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on 10 October 2012
This is a complex, beautifully written, at times exhausting biography of Bob Dylan which does things differently. Bell has carried out no interviews. All the anecdotes come from other biographies and from interviews with Dylan. So, at times, Bell seems to be critiquing Shelton, Heylin, Howard Sounes, Michael Gray and many more. Bell gives us the standard version and then asks: how can anyone believe this? Bell fixes his aim on how Dylan's self-mythologizing is inseparable from his creativity. The weirdness of a boy coming out of a middle class, Jewish home in the mid-west, lying about his background, erasing his family and denying his real name - even to his first serious love, Suze Rotolo - is what fascinates Bell.

Compensation for Bell's lack of original research lies in a deep understanding of Dylan's context. Anti-Semitism and racism in Minnesota, the cold war politics of JFK, post-war American poetry and the ideological currents of the folk song revival are all explored in enlightening detail. Dylan's work is inseparable from the 1960s in the sense that when we see footage of civil rights demos (Blowin' in The Wind), Vietnam (Masters of War), and student protests (The Times They Are a-Changin') we hear Dylan as the soundtrack. What Bell has written is the most sophisticated examination of what Dylan really has to do with the 60s. He urges us again and again to discard clichéd accounts, and accept that Dylan was marching to the sound of a very different drum. A private drum that no-one else could hear. Acquitting Dylan of the charge of cynicism that he used politics opportunistically to gain fame and fortune in early sixties folk song culture, Bell argues that a truly cynical Dylan would have kept on churning out topical songs to order.

Bell argues it's not that Dylan continually re-invented himself to create "protest Dylan", "existential Dylan", "electric Dylan", "country Dylan", "born-again Dylan", "Americana Dylan". Instead - "Whatever his originality, this is a man who has existed within a cliché since he first attempted to write a song: his art is his life. It is, profoundly, who he is. Dylan doesn't control the art; the art controls `Bob Dylan', and remakes him time after time."

Bell has arresting things to say. Noting the enthusiasm with which Dylan gobbled up Martin Carthy's folk tunes in 1962, Bell observes: "Dylan is lauded as one of the most original artists of the age and accused, simultaneously, of relentless plagiarism. So what if both claims are true? And would music be better off if Dylan had never borrowed?" Bell has an interesting defence of Tarantula as a "laboratory" which enabled Dylan to carry out crazy experiments on language that would end up on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. He has a good stab at answering the question what Visions of Johanna is "about". He shows that Dylan's claim that Blood On The Tracks was "based on Chekhov short stories" does have some basis in Dylan's technique.

Docked one star because a lot of Bell's sentences are questions and this can become hard work. Also the matter of tone: as Bell picks holes in the conventional history of Dylan, he can sound like an exasperated teacher informing the class a lot of poor work has been handed in. Sometimes Bell sounds condescending towards those (eg Pennebaker) who have given us insight into the world in which Dylan created and delivered these songs. But Bell's intelligence about American history more often conveys how radical Dylan's work was, and how surprising. It's a pity the index doesn't list Dylan song titles, since Bell has interesting things to say about many of these songs and their origins. This is the first of two volumes, taking Dylan from his beginnings up to Blood On The Tracks.
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on 17 October 2013
..flawed, I would say. On the positive side I really appreciate getting a lot of background - both musically and historicaly. Here, I'd say the biography is unsurpassed. On the not so good side, I really find it rather infuriating how the author makes a very simple point and manages to stretch it out over maybe twenty pages, sometimes more. Dylan changed his name. Right. We get it, we also get all the implications that might have had. But we don't need to be told the same fact over and over and over again. It bulks up the book, takes away its readability and eventually turns one against the author whose know-allyness and dogmatism grates.
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on 16 August 2014
I don't wish to be mean about a writer who has obviously thought a great deal about the life and art of Bob Dylan, but the number of useful observations that Ian Bell makes in 563 densely written pages is very small indeed.

The tone and argumentation throughout the book are dogmatic and precariously light on justification. Song X is a triumph. Song Y is worthless. In 1958 Bob Dylan was a talentless idiot. In 1962 Bob Dylan was an unparalleled genius. Nowhere in the book does the author set out his credentials for bombarding us with his fierce, idiosyncratic opinions. So far as I know, Ian Bell has no background in music criticism. He offers up a biography of one of the most distinguished performing artists on the planet, without having interviewed a single person! And notwithstanding his position as a remote bystander, Ian Bell never hesitates to tell us what was going through Dylan's mind at the key moments of the 1960s. The book reads like an egotistical fantasy or an undergraduate dissertation that is crying out for a teacher with a red pen.

