5 November 1988. In the Madison suite of Sacha’s Hotel in Manchester (motto: ‘Sacha’s Only Looks Expensive’), Paul Williams recalls an unrewarding encounter with Bob Dylan: ‘But I shook his hand which was ... and this was at the beginning of the tour ... and things changed significantly during the tour ... he became more sociable, I’ve been talking to a number of people who did see him backstage later on in the tour, but, uh, his hand was very very soft, and it was ... it’s hard to describe – I don’t mean limp, but ... like a pillow, and the man himself ... now, I didn’t look at him for very long, and I’m not very visually-oriented, but it’s ... it was as though his head was very large. And it was just, you know ... it was a little bit ghostlike ... and, umm, and it was one of those ... you know, I mean he was friendly but it was totally, like you’re not, you know, you’re not necessarily really there.’ The soft hand so hard to describe was extended to Williams earlier in the year. Williams had met Dylan in 1966 and 1980, and describes Dylan on these occassions as less big-headed and more ‘really there’, ready to ‘see him backstage’ and even dedicate the only live performance of ‘Caribbean Wind’ to him. Williams speaks for 90 minutes to a packed, and rapt, audience. He has been in the presence. He is the next best thing.

Two people to whom we confessed that we were going to attend a Bob Dylan conference in Manchester misheard ‘concert’ for ‘conference’, assuming that the centrepiece of this ‘Million Dollar Bash’ must be ‘our man’, as Williams called him, actually appearing. But Williams himself was well aware that the centre was missing. At the end of his Saturday afternoon talk he previewed his Sunday event, using language which smacked of another kind of ritual, also concerned with absence and devotion (‘where two or three are gathered together in my name’): ‘What it’s going to be about, tomorrow afternoon, with the hour that’s called “I and I”, instead of me talking at you like I did today ... umm ... I’m going to use some very simple exercises that will give us a chance basically to talk to each other in groups of two or three about ... you know, with a little structure put on it by me as a facilitator, about the role that this guy plays in our lives and, if you will, how our ability to see him and hear him is affected by how important he is to us, or, you know, how ... Just, I mean, we share this in different ways, this peculiar phenomenon of caring enough about one living person to like, go to a convention that’s all about him when he isn’t even here.’

He isn’t even here. A trace of resentment lingers in this recognition, the ghost of a rebuke: he couldn’t be bothered to come to his own party. Three hundred and eighty of us could be bothered: yet the whole convention was built around the fact that everyone knew Dylan wouldn’t be coming: substitution and displacement were therefore the order of the day. Not one Dylan but a dozen competing Dylan lookalikes, some of whom performed not Dylan songs but imitations composed for the occasion. Dylan was represented by the marketing of his ‘collectibles’ (tapes, records, videos, books, posters, photographs, T-shirts), and by academic discussion of his texts and ideas. The academics included Aidan Day, who lectures at Edinburgh, specialises in Tennyson, and has published a study of Dylan’s lyrics.1 Day was on a panel discussing Dylan’s purported sexism with Richard Brown (Leeds University, Joyce), Neil Corcoran (Sheffield University, modern poetry) and Kath Burlinson, who has just stopped being half of the cabaret act ‘The Wild Girls’ and has settled down to do a PhD in 19th-century women’s poetry. Victorian earnestness and Modernist – not to say Post-Modernist – methods are being brought to bear on Dylan by people who (like Day’s co-editor of the Tennyson MSS, Christopher Ricks) have discovered that what Dylan has to say and his exceptional way of saying it are as responsive to their critical attention as the traditional topics of Eng Lit.

