Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan

Dylan 1

I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan.  It’s like Rimbaud said, ‘I is another’.
- Bob Dylan, 1985

A million books have crawled over the minutiae of Bob Dylan’s life, his words, live performances and recordings, and I have read a fair few of them.  But I do believe that Ian Bell’s Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan is the best of them all.  Which is surprising since Bell – former Scottish editor of the Observer and a past winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing – has done no original research, conducted no fresh interviews, or been given access to record company archives.

But what Bell has done – and supremely well – is to sift through all of the voluminous material that the Dylan phenomena has generated over the decades – interviews, biographies, memoirs, articles, web forum debates and bootlegs, as well as the artist’s own words – to produce a book that is insightful, critical (indeed, often sceptical) and analytical.  Bell places Dylan in his entire context: musical, literary, historical, and political.

Like Theseus entering the labyrinth, Bell holds onto a single thread to guide him through all the myths and the self-mythologising to the truth of who Dylan is, and what drives him: the concept that ‘Bob Dylan’ is an ‘an elaborate piece of hokum’ created by the man himself, an identity that has remade itself time after time.

Though Bell’s book is broadly chronological, its narrative is more spiralling than linear, a series of overlapping chapters that circle around a crucial question or turning point in Dylan’s development.  Bell will worry away at a question, often returning to it again and again, probing, peeling away the myths and Dylan’s own obfuscations.  Does he arrive at a conclusive answer to the riddle of Bob Dylan?  No: but it makes for a gripping read.

If, that is, the Dylan enigma is an issue that has you in its thrall.  Which is certainly true in my case. Although for some time now I’ve found too many of his lyrics unattractively imbued with an Old Testament judgementalism and his voice shot to ribbons, Dylan contributed too much to the process by which my politics, my outlook on the world, and my love of music were formed for me to leave it alone.  I was one of that generation for which Dylan – in one of the identity shifts probed by Bell – ultimately refused to act as a leader or spokesman.

Press conference, 1969: What is your position on politics and music?
Dylan: My job is to play music. I think I’ve ­answered enough questions.

Bell begins by probing the puzzle of why a boy from a middle class, Jewish home in the mid-west lied about his background, erasing his family and denying his real name – even to his first serious love, Suze Rotolo.  As Bell notes, many pop stars in those days chose to perform with a different stage name, but Robert Zimmerman was alone in changing his name to Bob Dylan legally.  It was, in Bell’s view,’a deliberate act of self-destruction…not some showbiz career strategy.  Who does that?’

Dylan became estranged from his parents: it happens.  He ran a little wild and faltered at school: it happens.  He was at odds with his father: that happens too.  He came to deny his faith and his origins: that certainly happens.  Then he quit town as soon as he could: many did in those days …

But the plot goes awry.  Dylan changes his name legally, and pretends his parents are dead.  He denies that he was ever ‘really’ Jewish despite his Zionist camp experiences, and in time turns to thunderous, born-again Christianity. Meanwhile, he persists in rejecting any possibility of an emotional connection with the town in which he was raised, or with his own ancestry.  He tells tales, year after year, that don’t add up.

Bell offers the thought that Dylan’s self-mythologising is inseparable from his creativity:

Whatever his originality, this is a man who has existed within a cliché since he first attempted to write a song: his art is his life. It is, profoundly, who he is. Dylan doesn’t control the art; the art controls ‘Bob Dylan’, and remakes him time after time.

Then there’s the question of Dylan’s repeated veering from one kind of music to another – the issue that divided and enraged fans in the sixties when he abruptly abandoned folk music and protest barely two years after transforming the scene.  Perceptively, Bell argues that Dylan is an avant-garde conservative:

First the embrace of the new, then the retreat into older traditions.  The cycle repeats and repeats.  First Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, then rock and roll; next ancient folk ballads, then ‘Like a Rolling Stone’; next the inventory of a basement full of antique noises and a country idyll, then religious fads and a glib superstar’s decadence and decay; next a return to the oldest blues of all, like an immersion in a deep, cold stream, as the preface to another – final? – summation.

Dylan arrived in New York in 1961 a college dropout with limited musical abilities.  But what Bell reveals, time and time again, is how fast Dylan learnt, absorbing musical, political and literary influences like a sponge, at breathtaking speed.  For example, how within months of turning up for the first time in New York’s folk clubs, he had created the myth of ‘Bob Dylan’ to become the living embodiment of folk:

Mimicry, theft, admiration yielding to sincere imitation, obsession, the immersion in the past: all of these will play their parts in transforming Bobby Zimmerman from Duluth, Minn., who has never done a day’s manual labour in his life, or seen hard times, or marched out on strike, or ridden on a freight car’s stinking boards, or prayed to a Christian God, or lived beneath Jim Crow laws into the supposed embodiment of folk.

