Here I sit so patiently/Waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of/ Going through all these things twice.
Forward, into the past!
Nothing was delivered, but I can’t say I sympathize.
In November 1994, dressed in iconic big-polka-dot shirt and black sunglasses, 53-year-old Bob Dylan appeared on MTV’s Unplugged. He sang a handful of his greatest hits, mostly 1960s-vintage, some of his most wondrous and paranoid and surreal creations: “Tombstone Blues,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Desolation Row,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “With God on Our Side” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Not long afterward, he licensed that last tune for use in ads by the Bank of Montreal and Coopers & Lybrand.
Yes, this is the enigmatic legacy of the 1960s, that tar baby of American cultural politics. But the selling of the counterculture was built in to what was, after all, a pop phenomenon. The Grateful Dead started peddling T-shirts during the Winterland days with Bill Graham. By the time we got to Woodstock, “counterculture” was a squishy advertising concept. No one at the time saw this better than the artful enigma now just turning 60.
My first Dylan albums were Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, so for me, Dylan’s real value has never been as a political symbol, anyway: He’s got everything he needs, he’s an artist, he don’t look back. As a friend of mine once put it, Dylan opened the toy chest of American popular music so that anyone could play with all of its contents. The remark underscores the breadth of Dylan’s catalogue. Only a few musical peers–Ray Charles comes to mind–have done anything as wide-ranging.
Maybe it’s not surprising that, like Charles, Dylan seems to have two key qualities: genius and self-protective complexity. From the beginning, the Dance of the Seven Veils between the whirring rumors and the (initially few genuine) facts that surfaced about his private lives has been part of his celebrity allure; it amplified his gyrating lyrics, gave insiders plenty to guess and gossip about, and outsiders a contact high.
The slightly pudgy 19-year-old came to the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene with a Woody Guthrie playbook on his knee, but he loved Buddy Holly’s Stratocaster and Elvis Presley’s raw Sun recording sessions and knew he wanted to be a star. The Village folkies, in full creative coffeehouse flight, were generally leftish, middle-class, longing for cultural authenticity and artistic purity, and interested in making something apart from the loathed world of commercial showbiz. That, by contrast, is precisely where Dylan dove headlong as soon as he could. Even before his fabled fiasco at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan drew electric guitars and drums–the evil talismans of showbiz–from his toy chest, where they’d been waiting alongside Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Hank Williams, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Anti-Dylan folkies are still as hardfaced about it as jazz purists are about post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis.
As he moved from protest singer to surrealistic prophet, from born-again Christian to born-again Jew, Dylan’s life and music registered, however unwillingly or elliptically, his times. This is one reason people have interpreted his Mona Lisa-highway blues smile and his amphetamine/Beat attitudes in their own images. They’ve translated him into hero, antihero, sellout, savior, asshole, religious zealot, burnout, political radical and artist. Unless it was useful to him, Dylan usually resented being reduced in rank from prophet (he has always credited divine inspiration for his work, and his most apocalyptic imagery rages with echoes of Blake and the Bible) to mere mirror-holder, and he has usually managed to translate himself anew–the protean artist. That is part of his genius, the soul linking his tangled life to his web of art–and, for that matter, his art to his audience.
So, like the decade he’s a symbol of, Dylan today is many things to many people. He’s an aging rock star composer of some of the most powerful and enduring songs of the past century who loves the gypsy life of the road; a multimillionaire with an Elvis-like entourage who has an un-American lack of interest in personal hygiene; a double-talking celebrity with a ferocious sense of privacy who has spent most of his life in studios and on the road with his ears full–to varying degrees, depending on exactly when we’re talking about–of the transcendent sounds he hears in his head as well as the roaring sound of the star machinery and its need for lubrication. Such is the dilemma of any commercial artist. Pop culture is full of the tales. But few if any other pop songwriters have been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
By most accounts (and over the decades there have been plenty) Dylan early on cast himself–first in his mind’s eye, then, after he’d established the myths, in fact–as a shadow observer hoboing through life, with his BO and irresistible charm and coldhearted focus and spew of genius. The chorus for this troubadour’s life has many members. There are women who sing his praises, care for him, want to protect him. There are ex-acolytes and musicians and business associates wailing the I-been-abused blues. There are core loyalists and friends. There are fawners, often drawn from the same pool as the abused. They all agree, though, that the Bob Dylan they know is an unbelievably private, ironically inarticulate man with nearly unshakable drive and talent.
