It ain’t him, babe

Danny Karlin

  • No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton
    New English Library, 573 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 450 04843 8

Portraits require sitters. Portraits of the famous, which often seem designed for target practice, require the sitters to be sitting ducks as well. But Bob Dylan can’t stand sitting. Try playing chess with him: ‘His knees bounce up against the table so much you think you are at a séance. The pieces keep jumping around the board. But he beats me every time.’ (Dave Van Ronk said that.) That must be how every interviewer feels – except, it seems, Robert Shelton. It’s 1966: Dylan is talking to Shelton, whose book about him he has agreed to countenance, if not to ‘authorise’. He says something about his relationship with Joan Baez, and then asks:

‘Can you write this in your book? If you can’t, man, it’s a waste of time. I mean, is your book going to be a mature book, or is this all just a waste of time?’ I reassured him.

In view of Shelton’s immature self-assurance (he has just described the Dylan-Baez relationship as ‘one of the most intriguing show-business liaisons of the times’, a phrase fatally unaware of what the word ‘intriguing’ might imply), readers of this book, too, may need reassurance. I have little to give them as far as Shelton’s own opinions, style or narrative ability are concerned. They are, respectively, uninteresting, impoverished and nil.

Shelton sees himself as an investigative insider, neither fully privileged nor fully detached. He is, if I have got the balance right, a not uncritical partisan. This sounds principled, but in practice it means that at crucial points of biographical interest, where a friend might have declared his intention to keep a confidence, or a reporter his determination to break a silence, Shelton flinches and fudges, or resorts to an opaque defensiveness. Here he is on the break-up of Dylan’s marriage: ‘Must I record it here for posterity? Do you really want to know the personal details of an argument they had here or there?’ Whether you answer yes or no to that, doesn’t let Shelton off the hook: in fact, it makes his position worse, because he is palpably condescending both to Dylan and to his own readers. If there is pain and scandal in a person’s life, and you are broadcasting that life to others, what good does it do to mumble into the megaphone?

It is not too harsh to accuse Shelton of squandering his opportunity, an opportunity of unrivalled scope. He has been in place for twenty-five years, ever since his famous New York Times review of 29 September 1961, which, if it did not ‘launch’ Dylan, at least gave him a hefty shove down the slipway. There is nothing half as shrewd or well-written in No Direction Home; it is Shelton, not Dylan, who seems to have reached his peak in the Sixties. The book is a jumble of information and impressions, whose chaos is not creative but merely disorderly. Shelton simply lacks the skills of argument and organisation, the flair and critical judgment, which would have made his book of independent value. The things that remain are not Shelton’s, but Dylan’s: facts, trivia, photos, and above all quotes. Some of these are available elsewhere, but others are not; the gratitude I feel to Shelton for assembling them is matched by the exasperation of having to dig them out.

If only Shelton had contented himself with compiling a ‘Dylan Handbook’, for which he was ideally qualified. For years I have been listening to that paean of disdain, ‘Positively Fourth Street’, without realising that Fourth Street refers to Greenwich Village; for years I have been haunted by ‘She belongs to me’ without knowing that Joan Baez owns an ‘Egyptian ring’ just like the one in the song. Now I know that in ‘In My Time of Dyin’ Dylan uses ‘old modal tuning’ on his guitar; now I know what the various items are on the cover of Bringing it all back home; now I can reflect on the astounding fact that Marlene Dietrich recorded ‘Blowin’ in the wind’. But Shelton has been painting his masterpiece since the mid-Sixties; his self-importance wouldn’t let him abandon it for some more modest and useful work. The Song Index and Discography in his book are by other people (S.J. Estes and Roger Ford); Shelton himself prefers ersatz social history (‘The year 1960 was after Joe McCarthy, before Eugene McCarthy. After the beats, before the hippies. After the Old Left, before the New Left. After Campbell’s soup, before Andy Warhol …’) or literary comment of equal silliness and banality (‘The women of Thrace tore Orpheus to pieces, as a crowd of rock teenyboppers would a rock star, if they could’; ‘The best art is a flame warming our own imaginations, a campfire that irradiates some universal human experiences’). Mixed in with much valuable information about the musical sources of Dylan’s songs, or with identification of the backing musicians on some of the album tracks, are daft comments on Dylan’s ‘aesthetic and philosophical concepts’, like this one on the ‘grotesque’: ‘Mister Jones, Doctor Filth, Savage Rose and the Phantom of the Opera are second cousins to the medieval gargoyles on Notre Dame, stepchildren of types in Rimbaud and Apollinaire, neighbours of the vermin in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.’ What must Dylan make of this meaningless buzz? Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett that he had never lacked ‘a real set of good hearty praisers’: ‘No – what I laughed at in my “gentle audience” is a sad trick the real admirers have of admiring at the wrong place – enough to make an apostle swear. That does make me savage …’ The apostle has been swearing for a quarter of a century, as in the note to ‘You’re a big girl now’ on Biograph:

Stupid and misleading jerks sometimes these interpreters are – I mean I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of myself and keep changing with the times, right? Like that’s my foolish mission. How many roles can I play? Fools, they limit you to their own unimaginative mentality … There is so much misunderstanding by people who are caught up in their own little worlds laid on you.

