Among the Bobcats

Mark Ford

  • The Dylan Companion edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman
    Macmillan, 338 pp, £10.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 333 49826 7
  • Bob Dylan: Performing Artist. Vol. I: 1960-73 by Paul Williams
    Xanadu, 310 pp, £14.99, February 1991, ISBN 1 85480 044 2
  • Dylan: Behind the Shades by Clinton Heylin
    Viking, 528 pp, £16.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 670 83602 8
  • The Bootleg Series: Vols I-III (rare and unreleased) 1961-1991 by Bob Dylan
    Columbia, £24.95, April 1991

May the 24th is Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday. To anyone involved with Dylan in the mid-Sixties, say during his medicine-fuelled blaze with the Band through Australia and Europe in 1966, the fact that he is not only alive but still performing twenty-five years later must in itself seem utterly extraordinary. One of the key aspects of the Dylan myth during those roller-coaster years was that he wouldn’t be around much longer. He was popping quantities of pills; he hardly ever slept; he seemed to provoke showdowns with any authority he could find. ‘He was Christ revisited,’ remarked an Australian actress he briefly took up with. On occasion Dylan himself explicitly tried on the martyr’s role: ‘I have a death-thing, I know ...’ he told his official biographer Robert Shelton in one of his more revealing interviews, as if confiding to an apostle.

The concerts themselves often turned into furious confrontations between performers and audience, with disgruntled folk-music lovers heckling throughout the rock ‘n’ roll sets. ‘He wants shooting,’ fulminates an angry fan in the unreleased film of the tour, Eat the document. But Dylan thrived on exactly this kind of hostility. The most thrilling single moment of his musical career is probably still the performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ immortalised on what became known as the Royal Albert Hall bootleg, though it seems that most of this tape was recorded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Dylan and the Band had been barracked between most of the numbers of the second half of the show, in which he changed from acoustic to electric guitar. As they prepare to launch into the final song a dismayed folkie yells out ‘Judas!’ to general applause. ‘I don’t believe you ... You’re a li-i-ar,’ Dylan drawls back venomously. ‘Quit talking Bob,’ mutters a member of the Band just before the music crashes sublimely in.

It is a generally held truth among Dylan admirers that no one writes well about him, though the flow of articles and books is almost unceasing. The selective bibliography at the back of The Dylan Companion runs to almost twenty dense pages. Expositions of Dylan’s life and work come from a bewildering variety of angles. As a popular artist he attracts and has been appropriated by all kinds: sophisticated literary critics such as Aidan Day and Christopher Ricks, slob biographers such as Bob Spitz, genuine crazies like A. J. Weberman, who, as founder of the Dylan Liberation front, used to conduct seminars to his groupies on the Dylan family’s garbage; fervent hagiographers like Paul Williams; politicians (Jimmy Carter was always quoting Dylan when on the stump), rock journalists, music historians, cultural historians, hard-core fanzine-types; and even an English international fast-bowler – Bob ‘Dylan’ Willis changed his name by deed-poll as long ago as 1965.

Performing Artist offers a pretty crass but thorough account of Dylan’s performances, live and studio, from 1960 to 1973. Williams is much given to two-word sentences – almost everything Dylan does is summed up as ‘Very moving’ or ‘Great music.’ The book is really one long ill-written paean of praise, an interminable ecstatic hymn to Saint Bob. The overall effect is acutely embarrassing, and contrary to the spirit of Dylan’s songs with their continued insistence on the virtues of self-reliance – ‘Trust yourself,’ ‘You don’t need a weatherman/ To know which way the wind blows ...’ Williams is absolutely, and even touchingly, sincere in his homage, but his heart-felt devotion only rarely throws up worthwhile insights into his idol’s creative processes.

