Biography is gossip–at best meticulously researched, placed in historical context, artfully recounted, and enlightening with regard to important lives, but gossip nonetheless–on a grand scale. Even the least prurient and most scholarly among us relish revelations about the famous, just as we do about our friends and acquaintances, that are really none of our business. But human nature loves a good story, and what could be more interesting than a well-told tale of somebody else’s life? Even though the work of any major artist invariably speaks volumes more than what can be exhumed about his background, the circumstances of his origins fascinate; we want to believe they can tell us something about the mystery of creation.Bob Dylan, among the most slippery and enigmatic of contemporary culture heroes, began his career by inventing incredible stories about himself: he was an orphan, was part American Indian, had lived in New Mexico, worked in carnivals, bummed around the country, played backup piano for Elvis…. When Newsweek revealed in 1963 that he was in fact a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing High, Dylan became resentful of the press and increasingly protective of his privacy. Immensely ambitious from the beginning, he wanted fame and set out to win it, but failed to take into account the invasive consequences of being a “music star,” and ever since then has been on the run from his fate as a public figure.
Dylan turned sixty on May 24, and that unlikely event (he should, by all rights and romantic myths, have blazed out like James Dean or John Keats) occasioned a good deal of retrospective Dylanography, typically focused on the breakthrough years of the 1960s and his early permutations from funky folksinger to poet of protest to bard of the absurd to psychedelic rocker of existential rebellion, author of dozens of classic songs that captured the tumultuous spirit of an especially agitated era.
Less noted, though, is the artist’s subsequent development as an increasingly accomplished and resourceful songwriter, singer, musician, and bandleader. His later work, on such albums as Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Time out of Mind (1997), and in his many live performances, matches or surpasses much of what he did in the 1960s.
For aficionados and students of both early and ongoing Dylans, two recent books provide revealing glimpses of the person in progress, and while neither quite succeeds in de-riddling his genius, both make for interesting reading in their exposure of certain facts and dynamics of the life.
People still nostalgic for the early 1960s or just curious about the folk-music boom of that time will find David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street a delicious account of a love quadrangle composed of equal parts talent, romance, passion, and ambition. The convoluted interrelations and rivalries among the protagonists–Dylan, Joan Baez, Joan’s sister Mimi, and Richard Fariña–are the stuff of historic soap opera, and the tragic finale, complete with matching motorcycle wrecks, is almost too symmetrical to be true. (As it turns out, it may not have been, but more on that in a minute.)
Those interested in a more panoramic picture of Dylan’s life and work will find in Down the Highway, by Howard Sounes, a sober retracing of the artist’s trajectory from his boyhood efforts as an aspiring Little Richard to the tirelessly touring, obligation-beset, twice-divorced, disillusioned, seemingly lonesome grandfather troubadour traveling in his customized gypsy bus to venues as diverse as the Vatican and the Visalia Convention Center. Sounes takes a just-the-facts approach to his subject, diligently interviewing hundreds of Dylan associates, friends, lovers, and fellow musicians–many never before interviewed–and snooping around in the public record to piece together a persuasively complex if not especially dramatic portrait of a restless, aging artist.Dylan, according to both these books, became a folk singer mainly because folk music was happening in New York when he arrived there in 1961. Yes, Woody Guthrie was his hero and an early model for assorted mannerisms (some adopted by Dylan without realizing they were symptomatic of Guthrie’s degenerative Huntington’s disease), but Dylan wanted to make it big in a way that Guthrie never dreamed. As Bob was making the scene in Greenwich Village, up in Cambridge Joan Baez was emerging as a star in the local folk clubs, and when the two inevitably met, Baez’s greater fame was a convenient vehicle for Dylan’s desired rise.While it would be an exaggeration to say that Dylan’s legendary liaison with Baez was purely opportunistic, it’s clear that her growing popularity provided a platform–which she generously shared–for him to reach a much larger audience sooner than he might have otherwise. Conversely Baez, who up to then had been singing all traditional material, found her social conscience voiced in Dylan’s “political” songs and became a Diva of Peace. As painfully documented in D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, by 1965 when Dylan had become a star in his own right and was turning away from folk to his roots in rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Baez was of no further use to him.