Shelton, who quotes from this tirade, is comically unaware of its application to himself.

The book has suffered from its protracted gestation. It feels as though it was to have been published fifteen years ago, and has been hastily and patchily updated. It is very full (too full) on the early part of Dylan’s career, up to the motor-cycle accident in 1966; thin from there to the Rolling Thunder tour of 1975; negligible on the next decade, arguably Dylan’s best, and certainly one of his most controversial periods. Dylan’s electric ‘apostasy’ from pure folk gets dozens of pages of detailed discussion, his ‘conversion’ to Christianity a bare few. (Both terms are in inverted commas because both are makeshifts.) Of course, Shelton is a veteran of the first, not the second campaign: perhaps he couldn’t be expected to be as well-informed or as passionate about the one as about the other. But that only implies that he should have concentrated on what he knew, and left the rest to someone else.

Within its lopsided limits, Shelton moves without style or grace, and above all without a sense of proportion, among his accumulated heaps of data. The faded folk of Folk City march past in an interminable, unmemorable parade; some people are demeaned and denatured by the chronicle’s haste. Here is the life sentence for Hugh Brown, wanted for his sidelights on the great man’s college days: ‘Soft-spoken and humble, Hugh studied classics, wrote poetry, and later became a highway engineer.’ So long, buddy, and thanks.

Even Shelton can’t spoil some of the gifts his informers have given him. In 1959, Dylan phones a friend after hearing a Leadbelly record for the first time:

Bob almost shouted over the phone: ‘I’ve discovered something great! You got to come over here!’ They listened, and Bob was flabbergasted. ‘This is the thing, this is the thing,’ he repeated.

Fifteen years later, Dylan appears at a benefit concert for Chilean refugees, and the younger man’s vocal excitement is matched by the older man’s reticent and imaginative tact:

He spent time then with Joan Jara, widow of Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer whose fingers had been smashed with an ax before the junta executed him in Santiago’s National Stadium. Joan Jara, reliving her loss at rallies around the world, was under great strain. Dylan asked if she could ever relax. ‘ “Come down and see some nice pictures,” Dylan said to me, “Meet me at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street tomorrow afternoon at three, and I’ll take you to see some nice pictures.” I never imagined he would be there. But I showed up, and there he was, leaning against a lamppost. And he took me to the Museum of Modern Art, and showed me around, said he was with us.’ He was difficult to talk to, Joan Jara said.

A few moments like this and you can – almost – forgive Shelton anything. I should stress that not all such moments make Dylan look good. A college acquaintance describes nailing him for a theft of records from his apartment in Minneapolis:

I think he apologised, but I am not sure. He didn’t come round to see me any more after that. The funny thing is that I didn’t feel that there was anything malicious about his stealing the records. I think he believed that he needed them more than I did. But it expressed a certain amount of contempt for me personally, because you don’t steal from people you respect.

The speaker here has a right to his dignity; a friend of his glances with dry wit at Dylan’s magpie genius: ‘We figured that about a hundred dollars’ worth of records were involved. He had taken the very best of the lot. He had an unerring sense of what to take.’

Few of the anecdotes in the book are as revealing or enjoyable as this. To make up for it there is a lot of Dylan himself, in the form of scattered comments and excerpts from letters, conversations and interviews. Some of these utterances are muffled, a few pretentious and self-absorbed, but even the debris in the comet’s tail has fire and sparkle. The book has a generous sample of Dylan’s ferocious banter with hacks and pseuds, as in this 1965 press conference:

Q: I wonder if you could tell me, among folk singers, how many could be characterised as protest singers today?

A: I don’t understand. Could you ask the question again?

Q: How many people who labor in the same musical vineyards in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, how many use their music to protest about the social state in which we are today?

A: How many? One hundred thirty-six.

