If you are a fan of Dylan, rock history, or social change this book is a great read. Dylan the man has long been better at telling us about ourselves and our society than at revealing himself - only periodically offering glimpses of who he may be, revelations that he quickly denies. Even his "autobiography volume 1" was more of a collage and a tease than any true chronicle.
With "Who Is That Man..." Dalton has written a masterful book. He places Dylan in the midst of a changing musical scene and a changing society, which he deconstructs to reveal how Dylan connected to underlying elements, primarily in the world of music.
Early in his career, during the folk/protest years, Dylan was characterized as a spokesperson for his generation - a label that he began to deny almost immediately. Far from being an idol, there is sadly a growing collection of biographies that paint an unflattering portrait of Dylan in many ways, revealing a character that seems to be at odds with the idealism and romance of his body of work. For example, although he's not generally associated with wanton drug use - having escaped the fate of Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, and others - Dalton writes that Dylan was a heavy user of speed, and introduced John Lennon to heroin. Dalton tells how Dylan consistently and consciously used others to advance his career, how his personality had a deep and wide cruel streak that he intentionally adopted, and how he was a rival of other hipsters of his day, Warhol, the Beatles, the Stones. This book can be added to that list of unflinching scrutiny as people interviewed by the author take Dylan to task for his associations, his behavior, and his acid pen.
But at the same time none of this detracts from Dalton's admiration of Dylan's brilliance - of Dylan's ability to sniff the air and catch the scent of a moment, a scene, a relationship, and render it with just enough ambiguity such that millions of fans hear him speaking to them personally. Dylan once said that "songs just came to him" - in the sense that they already existed, that they floated through the air, and that he just channeled what was there like a scribe, putting poem-pictures to paper. Dalton does his best to take us into that mind, into how that perspective may have come to Dylan, and succeeds in doing so, to the extent we can ever understand how anyone thinks, let alone a great artist.
Dylan is now 71 years old, and it is unlikely that we'll be seeing anything like a true, traditional autobiography emerge, leaving it to others to decipher his mystery and talent, and to opine about his legacy. Dalton has done an admirable job with this task, producing a book that is artfully written and enjoyable to read, and respectful and admiring of its subject, even if it reveals some uncomfortable truths. In the end, though, it all seems just about right - Dylan has spent his life dissembling, criticizing society, politicians and business people while growing rich from his fans to whom he's often been indifferent. That he too eventually is revealed to the very fanbase that has made him what he is seems like fitting subject matter for a Dylan song, one that is perhaps already floating through the air, a song in which Dylan tears into his biographer, and if you listen closely perhaps you can hear Dylan trying it out, his sharp nasal rasp flinging out the words...