Mind you, Bell is pretty scathing about the rest of a folk scene that patronised black culture, rendering it white, and decided that ‘rural folk were somehow culturally pure because – let’s not beat around the undergrowth – they didn’t know shit’.  That leads Bell on to some pretty interesting ruminations on the Stalinist features of the ‘authentic’ folk scene either side of the Atlantic, whose attitudes he likens to ‘a Monty Python sketch involving a less-amusing wing of the Judean People’s Front’. On the 1966 tour of England, when Dylan went electric and encountered the cry of ‘Judas’, it was Stalinist members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who couldn’t abide electricity or free thought, who organised some of the barracking.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

Why did Dylan abandon ‘protest’?  In the end, says Bell, it came down to this: ‘what use are songs of freedom if there is no artistic freedom?  And anyway, he didn’t.  He just came up with a radical new type of political lyric: listen to ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and believe it.

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony
Dylan during Blonde on Blonde sessions

As Bell remarks, this was all about Dylan reaching certain conclusions about the purposes of song and an individual’s relationship to art.  ‘No proof exists’, he writes, ‘that Dylan ever felt under much pressure to write or record in any manner not of his choosing.

It would have been too easy to stick with protest and tradition.  But that would have meant a lifetime stating the obvious. … Dylan wasn’t made that way.

As to politics, he did have one gift.  If he understood anything, he understood the art of lying.  Again and again, those protest songs return to truth and lies.  Dylan could spot deceit at a hundred paces, catch it in the tone of a voice, decipher it in slogans, body language and the speeches of the self-advertising political types.  He knew phoney by its sound and smell.That, as much as lyric power, was his weapon.  He was an expert on lies, after all.

Throughout this book – the first part of a two volume analysis of Dylan’s trajectory – Ian Bell writes incisively about the changes that Dylan was going through.  But he is excellent, too, at colouring in the background of the changes taking place in American society, and exploring the sources in music, books, poetry and film that might have influenced Dylan in his twenties.  He’s good at probing (with reference to the album The Times They Are A-Changin’) a question such as: ‘What is a protest song?  What is its purpose and how does it function?’

He also gives the best account I’ve read of Dylan’s poetic technique in that miraculous 12 month period when three historic albums – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – poured from him (and by the way, he does spend some time on the question as to whether Dylan’s lyrics, printed on the page, do stack up as poetry.  His answer: only occasionally).
Highway 61 in Bell’s view (and he’s not alone) reinvented popular song. It was the album where Dylan became ‘a voice without restraint’.  Here was where Dylan learnt that ‘a song wouldn’t necessarily collapse if the usual props were kicked away’: where he hacked through the ‘twenty pages of vomit’ (Dylan’s words) to get to the four long verses of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’:

What truly happens in this song, and in all the other songs of Highway 61, is a stripping away of material without regard to narrative.  The usual connective matter is discarded; it ceases to signify.  Not once does a song or an image explain itself. .. When the set reaches its end, with ‘Desolation Row’, the idea of a coherent narrative, of the traditional song that commences with some version of ‘Once upon a time’, has been shattered. Dylan had learned that he didn’t need the oldest storytelling ‘ordinance’ of them all in order to make sense.  To make his kind of sense, at any rate.

Later, when discussing ‘Visions of Johanna’ off Blonde on Blonde, Bell argues that the song has more to it than visions induced by heroin.  We never truly discover what these visions contain.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the moustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

Dylan had mastered, argues Bell, the technique which Ezra Pound had applied when cutting half the lines from TS Eliot’s Waste Land at the start of the 1920s: sections meant to link and ‘explain’ things were removed, one after the other, to reveal themes and ideas that might otherwise have been hidden.  ‘Dylan’, Bell asserts, ‘achieved Pound’s editorial insights unaided’.  It was, as Allen Ginsberg wrote in tribute in ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’, ‘Language, language, and sweet music too….’.

Bell’s narrative reaches some kind of climax (unavoidable, really) as he assesses the scale of Dylan’s achievement in that astonishing period between January 1965 and March 1966 – between the last session for Bringing It All Back Home and the final notes of ‘I Want You’ recorded at dawn on 10 March 1966.  Then it’s pell-mell into the ordeal of the 1966 tour that ‘scorched Dylan’s soul’ and ‘ended him, in this incarnation, once and for all’:

When this carnival train was derailed, he would be forced to become another person.   This is not, or not necessarily, hyperbole.  He would have to build a new Bob Dylan from scratch.