That was already clear in 1965, when D.A. Pennebaker tagged along for Dylan’s last all-acoustic tour of Britain and filmed Don’t Look Back. Released in 1967, the movie caused a stir mostly because it unveiled another few sides of Dylan. Now it’s been reissued on DVD, with the usual enhanced menu of outtakes (here audio tracks) and commentary (some useful, some silly). The good news is it looks just as murky as ever. With this backstage home movie, Pennebaker was inventing our notions of cinéma vérité: a wash of grimy, grainy images with weirdly impromptu light, in-the-moment vignettes and scenes.
Pennebaker wasn’t interested in converting Dylan into a poster boy for activism or peace and love or the Francis Child ballad collection; he grasped the artistic multiplicity that often came out as duplicity. During the movie, Dylan reveals side after side: the manipulative creep; the defensive master of the counterlunge; the insular and sometimes inarticulate star; the smartass provocateur; the hyperintense performer; the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, spasmic-twitching composer sitting endlessly at typewriters and pianos. And yeah, the nice guy pops up too. It’s a portrait of the artist as Zelig.
In Pennebaker’s film, this Zelig too has his handler: an owlish, pudgy Svengali, Albert Grossman, who negotiates about money in a couple of revealing scenes. Folk veterans tend to see him as a representative of Moloch: Grossman devised crossover acts like Peter, Paul and Mary and gave them Dylan tunes to sing. He owned a bigger percentage of Dylan’s publishing income than Dylan did, though the singer didn’t know it then; even people who don’t like him agree that Grossman encouraged Dylan to write and experiment. According to Pennebaker, Dylan came up with the movie’s famous opening: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” plays while Dylan, wearing a slight sneer, stands on one side of an alley. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky stand off to the other. Dylan holds placards with bits of lyrics from the tune, dropping each card to the ground when it goes by on the audio track. It’s a neat piece of visual business that bridges Buster Keaton and MTV.
Pennebaker’s movie takes place in the last quarter of David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street. The author of the well-received Lush Life, a biography of Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Hajdu has written an engrossing page-turner that puts early 1960s Dylan into a pas-de-deuxing foursome with the Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi, and Richard Fariña. The narrative’s hook is deliciously open-ended. The Baez sisters, performers themselves, were romantically as well as creatively entwined with Fariña and Dylan, two ambitious myth-making weirdos who were womanizers, bastards and, in their different ways, trying to create poetry with a backbeat. Their ever-changing interpersonal dynamics are the intellectual soap opera that is the book’s bait.
Hajdu plays out the sexual and creative permutations and combinations in and around this vaguely Shakespearean quartet with narrative panache and just the right tang of gossip and attitude to get it excerpted in Vanity Fair. At its best, his fluent style floats information with deceptive lightness, but he’s not lightweight. Hajdu dug through the papers, including unpublished outtakes of Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, talked to plenty of witnesses and tapped new sources; the most notable is Thomas Pynchon, Fariña’s Cornell roommate and best man, whom Hajdu interviewed by fax. All this lets him conjure a novelistic immediacy. His well-plotted scenes usually ring true and bristle with evocative detail. He uses his narrative’s inherent elasticity to open perspective and depth of field naturally, then skillfully dollies around and pans in and out of larger contexts as illuminating backdrop for his two odd couples. Topics from the history of American vernacular music to contemporary politics, art and architecture add resonance to the main plot.
Hajdu’s story starts with the young Baez sisters seeing Pete Seeger (“a sociopolitical Johnny Appleseed during the mid-1950s”) in concert and getting their own guitars. It follows Joan to the thriving Cambridge folk scene, where she became a star with a recording contract. Hajdu builds a novelistic collage of perspectives: Baez herself, those she’d already left behind in California, those watching her rise in Boston. This technique shapes the book’s storytelling. We see Fariña, for instance, through Mimi’s eyes as a basically lovable, if hurtful, rogue genius; through Joan’s by turns as accomplice, potential seducer and parasite. We watch Joan’s Cambridge friends fret and fume at young Bobby Dylan’s riding her to the top while Joan loves him blindly, and we meet other Dylan lovers like Suze Rotolo and Sara Lownds, whom Dylan later married. We wonder why Mimi can’t see how Fariña is using her to get to Joan, since nearly everybody else, including Joan, does, and we wonder if he’ll succeed. And we hear the chorus of disharmony around the charged moment when Dylan abandoned his image as folk singer; we note that Joan idealistically spurns Albert Grossman and a major record label and Bob signs with both.
It’s easy to see how this fly-on-the-wall approach could devolve easily into name- and eavesdropping–a pitfall Hajdu generally avoids. He evokes the aura of the relationship between Dylan and Rotolo by noting that by the spring of 1962 they’d known each other for six months; he tested his songs on her and played Elvis records for her, while she lent him books of poetry–they read Byron and Rimbaud together–and took him to CORE meetings. “He knew about Woody and Pete Seeger,” says Rotolo, “but I was working for CORE and went on youth marches for civil rights, and all that was new to him. It was in the air, but it was new to him.”
