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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 10 October 2014
The blurb at the back of Ian Bell’s outstanding contribution to the canon of books about Bob Dylan tells us that in it ‘the artist who invented himself in order to reinvent America is uncovered’. Given the artist and country in question, neither of the latter two assertions could be true or possible. But what Bell does is to offer an ever-insightful, searching and searing trip into the lives, times and lyrics of the most enigmatic artist to have emerged from the 20th century, still a’ metamorphosing in the 21st.

What can be said is that Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan is true to its title. In common with its subject, it’s not easy to categorise. Dylan, his lyrics and the myriad of musical and other influences on his work are central, but the book has a sometimes- biographic, journalistic, novelistic, musicological, socio-historical and appropriately tangential quality to it. That said, to genreify is unnecessary. And the prose is brilliant.

Bell questions Dylan’s lives comprehensively, often giving answers/interpretations, but not always. This is fine: I’d be wary of any writer (including Dylan) claiming to be definitive: his life and work is labyrinthine, containing light and dark passages, often lined with brilliance, occasionally with obscurity and sometimes with sorrow and/or downright meanness. Bell explores these paths expertly, looking back to their roots but keeping a firm attention on Dylan’s own routes as he follows them down.

Refreshingly, Bell asks as many questions of Dylan’s questioners (from his early days in Minnesota to our more modern times) as he does of the man himself. And he does not claim to have a premium on opinions about Dylan and his songs; I disagreed with him on a number of points, but so what? I’ve read a few books about Dylan and part of the pleasure is encountering others’ opinions and either agreeing or disagreeing, the latter of which leads, naturally, to fresh or renewed personal analysis and understanding.

The balance between the story and the songs is very well handled indeed and...there’s much else to say but this review is growing too long.

My minor(-ish) quibble with the book is that some of the points made in the earlier chapters, such as Dylan’s relationships with school friends and girlfriends, and the adoption of his name, could have been made in less words. The points are relevant but don’t necessarily merit the word count.

However, that has no bearing on the star count - I would give it more than 5 if possible. It is the best book about Bob Dylan that I have read yet.
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on 18 September 2014
The only fact about Dylan which Ian Bell, a Scottish, Edinburgh based writer, embraced as true was Dylan's alleged love of Robbie Burns! According to Bell, this was absolutely true. Dylan loved and loves Burns writing!! Everything else which had previously been written over the years by people who knew Bob Dylan, had interviewed and written about him , Bell mocked and derided. And here's the thing, Bell didn't conduct a single interview with Dylan! The history and background to the singer songwriter's songs and poems were well researched and interesting however which is why I have given the book 3 stars. But what a biased account. Who has the right to say with any authority as Bell does in this book that all the other facts written in hundreds of accounts of this great man were false? I found his writing intensely biassed and irritating although I did finish the book. But it was hard hard work and very anti English which surprised me somewhat as the book is a biography about an American!
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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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on 29 October 2013
I really enjoyed this book although it is definitely for those who are into minutiae! It is also "poetically" verbose so if you are just after facts then this is not for you. It moves along quite slowly yet doesn't become boring. There are a lot of background filling details which although interesting in themselves do make the book much longer than it could otherwise have been. I think this is definitely for the "Bobcats" and not for the general reader...... Me? I'm a Bobcat. He made my youth in the 1960s so enjoyable: and "No"...I was not one of those who disliked "Electric Bob". As a Brit I loved everything that Bob did in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and so on.
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on 3 March 2016
Perhaps this book deserves a five star rating but I bought this as a present for my son and have not read much of it myself. I know Ian Bell's writing from his years of contributions to Scottish journalism and I admired his work greatly, hence the reason I bought the book for my son for when he returns from his travels. Very sadly, Ian Bell died suddenly at the end of 2015.
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on 14 February 2014
Ian Bell has written a very fine look at the early life of The majestic Bob Dylan. He has managed to squeeze even more mileage out of a car that I had long since thought to be near the end of the road. Not to be missed by all Bob fanatics like myself!! Peace to all.
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on 6 June 2013
During the last 20 years so many books have been written about Bob Dylan, it's become exhausting. However, Ian Bell has done some incredible research and new interviews and managed to come up with the most revealing and rivetting book about Dylan ever published. Beautifully written, he also poses some interesting questions too. Some unanswered, but that just adds to the mystique that often surround this period in Dylan's life. Concentrating on Dylan's beginnings and running through to the masterwork that is Blood On The Tracks, I found it hard to put the book down. This is volume 1 of a 2 volume work. I can't wait for volume two to be published, as I'm sure it will carry on the great work achieved here. Clinton Heylin, you've just been knocked off your throne! Ian Bell has written a masterpiece.
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on 8 September 2014
I have read many many biographies over the years. This is one of the better ones.
Nothing startling new for a Dylan obsessive like me, but it is well written and has insight.
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on 24 October 2013
I have many books on Dylan but this still manages to provide new information. An excellent read which is highly recommended!
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