Dylan on Dylan
Edited by Jonathan Cott
Hodder & Stoughton, 2006
Lately I've begun to think that Bob Dylan does not exist. That the boy who made him up might still be dreaming. And we are all inside his dream.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota on May 24, 1941, the man we now know as Bob Dylan was raised in the nearby mining town of Hibbing, the elder of two brothers to Jewish parents Abraham and Beatrice. Hibbing is right up on the Canadian border and very cold; the boy liked listening to a lot of radio at night: Hank Williams's country, Muddy Waters's blues, Presley, Holly, the birth of rock'n'roll.
This feeling for the magic of radio, for the transport of music, probably explains Dylan's recent decision to do programs for XM Satellite Radio, running with a theme for each show: the rain, fatherhood and weddings, thus far inspiring song choices from his personal record collection.
Unexpected career moves such as this, along with last year's four-hour Martin Scorsese documentary,No Direction Home, and the 2004 publication ofChronicles: Volume1, a fragmentary memoir told in free-flowing Kerouac-like reveries, have contributed to a reassertion of one of the greatest artistic careers of this past century.
That Dylan's last two albums, Time Out of Mind(1997) and Love and Theft (2001), have been two of his best - the former acclaimed by critics as the first masterpiece of rock'n'roll as seen through an old man's eyes - has only intensified this renaissance.
The forthcoming release of Modern Times in August, completing what the singer apparently regards as a trilogy of recordings, seems destined to send this latest Dylanfest into overdrive.
Yet through it all Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever.
As fellow songwriter Tom Waits once observed: "With Dylan, so much has been said about him, it's difficult to say anything about him that hasn't already been said and say it better. Suffice to say, Dylan is a planet to be explored. His journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the ether of the songs."
Hundreds of books have nonetheless been written about Dylan, and thousands of articles. One of Dylan's favoured masks has been that of the put-on artist and barbed surrealist, particularly in his younger days when journalists must have quaked at meeting him head-on.
Change, evasion, contrariness, aimlessness and sudden return - these have become Dylanesque traits, from his folkie beginnings to the rock'n'roll dandy of Blonde on Blonde (1966) to the Rimbaud of rock who produced Blood on the Tracks (1975), to the born-again Christian of the early 1980s to his startling comeback in recent years as a latter-day Wyatt Earp of wisdom and regret.
Mapping this elusive and mobile persona across such a vast canvas is no easy task. But in Dylan on Dylan, editor and long-time Rolling Stone contributor Jonathan Cott does an admirable job through a well chosen array of interviews that chart Dylan's career from go to whoa and then some. Where many such collections feel Googled-up and bagged together,Dylan on Dylan excels for quality, chronological pace and genuine rarity as well as contrast and insight. If you're a fan, it's an essential buy.
The multi-faceted nature of a book that is mostly made up of Dylan's own words gives a surprising feeling for who he might be. Even when his attachment to the French poet Rimbaud's dictum "I is another" takes a fascinating turn as he tells his most obsessed fan, A.J.Weberman (famous for trawling through Dylan's garbage), "I'm not Dylan, you're Dylan."
In what is perhaps the most famous interview of them all, Nat Hentoff's 1966 Playboy article, Dylan responds to a question about jazz music and its fading appeal to young people with typically obtuse fire, as well as the kind of Beat-inherited, rapping style that energised his music and indeed his entire life and the cultural dreaming he propelled when an entire generation called "the '60s" found its finest voice:
"I mean, what would some parent say to his kid if the kid came home with a glass eye, a Charlie Mingus record and a pocketful of feathers? He'd say, 'Who are you following?' And the poor kid would have to stand there with water in his shoes, a bow tie on his ear and soot pouring out of his belly button and say, 'Jazz. Father, I've been following jazz.' And his father would say, 'Get a broom and clean up all that soot before you go to sleep.' Then the kid's mother would tell her friends, 'Our little Donald, he's part of the younger generation, you know.' "
- Mark Mordue
* This story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books pages, June 24th 2006.