Sunday, 19 June 2011

Celebrating Dylan's 70th

Having immersed myself in the music of Bob Dylan over the past year or so, I thought I'd take the opportunity of his recent seventieth birthday to do two things; listen to his entire back catalogue in chronological order, the good stuff and the not so good!, and read a full biography, the kind that attempts to separate fact from myth and pure fiction.

My considered verdict on the albums, well I still think Blood on the Tracks (1974) is impossible to beat, although John Wesley Harding (1967) does run it close. I do also keep going back again and again to Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Bringing it all Back Home (1965), but then I've also got a soft spot for the three Christian albums from the late 1970s and early '80s too - Gotta Serve Somebody (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). I try not to say this too often or too publicly . . . .

Finding the biography wasn't difficult. Howard Sounes, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan (revised edition, 2011), in a newly updated edition, the original having appeared about a decade ago, seemed to be in every bookshop I walked into! It seemed the obvious place to start.

When it first appeared Sounes' study was marketed as a warts and all portrait, and while it certainly has a few revelations, particularly Dylan's 'secret' second marriage to one of his backing singers in the 1980s, there nothing much else especially exciting. Its basically a run through, at quite some speed, despite its almost 400 pages of the main phases of Dylan's life. Its best on the 1960s inevitably, and is pretty good on the background and process of the making of the various Dylan albums, all of which are interspersed with domestic details and material on his incessant touring.

Yet its a pretty disappointing book in the final analysis, and one that I got increasingly frustrated with the more I read. Sounes is a journalist primarily, something reflected in the writing style, but it also protrudes into the tone of the book too. While, hagiography is always best avoided, and there's already plenty of that surrounding Dylan, the scepticism, even scorn, that characterises Sounes' narrative, intrudes too much on the narrative. While Dylan's comments need always to be treated with care and sometimes taken with a hefty pinch of salt, Sounes seems too ready to believe the invective of some of Dylan's one time friends, over the words of the man himself. So Sounes quotes with what appears to be approval the view that: 'perhaps the songwriter was ten times the man Bob was in real life' (p. 445). There's plenty more along the same lines.

I also wonder whether Sounes actually likes any of Dylan's music. Almost all of his albums are damned with pretty faint praise. Again there's plenty of hype over much of Dylan's music, so a degree of critical engagement is refreshing, but Sounes hardly comes over as someone with much appreciation of Dylan's talents. He appears more the professional biographer, than a writer with a real empathy for his subject.

The book certainly has its merits. It gives a good overview of Dylan's life for sure, but its just not intellectually engaging - not enough anyway! There's not enough on Dylan's intellectual influences, surely essential to a proper biography? So I'm wondering where to go next with my Dylan reading - anyone got any recommendations?

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