was he, in September 1961, who penned the review for the New York Times that would elevate this Minnesotan minstrel above the hootenanny hubbub of Soho’s MacDougall Street and Greenwich Village’s Bleecker Street.
“Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik,” reads the article, “Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy hat”. It was a potent, prescient piece by an astute reader of the moment. “His music-making,” Shelton went on, “has the mask of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where if he is going, and that would seem straight up”.
Such insights would resonate quite quickly and entangle Shelton in the social circles of Joan Baez, Albert Grossman, Richard Farina, and others, with the singer who, within a couple of years, would step from the shadows of peer worship into the brilliant and blinding light of global adulation.
Shelton, who was also involved with the seminal folk journal Broadside and wrote the sleeve notes for the first album Bob Dylan (1962), would go on to write perhaps the finest biographical account of the performer. No Direction Home (1986) is a dense, intelligent account of a chameleon artist he certainly revered, a literate analysis of a life set against the canvas of its turbulent and thrilling times.
When he died, prematurely in 1995, Shelton’s archived notes, letters, and collections were entrusted to the Institute of Popular Music, attached to Liverpool University, where they remain as a key source for researchers in Dylanology. The annual conference, which celebrates Shelton’s achievement, focuses on the themes that concerned the writer Dylan, quite plainly, but folk music in the wider sense, and popular music journalism in all its shades.
It is an event that draws some important bit players in the drama that still unfolds around Dylan, almost 40 years since Shelton’s write-up. In attendance this year is critic Michael Gray, maybe the first commentator to apply a Leavis-like literary critique to the singer’s verse, who has recently updated his magnum opus Song and Dance Man (1972), a half-million-word trawl through the back pages. Musician and critic, C.P. Lee, author of Like the Night (1979) –which utilises the 1966 “Judas” gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall as its fulcrum — is also present. So is a new voice of Dylanania, David Hajdu, whose recently published Positively 4th Street (2001) has thrown fresh light on the early days.
Gray speaks about a commission he received from Oz magazine to write about Dylan around 1967. They wanted someone to dissect the phenomenon for their underground readership but were appalled when Gray returned with an erudite lit crit essay on the imagery and metaphor of the singer’s oeuvre. Oz had been seeking a wild and weird eulogy to Bob; they got instead a serious and lucid reading of a singer sitting on the apex of a crumbling wall that divided high and pop culture. The magazine published it all the same and, like most of what they ran, it’s orange text on dayglo green paper, swirls of psychedelic illustration swallowing paragraphs embroidered by baroque lettering it virtually indecipherable. Dylan would have enjoyed the irony.
Around 1990, Gray revealed, he had been in New York pursuing research on Song and Dance Man. He’d clambered into a cab and got chatting to the driver. “I’m doing some work on Bob Dylan,” the writer said. “Oooh, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,” said the cabbie, nostalgically, somewhat fondly. “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,” said Gray frustratedly, “don’t you know he’s done 25 years of work since then?” “Haven’t we all,” said the driver. Dylan would have enjoyed that one, too.
C.P.Lee offers some interesting forays into Dylan, the press conference prima donna, who spent the mid-Sixties subverting the very idea of the media call. Obscure, perverse, unhelpful, he turned these encounters into a piece of Brechtian shadow play: wired, nervous, alienated, from the glare of flashbulbs, unsettled by the inanity of the questions, Dylan spun surreal wisecracks as he responded to the interrogation of the collar-and-tie scribes. “How many protest singers would you say there were?”, asks one, intensely, in LA in 1965. Dylan sits anxiously but apparently deep in thought, mentally calculating. “136,” he eventually deadpans back.
David Hajdu‘s book, Positively Fourth Street (2001), just out, goes back to the start of the ’60s when Dylan and Baez, dubbed the king and queen of folk, welcomed another couple, courtiers but would-be aristocrats of the scene, into their orbit. Richard Farina, author and songwriter, had married Baez’s folk singing sister Mimi, and the foursome becomes the focus of this particular tale.
It touches upon some interesting terrain the overlapping relationship of popular music and literature (Dylan and Farina both breached the dividing line, of course) and raises thoughts about the fascinating limbo that exists between those other binary relationships dignified old age and eternal youth, mainstream celebrity and the recognition of the academy, the acclaim of peers and the idolatry of fandom, fame, and respect. It is questionable whether Bob Dylan or Robert Zimmerman or Blind Boy Grunt ever wanted fame at all. Perhaps he didn’t care much about respect, either. In contrast, Farina was a personable, expansive individual who sought and easily claimed attention. Tragically and inadvertently, he actually lived out the rock ‘n’ roll myth.
Heading back from the publication party for his novel Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up to Me in 1966, the writer was killed in a motorcycle accident. Farina, ironically, remains forever young, while Dylan, within a hair’s breadth of such destiny, is now closer to Old Father Time. Yet there remains a vigour in the way he lives his senior years: on the road endlessly, still restlessly creative, replicating the picaresque course of his own great heroes, Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, two figures he has long outlasted.
Four decades ago, Shelton seemed to spot a rare maturity in the 20-year-old he was encountering for the first time. In 2001, we can perhaps still discern the youthful in the older man, lurking behind a face worn by the years, by the strain, by the effort of being the reluctant standard-bearer for his era. In the midst of that, he retains a mercurial, playful streak. Some say he is performing better, seems more relaxed with the world that characterised his pre-Civil Rights incarnation, which only rarely re-emerged in the years that followed.
The cherubic face has gone, the Huck Finn cap’s long hung up, but the tousled hair and life behind the eyes remain.