Meanwhile, in an overlapping universe, a comparably charged-up, ambitious, gifted, charismatic, self-mythologizing, ruthlessly manipulative character named Richard Fariña, cleverly married to another folk diva of the moment, Carolyn Hester (on whose debut album Dylan played his first recording gig, on harmonica), and trying to hitch a ride on her rising star, meets and falls in love with sixteen-year-old Mimi Baez, sister of Joan. Hester and Fariña divorce, Fariña marries the younger Baez, and the two embark on a “folk” career together, with Richard writing the songs and strumming the dulcimer and Mimi, the more practiced musician, singing duets and playing guitar.
Fariña’s strongest suit may be his prose, and after five years’ work he publishes a novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, on Mimi’s twenty-first birthday. At his book party in Carmel Valley, where the Baez sisters have settled, Fariña impulsively takes a ride on the back of a friend’s motorcycle and is killed when the speeding bike veers off the road. Fariña, it turns out, is the James Dean figure, cut off at the start of a hot career, while Dylan, touring Europe at the time (1966), staggers home half-dead from exhaustion, strung out on various drugs, recently married to Sara Lownds and, under the energetic management of Albert Grossman, booked for a huge US tour, among other professional demands.
It is at this time that he conveniently crashes his own motorcycle, an accident that, as Sounes discovers in Down the Highway, may never actually have happened. Sobered by Fariña’s sudden death and possibly inspired by it to slow down and retool his itinerary, Dylan, with his wife’s help, may well have staged the most ingenious escape act of his life.
Supposedly recuperating from unspecific injuries, he retreats into domesticity, starts a family, privately makes “the basement tapes” with his backup group and Catskill neighbors the Hawks (aka The Band), and proceeds to wrap his increasingly elusive persona in several more layers of camouflage, all the while over the next years putting out a shape-shifting series of albums that keep the multitudes scratching their heads trying to figure out who, if anyone, he really is, or was.While Hajdu’s book is the more compellingly novelistic in its braided plot lines, Sounes’ has more to offer, with his tenacious pursuit of the facts, in unpacking the mystique of Dylan’s inscrutable identity. What becomes evident as we see the artist develop into maturity is that he is both more and less than the sum of his multiple incarnations.Rather than attempt to explain how Dylan does it, or overanalyze the songs, or point out the countless connections with his musical antecedents, Sounes traces the critical events of an increasingly complicated life. We learn of deranged fans stalking the star; the overbearing management of Grossman and subsequent legal battles; Dylan’s increasing shrewdness as a businessman; the excruciating and expensive divorce from Sara and the epic complexity of his love life; his role as a conscientious father; the enormous overhead of his empire; and his nearly nonstop traveling and performing, evoking the line in “Things Have Changed,” his Oscar-winning song from Wonder Boys: “I’ve been tryin’ to get as far away from myself as I can.”
On the much-acclaimed album Time out of Mind Dylan engages what he has called “the dread realities of life” with the soulfulness and authority of the oldest living blues singer (even though he was only 55). As Sounes understates it, this music “would probably resonate with many listeners whose lives had not turned out the way they had hoped.” But the grief and loss recorded in these bleakly beautiful songs, from the existential despair of the dirgelike “Not Dark Yet” to the dark comedy of the rambling ballad “Highlands,” testify to a deep disillusionment and desolation that only the craftiest master could turn, as Dylan does, into an art so thoroughly triumphant. The biographer who might illuminate this paradox of creative transformation would have to be an artist of genius comparable to that of his subject–like Richard Holmes in his electrifying life of Shelley–but Sounes doesn’t pretend to be in that league.
Thorough reporter that he is, he closes his book with his own eyewitness account of the first leg of Dylan’s 2000 US tour, with stops in Visalia, Santa Cruz, and Reno. The Santa Cruz concert that I heard was superb, ranging from his earliest “Song to Woody” through a rich hour-and-a-half mixture of some 35 years of his best original compositions as well as gospel standards like “Rock of Ages,” capped with a rocking encore of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
Those song titles suggest the durability of Dylan’s art and the stamina of the man as he keeps his show on the road, in Sounes’ telling words, “way out into the heart of America and on around the world.”