Tag Archives: Self Portrait

Positively 4th Street

Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton (Hyperion, $26.99, 383 pages)

“Hibbing, Minnesota, is the site of the biggest man-made hole in the world, an existential allegory if there ever was one…  Hibbing cannibalized itself…  If the biggest hole in the world had an effect on (Dylan), why hadn’t it shown up in any of his songs?   Or has it?   Is that what he’s been doing, filling it up?”  

David Dalton’s overly-psychedelic look at Bob Dylan never comes close to telling the reader who “the real” Dylan is.   There are a number of problems with this account, the chief one being that, instead of de-mythologizing the legend and presenting a human being, Dalton regurgitates every myth in circulation and then proceeds to create additional ones.   The all-too-clever Gonzo-journalism style, 45 years or so out-of-date, is often painful to read, as when Dalton writes about “…the hallucinatory negativity of Blonde on Blonde.”   Really?   (What album was he listening to?)

It gets worse, as when Dalton refers to Hank Williams, one of young Bob’s first idols, as “the hillbilly Shakespeare” (groan).   Although Dalton may now and then redeem himself (like when he notes that Dylan looks at America with an immigrant’s eye), the sometimes-fascinating portions of this work are fully overwhelmed by its dreadful aspects.   It may appeal to some – such as those who love middle-school style humor – but the writer tries much too hard to be as hip as Dylan’s old album liner notes.   Not recommended for hardcore Dylan fans, although some quirky readers who like humor and sarcasm presented in the guise of serious musical criticism may be inexplicably drawn to it.

All in all, this is Positively 4th Street.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note:  As an example of Dalton’s excessively strange style of covering Dylan’s recording career, he comes up with eight so-called reasons why Dylan’s two-record set Self-Portrait was relatively unsuccessful.   He cites as reason 5 the fact that someone failed to tell the Byrds that they were scheduled to play on the album, and so they “flew home.”   This is not factual nor is it funny.

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Nothing Was Delivered

Who is that Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton (Random House, $26.99, 383 pages)

“Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part/ Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put/ Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart.”   Bob Dylan, “I and I” from Infidels

What distinguishes David Dalton’s Who is that Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan from the plethora of other Dylan books, many of them recent, is certainly the style of the writing.   There is little new information, though, as is the case with most of these books, there are subtleties based on the relative emphasis placed on certain events, time periods, or works, as well as the perspective from which the writer comes at Dylan’s fascinating life and body of work.

In this case, it appears as if Dalton attempts to match the style of the storytelling with the particular phase of Dylan’s career.   Rather than convey the information in a more traditional manner, Dalton’s book comes across more like a novel – almost as if he is creating a story for a reader and Dylan just happens to be the main character.

At times this is interesting and works, but at others it can be a little overbearing.   The opening, for example, does draw the reader in a bit, when Dylan is cast in the third person as a character ambling through his early experiences and making his mad break for fame in Greenwich Village.   However, when he shifts to the mid-60s, mod, hipster Bob, Dalton writes as if he’s trying to mimic Tarantula or Dylan and Bobby Neuwrith’s verbal sparring with their perceived “enemies,” and it just gets to be too much.

The portions of the book relating to Eat the Document; Dylan’s collaboration with The Band; and Dylan’s loner/withdrawn/lost in a bottle late-80s persona have their moments.   While it is fairly obvious that Dalton admires Dylan, he does not hold back when describing Dylan’s aberrant and even despicable behavior at various stages of his life.

Dalton, for whatever reason, chooses to allocate a good portion of his discussion to Dylan’s fascination with movies and misguided attempts at producing them and other appearances in film (Eat the Document, Renaldo and Clara, the Hard Rain concert film, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the more recent Masked and Anonymous, and the documentary No Direction Home), many of which qualify more as interesting sidebars than as highlights of his career.   He also seems to get stuck in certain phases of Dylan’s career and life, such as the mid-60s explosion, his attempts at domestication and faltering marriages, and tales of excessive drunkenness in the latter parts of the decades of the 70s and 80s.

Receiving minimal treatment, comparatively speaking, is Dylan’s renaissance, beginning with his Woodstock ’94 concert and spanning two decades and counting, with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, 2001’s masterpiece, Love and Theft, and the very fine Modern Times(2006).   This copy might not be as interesting to some as the inside scoop and dirt that permeates much of the rest of the book, but it should have received more serious attention.

Dalton’s interpretation of Time Out of Mind is that of an artist pre-occupied with death.   While this is certainly evident throughout the album, the coincidence of Dylan’s hospitalization just prior to the release of this album has caused many to focus too much on that element of it.   The lyrics and themes are much more sophisticated and complicated than that, which partly explains why the album was so well received.   Not only were music lovers relieved that Dylan pulled through and was still around to tell the world stories, but they were damn good stories, and there was a collective sigh of relief that – one more time, Dylan was back.

What is most disappointing is that Dalton never answers the question he sets up in the title.   Perhaps the point is that, after all this time (all these years), nobody really knows the real Bob Dylan and he remains a marvelous mystery.   Dalton tells a nice story at times, but it would seem that if you are going to title the book Who is that Man? about one of the greatest enigmas and artists of the last 100 years and fill it with information that leads the reader to believe that you have some insights into the answer to that question, then you should at least attempt to present the reader with your opinion on the answer when the very last page is turned.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   Who is that Man? was released on April 24, 2012.

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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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