My one positive comment is that there is a well-researched chapter about what growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota might have been like in the 1950s.
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on 2 September 2013
I have read a lot of Dylan biographies, rock journalism and other literature devoted to the man over the years. This very fine and impressively researched book delivers a fresh and wholly objective examination of the case evidence for the man's lyrical and poetic genius, as well as a candid examination of his tendency towards self mythology and his chameleon personality.

Bell's forensic and perceptive critiques of Dylan's commercially released albums and bootlegs recorded in the 1960s/early 70s period are also pretty much on the mark, and he excels at distinguishing the material which truly deserves the epithet "ground breaking genius" from the sub standard dross that Dylan also produced during this time.

The book is a welcome change from the usual format of rock biographies, all too often dominated by chronologies of minor events in the subject's personal life and peppered with anecdotes from first hand interviews. It adheres to a chronological structure only in so far as it focuses on the main phases of Dylan's evolution from beat poet folkie to electric rock superstar to country and western crooner to introspective artist on the threshold of middle age.

For me the kernel of the book is the series of chapters dealing with the triptych of electric albums in 1965/66 "Bringing It All Back Home", "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde". Bell is excellent at capturing the frenetic pace of Dylan's artistic output over these two years, including the tours that left him at the end of his rope at times, and how both the widespread popular acclaim and backlash from the worthy old folkies affected his cynicism towards the music industry and his own place in the wider counter culture and political backdrop of the period. Bell gets underneath all that to explore why Dylan decided that he did not want to be the so called spokesman of a generation and why he saw right through the plasticity and triviality of late 60s hippiedom.

In short, the book sets new standards in Dylanology that are unlikely to be matched for the foreseeable future. I very much look forward to reading volume two.
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on 2 June 2013
This is a complex, beautifully written, at times exhausting biography of Bob Dylan which does things differently. Bell has carried out no interviews. All the anecdotes come from other biographies and from interviews with Dylan. So, at times, Bell seems to be critiquing Shelton, Heylin, Howard Sounes, Michael Gray and many more. Bell gives us the standard version and then asks: how can anyone believe this? Bell fixes his aim on how Dylan's self-mythologizing is inseparable from his creativity. The weirdness of a boy coming out of a middle class, Jewish home in the mid-west, lying about his background, erasing his family and denying his real name - even to his first serious love, Suze Rotolo - is what fascinates Bell.

Compensation for Bell's lack of original research lies in a deep understanding of Dylan's context. Anti-Semitism and racism in Minnesota, the cold war politics of JFK, post-war American poetry and the ideological currents of the folk song revival are all explored in enlightening detail. Dylan's work is inseparable from the 1960s in the sense that when we see footage of civil rights demos (Blowin' in The Wind), Vietnam (Masters of War), and student protests (The Times They Are a-Changin') we hear Dylan as the soundtrack. What Bell has written is the most sophisticated examination of what Dylan really has to do with the 60s. He urges us again and again to discard clichéd accounts, and accept that Dylan was marching to the sound of a very different drum. A private drum that no-one else could hear. Acquitting Dylan of the charge of cynicism that he used politics opportunistically to gain fame and fortune in early sixties folk song culture, Bell argues that a truly cynical Dylan would have kept on churning out topical songs to order.

Bell argues it's not that Dylan continually re-invented himself to create "protest Dylan", "existential Dylan", "electric Dylan", "country Dylan", "born-again Dylan", "Americana Dylan". Instead - "Whatever his originality, this is a man who has existed within a cliché since he first attempted to write a song: his art is his life. It is, profoundly, who he is. Dylan doesn't control the art; the art controls `Bob Dylan', and remakes him time after time."

Bell has arresting things to say. Noting the enthusiasm with which Dylan gobbled up Martin Carthy's folk tunes in 1962, Bell observes: "Dylan is lauded as one of the most original artists of the age and accused, simultaneously, of relentless plagiarism. So what if both claims are true? And would music be better off if Dylan had never borrowed?" Bell has an interesting defence of Tarantula as a "laboratory" which enabled Dylan to carry out crazy experiments on language that would end up on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. He has a good stab at answering the question what Visions of Johanna is "about". He shows that Dylan's claim that Blood On The Tracks was "based on Chekhov short stories" does have some basis in Dylan's technique.

Docked one star because a lot of Bell's sentences are questions and this can become hard work. Also the matter of tone: as Bell picks holes in the conventional history of Dylan, he can sound like an exasperated teacher informing the class a lot of poor work has been handed in. Sometimes Bell sounds condescending towards those (eg Pennebaker) who have given us insight into the world in which Dylan created and delivered these songs. But Bell's intelligence about American history more often conveys how radical Dylan's work was, and how surprising. It's a pity the index doesn't list Dylan song titles, since Bell has interesting things to say about many of these songs and their origins. This is the first of two volumes, taking Dylan from his beginnings up to Blood On The Tracks.
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on 31 August 2013
Ian Bell has clearly read very extensively before writing his biography of Dylan - who is clearly a tricky subject for a biography, much protective of his privacy, given to telling tall tales about most things, and very used to being misunderstood. His approach, once you get used to it, yields dividends as you read through the book - if not new blinding flashes of illumination.

