So Who Exactly is Bob Dylan, Newly Crowned Nobel Laureate?
The Poet vs. Songwriter vs. Showman Debate Rages On
No battle has raged as fervently as the one about the self of Bob Dylan—whether there was a true self beyond what had been invented for the audience. According to the Nobel Prize committee at least, he is a poet, and a literary genius of the first order—to others, not so much. In the mid-1960s the pop audience and pop critics were discovering new poetics and pop joined film as that paradoxical phenomena of mass art. Dylan and the Beatles are given dual credit for making rock music more adult, since as songwriters they plumbed themes that used to be the province of high art like loneliness and despair. This also earns rock stars biographical scrutiny. People began thinking of popular songs, especially Dylan’s, as a form of poetry. The public becomes curious about the stories behind the songs, the experience someone like Dylan could be drawing from to write, say, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan’s biographer Robert Shelton wrote, “One’s image of a poet is someone, preferably under 25, revolutionary, good-looking, and doing something to excess, whether women, or drugs, or wine. It strikes the imagination very powerfully. There are many intimations of death in Dylan’s writing, but what has attracted me had been, rather, the affirmation of life. It’s like the blues, in which one is struck by the hopeful things that push through the gloom.” Rich Cohen also sees the blues running through Dylan’s music like “an homage fans don’t recognize.” Ellen Willis dissents, saying Dylan may or may not be a poet, but if Dylan is a poet, he isn’t a good one: “Poetry requires economy, coherence, and discrimination, and Dylan has perpetuated prolix verses, horrendous grammar, tangled phrases, silly metaphors, embarrassing clichés, muddled thought; at times she seems to believe one good image deserves five others, and he relies too much on rhyme.” Yet no less an authority than Oxford and Boston University professor Christopher Ricks sides with Shelton many years later: in 2004 his masterwork on the man he compares Dylan to Marvell, Marlowe, Keats, Tennyson, Yeats, and Hardy. Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin was published to mixed reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. A respected authority on Milton, Keats, and T.S. Eliot, Ricks claims, “Dylan is a performer of genius,” and that his songs in his voice rival those of any poet on the page.
Jon Landau’s essay on John Wesley Harding in early music fanzine Crawdaddy Number 15, May 1968, looked at that record as a summa of Dylan’s career, a musical and critical biography. It’s as insightful a piece of writing on Dylan at this stage in his career as any of Dylan’s full-length biographies, many of which stopped at or before this point. Landau sees circularity between Bob Dylan, the little-played debut record of one of the twentieth-century’s most mysterious and wanted men, and John Wesley Harding, named for a Old West outlaw and gunslinger. Dylan has “totally redefined himself by breaking with much that was consistently in evidence on the albums immediately preceding this one. Dylan’s abandonment of myths and melodrama that dominated all of his earlier albums” is further evidence of his growth as an artist, and adds to a sense of continuity. The new myth Dylan presents on Harding is that of himself as a “moderate man.” Landau explained, “Dylan created a myth that already existed. In a very real sense we could call it the myth of our own purity. Dylan was the only one on the scene who had the self-awareness, charisma, talent, imagination and lack of repression to give structure to this world view.” It turns out Dylan was a poet all along, Landau argued, not a prophet.
Landau wrote after the period of Dylan’s first songwriting triumphs, in which much ink was spilled about his poetic status and prowess. Dylan, however, was initially uncomfortable with the poet label; given the vexed relationship between art and commerce on the folk scene this fact is worth considering. Dylan consciously chooses to be a rock star in the mid-1960s, though he eventually grows into his poet status. In 1978, he told Shelton, “I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.” Yet the issue of Dylan as poet is central to the Dylan myth, addressed in quite different ways by his biographers.
Ellen Willis also used the release of Harding as the occasion for an essay about Dylan’s career, but hers finds Dylan’s album announcing his return to the world after a long retreat. Dylan had been in a motorcycle accident—at least, that was the cover story, as rumors about drug addiction circulated just as news of the accident broke—and had taken the opportunity to hole up in his house in Woodstock, NY. Willis doesn’t necessarily see Harding as moderate, but as another identity the always slippery Dylan is trying on for size: “John Wesley Harding, released after twenty months of silence, shows that Dylan is still intact in spirit as well as body. The songs are more impersonal—and more inscrutable—than ever, but the human being behind them has never seemed less mysterious. For they reveal Dylan not as the protean embodiment of some collective nerve, but as an alert artist responding to challenge from his peers.” Dylan was in retreat from and responding to his success. The new identity he’s trying on isn’t the moderate man, it’s a man in control of his own destiny.
