From the day he stepped out of an acquaintance’s Pontiac as a 19-year-old New York newcomer to the moment he fell off his Triumph as the 25-year-old Voice of a Generation, Bob Dylan lived out the rock-star career arc on speed – sometimes literally. He’s spent the 35 years since outrunning old successes and New Dylans, veering far from pop culture’s center onto side roads: to country music, to Christ, even, in an ironic look back, to MTV Unplugged.
“Can Dylan preserve his folk-like integrity from youth through the middle years and even into a venerable old age?” music professor Wilfrid Mellers wrote in 1972 after Dylan had emerged from his self-imposed exile in Woodstock. “If so, he’ll be a phenomenon, as well as a great song-maker. I wish I could be alive in the year 2000, if only to know the answer.” In 2001, the question seems almost quaint. Dylan, who turned 60 last week, has guarded his own brand of integrity so thoroughly that he’s become a phenomenon only he can understand. The “great song-maker” spent most of the past decade on the road – telling one interviewer “a person gets to the point where they have written enough songs” – before deciding that his new fans deserved new material and then, seemingly with no more thought than that, winning his first Album of the Year Grammy for giving them some.
As much as his prolific output and carefully guarded private life, such eccentric artistic choices have made a truly definitive Dylan story an intimidating feat for biographers: How do you reconcile the Dylan who appeared opposite Rupert Everett in the straight-to-video Hearts of Fire in 1987 with the Dylan who recorded the haunting Oh Mercy just two years later? Published in 1986, Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan consigned everything after 1977 to an epilogue; two years later, Bob Spitz’s Dylan: A Biography summed up what was then the last decade in a chapter. Both mostly danced around the obvious question posed in the title of Paul Williams’s book about the singer’s Christian period: Dylan – What Happened?
Since 1997, when Dylan released Time Out of Mind, he’s loomed so large that books about him are getting smaller: One focused on the “Never Ending Tour” that began in 1988; another, on his 1966 concerts. In that tradition, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña fleshes out Dylan’s time in the Greenwich Village folk scene through his relationship with his famous former lover, her sister, and the writer and musician who married and recorded with her. But though there’s plenty here about Dylan’s early scrambles toward success – little of it flattering – Hajdu’s most compelling character is Richard Fariña. Every bit as ambitious as Dylan and even better at obscuring his background, Fariña comes off as an equally Faustian folkie – he tells Dylan that basically, for the sake of his career, he needs to “start screwing Joan Baez.”
Whatever Fariña’s real motives, Baez helped secure stardom for Dylan, and even before he went electric, their energy was palpable. “Catch him now was the idea,” Richard Fariña wrote in Mademoiselle. “Next week he might be mangled on a motorcycle.” He was tragically prophetic. After Dylan summarily abandoned Baez, folk music, and most of his former friends for good measure, Positively 4th Street ends in two motorcycle accidents for two unsteady riders: the one that sidelined Dylan, and the one, three months earlier, that killed Richard Fariña. But while Fariña’s reputation can rest on one novel, two albums of duets with Mimi, and any number of intriguing possibilities, Dylan had to dust himself off, reinvent his music, and live the rest of his life in the shadow of what might be the most extraordinary five years any pop musician has ever had.
How he did so, and what separated Dylan from peers like Fariña, are two of the central questions of Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, an expanded version of his 1990 biography. The answer, Heylin maintains, is that “the ability constantly to reinvent who Bob Dylan was, and is, remains the primary characteristic of his art.” Following his increasingly elusive subject down his side roads and onto ever-narrower paths – Traveling Wilbury, Deadhead – Heylin makes a comprehensive case for Dylan’s intermittently brilliant and occasionally unreleased eighties songs.
As iconoclastic and cantankerous a biographer as Dylan deserves – in a Dylanesque turn of phrase, he calls the acclaimed Time Out of Mind “a work constructed by proxy, built on sand” – Heylin also begins to close the curtain, dismissing Dylan’s mid-nineties albums of folk and country covers as uninspired and Time Out of Mind as a gauzy echo of 1989’s Oh Mercy. Dylan at 60, says Heylin, “has come full circle from the twenty-one-year-old for whom ‘there came a certain point where … I had to write what I wanted to sing.’ “
According to Howard Sounes’s Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, there also came certain points when Dylan had to keep a secret wife and child, ask to become a permanent member of the Grateful Dead, and clandestinely buy a coffeehouse in Santa Monica. Sounes’s scoops seem gossipy, but they’re also revealing in their way: Now that Dylan has secured elder-statesman status, it’s almost easy to forget how weird he’s often been, how strange it was to hear him mumble “Masters of War” at the 1991 Grammys, just as Gulf War fervor was reaching a fever pitch.
But as he tracks Dylan’s constant change, Sounes also emphasizes the way he’s always returned to the sense of imminent reckoning he found in the rural American songs he heard on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Separated from each other by a decade and a half, the folk ballad “When the Ship Comes In” and the gospel anthem “Slow Train” share that theme – they just differ in mode of transportation.
If Dylan has indeed come full circle, it’s not the first time – he also immersed himself in folk songs during his Basement Tapes session with the Band – and Sounes rightly credits his mid-nineties albums of covers as “important reference works for the great comeback album that was brewing in Bob’s imagination.” At 60, Dylan often sounds more like he did at 20 than he has since: obsessed with mortality, steeped in the spooky grandeur of rural American music, and challenging anyone – fans, biographers, sometimes even himself – to figure out what he might do next.