Others have gone out an interviewed his family and friends - Harold Sounes' biography of a few years ago discovered Dylan's second marriage, and was enormously convincing about how awful everyone thought he was (at playing etc) when he first arrive in New York. It also shed light on Dylan's financial affairs - and just how uncomfortable he could find life when even Robbie Robertson was asking him in Woodstock what direction he was going to set for the future of music.

Ian Bell has a different approach. HIs knowledge of Dylan's interviews is comprehensive and he has read the work of other biographers and the recollections of Suze Rotolo etc. He's also very impressive in his understanding of the background, politically in the US (though an even better view emerges from Robert Caro's work on Lyndon Johnson), and in terms of contemporary developments in music. He also is in a position to muse extensively on Dylan's relation to the work of the poets, what other musicians have found it like to tour etc.

What emerges is a very rounded picture. Not always persuasive in its judgements on the music or the lyrics (Christopher Ricks' books is a better guide there). And faced with mysteries - what happened in 1963 to stop Dylan writing protest songs, what enabled the flowering of 1965-6, and what brought that flowering to an end - he leaves them as mysteries, just asking a series of rhetorical questions. Sometimes his historical judgement is awry (Dylan surely wrote far more 'protest' songs than Bell believes - Bell says that he seems to have written 41 songs in 1962 alone, and many of those were protest songs). But overall, it's very well worth reading.
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on 11 December 2013
Lots of interesting insight, & a well paced study of its subject. However at times it felt for me that it would benefit from simplifying its text - 'dumbing down' if you like. It also continues to annoy me when authors of books like these state their own personal opinions as fact. ie. " *Insert your favourite Dylan song here* is just album filler, insignificant, and not fit to appear on the album". If you read a lot of Dylan books (as i may do.....) you see every author present his or her personal preference as fact. Just my opinion! Perhaps other people will feel differently. Sometimes I like the Dylan songs that have no (supposed) poetic merit, because, wait for it, I like the music. Or the melody. Or the vocal tone. Or the delivery. Ian Bell writes off a few on 'Blonde...' that are my personal favourites. But then I suppose that is half the fun.

This completes my 'wordy' review.

And yes, I appreciate the irony.
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on 21 December 2015
Really enjoyed this. It's opinionated and a bit grumpy, and I won't lend it to my Christian sister: I don't think Bell has a high opinion of that phase of Dylan's output, or the Faith that gave rise to it. But musically and literately very well informed; gave me a deeper sense of the work, the context of individual songs in Dylan's work overall, and placed Dylan's music in a wider American tradition, that gave me a clearer sene of the continuities between the early work and the more recent stuff: the recent work since Time out of Mind explicitly draws on the roots of American popular music, but work that seemed (to me anyway) so original when it came out in the mid-60s has the same deep roots: Blonde on Blonde's sense continuities with Chicago electric blues are maybe even clearer from this distance (if Kooper and Bloomfield weren't enough of a clue at the time). Anyway, Bell does a great job of reading and listening, and giving a critically well informed, but an enthusiasts take on the music. It got me back listening to some of those early albums with even more appreciation.
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on 29 January 2014
One might be tempted to think that with the plethora of books about Bob Dylan and his music currently available, that there would be no room in the marketplace for another extensive analysis of the man and his work. Clearly, Ian Bell does not feel that way. With this, the first of his two-part examination of Dylan (it is difficult to call this a biography) he approaches his subject from a new angle, and in doing so provides his audience with a quite remarkable piece of work.

"Once Upon a Time" does not fall into a specific category as Bell chooses to look at each of Dylan's albums in relation to its place in society and its relevance to the time that it was released. Biographers have of course done this in the past, with varying degrees of success, but never with this depth and wealth of knowledge. And knowledge is something that Bell has plenty of, throughout the course of his narrative he provides a staggering number of facts that some casual readers might find overwhelming, but those who stay with him through the almost six hundred pages of the print edition will be richly rewarded.