When and why had Dylan lost control of his destiny? The standard answer was by placing the reins of his career in the hands of Albert Grossman. Grossman was a big bearded bear of a man, an utter sphinx, a “trained economic theorist and semi-trained child psychologist” who owned folk clubs in Chicago and New York. He was serious about his clients and treated them like artists long before that was the norm. His relationship with Dylan had paternal overtones but was also a strong alliance of equals, and treated the outside world in an “us versus them fashion.” Grossman’s great negotiation trick, which Dylan used to great effect and also wrote about in “I Don’t Believe You,” was to act as if his adversary (or, in Dylan’s song, his lover) was not in the room, or if forced to acknowledge someone, to pretend that they had not met. It was extremely unsettling.
Grossman was as “ruthless in business as [Elvis’s manager] Col. Parker.” His gift was that he understood in that the folk scene was “concerned with selling authenticity.” His “initial interest was not the singer, but the song.” Grossman grasped that in music publishing was where money was, and he encouraged Dylan to veer from his Woody Guthrie-inspired schtick and write songs, in part, for his own pecuniary gain. The deal they made in July 1962 was that Grossman took 25 percent of Dylan’s publishing. His company, Witmark Music, took 20 percent cut of management and 25 percent on record and movie deals. Thus, Dylan got 40 percent of publishing while Grossman got 35 percent (half of Witmark’s 50 percent and a fifth of Dylan’s 50 percent). This deal came under much scrutiny many years later, but it set a standard for singer-songwriters at the time, and Grossman signed many other folk singers to similar deals. Though it might look like highway robbery, it was standard business practice, and Grossman guided Dylan in other ways. Many of Dylan’s biographers think Grossman and Dylan’s girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, a Greenwich Village girl from a strong left-wing background, really pushed him into thinking about social justice and finding, as they say, his voice.
Dylan has never wanted a biography. It is as if it would freeze him with his mask on, leave him no room to escape being Bob Dylan. The closest he has come until writing his own oblique memoir, Chronicles Volume One, in 2004, was participating in Biograph, a three-disc retrospective of his career, in 1985, sitting for a somewhat candid song-by-song interview with Cameron Crowe (in which he still doesn’t clear up who his most vituperative song, Positively 4th Street, is about). In part this was his response to years of bootlegging, to reclaim the songs that had been released without his authorization and to reauthorize them by explaining his motives. David Hadju’s biography of Dylan, also called Positively Fourth Street, only examines the years of the folk movement, and is not about music as much as it is Dylan’s relationships during that crucial time. Greil Marcus’s first Dylan book, Invisible Republic, is largely theoretical and historical rather than biographical, and his second, Like a Rolling Stone, is clearly focused on a specific song. Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin is blatantly interested in the songs too rather than the life of the songwriter.
British critic Simon Frith wrote that people dream of Dylan not as a lover but as a friend, and as unusual as this is for a musician (it’s nearly impossible for someone to say the same about Mick Jagger, or Patti Smith), his biographers treat him as such. Though Dylan can be cruel, and has made many enemies along the way, there are few who seek revenge through the printed word. Many of the people closest to him, in fact, refused to cooperate with biographers at all: former road manager Victor Maymudes, the ubiquitous Bobby Neuwirth (of whom Dylan says in Chronicles that “He could talk to anybody until they felt all their intelligence was gone”), Sara Dylan, their children, and Albert Grossman (now dead) all refused to give interviews to any of his biographers. Clinton Heylin, who has written the most thorough if not the most penetrating book about Dylan, Behind the Mask (and updated it regularly), said of his subject, “The reader must be aware that there is much myth-building at stake here, and that Dylan’s friends and collaborators revel in that process as much as the man himself does. For each brick I pull down, there may well be another put in its place.” Heylin feels his work will never be done, the myth-making machinery will forever be undermining his search for the truth about Dylan.