The panellists were worried that the ‘romantic outlaw’ tendency would object to their appropriation of Dylan, and their stamping and labelling of him with an unwanted respectability. There were also fears that macho Dylan fans (those who believe ‘Lay Lady Lay’ to be the jewel in the canon) would not tolerate feminist questioning of Dylan’s love-songs. In the event, these anxieties were unfounded, apart from one or two spluttering interventions. The meeting of two different kinds of preoccupation with Dylan, and two different approaches to interpretation (broadly, the analytical and the intuitive), gave the discussion an edge, but also an interest. Still, the session was an argument in itself for those ‘Protestants’ among followers of Dylan’s career for whom the apostolic succession of soft handshakes is less the real thing than the Book, the text of the songs. Literary critics will naturally incline to this ‘Protestant’ view, and we are no exception. Nevertheless, we would not wish academic conventions to be imposed on Bob Dylan conventions. The striking difference between ‘Million Dollar Bash’ and the recent Shakespeare conference in Stratford is that the Bob Dylan of his day is now the property of professionals for whom even the performances of his works are matters of employment as well as enjoyment. A far higher percentage of Million Dollar Bashers are groundlings; indeed, the intellectuals are fans before they are critics. The same cannot always be said of Shakespeare scholars, and yet, were Shakespeare alive now, his plays would be circulating in bootleg form (distributed, no doubt, by Bad Quarto Enterprises), and his fans would be saying to each other things like ‘Have you seen this amazing version of Lear in which he completely rewrites the final scene?’ Instead of Shakespeare Survey, which it is safe to say no non-academic playgoer reads, we have the Telegraph and the Wicked Messenger, to which Dylan fans of every description subscribe, and which welcome every kind of writing about him, from gossip to close reading and far-flung speculation.

Hazlitt wrote a fine essay ‘On persons one would wish to have met’ – Shakespeare being of course one of the foremost choices. In the case of a living artist, the wish, being capable of fulfilment, has a potency which may distract as much as concentrate the mind and the feelings; and with an artist like Dylan, who has a cult following, the element of wish-fulfilment can have some disturbing effects, as Paul Williams revealed in a candid self-analysis: ‘There’s a terrible thing that happens ... I find that the better the performance – you know when Dylan, when I was like, sitting in the audience in Berkeley in’86 – Dylan’s doing “Lenny Bruce” and I’m thinking “God! this is absolutely incredible! I can’t believe how he’s singing this song” ... The better he’s singing when I’m sitting out there in the audience, the more likely my mind is, it seems, to start to run away. You know, it’s like the very excitement or something. I think, actually, my theory is it’s fear. It’s so powerful when the art gets really good that some part of the mind, the ego or something, steps in, says “chatter chatter chatter chatter you know you’ve gotta break the spell here because you’re about to lose it altogether and be blown away by the power of this experience.” But it’s the terrible thing I find that, just when I want to concentrate most, my mind will start chattering, and one of the things my mind would chatter about on the tour was, little fantasies of how, er, I would end up backstage anyway, you know?’

The image of himself which Williams gives here is that of an innocent Rupert Pupkin. The fan in Martin Scorsese’s painfully funny The King of Comedy fantasises and ultimately kidnaps his way into the star’s backstage realm, with the aim of supplanting his idol; Williams, less ambitious, just wants to hang out there. Perhaps Williams is unlucky in having been given the chance to meet Dylan, a chance which seems to entail the wistful hope of its happening again. It would be foolish to pretend that we would not succumb in the same way: fortunately we, along with most of the people at the convention, were able to experience some unalloyed moments when the art got really good – moments when rare or un-released concert footage was shown on video. Dylan on video means in most cases seeing and hearing better the details of his performance, both textual and personal. Dylan is a great actor of his songs (though not a great actor in his films, as the dreadful Hearts of Fire has confirmed). One of the videos shown at the convention was a 1964 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation programme in the ‘Quest’ series, where Dylan sings on his own in a log-cabin stage set, surrounded by actors who form the audience but do not behave as in a concert. One is laboriously writing, others are playing cards or drinking coffee; no one applauds between the songs, and the only indications of their listening at all are an occasional foot tapping or a smile of appreciation. This meditative reticence on the audience’s part is like that of a private listener, and yet Dylan is ‘really there’, passionately restrained in his singing of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, haunting and grieving in the finale, ‘Restless Farewell’.

