TO THE UNCHARITABLE, books about Bob Dylan might seem like Dylan concerts: needlessly numerous, comprising curious or barely competent recapitulations of work done better long ago.
In Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan, Ian Bell, a former editor of the London Observer and winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Journalism, has instead done what a contemporary Dylan concert can do, expressing something renewably vital out of a songwriter’s life’s work.
This book is decidedly for the sort who would willingly go see Dylan more than once in the 21st century. While Bell behaves as if he’s been deputized by some Sheriff of American Arts and Letters to solve the uninteresting mystery of whether Dylan qualifies as a “poet” (Bell says yes after worrying about the question far too much), he starts off knowing, not trying to prove, that Dylan is an American monument worthy of study and veneration.
From there he provides an exemplary balance of the life, the work, and the times. He’s respectful but not worshipful; he neither avoids rumor and speculation nor reifies them. He’s wise and exploratory on the relation between history and work without subsuming one in the other.
Although he doesn’t seem to have done any fresh interviewing, Bell walks with punctilious care through all the known and unknown aspects of the first portion of Dylan’s life and career (this volume ends after Blood on the Tracks in 1975). Bell is insightful about the most monumental moments of Dylanology: how the folkies reacted to the electric Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1966; how early girlfriend Suze Rotolo shaped his relationship to the folk movement and to civil rights; his interestingly complicated and often opaque relationships with manager Albert Grossman and idol Woody Guthrie.
The young Dylan is perhaps the least reliable source for a biographer. From the beginning, even before he has a “famous Bob Dylan” to protect, he lied and pilfered both words and attitudes. Bell has read all the Dylan books you have and some you haven’t, and they’ve formed a meta-world of quantum possibilities buzzing in his brain. He’s never afraid to say when the available record is ambiguous and spin out interesting guesses and suppositions, branded as such. It’s more complicated, Bell points out, because everyone around Dylan seems to lie or misremember, too. Thus while the “truth, if you can find it, is preferable” to Dylan myth, it’s buried deep. Bell’s witty and intelligent openness makes the book feel real even if we can’t always know what’s true.
Bell’s judgment will not strike all Dylan fans as unerring, but it never feels unearned. He notes that this bard, soaked in the loam of American traditional mysteries, cannot (like America itself) escape European modes — “British folk consciousness, and a French symbolist awareness.” Bell is winningly smart-assed about those who try to buoy Dylan with associations such as Rimbaud, though his contempt for the Beats is misplaced, given their salubrious contribution to the magpie polymath. Bell is brief but as thorough as one would want on the intersections of Dylan’s life and the Civil Rights movement, the folk music scene, Eisenhower and Kennedy, the histories of Hibbing and Greenwich Village. The essentially reactionary nature of this avatar of the radical 1960s is laid bare, especially as Bell scents out the start of the long trail taken by this man, long revered by agnostics and atheists, toward a traditional Christian God.
Bell stresses that Dylan disdains the term and concept of “Americana” as a musical style; after this was written but before it was published, Dylan headlined a 2013 summer shed tour dubbed “Americanarama.” This seeming contradiction is a great example of the conservative avant-gardist, the man who retreats further back to move forward — the chameleon who Bell posits is the closest thing to a “real Dylan.”
“The only thing they knew for sure about Bob Dylan was that his name wasn’t Bob Dylan,” Bell writes in one of his very few, but very apt, uses of paraphrased Dylan lyrics to explain Dylan. And this means that although much observational power is marshaled, in many, many pages, at the level of blood and bone and mystery, nothing is revealed. The Bob Dylan before he came into his power comes across full, real, understandable; you know him. The Dylan after still feels like myth, and more significantly, doesn’t feel like he has much if anything in common with the kid who came from Hibbing to Minneapolis to New York City, trailing lies and self-mythology behind him, trying to eradicate “a teenager who had seen little of the world and done nothing out of the ordinary,” obsessed with spewing a “pointless, enveloping cloud of self-created mystery.”
Robert Zimmerman succeeded. He killed that guy. The most interesting theme Bell draws out is one I explored in an essay 12 years ago, a quality I identified as Dylan’s “inauthenticity,” and which Bell represents as a sort of serial suicide, a man dedicated to regularly killing whomever he had come to be. (Those moves, Bell protectively points out, never seem predictably designed to improve his worldly position, even when they do.) Whoever Dylan was at the beginning of that trail of vital self-murders was, Bell posits, himself a child of an alien land, Minnesota’s Iron Country, in an alien time, before TV and rock 'n’ roll and the interstate highway system, those wide-open and possibility-creating killers of a nation and a way of life.
The book also provides that greatest of joys for Dylan aficionados: a chance to argue with another smart Dylan aficionado. Bell is obsessed at times with scoring ill-aimed revisionist points, even some he contradicts himself later, or which belie the importance of his own project. He relies on supposedly weak sales figures on early acoustic Dylan records to argue he was not as influential on the culture or the times as standard 1960s myth would have it; forgetting apparently his own detailed discussion of a substantial 1963 Newsweek story on Dylan. (You don’t need to be a huge pop star to shape elite discourse and thought.) Bell keeps returning to this point about overestimating Dylan’s impact — he seems proud of it. But he’s closer to the mark when he points out the centrality of a singer-songwriter mentality to the “me generation,” how Dylan paved the way for completely new styles of writing in popular song, and how by making personal liberty paramount over political duty he paved the way for massive cultural change. He just starts to seem silly in a late disquisition on Dylan’s non-hugeness to write that he “never sold a great many records,” having indeed (later in that same paragraph) “only six number one albums.”
Never mind — Bob Dylan is big. Intentionally or accidentally, his thought and emotions and expressions indeed have moved the world. As Bell writes about Dylan’s 1964 buddy road trip: “they drank a lot, did plenty of drugs, took in the reality of segregation and other strange sights, and rambled on.” It’s like the entire 1960s white intellectual American experience in a sentence; Dylan cannot escape being an avatar for his people.
In 1965 he began the album that many claim marked his departure from political and social engagement, Bringing It All Back Home, with the lines: “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinking about the government.” Drugs and politics and a sense of foreboding — it’s possible, as Bell suggests occasionally, at his most mystical, that Dylan just couldn’t escape being in tune with the world. In the late 1960s he retreated into family and his self-created sense of an American mythic songwriting past, and thus he himself created our dominant cultural sense of the folk blues from which Dylan arose — he created his own ancestors.
Bell worries about Dylan’s allegedly crushing mid-1960s burden of performing 37 shows in 87 days, a schedule Bell writes, “would have to end, sooner than later, and the chances were that it would end badly.” But that’s just working for a living. Artist, poet, avatar Dylan has in the last couple of decades fully become that working American, taking what he has and making what he can or wants to from it. It’s an iconic American life, and Bell has written the most thorough, thoughtful, unblinded, skeptical but caring book that life has yet earned.