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I only wanted to read one book on Bob Dylan - and felt like I chose the wrong one
on 27 August 2014
Author Robert Shelton is sometimes described as a Bob Dylan insider, given that he was a critic who "discovered" and befriended Dylan back in the early 1960s. Therefore, this biography could perhaps be described as semi-official, semi-authorised. The more relevant question is that given the author was a personal friend of Dylan and that Dylan was interviewed for this book, does No Direction Home have sufficient objectivity - or at least, does Shelton manage to maintain distance and his critical faculties? The answer, in short, is a resounding no.
Having long been an admirer of Bob Dylan's work but never having read anything substantial on the man, I thought that this book would be a great place to begin, given the wealth of material on the subject. No Direction Home seemed fairly comprehensive and certainly Shelton has done his work, interviewing many people throughout Dylan's life and varied career. The disappointing thing about this book is that Shelton is too sympathetic to offer up any real criticism of his subject and consequently, this book veers in to hagiographical territory. Sure, you can cherry-pick the very occasional sentence in which Shelton offers the mildest of rebukes but on the whole, this book is relentlessly fulsome in its continual praise.
No Direction Home is subtitled, "The Life & Music of Bob Dylan" but Shelton is very selective on what facets of Dylan's life he reveals: like many of his contemporaries, Dylan had some involvement with illegal drugs. You wouldn't know it from reading this; you'd leave it thinking that Dylan likes a beer and the occasional glass of wine but otherwise he is a model of sobriety. Then there is Dylan's divorce: Shelton writes one sentence on "who slapped who" and then rhetorically asks if it is really important? If Bob Dylan physically assaulted his wife then I'd say yes, it is important. What of Dylan's fellow musicians: the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison are not mentioned, Elvis Presley's death gets a few sentences, as does the murder of John Lennon. Are we then to believe that these events were not particularly relevant or impactful to Dylan's life?
Ultimately, author Robert Shelton has no faith in his audience's ability to make judgements for themselves: we get page after embarrassing page attempting to convince us that Bob Dylan is a poet. Perhaps this "debate" was interesting back in the 1960s but from today's vantage point, surely we can decide for ourselves? Then there's Shelton's interpretation of Dylan's music. He does a great job in giving us the critical response of the time but then gives us far too much depth of his own judgement - the tarot card-based analysis of Desire is one of the worst examples of a writer going off the deep end with no benefit of a disciplined editor to rein him in.
As mentioned above, Shelton has interviewed many people for this book and certainly paints an interesting portrait of Bob Dylan and some of the musicians that were around him at the time, as well as the hangers-on (the making of Dylan's film, Renaldo and Clara, with the painfully embarrassing Allen Ginsberg, is particularly exasperating to read). However, No Direction Home is sorely in need of better editing. It has a broad chronological sweep but within each chapter, the time frame jumps around so much that sometimes it is a struggle to determine which decade we are meant to be in.
Robert Shelton wrote for the New York Times, so I have difficulty in believing that he is actually such a disorganised writer (the continuous inserting of Dylan lyrics and song titles in to the text is particularly clumsy). I can only assume that his enthusiasm for the subject has gotten the better of him and in writing such an in-depth book, he has lost sight, or at least perspective, of his subject. Ultimately, despite my huge admiration for the music of Bob Dylan and the appreciation of the lengths Shelton went in interviewing so many people, this book was ultimately unsatisfying.
Please note that this review pertains to the hardback, first edition, released in 1986.