Shelton sees Dylan sending ‘coded subliminal messages to the initiate’ with such sarcasm: surely it’s more straightforward than that. Questions which insult the intelligence are best returned to sender. Here is an interview with Village Voice, from the same year, less good-humoured but still on the numbers game:

Q: Bob, what about the situation of American poets. Kenneth Rexroth has estimated that since 1900 about thirty American poets have committed suicide.

A: Thirty poets! What about American housewives, mailmen, street cleaners, miners? Jesus Christ, what’s so special about thirty people that are called poets …

Q: Don’t you have any important philosophy for the world?

A: I don’t drink hard liquor, if that’s what you mean.

Q: No. The world in general. You and the world?

A: Are you kidding? The world don’t need me. Christ, I’m only five feet ten.

Better questions get better treatment. A glancing remark, on his own work or that of others, can open a long perspective of critical inquiry. Shelton asks him if he would consider living outside America: ‘Yes, I would. But creatively, I couldn’t live anywhere but America, because I understand the tone behind the language there.’ The truth of that illuminates a score of songs where Dylan’s mastery of American idiom predominates, especially in the fast and furious vein of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Hurricane’, ‘Clean Cut Kid’, and, from his most recent album Knocked Out Loaded, the magnificent ‘Maybe Someday’. To another interviewer, in 1964, Dylan said:

The teachers in school taught me everything was fine. That was the accepted thing to think. It was in all the books. But it ain’t fine, man. There are so many lies that have been told, so many things that are kept back. Kids have a feeling like me, but they ain’t hearing it no place. They’re scared to step out. But I ain’t scared to do it, man.

Remember the hollow upbeat ending of ‘Desiderata’, that phony creed of the Sixties? ‘With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.’ Talk of shams! I heard it intoned on the radio today – the Prince of the Power of the Air is also and for ever the Prince of Platitudes. Dylan is still saying: ‘It ain’t fine … I ain’t scared.’ From the brochure accompanying Biograph: ‘When people don’t get threatened and challenged, I mean in some kind of way, they don’t get confronted, never have to make decisions, they never take a stand, they never grow, live their lives in a fishtank, stay in the same old scene forever, die and never get a break or a chance to say goodbye. I have views contrary to all that. I think that this world is just a passing through place and that the dead have eyes and that even the unborn can see and I don’t care who knows it.’

The debate about Dylan’s changes of musical style and political or religious direction sounds false in the light of such convictions. Admirers and detractors alike have fallen victim to the ‘periodic’ fallacy – the notion that the ‘folk Dylan’ or the ‘electric Dylan’ or the ‘country Dylan’ or the ‘gospel Dylan’ is the Dylan, and hence the hero of his own apotheosis or the demon of his own decline. Dylan is surely justified (in the liner note to ‘You’re a big girl now’ which I quoted earlier) in insisting that ‘contrary to what some so-called experts believe, I don’t constantly “reinvent” myself – I was there from the beginning.’ Along with such misconception goes that which focuses on Dylan’s ‘relevance’ or ‘significance’ as the time-bound representative of some cultural moment or other, whether anti-war or pro-flag, the student Left or the religious Right. Even Betsy Bowden, in one of the few good books about Dylan, can’t resist citing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ as ‘the anthem of my generation’ (Performed Literature: Words and Music by Bob Dylan, 1982). This may be true, but it is a truth which says more about the generation than the anthem. My own introduction to Dylan’s songs came from the Greatest Hits Vol. II of 1971. I didn’t know which ‘period’ the various songs came from. I’ve worked backward and forward from that point, collecting the earlier and later albums; they sound all of a piece to me.

I have to confess to an unreasoning impatience with those who profess not to respect or understand Dylan’s work. In 1600 the same people were going around saying that the drama was not a proper or serious medium, that the theatre was frequented by riffraff and that guys like Shakespeare stole their plots and were only in it for the money. I know people who think that Dylan can’t sing, or play the harmonica, or write good English, and anyway, according to Anthony Burgess, ‘he can’t compare as a poet with, say, people like Philip Larkin or even Adrian Mitchell.’ I know I ought to argue with these people. I know I ought to explain, patiently, that Dylan is the practitioner of an original art which does not respond to the traditional categories of analysis; that his skills of composition and expression are indivisible, and provide him with a technical resource of extraordinary range, power and intensity; that he uses this resource to sing about things that matter, and that his singing makes them matter to his listeners if they didn’t matter before; that, like all great artists, he tells some of the truth. For Dylan himself it’s not enough. Asked how he would change his life, he replies: ‘Yeah, well, sometimes I think that I get by on only 50 per cent of what I got, sometimes even less. I’d like to change that I guess … that’s about all I can think of.’ But 50 per cent of Bob Dylan is a whole lot better than too much of nothing.