Clinton Heylin is a more dispassionate Dylan observer. Though he claims not to be a ‘completist’ – a collector dedicated to amassing every bootleg Dylan tape ever made, even if it’s only a question of Dylan typing in the background while someone else sings – Heylin is a vastly knowledgeable Bobcat. His earlier reference book Stolen Moments offered a comprehensive guide to Dylan’s activities: from it you can find out what he was up to in any given month over the last thirty years. Behind the Shades is certainly the most accurately researched and competently written account of Dylan’s life yet, though it lacks the street-wise immediacy of Scaduto’s compelling Intimate Biography of 1971. Mercifully Heylin attempts no intrusive explanations of Dylan’s genius, confining himself to the more humble role of setting the record straight. Dylan’s own radical economies with the truth and the gullibility of his previous biographers, particularly Shelton, provide him with plenty of misconceptions to overturn.

When Dylan arrived in New York in 1961 with his folk guitar, his guttural Okie drawl and stray waif’s cap, he was obviously not keen to reveal his prosperous Jewish middle-class origins in Hibbing, Minnesota, where his father Abe Zimmerman owned an electrical appliance store. He wove all kinds of fanciful tales about his childhood: he was an orphan; he’d run away from home at 12; he’d joined a carnival, worked as a farmhand, had played out West with Woody Guthrie, with Gene Vincent, with Blind Lemon Jefferson ... He was soon even mythologising his own early days in New York, claiming to Shelton, who swallowed the story whole, that he spent his first two months in the big city hustling around Times Square as a rent boy. In the early Sixties in particular Dylan’s life seems to have been one continuous imaginative performance, and he was understandably aggrieved when in 1963 a Newsweek bloodhound ran a thorough check on his antecedents and even tracked down his parents to a New York hotel where they were staying: it seems Dylan himself had insisted they fly in to attend his first concert at Carnegie Hall, while claiming not even to know if his parents were alive any more.

Heylin scrupulously and uncensoriously separates actual events from the mythical self-projections by which Dylan, like so many archetypal American heroes before him, has sought to define himself over the years. His denial of his family history and assumption of the rootless Dylan persona can be seen as a typically American act of self-creation, along the lines of ‘Call me Ishmael.’ Dylan is for ever figuring himself torn between a potential home and the excitements of the road, and these opposed concepts take on in his work an enormous range of imaginative associations. ‘I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be,’ he commented at a 1986 press conference. When asked who he was the rest of the time, he replied: ‘Myself.’ Heylin seizes on this remark as support for his general theory of Dylan’s development: ‘The ability constantly to re-invent who Bob Dylan was, and is, remains the primary characteristic of his art.’ He carefully doesn’t mention Dylan’s own explicit rejection of exactly this interpretation of his shifts of focus over the years. In an excerpt from an interview printed as the liner notes to ‘You’re a big girl now’ on Biograph (1985) he insisted: ‘Contrary to what some so-called experts believe, I don’t constantly re-invent myself – I was there from the beginning. I’m also not any seeker or searcher of God knows what, had it all together awhile back and can go any kind of way.’ Even Emerson, who believed the true American artist constantly evades all attempts made to impose a reductive system on his imagination, would have been impressed.

Given the intense scrutiny to which Dylan’s life has already been subjected, it’s unsurprising that Heylin doesn’t come up with much startling new information. His most intriguing discovery concerns a school for ‘difficult’ adolescents in Pennsylvania to which the young Robert Zimmerman was sent by his parents, who seem to have believed his nonconformity indicated genuine psychological problems, for an unspecified period in 1959. The dirge-like ‘Walls of Red Wing’ (1963) describes the harsh regime of a boy’s reform school, and was probably inspired by this experience. Behind the Shades is, though, a better-balanced book than Shelton’s or Spitz’s. Both earlier biographers dealt exhaustively with Dylan’s life up to his motorbike accident in 1966 – which, it has gradually emerged, far from being the near-fatality his manager Grossman hinted at to the press, resulted only in a few cracked vertebrae and some facial scars – but then skated over the remaining years, pausing only to note the excellence of Blood on the Tracks (1975). Heylin allots equal space to each of the three decades of Dylan’s career, and offers a particularly judicious assessment of his achievements in the post-conversion Eighties, when, despite writing his usual quota of outstanding songs, Dylan almost perversely refused to make a great album, though Oh Mercy of 1989, partly due to its expert production by Daniel Lanois, would run any but his three unassailable classics, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, pretty close.

