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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.
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on 15 September 2013
This second volume of Ian Bell's life of Bob Dylan follows the same pattern as the first volume: exhaustive knowledge of the written record, and of the discussions to which Dylan's work has given rise, extensive listening to bootlegs, and some really serious work on the historical context, in terms of US politics and culture, for Dylan's work.

As with volume one, Bell has not gone out and talked to those who know or knew Dylan - though he has read all the other biographies and interview. This means that your sense of what Dylan's actual lived life was like tends to tail off as we reach the present - and stir beyond the confines of eg Sounes' biography which claims to be based on 250 interviews.

As with volume one, art of the charm is brining home the reality of the puzzles in understanding this subject - rather than solving them. Time after time, Dylan makes very odd choices about what work should see the light of day - and we don't really know why - except that his critical faculty is not the equal of his creativity. Nor do we really understand why Dylan has had three main creative bursts with long fallow periods in his life. (Nor of course do we really know that this is the whole truth of the matter - the Self Portrait period suddenly looks a lot more vibrant and creative with the release of the Bootleg Series Vol 10 than it did when Bell wrote Volume 1 of this biography.) Nor do we really understand why he tours and tours - we do learn that he really is interested in the money, but even Bell doesn't really think that's the whole story.

Especially noteworthy features include a lot of background on born again Christians and Dylan's subsequent interest in the theory underlying Jewish beliefs; and discussions of the nature of Dylan's work - should he really be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature and does it matter?; also of the question what actually his genius consists in - is it the recreation of his work on stage each night, ever new? Is the appearance of new material these days just a sideline? As with volume 1, interesting discussions on all these points - but mostly inconclusive discussions.

Still, an enjoyable and interesting reading experience.
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on 27 July 2014
There's a One Star review here which speaks about "waffle". Whilst I think that judgement a little strong, I know what the reviewer was getting at. The problem for me with the book is Bell's writing style. Where most might use one comma in a sentence bell will sneak in about four. Even his "sub-sentences" have "sub-sentences". So, especially when the analysis of a song like Isis gets complicated, one tends to lose track of what he's talking about without repeated readings. Even then it isn't always clear. For example, just exactly what Norman Raeben's art theories were which are said to have influenced "Blood On the Tracks" so much remains a mystery. Or maybe Bell, like me, considers the connection fails to stand up to any degree of scrutiny.

If you're a hard core Dylan fan and want to debate the "hidden (and not so hidden) meanings", and judge the merits of songs accordingly, this is well worth a read. Personally I don't. For example, the "Desire" album gets hammered here, but I only have to put it on the CD player and I'm happy.

For me, Clinton Heylin's "Behind the Shades" remains definitive. This one comes a lot further down the list. A "heavy" read, but worth a look. I suggest getting a sample on Kindle first.
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on 3 September 2016
I came to this after reading Dylan's Chronicles Vol 1, which is very vague about dates. I thought Ian Bell might fix some of the references for me and provide some missing links, which he did. The book is a valuable reference tool and it's very easy to read. I have learned a lot from it. Some aspects of the book are very annoying, however.

1. Ian Bell repeats himself a lot. He knows all the other biographies, all the stories, all the critical landscape. He knows them so well that he rambles a lot, recycling ideas and repeating the same old conundrums and questions till you're bored of hearing them. But he takes it for granted in a lot of places that you already know the background and the chronology, so he doesn't explain everything and leaves a lot of things unsaid.

2. He thinks he is a better judge of Dylan's art than Dylan himself. He is constantly questioning Dylan's choices of which songs he worked on and which ones he didn't, what he put on an album and what he left off, as if Dylan is an idiot and has no right to choose his own material or collaborators. It never occurs to Mr. Bell that maybe Dylan was aiming for something different than what Mr. Bell wanted to hear. There is some truth to some of his remarks. Dylan's bootlegs are definitely worth buying. Mr. Bell convinced me of that. But I don't agree with all of Mr. Bell's judgements. He is very harsh in places and gives his opinions as if they are facts. His dismissal of Jacques Levy, for example, is shocking. For Ian Bell, it becomes a crime that Dylan hasn't told us exactly what words and lines he contributed to the songs on Desire. This is an astonishing attitude that reveals complete ignorance of how creative collaboration works.

3. The tone throughout the book is that Dylan is being immoral when he is doing anything other than creating great new songs for Mr. Bell to admire. In fact mere songs don't satisfy Mr. Bell. What the author expects are works of towering genius and if Dylan doesn't deliver in any given year, Mr. Bell has nothing but contempt for the man he calls "the artist."