The biographers Dylan got are an odd lot. In the beginning, there was Robert Shelton, the folk apostate and unapologetic Dylan worshipper, who tried to write the first authorized biography in No Direction Home (no book about Dylan has been authorized, though he has published three books, one of his lyrics, a knotty piece of experimental fiction called Tarantula, and Chronicles). Shelton had the fullest access to the man, though the stars in his eyes and the fact that his subject was at that point less than forthcoming about his past means the account was incomplete. Dylan told Shelton as he was writing, “Now, we have one thing straight about the book. I’m going to tell Albert [Grossman] we have come to an understanding about the book, Ill give you as much as I can. I’ll come very quickly to the point in all the things that I want done, but you can easily go back on me…. But I won’t forgive you for doing that, man. It’s not going to be a biography, because I’m not dead yet. It’s going to be a timeless thing. Right?” In actuality, there are at least two generations of Dylanists to consider: Shelton, and critics Ellen Willis, and Landau, followed by David Hadju, Clinton Heylin, Christopher Ricks, and Greil Marcus. None has had as much access as Shelton. They have to rely on the accounts of other people, and the songs, to tell Dylan’s story.
That he would eventually be known for his originality is striking, as in his time Dylan was branded a “song thief,” as the more hard-nosed of the traditional folkies felt he borrowed too liberally from the canon without crediting the arrangements of others. David Hadju refers to the “folk process,” perhaps an easier way to understand what the kerfuffle was about. The folk process meant everyone borrowed, or, maybe, stole, from sources traditional and closer to home for material. Dylan was no different. In his autobiography, Chronicles, he writes, “It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It’s not that easy. You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen. You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular.” This is as close as Dylan comes to explaining the origin of his songs.
Greil Marcus has devoted an entire book to one Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone.” The four opening words to the song are familiar to schoolchildren and scary monsters everywhere: “Once upon a time.” Like a classic fairy tale, “Like a Rolling Stone” has been interpreted many ways by many listeners, but never as comprehensively as by Marcus. The song does indeed contain classic Dylan-meets-Bruno Bettelheim characters: a Princess and a Mystery Tramp, pretty people, Napoleon in rags, jugglers and clowns, a Diplomat with a Siamese cat. And there’s a story about secrets, anonymity, and fleeing from or to something: Dylan’s great themes. The crux of the book is not Marcus’s reading of the song’s text—for that, best to trudge through Christopher Ricks’ exegesis in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, where he interprets the song through the expansive lens of Pride—but the context of it. In some ways Marcus is too grown up to take on the song: he has a genius for context, but is that what’s required to parse a rant about the vicissitudes and insouciance of youth? In his chorus Dylan asks over and over, “How does it feel?” In his book Marcus can only wonder, “What does it mean?” Even a schoolchild could tell him that’s not the point of a fairy tale—unless you’re that scariest of monsters, an incorrigible grownup. This runs contrary to all of the accounts of Dylan’s craftiness: why would Marcus even attempt to pin Dylan down, and why would he choose a song as the means to do it? There isn’t enough context in the world to accomplish that.
Landau argues that “I Don’t Believe You,” the encapsulation of Grossman’s great trick of pretending he’d never met someone, was Dylan’s real first rock song. “My Back Pages,” with its chorus of “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now,” was Dylan’s self-denouncement of the old myth, though it “sounds like he is singing about the apocalypse.” Willis sees “My Back Pages” as Dylan changing his mind about his image, expressing his apostasy with “hints of aesthetic escapism. His new fantasies of the past are contained in “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” where he elaborates all of his faults and shortcomings, to either a lover or, more likely in this interpretation, to his audience: “I’m not the one you want, babe/I’m not the one you need.” Landau thinks it’s artistically obvious why Dylan had to go electric: he’d simply “exhausted all the possibilities of his guitar-harmonica accompaniment.” Willis similarly notes Dylan’s shift from politics to relationships in “It Ain’t Me” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” both songs that could be sung to a lover or an audience.
Dylan’s next few albums were about his struggle to deal with company, the love songs on Blonde on Blonde, the rock songs on Highway 61, even the collaborations of the Basement Tapes. Finally, “what we are forced to see on John Wesley Harding is Bob Dylan growing up. In every possible respect.” As Dylan sees himself seriously as a musician, we should see him, and take him, the same way: seriously. He’s no longer the Woody Guthrie-esque clown, nor the flashy rock star. Willis does take Dylan seriously, but her interpretation of Dylan’s wanting company is vastly different. She writes: “He has imposed his commitment to individual freedom (and its obverse, isolation) on the hip passivity of pop culture, his literacy on an illiterate music. He has used the publicity machine to demonstrate his belief in privacy. His songs and public role are guides to survival in the world of the image, the cool and the high. And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced it to come to terms with him.” In other words, Dylan never worries about being taken seriously. His playfulness, which Willis connects explicitly to his worship of Woody Guthrie, was part of his early persona. Dylan only cares about image; each album, each performance, is calculated to recalibrate his public stature. This is counter to every part of the folk tradition, which celebrates authenticity, but makes Dylan a perfect pop artist—in fact, she compares him repeatedly to Andy Warhol.
