Bob’s back pages

Trying to figure Bob Dylan out is a tough task — just ask the man himself.

In a 1984 European press conference, Dylan told reporters: "I don't think I'm gonna be really understood until maybe 100 years from now. What I've done, what I'm doing, nobody else does or has done. When I'm dead and gone, maybe people will realize that, and then figure it out. I don't think anything I've done has been even mildly hinted at."

But it's not for lack of trying, judging from the number of books about Dylan out there. His work has been dissected from every angle in biographies and analytical treatises. His career has been carefully — even obsessively — documented in words and pictures. It seems like we're entering a period of re-examination of his works, fueled in part by Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home and Dylan's own autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1.

The Bob Dylan Scrapbook, 1955-1966 (Simon & Schuster) is, at heart, nothing but a giant pop-up book for adults. This companion to the aforementioned documentary has reproductions of ticket stubs, pencil-scrawled lyric sheets on ersatz notebook paper, promo photos and miniature record store stand-up displays. There's also a CD with interviews with Dylan. The text, written by Experience Music Project muckety-muck Robert Santelli, is lively and informative. It's total eye (and mind) candy and a great way to engage in some serious Zimmy fetishism.

Another hulking hardcover, Dylan: Visions, Portraits, & Back Pages (DK) takes a comprehensive and career-spanning approach. Edited by Mark Blake, it's a collection of articles from the excellent British magazine Mojo (including contributions from the Motor City's own respected rock-crit Ben Edmonds). Most of the best books out there deal with Dylan's early career, while this book takes us through Dylan's enigmatic later works in a thrilling overview.

Another new volume with great visual appeal is Forever Young (DaCapo), which features photos by a Michigander, Holland native Douglas R. Gilbert. In 1965, Gilbert was fresh out of MSU. He was on assignment shooting a pre-superstardom Dylan for Look magazine. In a moment of spectacular squareness, his editors killed the piece, leaving the photos unseen until now.

And what a treasure this collection of photos is. Young Dylan is handsome, confident, at ease. We see him teaching guru-ji Allen Ginsberg how to play his harmonium; we see him jamming on electric bass with a fresh-faced, pre-Spoonful John Sebastian. There are images of the pair tooling around Woodstock on Dylan's infamous Triumph 750 motorcycle that would put him out of commission a couple years later.

What makes the book even more valuable is the accompanying text by Detroit-bred music writing force Dave Marsh. Marsh deftly provides context and subtext for the photos. His greatest strength as a writer has always been his ability to show the humanity of his subjects and to connect music to real life. He does both here, and, coupled with Gilbert's photos, the reader comes away with a deeper understanding of Dylan.

Marsh writes that "these pictures suggest that, maybe, instead of describing the young Dylan as purely mercurial, capable of whipping right around from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding to Nashville Skyline, we ought to see him as someone who was many contradictory things at once: roving bohemian, young folk idealist, rock 'n' roller on the make, poet, jokerman, romantic magpie, attentive lover and budding family man. As complicated as anyone else, maybe more so, but not out of human range."

And that's what Dylan has been trying to tell us for years. The biggest deal in recent years was Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles Vol. 1 (Simon & Schuster). I had a hard time finishing the book when it first came out — it seemed dreadfully boring. Now, in my second pass, I'm enjoying it more. It's good to hear these stories told in Dylan's own voice, and the overwhelming impression you get is just how suffocating the whole "voice of a generation" thing was for him. But Chronicles is better understood when read alongside the late Robert Shelton's No Direction Home (DaCapo). Originally published in 1986, the DaCapo edition is a 2003 reprint. It's an affectionate document that's thoroughly researched and includes interviews with Dylan's parents, high school friends, ex-girlfriends and other insiders. It gives the straight facts where Dylan supplies color.

Shelton penned a 1961 review of a Dylan performance for The New York Times that is widely credited with giving the young folksinger a big early break. It's through that early connection that Shelton was granted rare access to Dylan, and it gives the book a perspective of a peer rather than a fan.