One of the first things you notice about Bell’s book is his pragmatic, almost prosaic approach to Dylan’s work. At no time is he in awe of his subject, indeed there are times when he appears to think that Dylan is little more than mildly talented, or even (whisper it softly) the fortunate beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time. That said, he does not shirk from heaping acclaim where and when it is due – for example his fulsome praise of the classic mid-sixties trilogy, but even here his plaudits are tempered with rationality. This sets the tone for Bell’s approach to all of the expected and well-documented highs and lows of Dylan’s career during this period, all of which are treated with the same measured alacrity. The early folk years, the classic albums already mentioned, electricity at Newport and the subsequent madness of the 1966 world tour, the accident and years of seclusion, the return to the public arena and the events leading up to the recording and release of Dylan’s 1975 magnum opus “Blood on the Tracks,” where this first volume draws to a close.

In all this, I found the paths less travelled the most interesting, perhaps because they are less travelled. Bell spends a considerable amount of time and space on “The Basement Tapes” and examines in detail the albums that are usually dismissed as inferior or unworthy of Dylan’s talent (“Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait,” “New Morning” etc.), and this section I found particularly fascinating. More so because Bell did not interview any of the usual suspects whose names regularly pop up, but relied on his own knowledge, opinions and research – the bibliography is particularly impressive.

Throughout this engrossing book I found myself being constantly surprised at the depth of Bell’s knowledge and the strength of conviction of his opinions, which he postulates without the massive ego of say Gray or Heylin. Refreshing indeed, and thought provoking. At no time does Bell try to beat you over the head or bludgeon you into submission, he just calmly lays his facts before you.

“Once Upon a Time” is a book I would wholeheartedly recommend, but expect some controversial if well presented arguments. Bell is a man who is completely comfortable with his subject, and I look forward with some anticipation to the second part of this work.
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on 15 November 2012
"Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan", the title says a lot about the book Ian Bell has written. A lot. This is a tremendous book in it's research and just plain prose writing; it is critically analytic. It's a pleasure and instructive to read. The historicity seems to be very well researched. As a fan of Dylan who has not even heard all of his music, what I do know Bell gets quite right.

That said: what gets said by Bell as well seems a bit petulant to put it mildly as he slowly berates Dylan for his song pilferage or plagiarism, for Dylan's "expansive" self-histories, the "borrowed" records and Dylan's manipulations of the press that are at once cruel and self-promoting. Dylan reworked a lot of stuff and put his stamp on it; and, perhaps more importantly, he did it at the right place and at the right time.

It's good to be lucky and Dylan made the best of the luck he'd made and stumbled upon; (it feels like Bell thinks this is unjust or unfair). It seems that from about age 19 Dylan just "got it" all very naturally just like Morrison did later when it came to dealing with the press; not many people did. The crushing press and public spotlight doomed many, many more to short public lives. It also seems a little inexcusable when Bell criticizes Dylan on account of his father's death for his lack of creativity in the 70's. Despite all of his prior "dis-owning" of family Dylan did, the fact that Dylan flew his mom and dad to see him "make it finally" (a condition his father tried to apply earlier) to his first New York Carnegie Hall show argues loudly against the creative lies he told the press about them; it's kind of funny now reading about the BS Dylan was slinging to anyone who would listen and write it down for further consumption. But when Bell implies some deep family hatred as symptomatic of Dylan's faults it is a bit much ( who can claim to not have any family issues?). On father/son conflicts: Show me a son who hasn't got 'em; Freud said a fathers death for a son is the greatest of psychological events, the most traumatic. Does Bell really hold Dylan up to so high a standard fairly?

Largely, Bell thinks Dylan's behavior was calculated, coldly and clearly: the plagiarism the little family lies, etc. Well, he did do that stuff. But, it's as though Bell thinks Dylan planned all of his actions in advance even though he finally get's Dylan to admit late in the book that all his 60's work was unconscious and that he only became conscious some time in the 70's. Dylan was all of 19 when he rolled into New York City. Bell wants to hold Dylan to account for actions all of us have made without plan, or, at least it seems that way in retrospect: anyone who has made it to be 60 or so can look back and wonder how it is exactly they got to where they are and as to how much it was all planned out. It's doubtful many can take the position and say it happened just as planned even AFTER they became conscious of self. Who of us are not driven by unconscious desires and fears? Jimmie, Janice and Jim couldn't make it past their 27th birthday while "doing time in the universal mind" as Jim put it.

Being the center of attention places even more strain on one man's life: being in the spotlight is no easy task and performing "thoughtfully" all of the time cannot be expected either, quite the contrary (unconsciously is more like it). Dylan managed to ride this chiming freedom flashing well; he's still doing it to some extent now 50 years later. Bell should perhaps be less critical of Dylan but it seems to give him focus; it is perhaps necessary. It's OK (Ma); the book is well worth the read, if you have an interest in Americana, and, especially the history surrounding the era. Bell's knowledge of "the times", music, poetry and writing in general is admirable; it's huge. This is a very, very good book; a great read and worth the effort. (The book covers Dylan's career to age 34. Highly recommended.
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