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Biography explores mystery and ambiguity of a musical genius

November, 2010

Bob Dylan will turn 70 in May, and the man who’s still introduced on stage as the person who “put folk into bed with rock” – who liberated songcraft in the ’60s from “moon-in-June” pap – has been singing the praises of Bing Crosby. (He even released a Christmas album last year containing songs Crosby made famous.)

The man who sighed with elegiac irony when he sang “May you stay forever young” in the early 1970s now resembles, with his thin, neatly clipped mustache, someone you might see on an old-fashioned patent medicine label. His voice, always the brunt of criticism, is now basically shot, redeemed by the gravel tones of an old bluesman. Yet, after being considered by some to be washed-up in the ’80s, Dylan has produced his most mature work over the last 15 years or so with songs that make the old sound new (and vice-versa).

What a long, strange trip it’s been. Putting Dylan into perspective has often been the aim of the more than 150 books about him published over the years. Perhaps the most stimulating and insightful is the latest, Bob Dylan in America, by historian Sean Wilentz (Doubleday, $33). It is not a biography but a series of ruminations on key moments (specific songs, albums, concerts, off-stage activities and, most importantly, inspirations) in the career of the artist who revolutionized songwriting, from storytelling protest songs to deep intrapersonal meditations. In the process, Wilentz goes beyond the standard line that Dylan is a chameleon crossing us at every fork in the road.

Wilentz, whose family ran the fabled 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village (where the well-read, sponge-like young Dylan no doubt browsed alongside the erstwhile Beats and folkies of the ’60s), is the author of the award-winning The Rise of American Democracy, among other books, and also the “historian-in-residence” of the official Dylan website ( He combines a fan’s enthusiasms with rigorous explorations of where Dylan’s work comes from and what it draws from American mythology.

“It could be 1927 or 1840 or biblical time in a Bob Dylan song, and it is always right now, too,” Wilentz writes. “Dylan’s genius rests not simply on his knowledge of all these eras and their sounds and images but also on his ability to write and sing in more than one era at once.” Thus the historian delves into cogent connections with classical composer Aaron Copland, blues great Blind Willie McTell and crooner Crosby (not to mention the 1945 French film Les enfants du pa­radis), among many touchstones. He offers clues, but eschews intellectualization. As such, this elegantly written book is bound to elicit rewarding new listenings of the pop poet’s work with fresh ears. In other words, it’s living history – timeless and resistant to dogma – like Dylan at his best. There are plenty of telling details: If you’ve wondered how Dylan seemed so media-savvy from the start, it might be because his father owned the large appliance store in his hometown Hibbing, Minnesota, thus being the among the first to experience the effects of television.

Wilentz resists definitive pronoun­cements on Dylan’s work, preferring mystery and ambiguity instead. Considering the meaning of the opening line of 1965’s Desolation Row – “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” – he simply says, “Who knows?” and leaves it at that.

Yet he comes up with this brilliant précis of the tortured and at times savage 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, which “evokes William Blake’s song cycle of innocence and experience, when it depicts how they can mingle, as in Just Like a Woman, but also when it depicts the gulf that lies between them. Many of the album’s songs, for all their self-involved temptations and frustrations, express a kind of solidarity in the struggle to live inside that gulf. Although the songs are sometimes mordant, even accusatory, they are not at all hard or cynical. Blonde on Blonde never degrades or mocks primary experience.” Similarly, 1975’s Blood on the Tracks represented “the first mature musical reflections to come out of the 1960s and early 1970s by a popular artist who had survived them.”

These days Dylan is very much the old-timer he’s shown such reverence for in the first volume of his shambling autobiography Chronicles. His phrasing is masterful – more conversational than declamatory, more pained than celebratory, oozing wisdom with every chord change. Not to mention surprising reinventions of older material: Drummer Jim Keltner was spot on when he said: “Bob is a jazz musician as much as he’s anything else.” As Wilentz says, Tell Tale Signs, a sprawling collection of outtakes from his recent work (dating back to 1989), shows “how Dylan approaches one of his songs, trying to figure it out as if someone else had written it, maybe an eon ago.”

The recent songs sound as if we’ve heard them somewhere before, leading some critics to claim plagiarism. Wilentz explains that Dylan’s modus operandi has always been to jot down phrases he’s heard (“blowing in the wind,” as it were) for possible future use. He has “worked in the same traditions as the minstrels … copying other people’s mannerisms and melodies and lyrics and utterly transforming them and making them his own, a form of larceny that is as American as apple pie.” Little wonder he titled his best album of this decade Love and Theft.

Bob Dylan in America is a terrific companion with which to revisit his work. Indeed, once I finished the book, I read it over again while cueing up the appropriate albums and songs. It’s the next best thing to a new Dylan work and, like the songwriter himself, we will be referring to it for years to come.



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