Repeatedly, Bell comes up with a turn of phrase that nails circumstance.  The idea that malcontents would heckle a man for using an amplified guitar was ‘akin to telling Picasso that he was using filthy capitalist brushes.  A movement dedicated to liberty was unforgiving’.  There is an intensity to Bell’s account of this period that matches the crazed events of that tour: the Judas! shout (Bell has already shifted his reading of that mythical night in Manchester to the book’s opening), the drugs, bursts of intense creative activity, the exhaustion.

Judas! That was the shout in the darkness. To this day, the insult seems infantile. There were plenty of other singers in the world ready to accept adoration, after all. Yet here was evidence, beyond doubt, of the great virtue and the abiding affliction of the times: music truly mattered.

The argument over art, the individual and political liberty isn’t new. What was new in Dylan’s case, and in the twentieth century, was the idea that the artist could somehow belong to the audience, become a possession. So the supreme irony here was overlooked by those who heckled this guitar player and called themselves left-wing: they were treating him as a commodity. [...]

Everything ended. His music would never be the same again, and nor would he: that cliché will serve. He would tell people as much for years to come: it was less a case of what he wouldn’t do as what he couldn’t do. For one thing, he could no longer write the words to shape that wild mercury sound. The three albums and the hellish tour had been unique, in the proper sense of being both emotionally and artistically unrepeatable. Anyone who henceforth wanted ‘the old Dylan’ would be out of luck. He was gone.

After this, the story can never be quite so enthralling.  There is the blessed release of the motorcycle accident and the retreat with The Band to the basement in Woodstock, where, in the summer of love, he embarked on a Lewis and Clark expedition through the past of his own land, its myths and culture.  Bell is rightly impressed with the jewels that emerged from The Basement Tapes, is deeply unimpressed by pitifully truncated Nashville Skyline, but makes larger claims – inexplicably in my view – for Self Portrait, New Morning and Dylan before rounding off this volume with a rather cursory account of the ‘comeback’ albums, Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks.

All the while, Bell is tugging on that thread: the question of who Bob Dylan really was.  This was a time, Bell asserts, when Dylan ‘did not want to go on being Bob Dylan’. Or, at least, that Bob Dylan.

He had become a burden to himself.  To begin anew is one thing: many people make the attempt.  The point here is that Dylan’s art has everything to do with the way he understands himself at a given moment in time.  His writing is his response to a deep problem of identity.

Christopher Bray reviewing Bell’s book in the FT was full of praise:

As its title hints, Once Upon a Time tells a familiar story. But Bell, a past winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing, tells it in an unfamiliar way – with a coruscating intelligence and historical sweep not often found in books about rock musicians. He writes beautifully, too, in rhythmic, at times incantatory, prose. In short, this is the best Dylan biography yet – an imagined reliving of an already imaginary life, and a book to sit alongside Ellmann on Wilde, Richardson on Picasso, Ackroyd on Dickens.

That would be my assessment, too. Bell offers plenty to savour, and think about, too.  For myself, I was pleased to be re-acquainted with this classic example of the take-no-prisoners Dylan style that was an inspiration back in the sixties.  It’s from an interview with Playboy magazine in March 1966:

Playboy: Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock and roll route?
Dylan: Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13 year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a ‘before’ in a Charles Atlas ‘before and after’ ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chilli and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy he ain’t so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburettor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?
Playboy: And that’s how you became a rock and roll singer
Dylan: No, that’s how I got tuberculosis.

16 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan

  1. I think that like many people I still have mixed feelings about Bob Dylan. Some of his early songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol” were indeed brilliant and influenced a generation. However ripping off other musician as he did with “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright” because the original composer hadn’t registered the copyright was a bit mean. Where he really fell down was when he rewrote the Dominic Behan classic from 1960 “The Patriot Game”, changed the setting from Ireland to the USA and called it “With God on Our Side”. He could at least have offered to split the royalties 50/50 with Dominic. Unfortunately the words of “The Patriot Game” were much more poetic and most people already had a copy in their record collection. For anyone who doesn’t own a copy, I shall include the YouTube link for “The Patriot Game”:-