Partly the problem seems to have been Dylan’s bewilderment at the opportunities afforded by a modern 32-track studio. In the old days he’d go in with a batch of songs and record them as fast as possible. The solo Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) was recorded in a single night, and even the richly-textured Desire (1976) was cut at a few sessions in less than a week. Spontaneity has always been an essential aspect not only of Dylan’s live performances but of his finest studio recordings as well. He would rarely inform his session musicians what was required of them; he’d simply launch into a song leaving them to fumble for the changes in his wake. Nor would he attempt more than a couple of takes – if the song hadn’t come right by then he’d junk it or record it some other time.

In the Eighties, though, he began experimenting with grand studio effects, nearly always to the detriment of the song concerned. A potentially excellent album like Empire Burlesque (1985) is almost ruined by disastrous over-production that includes disco-funk synthesisers, intrusive backing singers and overdubbed wailing horn tracks. Equally infuriating has been his habit of leaving great songs off the albums for which they were intended. The out-takes that have emerged from his Eighties sessions, particularly the excellent Infidels (1983) bootleg, are nearly always much stronger than the official albums. How Dylan could write and record songs such as ‘Caribbean Wind’, ‘Blind Willie McTell’, ‘The Groom’s still waiting at the altar’, ‘Series of Dreams’, and then not release them, is utterly mysterious. Heylin’s implied verdict on recent output seems to me just: that though creatively Dylan is as vital as ever, his critical faculties have rather deserted him. It’s been a while since one could claim that, in the words of ‘John Wesley Harding’, ‘he was never known to make a foolish move.’

These lapses were partially redeemed by Biograph (1985) and are further corrected by this Official Bootleg Series: Volumes I-III, at last put out by Columbia. Ever since the first ever bootleg, titled Great White Wonder, emerged from California in 1969, made up half of tracks recorded with the Band in Woodstock in 1967 that were later released as The Basement Tapes, and half of 1961 Dylan versions of folk and blues classics, it has been dawning on successive generations of fans that quantities of his very best material can be obtained only illegally through collectors’ networks. His 36 (!) albums really are just the tip of the iceberg. Some bootlegs, like the Blood on the Tracks out-takes and the Royal Albert Hall concert, are so readily available that almost anyone with a passing interest in Dylan will probably have them. Others – for instance, the complete Basement Tapes recordings – are more jealously guarded by the completists, among whom passions run high. A collector friend of mine once received a death threat after refusing to pass on a rare recording.

This five-record set is weighted very heavily towards Dylan’s early years as a folk-hero in Greenwich Village, perhaps in an attempt to see off the Gaslight Tapes and Historical Archives bootlegs that have proved so popular. 1961-64 were undoubtedly Dylan’s most prolific years as a writer – and one is staggered again by the skill with which he adapted folk and blues tradition to reflect his own personal and political concerns. In his electric period he claimed he only got into folk because he realised it was the coming thing, but this is obviously nonsense: the wonderful versions of classics such as ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘On the Trail of the Buffalo’, ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ performed during his 1988 concerts powerfully illustrated the extent to which his involvement in folk music has only deepened.