The result is a straightforward journalistic account — sympathetic but not sycophantic, with plenty of insider scoop on the early days, when Shelton was a bona fide insider. As the book traces Dylan's career through the '70s and into the early '80s, it becomes a little more perfunctory, suffering from the lack of insider insight. Shelton died in the mid-'90s, so sadly we don't get to hear his take on Dylan's renaissance of recent years.

For analysis of the brand-new Bob Dylan and Philosophy (Open Court), I turned to my wife Heather (who, aside from being a big Dylan fan, is brilliant and holds a degree in philosophy). Her take? This collection of essays is hit-and-miss. Some pieces are transcendent while others are so ivory tower that it takes all the fun out of liking music. High points include Doug Anderson's meditation on the theme of love on Planet Waves, Martin Van Hees' discussion of free will in Dylan's work, and James S. Spiegel's take on God, St. Augustine and Socrates. Low points? Another (yawn) feminist critique of "Just Like a Woman."

A.J. Weberman is a self-styled "Dylanologist" and the inventor of the form of journalism known as "garbology" for picking through Zimmy's cans. In his new Dylan to English Dictionary (Yippie Museum Press) he presents a reference work that attempts to get at the hidden meanings happening in Dylan's songs. The book is demented, whacked-out, nigh-on unintelligible and a good advertisement for why unlimited access to LSD in one's youth is probably a bad thing. It's also wildly entertaining. I have long believed that if Weberman hadn't appeared, Dylan would have had to invent a gadfly like him. He plays the role of the Greek chorus, pointing toward a deeper level of meaning behind the language Dylan uses. Definitely one for the semiotics buffs out there.

Like the Night (Revisited) (Helter Skelter) is CP Lee's account of the famed 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall concert (aka the "Judas" show). It does an excellent job decontructing why Dylan going elctric was so shocking. The British folk scene then was led by people like Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl and was rife with rules dictating what songs a person could play, and how they should be performed. Lee also gives a blow-by-blow of the concert, including interviews with the young gals who passed Dylan a note telling him to send the band home.

Also of note:

Keys to the Rain (Billboard): This reference tome by Oliver Trager bills itself as "The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia," and it lives up to that boast. It is an invaluable resource that this writer finds himself turning to frequently.

Tarantula (Scribner): Dylan's first book, 1966's Tarantula, has long been reputed to be unreadable. This 2004 trade paperback edition proves that that reputation is largely deserved.

Crawdaddy founder Paul Williams opines that Dylan's work is best understood as the artist performs it himself. He has written a trilogy of books in the Bob Dylan Performing Artist series covering the years 1960-73, 1974-86 and 1986-90 (and beyond). He takes an analytical approach that is obsessive, detailed and borderline geeky. Not recommended for beginners.

The Definitive Bob Dylan Songbook (Amsco): What better way to dig deeper into Dylan's songs than to try to play them yourself? Try wrapping your lips around lines like "Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn, suicide remarks are torn from the fool's gold mouthpiece the hollow horn plays wasted words proves to warn that he not busy being born is busy dying." It ain't easy!

Rolling Thunder Logbook (Da Capo): Playwright Sam Shepard gives a gripping and artistic account of Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, which was perhaps the greatest manifestation of the lineage between beat poetry, hippie mysticism and rock 'n' roll. It was a masterpiece in high-concept high-art high jinks. Shepard was hired on to write a script for a film to come out of the tour, and he accompanied the group as it played live shows and took side trips to film scenes for the movie.

Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald (DaCapo): While not entirely about Dylan, folk superstar Van Ronk was a major player in the Greenwich Village folk scene. He and his wife Teri put Dylan up in his earliest days in the Village. Though the book gives some anecdotal insight into Dylan, its main strength is its portrait of those wild 'n' wooly days, when there really was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.

The Beat Reader is a column about music books. Brian J. Bowe is editor of Creem magazine. Send comments to [email protected]
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