    • Don’t Think Twice used the melody of a song by Paul Clayton (‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone)’ ), a friend of Dylan, but was a much different (and far better) song. Clayton’s song was itself derived from an earlier folk song “Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens When I’m Gone?” which was in the public domain. Dylan’s and Clayton’s publishing companies sued each other over the alleged plagiarism, but the lawsuits, which were settled out of court, had no effect on the friendship between the two songwriters. In the notes to Biograph, Dylan acknowledges that ‘Don’t Think Twice’ was ‘a riff that Paul [Clayton] had’. He also credits Clayton for the melody line to “Percy’s Song”. As for ‘The Patriot Game’/’God on Our Side’ issue – the tune was ripped off, but the sentiments of the two songs are entirely different. In his book, Bell writes:

      ‘Dylan’s view was, as it remains, that everyone adapts, everyone in some sense thieves from what has gone before. … One odd result is this: Dylan is lauded as one of the most original artists of the age and accused, simultaneously, of relentless pagiarism. So what if both claims are true? And would nusic be better off if Bob Dylan had never borrowed?’

  2. Interesting observation just above; Irish political/musical influence. During my brief encounter with Mr. Z (he had a thing for black girls; imagine finding one who had been to Laugharne and quoted D. Thomas) I had the key to Tommy Makem’s apartment; Dylan annex at the time. Clancy Bros. & T.M. were almost always on tour.

  3. Gerry this is another fascinating blog. I still think that Zim’s account in Chronicles is the best and I have a cabinet full of biographies. Harvey seems to entirely miss the point. Dylan’s extraordinary creative contribution has been to listen, steal, meld and shape from Cecil Sharpe, Woody Guthrie, William Blake, Symbolist poets, Leadbelly – in 2009 he even delivered Gene Autrey and Mendelssohn! He is a vast, classical enigma and for that reason love is theft.

  4. I agree that I entirely miss the point. That is something in which I have specialised all my life and got rather good it, even though I say it myself.
    Andrew – if you haven’t copyrighted the slogan “love is theft” and nobody else has I would love to add that to my mottos on F/B.
    Love and Peace

      • An early clue found in last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

        What am i saying, what am i knowing
        On this guitar i’m playing, on this banjo I’m frailin’
        On this mandolin I’m strummin’, in the song I’m singin’
        In the tune i’m hummin’ in the words I’m wrtin’
        In the words that I’m thinkin’
        In this ocean of hours I’m all the time drinkin’
        What am I giving, what am I taking
        But you try with your whole soul best
        Never to think these thoughts and never to let
        Them kind of thoughts gain ground
        Or make yer heart pound

        Every poet is a thief

  5. Sorry to hear the book skims over ‘Blood on the Tracks.’ I was a bit young to ‘get’ Dylan when his albums up to ‘Blonde on Blonde’ came out. So I was thrilled to be around when a ‘proper’ Dylan album appeared and it’s still the one I listen to the most.

  6. Excellent review that has left me eager to read Ian Bell’s account of Dylan’s ‘lives’ soon. Even the title’s great – Song and Dance Man, Behind he Shades, Down the Highway, etc.? Not too much wrong with those, but Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan encapsulate the myth and the manifold musician, artist, actor, performer, family man, ultra-private individual and all else that Dylan has and continues to be – some start!

    Refreshing to read a review that refers to the sources and influences that not just were but had to be there for Dylan to build upon and draw from, without reference to those that cry ‘plagiarist!. Bells’ point/question is simple but as insightful as any I’ve heard asked about Dylan: ‘would music be better had Bob Dylan never borrowed.?’ The accusations of plagiarism, though frequent, are puzzling, and need to be challenged head-on, as you’ve done comprehensively in the comments here. Innovators have and will always borrow, learn and progress – it’s how simple stone structures became Cathedrals. Might sound ludicrous to draw a comparison between Dylan and St Paul’s, but no more ludicrous than to say he’s done wrong in drawing on past artists to create his monument in song,. He is to the latter 20th and early 21st century what Robert Burns was to the 18th: proclaimed almost immediately as a genius by critics, many of whom didn’t now what else to say: ‘The Heaven-taught Plough-man’,’The Spokesman of a Generation’. But, just like Rabbie Burns, Bobby Dylan defies definition, he’s master of his own myth, keeps on becoming, and – best of all – writes bloody brilliant songs.

    Thanks for your review – first I’d read of Bell’s book, and it’s gone to the top of my reading list.

  7. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was my theme tune when it came out – must be poetry!
    I haven’t read any books on Dylan I must admit – the music has spoken for itself somehow. I have got a book with his poems in though – Tarantula, but haven’t looked at it for years. Maybe I should!

    • Might be better to let it lie – Bell has some pretty critical things to say about it, suggesting that Dylan soon came to realise that verse, not prose was his forte. I remember skimming it when it first came out and being less than impressed. I’ve never seen it since.

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