Who hasn’t picked up a rocker’s biography, only to put it down after 10 pages knowing full well that the subject was being made an obvious devil or a saint? Mick Jagger is not Winston Churchill. And Altamont was most certainly not the Battle of Britain. There’s a silliness, an irrelevance that haunts pop music, yet the committed rock fan demands respect for his or her idols.
So what are we to make of Clinton Heylin and his preface to the Dylan bio, Behind the Shades Revisited?
“The burden of being Bob Dylan has broken more than the man’s back. The dissolution of his worldview, his romantic attachments to women unworthy of the moniker Muse, the failure of artistic resolve brought by his chronic indiscipline, and a frustrating disregard for extracting the most from the dying voice within, makes for a quite different portrait from that of the 50-year-old Bob Dylan. By then I am still writing about a moving target. May he yet rage against the dying of the light.”
Oy vey. As I listen to Dylan’s latest record and write these words, his voice seems less in the throes of death than transformation. He writes like Tom Waits and sounds like Eartha Kitt. It’s one of those beautiful disasters that only a 60-year-old man who has had to endure more than three decades of hypocritical adulation from the most self-involved, self-serving generation in American history can produce. That Dylan is still putting out music while rope-a-doping the spotlight is testament to his very powers of insularity that frustrate fans and critics alike.
Heylin structures the biography in the current vogue — a lot of quotes cobbled together from previous interviews into an oral history that reads like an interminable installment of “Behind the Music.” Although the book is broken up into “epochs,” you come to realize that there have only been two real periods in the life of Dylan.
When he was a callow youth warbling away in the oblivion of Minnesota, Bobby Zimmerman imagined himself living the songs of Woody Guthrie. Here was America at perfect pitch — beautiful, wide-open, populated by lonely Bedouins on the move everywhere and nowhere. Divinely inspired, Zimmerman made a pilgrimage to New York, met Guthrie, played at his knee and finally watched his hero wither away.
He was never the same. Then “Bob Dylan,” the kid from the Midwest with good words and a bad voice, found himself surrounded by anxious folkies and their ilk. He correctly assumed that they were only the tip of the iceberg. The civil rights era was giving way to the flower children. For all their incendiary rhetoric and posturing, they were lost youth of the white middle class, wanting, needing a voice to keep hope alive, even though the wave of change had already crested and the reactionary undertow was bringing their trip way down.
Sigmund Freud once remarked that the best way to move through life was in a mood of melancholic humility. Rock people like to mythologize a “state of grace” — all demons vanquished, all ideals intact, if a bit less naive. Indeed, Heylin’s book is a testament to Dylan’s absolute failure to live up to expectations. He puts out crap with no hype, no apologies, then disappears for a decade — only to come back with material hinting at continued reserves of genius.
We learn that he shags a lot of women but refuses to flaunt his trysts in public. Although he is so enshrined in the iconography of the ’60s, he has refused to act like a clapped-out radical pontificating about this or that cause. Dylan didn’t do bed-ins or sing “Imagine.”
Only after John Lennon had been killed did we see Dylan begin to reassert himself as a public man of the ’60s. The era was dead. Hippies had become yuppies. He could once again breathe in plain sight.
That we are no closer to knowing the man behind the shades after reading this book should be of great comfort to people who value anonymity in a culture dangerously besotted with celebrity. Rare is the star who manages to manage fame on his or her own terms, the public be damned. If Dylan has compromised his genius to accomplish his retreats, so be it. He’s still here, still rocking, still ready to test our patience. The more the times change, the more they stay the same.
Bob Dylan performs at Cobo Arena in Detroit, 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 9. Call 248-645-6666 for tickets.
Read Sean Daigle's review of Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña, a fascinating book and an engrossing account of 1960s counterculture America that provides an important connection between pop music and literature.
Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.