“I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be,” Bob Dylan said at a 1986 press conference. It’s a remarkable statement, if only because he’d been Bob Dylan for so long—for 45 years—since he was 19 years old. A press conference would be one of those occasions when he’d have to have his “Bob Dylan mask on,” as he famously proclaimed to a Halloween crowd during a show at Philharmonic Hall in 1964. When the reporter asked who he was the rest of the time, Dylan sighed and answered simply, “Myself.” Who that is exactly is a puzzle many biographers and others have taken on, and no one has solved to any satisfaction. Dylan says to look to the music, that “[music] affected me at an at early age in a very, very powerful way and it’s all that affected me. It’s all that ever remained true for me…And I’m very glad that this particular music reached me when it did because frankly, if it hadn’t, I don’t know what would have become of me, I come from a very isolated part of America.” So the music is all that is true, there is no real Bob Dylan. There is only the music. Why do we care about who Dylan is? Because he won’t tell us? Ellen Willis wrote, “Dylan’s refusal to be known is not simply a celebrity’s ploy, but a passion that has shaped his work. As his songs have become more introspective, the introspections have become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future.” But if he was or is just a pop star, then authenticity should not matter. His origins as Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, his years hanging around the Dinky neighborhood near the University playing coffeehouses under various names, the time he may or may not have spent in Denver, or reform school. Because he came up through folk music, which aspired to be purer and better than pop—not just a commodity , but a way of being in the world—his celebrity became an issue, both in his time and for his biographers. Nevertheless Dylan has a remarkable talent for being himself, for provoking, for scenes, for raising these issues. It’s like the joke Arlo Guthrie told when his father, Dylan’s idol, Woody Guthrie, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He looked around the room at the assembled executives and the rock stars and said, “I don’t know where Woody would be tonight if he were alive. But I can guarantee you he wouldn’t be here.” One suspects the same thing of Dylan at his press conference. If there were some way he could just be himself, and not Bob Dylan, he would be anywhere but there.
Over the course of his long career, there are many Bob Dylans. “Performers had always changed their names and adopted professional images that diverged from their biographies…. The irony of Robert Zimmerman’s metamorphosis into Bob Dylan lies in the application of so much elusion and artifice in the name of truth and authenticity.” This accusation by David Hadju, one of Dylan’s most astute biographers, is oft repeated in writings about Dylan’s participation in the folk movement. Folk gave Dylan his fame, and forced people to take him seriously, as folk was a serious business. Serious because it was “authentic, local, associated with hillbillies and hobos, antithetical to the times and sounded real.” And a business, as Robert Shelton points out, because, “the music business was jolted by such widespread decentralization of talent and audiences. For a time, the folk movement ran on greased wheels of anti-show-business idealism, more commercially oriented folk singers had to present themselves as idealistic, they had to dress simply and appear indifferent toward money.” Hadju’s summary of the folk ideal is “down with the aristocracy of the Hit Parade, up with egalitarian amateurism,” and the anti-commercial, underground sensibility it represented, that statement which teenagers utter with such pride: “no one else was listening to it.”
Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival is one of the most described and disputed moments in rock history. His biographers, with the benefit of perfect hindsight, portray it as inevitable. It was the summer of 1965. Dylan stood at a crossroads, according to Greil Marcus, who borrows that classic blues image to paint his picture of Newport in the opening of Invisible Republic. Dylan carried an electric guitar and wore a leather jacket—a sellout jacket, the folkies called it. Dylan scoffed at this, telling a reporter he’d been wearing black leather “since [he] was five years old.” He plugged in, and played with a band. He’d already released electric recordings, and more were on the way, but Newport was a folk venue, the folk venue, where Dylan had sung with folk princess Joan Baez two short years before. The crowd saw the “voice of his times and conscience of a generation” committing an act of apostasy. A sound rose from the audience. No one will admit to booing now, though some swear that’s what it was. Others say the noise was because the sound was terrible, and the crowd was collectively urging someone to fix it. Robert Shelton suggests this was the case at Dylan’s 1966 Royal Albert Hall shows. “We just couldn’t hear his words,” an attendee told Shelton. The venues Dylan was playing were not used to amplified music, so the sound problems are a real consideration. Either way, Dylan was insouciant. Asked about the booing at Newport and subsequent shows, he said, “I thought it was great, I really did. If I said anything else I’d be a liar.”
