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The portions of the book relating to Eat the Document; Dylan’s collaboration with The Band; and Dylan’s loner/withdrawn/lost in a bottle late-80s persona have their moments.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.
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.