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Sophisticated study of Dylan's multiple personalities
on 9 September 2013
For anyone writing the life, or rather, The Lives of Bob Dylan, the beginning is terrific. Great songs, brilliant albums, big historical moments (which Dylan has a tangential relationship to) appear on almost every page. Volume One of Ian Bell's study of Dylan began when he arrived out of nowhere in Greenwich Village in 1961 and then unleashed a series of revolutions in popular music. It ended 14 years later with the triumph of Blood On The Tracks.
Volume Two covers the next 38 years and they aren't filled with fun. Dylan makes dreadful albums. He makes mean-spirited and incomprehensible remarks at important public events, such as Live Aid. He tours endlessly, as if on a treadmill he cannot get off. More perplexingly, Dylan makes great albums and then nearly destroys them, as if uncertain what to make of his own gifts. So Bell's second volume not only ploughs its way through Down In The Groove and Knocked Out Loaded. It also tries to come to terms with the way Dylan almost wrecked Infidels by withholding the genius of Blind Willie McTell and, instead, inflicting on us the dreadful Neighbourhood Bully. (Even Bob's Israeli fans were dismayed, writes Bell.)
Bell doesn't come across as a fan of the musicians Bob consorts with. He tell us Santana are "a band so dull they seem to make an entire art form out of the many possibilities of tedium." He writes the Grateful Dead "possessed a significance - arrived at through a lot of drugs, a lot more hippie twaddle and a seemingly infinite tolerance for the zero-sum pastime called jamming." Bell also displays a dour attitude to the community of Bob, those myriad fans who endlessly exchange Dylan data and rumours. He could accept that this incessant internet babble has contributed to important resources such as Expecting Rain, Bob Links, and Olof Bjorner's website. Dylan's fans occupy a continuous spectrum reaching from Christopher Ricks at one end to the aptly named Dead-Heads at the other. The capricious way in which Dylan created and then discarded a masterpiece like Red River Shore is one reason why Dylan's fans are still obsessively searching for gems.
Bell has a lot more enthusiasm for American politics than for writing about Dylan's fellow musicians. He mentions Springsteen a couple of times but does not make any comparison with the very different way Bruce has handled his fame and wealth. Instead Bell tells us a lot about presidents. He has interesting thoughts about Reagan, Clinton, two Bushes, and Obama, and in teasing out these insights, he argues that Dylan's songs never abandoned politics. He gives us a terrific account of the Hurricane Carter case, the conflicting evidence, the stages of judicial review, and Dylan's relationship to the cause of this ambiguous victim of injustice. In a similar legalistic vein, Bell examines the allegations of plagiarism that have swirled around Chronicles and Bob's later albums. He concludes that the charges are a misunderstanding of Dylan's creativity, which I think is true.
Bell also insists it's a big mistake to think that Bob suddenly got religion for three albums and then dropped his love affair with Jesus. Dylan had a huge amount of prior form with Jesus and the Bible before Slow Train Coming, and Bell follows Dylan's dual identity as both a Jew and a follower of Christ with surprising sympathy. His analysis of Jokerman and the songs on Desire and Time out Of Mind are marvellous. He's interesting about both of Dylan's much-mocked films, Renaldo And Clara and Masked And Anonymous. Finally, Bell writes convincingly about the renaissance Dylan has achieved since 1997, and he ends by suggesting there is more than meets the eye to the seemingly misogynist language on the album Tempest.
Meanwhile Bob goes on his merry way: he appears in an ad for erotic lingerie with a Brazilian model 40 years younger; he sings for the Pope; he copies some old photos of the Far East and exhibits the results in one of Manhattan's top dollar art galleries. So after a career lasting more than fifty years, what does Bell make it of all? He thinks the idea of a person called Bob Dylan is a fiction: there are many Bob Dylans, and Dylan as a person goes where his music leads him. As his epigraph, Bell gives us a quote from Allen Ginsberg: "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self!"
"If there is truth in art, each and every Bob Dylan might count as a product of the imagination, with Robert Allen Zimmerman its first page and its first canvas," writes Bell. Maybe. I still think the figure on stage with the cracked voice is recognisable as the young man who tried out Song To Woody on John Hammond a long time ago. Bell's interrogation of the myth of Dylan, and the many meanings he uncovers in Bob's art, are evidence of his astounding creativity across five decades. And if Dylan can be an old curmudgeon, this book explains why he is also one of the most audacious and inspiring artist the 20th and 21st centuries have produced.