Since this set is the first in a projected series of volumes, and if we take into account the vast extent of the material from which the selection has been made, all presumably with Dylan’s consent, it’s probably not fair to quibble about omissions. It’s disappointing not to find, for instance, ‘Tell me, Momma’, ‘I’m not there’ (1956), ‘Sign on the Cross’, ‘Ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody’: let’s hope they’ll feature on later releases. It’s less easy to comprehend the choice of inferior versions of certain songs. Dylan has certainly given more spirited renditions of ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’ than the one included here. The ‘Blind Willie McTell’ is a less gripping take than the bootlegged one that emerged in 1983; that performance was probably rejected on the grounds that Dylan coughs during the first line, but it has a genuinely apocalyptic drive that the version released here never quite achieves. Strangest of all is the selection of a brittle guitar-and-bass only take of ‘Idiot Wind’ over the far more haunting, emotionally wrenching version which features on the standard Blood on the Tracks bootleg, with its rippling organ accompaniment by Paul Griffin. (This is obviously the take which John Bauldie, author of the informative accompanying booklet, assumed would be used, since he refers to the importance of the ‘spooky organ’ to the song’s overall effect.) By the time of the second Rolling Thunder tour in 1976 ‘Idiot Wind’ had become a terrifyingly charged rant, Dylan spitting out the words in a frenzy of disgust, but these early versions – particularly the more vulnerable one featuring Griffin’s organ – emphasise the extent to which the song emerged out of despair rather than anger.

To even only moderately-motivated Dylan enthusiasts – Bobkittens rather than Bobcats – much of the material in this series will be familiar. It does, though, include some rarities which have surprised the most ruthless of completists, and which in turn suggest that no one outside Dylan’s circle knows exactly what lies gathering dust in the Columbia vaults. The most entrancing of these is ‘Santa Fe’ from the Basement Tapes sessions, which offers an example of the gift for improvisation that is so central to Dylan’s genius. Allen Ginsberg, among many others, has marvelled at Dylan’s ability to compose spontaneously at the microphone, suggesting that the resulting lyrics should be seen as ‘a composite of what was going on in his mind’. During those freewheeling afternoons with the Band in the basement of Big Pink in Woodstock, he was often content to dispense completely with the idea of actual words, slurring sounds together to create a kind of shadow song that trembles on the brink of meaning without quite entering the language. ‘Santa Fe’ loosely concerns a woman going away to Santa Fe and leaving the singer’s ‘whole heart in delay’, but the rest is an intriguing jumble of provisional almost-words. It sounds thin in the telling, but this technique, which Dylan uses in the magnificent ‘I’m not there’ and ‘Sign on the Cross’, produces some of his richest vocal performances. In comparison, his state-of-the-world blockbusters, from ‘The times they are a-changin” to ‘Foot of Pride’, can seem lumbering.

These qualities of understatement and indeterminacy aren’t really to be found in Dylan’s recent work. His imagination tends to be fully galvanised now only in his successive visions of apocalyptic destruction, his ‘dreams where’, as he puts it in the momentous ‘Series of Dreams’ (unaccountably left off Oh Mercy) that concludes the set:

the umbrella is folded
and into the path you are hurled
and the cards are no good that you’re holding
unless they’re from another world ...

Ravaged, cataclysmic landscapes abound, stalked by millennial figures like Jokerman or the Man in the Long Black Coat. Over the last couple of years Dylan has himself, Heylin reports, grown more eccentrically unapproachable than ever. During a series of his 1989 shows he appeared on stage wearing not only a hood but a peaked cap to conceal his features still further. At other concerts he insisted the lights be turned down to the point of near-darkness. His live performances, which have been all but continuous for the last three years, are wildly unpredictable, ranging from the sublime to the merely half-hearted. Even his hard-core following has been finding his waywardness hard to take: a particularly gruesome sequence of concerts in Europe during the autumn of 1990 became known in Bobcat circles as ‘The Horrid Tour’.

No one could accuse him of succumbing to the sinister marketing strategy which is re-packaging Sixties idols into a cosy nostalgia craze. You won’t find Dylan songs advertising tyres or jeans or insurance, though you will find phrases from his lyrics unconsciously used in almost any newspaper on any given day, and in the speech of people who have never even bought a Dylan record. It’s also interesting to note to what an incompatible range of other artists he appeals. Surely the only thing in common between Samuel Beckett, Miles Davis, Martin Scorsese, Philip Larkin, Frank O’Hara, Bob Marley, would be their shared interest in his music. His songs have been more widely covered by other musicians, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix, from Olivia Newton-John to the Waterboys, than those of any other writer. His influence on the history of rock ‘n’ roll is immeasurable.