4. The title is misleading. There is very little about Dylan's life here. That's quite good in a way. It means Dylan has successfully guarded his privacy against the likes of Mr. Bell, who is presumptuous, judgemental and intrusive.

5. There is too much emphasis, in Mr. Bell's judgements, on the lyrics as words, rather than on songs which are formed of lyrics, melody, harmony and rhythm. In particular, Mr. Bell seems to be looking for certain types of lyrical effect, specific political leanings and a specific type of social awareness in the lyrics. If Dylan disappoints him here, he dismisses everything.

What is good about this book is the fact that it does give some insights into how some of those later works came about, from Blood on the Tracks to Tempest.
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At first the book makes interesting reading BUT after a while its almost like a basic agenda appears that is ruthlessly followed up in chapter after chapter. Ian Bells premise is that mostly Dylan had 3 good albums in the mid 60s and since then Dylan has consistently ruined his studio work by leaving the best songs off the album or choosing the wrong take etc. What follows is an album by album argument with minor examples and even Blood on the Tracks (arguably Dylans best selling album) gets the same treatment. Then there's the wilting years in the early 90s and suddenly Dylan reinvents himself with 'Time Out Of Mind' in 1997, but even here Mr Bell goes for the old argument that he left the best tracks off the album. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most counter example to this school of thought is the blistering emotional roller coaster of Mississipi that appears on Love and Theft. The recording, song writing and delivery is in my view a match an equal to the anthemic 'Rolling Stone'. The version that Dylan left off Time Out of Mind is on the 3 CD box set 'Tell Tale Signs' and is lack lustre in comparison to the version on Love and Theft. This is shining example where Mr Dylan made the right decision BUT Mr Bell spends only a megre 4 pages discussing Love and Theft.

The redeeming feature of the book is the discussion of Dylan's writing style in Chronicles and his diversions into the Art world. Both chapters are informative and interesting. So if you looking for a great book on Dylan this is not it. You will get more millage from Howard Souns - "Down the Highway"
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on 13 March 2016
This is a very thorough follow up to Ian Bell's first biography of Dylan, which takes us up to Blood on The Tracks. This biography picks up the story there and examines Dylan's conversion to Christianity and his subsequent career until 2013. My enjoyment of the book was enhanced by his clear prose style and his skill in weaving his story of Dylan's life into the broader political and cultural contexts: hence Dylan's Christianity is seen in the context of the rise of fundamentalist Christianity and conservatism in the US. Bell is by no means an apologist for Dylan and is pretty forthright in the presentation of his opinions - not least about the output of the eighties, the inconsistency of Dylan's concert performances throughout the period examined and the ongoing deterioration Dylan's singing voice. He is clear eyed and knowledgeable and comfortable both as a literary critic and a political/social/cultural commentator, and brings a rigour to bear on his subject, not least in the matter of Dylan's ventures into the world of advertising. His take on the matter of Dylan's use of existing material as a matter of course in his writing, is thorough and well argued and the volume is seasoned with wit - not least in his playful references to 'THe Never Ending Tour" and underpinned by thorough research - it is clear that he has sat through a good number of bootlegs as well as being broadly read in the growing field of Dylanology.
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on 11 September 2015
God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son!"
Abe said, "God, you must be putting me on!"
God said, "No!"
Abe said, "What?"
God said, "You can do what you want, Abe,
But the next time you see me coming you'd better run!"
Abe said, "Where do you want this killing done?"
God said, "Right out on Highway 61…"

I'm halfway through the second volume of Ian Bell's cleverly-written and brilliant biography, "The Lives of Bob Dylan" (note the pluralising "S") "Time Out Of Mind".
This covers the period when Dylan had passed beyond my personal event horizon and includes his proselytising Born-Again Christian phase, which is by turns revelatory and horrifying — a deeply depressing portrait of a man who couldn't prevent the quicksilver sliding through his fingers…
Highly recommended!
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on 30 March 2014
If you love His Bobness, you'll love this thoughtful and extremely well-informed account of his work (mostly) and life (less so). If you don't, it is not for you! I can't say fairer than that it drove me back time and again to listen to the songs in new lights.
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on 17 January 2014
The most enigmatic poet songwriter of the 20th Century; here laid bare by an author at the top of his game. I trully think that he 'digs' Dylan.
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on 26 February 2014
Mad that I actually purchased the download version of this, after reading a sample, which seemed OK, if a little wordy. Had to stop at second chapter, just couldn't stand all the waffle any more, pages of words with hardly any substance, on and on and on, like a school essay full of waffle. No first hand account, just read all the stuff on Dylan and rapped all is book around it. Seems to have it in for Dylan, if you haven't affection for who you're writing about why bother? One star for sample
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