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.

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