A quite different and much more showbiz video – also, as it happens, from Canada – had a set of religious songs performed at a concert in Toronto in 1980, soon after Dylan’s conversion and the release of his first ‘born again’ album, Slow Train Coming. The intensity of Dylan’s faith (both in what he was saying and in what he was singing) came straight across, ‘alive with fiery breath’, in versions of ‘Gotta serve somebody’, ‘I believe in you’, and (accompanying himself on the piano) ‘When he returns’. These exasperatingly underrated songs give the lie to the notion that Dylan peaked in the Sixties (or Seventies, for that matter). Admittedly, since Empire Burlesque (1986) Dylan fans have been thirsting in vain for a complete album of new songs; we have been frustrated by the prevalence of other people’s material on albums such as Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove. Dylan also makes a lively and distinctive contribution to The Travelling Wilburys, an album in which rock ‘legends’ have fun with their own and other people’s styles; he is said to have suggested a song which parodies the preening of Prince. It is as though Dylan himself has become an imitator, although we should recognise that imitation has been a driving force in his creative life. He recently contributed to an album commemorating Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, both acknowledged precursors. Of Guthrie he has said: ‘There was a time when I did nothing but his songs. I mean ... he’s written so many (laughs). I knew them all. I was like a Woody Guthrie jukebox. I was completely taken over by him ... by his spirit or whatever. I mean ... he had so much to give, you know. He was like a link in the chain for me. You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.’ What Dylan describes here might be the experience of a Dylan fan, with the difference that Dylan came out of the jukebox phase as his own man.

May 1989. Million Dollar Bash coincided with the publication of Clinton Heylin’s obsessive and authoritative chronology of Dylan’s life and work.2 Heylin’s is a labour of love; the reverse might be said of the book whose appearance was being rumoured at the convention, and which has now burst out in a blaze of self-congratulation. Dylan: A Biography, by the aptly named Bob Spitz,3 purports to supersede all previous efforts; Spitz is especially hostile to insiders like Robert Shelton:4 he himself has abjured the co-operation he knew he would not get and parades his high-mindedness in the preface. According to Spitz, Dylan has been ‘protected by literary sycophants’ right from the start: Spitz engages with Shelton’s New York Times article on Dylan in 1961. Music critics on the Times usually ‘remained deliberately distant from their subjects. It was a way of saying “I can’t be bought” ... Bob Shelton was another story altogether ... No one ever came right out and said it, but Robert Shelton was accessible.’ So Dylan has gone on, sheltered from the storm of truth which is now to burst upon him. It rains sex and drugs in Spitz; the atmosphere crackles not with Dylan’s talent but with his weirdness. It crackles, too, with the flashiness and self-regard of Spitz’s prose. Here he is on one of Dylan’s first girlfriends, Echo Helstrom:

If ever anyone was made for Hollywood, it was Echo. She had an ingenue’s name, the right attitude, and all the tinsel trimmings. High, wide Finnish cheekbones, Siamese eyes, pale, chalky skin, and a full steamy mouth that hung limply and begged for masculine sustenance of any kind – Oh Lord, she was a hot little number! Bobby was wild about her body too. Not that it was perfect, but Echo knew how to carry off what she had. And what she had was the promise of sex ... What a tease that girl was! She fancied herself a ‘real outlandish creature’. The ultimate shiksa who haunted every Jewish boy’s dreams.

Jackie Collins would blush to have written this. Spitz’s lowlife style would matter less if he had any knowledge of, or interest in, Dylan’s work. Not much is to be learned from sentences like this: ‘For Bobby, the discovery of rock’n’roll was a flat-out epiphany. It startled him out of his socks.’ Spitz scorns complex interpretations of the songs, which he regards as pretentious. ‘In a song, the poetry is sometimes just part of the machinery used to keep the entire process in gear. And occasionally it derived entirely from good dope.’

More disturbing than such crassness are the dislike and incomprehension which seem to be the animating principles of Spitz’s enterprise. ‘Even as a child, Bobby never had a great set of pipes. He could carry a tune, but his singing voice was thin and wavery. It lacked the resonance of a confident vocalist who takes command of a melody, infusing it with his I own phrasing and expression.’ If you want Dylan to sound like Sinatra, you’re not going to get far with ‘Visions of Johanna’, ‘Idiot Wind’ or ‘Brownsville Girl’.

7 June 1989. That unique voice is less than ever like Sinatra’s as Dylan fiercely performs songs from earlier in his career at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. He does not once speak to us, only sings at us; the prime ‘message’ is conveyed by the finale, marking a decade of Mrs Thatcher: ‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.’ This line is reproduced on the tour T-shirts. The huge audience seems happy, under a cloud of marijuana smoke, to welcome the old standards: there are no Christian songs.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences