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.

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