In making John Wesley Harding, Dylan had returned to folk post-Newport through a new lens, with his own point of view. He liked the Nashville ethos, as was evident in his praise of the musicianship on Blonde on Blonde, though it was closer to what came out of Warhol’s Factory than to the typical product of Nashville’s Music Row. Yet many fans and critics, like Landau, saw Harding as Dylan merging his past personas, the folkie and the rock star, into something else entirely. But shouldn’t this confusion be typical now for the Dylanists, asks Ellen Willis? “Not since Rimbaud said ‘I is another’ has an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity. His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker’s”—or the rock biographer’s—“ultimate antagonist.”
The novelists inch closer to the truth than the biographers when it comes to Dylan. Billy Rothschild, the protagonist of Scott Spencer’s novel, The Rich Man’s Table, is writing an unauthorized book about Luke Rothschild, a character loosely based on Dylan, his father—literally his life’s work. He has interviewed all of Luke’s friends and former lovers, strung together the lost years of the 1960s and seventies in the name of exposing all of his father’s injustices. Then he realizes no one wants to hear them: “I had been so consumed by the certainty that if those who worshipped him knew how badly he had treated my mother and me, then they would turn on him, they would realize they had loved a mirage. I had managed to overlook what everyone else seemed to know: there was magic in him, he made something happen in the air, he changed you, he made you, for a moment at least, willing to risk everything for speed, or music, or love.” People do seem willing to overlook many of the same sins in Dylan: the transgressions against God (during his flirtation with Christianity in the 1970s), women, friends, even his fans, don’t seem to matter much in the end. People come to accept whatever Dylan does as his next phase, his new thing. It’s Dylan, we shrug. Who, least of all a biographer, can be knowing?
Brian Morton’s novel The Dylanist tracks one such fan, a disaffected woman named Sally Burke, as she comes of age. The daughter of socialists, raised on strict ideals of social justice, Sally has trouble committing to anything or anyone. She first hears Dylan in high school, and she instinctively grasps this quality in him:
She’d never realized how many different Dylans there were. The protest singer; the psychedelic rocker, tripping out on wild imagery; the simple country crooner, rhyming “June” with “moon.” All these different Dylans had one thing in common: whatever mood he was in, he didn’t give a damn about anything but being true to himself.
By the end of the week, Sally had fallen in love with Dylan. Dylan gave her hope: he showed that you could make your life a work of art. She loved the way that he remained fluid, reinventing himself endlessly, refusing to be trapped by other people’s expectations. She wanted to be like that. She wanted to reinvent herself endlessly. She wanted to be fiercely, ruthlessly herself, committed to nothing except honesty. She wanted to go electric.
In Dylan, with Dylan, Sally can be herself: noncommittal. Free. Honest. A little selfish. Even after she has tried commitment, played house with her college boyfriend, taken a job and kept it for a while, she still thinks of herself as a “Dylanist.” At the end of the novel, Sally reassesses:
She wondered if she was still what Ben would call a Dylanist. She probably was, and she’d probably always be one: restless, not really political, yet edgily intent against selling out; putting her feelings first. Dylan himself, with his restless honesty, would probably always mean a lot to her. But lately, when she looked at his records, she could never find anything she wanted to hear. His concerns weren’t her concerns. His work contained nothing about loss; nothing about gain—his own, or that of the people he loved; nothing about being a father, or being a son. Nothing about the complexities of relationships that last.
What does Dylan know about relationships that last? Even the most sympathetic of his biographers would agree with Sally: not very much. Some think he has even sold out his own talent, become dishonest. His turn back to traditional music on 1993’s World Gone Wrong, while unsurprising for those who keep Harding handy, felt to many like an admission of defeat. He had gone acoustic again. But that is, after all, part of being Dylan, being adamantly contradictory, doing the unexpected (he even managed to win the Nobel Prize without trying), ignoring critics and fans both. Ruthlessness is part of the story. So is the refusal to commit, for more than a moment, as long as it takes to do a tour, or make an album. There is always another mask, and another biographer determined to unmask him.