So, although characters and narrative strands multiply as they weave in and out, Positively 4th Street usually avoids feeling cluttered or confused. And the pacing, spurred by the frisson of eyewitness memories, insider gossip and the rush of circumstance, carries you over its rough spots until things skid abruptly to a finish in 1966. That April, after a publication party for his seminal book Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Fariña died in a motorcycle crash. Three months later, Dylan had his own motorcycle crash, which pulled him out of the public eye for three years. Hajdu writes, “Precisely what happened to Bob Dylan on July 29 is impossible to reconstruct with authority.”
Until now, that was true. But in Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Howard Sounes in fact pieces together testimony and circumstantial evidence into a fairly detailed account of Dylan’s wreck. (He relies heavily on Sally Grossman, the late Albert’s wife.) It’s the kind of thing Sounes does well, opening new angles on the enigmatic polyhedron that is Dylan. An indefatigable reporter, Sounes has collected most of the folks in the Dylan orbit and brought into print several, including Dylan family members, who haven’t been there before. He has unearthed more detail about Dylan’s marriages and divorces and children and lovers and homes, his harassing fans and his tour receipts, even his desperate late 1980s offer to join the Grateful Dead as his popularity ebbed. He has combed the earlier sources and extracted their meat. Exhaustive is the right adjective.
As Sounes sees it, Dylan lives in introverted, near-constant turbulence, buffeted by internal as well as external winds and by his own creativity, which produces constant alienation. We watch obsessive fans stake out his houses, hassle his women and kids, ransack his garbage. We learn more of the grimy legal battles (suit and countersuit) between Dylan and Grossman, who for several years, at least, earned much more from Dylan than Dylan did.
Dylan did know lots of women, and they parade dizzyingly by: sincere Minnesota folkie madonnas, Village political sophisticates like Suze Rotolo, Baez, Suze again, his first wife Sara, Baez again, back to Sara, various side trips, a string of black backup singers like Clydie King and Carolyn Dennis, who, Sounes reveals, had Dylan’s child and secretly married him. So do his musical cohorts from over the decades, who retail variations of the same tale: Little contact, little to no rehearsal, vague if any instruction. Even members of The Hawks, later known as The Band, arguably Dylan’s closest creative associates in the late 1960s, shed little light on the man and his muse. It’s not surprising, then, that in discussing Dylan’s visual artwork collected in Drawn Blank, Sounes writes, “Mostly Bob seemed to be alone in empty rooms. He often drew the view from his balcony, a view of empty streets, parking lots, and bleak city skylines.”
That’s as close as Sounes gets to piercing Dylan’s veil. Even in this monumental bio, just as in Hajdu’s book, the star of the show flickers like a strobed image through the crosscut glimpses of his intimates. The facts and tales pile up; the figure behind the screen seems to come into clearer focus but never quite emerges. Still, his complexity is elucidated–which may be the best anyone, including Dylan himself, can do.
Sounes’s book has its drawbacks. Its workmanlike prose lurches periodically into fanzine or tabloid rambles by the author or his witnesses. (Why open with what reads like a magazine story about the party that followed Dylan’s “Thirtieth Anniversary Concert”? Why ask Jakob Dylan, now a pop star in his own right, if he thinks he’ll measure up to his dad?) It gropes for the “inner” Dylan and sometimes comes up silly. (It’s not at all clear Dylan has “conservative” beliefs, as Sounes asserts, aside from desperately wanting privacy for himself and his families. It does seem that he, like most folks, has a floating mishmash of an ad hoc personal code.) With all those facts pressing on him, Sounes can also warp chronology in a confusing fashion. (Why, when first introducing Dylan’s manager Grossman, dwell in such detail on the court battles that broke out between them seven years later?) But the bulky research and reporting make up for relatively minor lapses in style and sensibility.
Inevitably there are spots when Sounes and Hajdu overlap and disagree about what happened. Take Newport 1965. Sounes retails the traditional story of how outraged fans, shocked at Dylan’s betrayal of acoustic music and, by implication, folkie principles, booed Dylan’s electric set. Early on, Pete Seeger and Dylan himself helped promote the tale. Hajdu suggests, via other witnesses, that people were screaming about the crummy sound system, and he wonders, as others have, how 15,000 fans could have been shocked by an electric Dylan set after hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio that summer. Look at it this way: The doughnut is being filled in, but the hole in the middle remains. Dylan’s lifelong attempts to fog his personal life may have been rolled back more than ever, but blurry patches still linger, subject to interpretation and debate, just as they always will with the decade of which he–for better or worse, rightly or wrongly–is still an emblem.