NO DIRECTION HOME The Life and Music of Bob Dylan By Robert Shelton Beech Tree/Morrow. 573 pp. $ 17.95
BOB DYLAN, aside from being one of the most influential and original popular artists of modern times, has always presented a special challenge to potential biographers.
Exploring the rather daunting dimensions of Dylan's creativity is, of course, challenge enough on its own. Drawing freely from, and sometimes pillaging irreverently, sources as diverse as Egyptian mythology, Jungian and alchemical symbolism, Bertold Brecht, Mississippi Delta blues, the Old Testament, 19th-century French poets (Arthur Rimbaud in particular), Hebraic cantillation, Hank Williams, and Tex-Mex music, Dylan did nothing less than revamp the entire language, idiomatic tone, and conceptual sweep of rock 'n' roll music. Today, works as different as the songs of latter-day rock 'n' roll artists Tom Petty and Mark Knopfler and the dramatic monologues of playwright Sam Shephard (with their stream-of-consciousness lyricism) show the range of his influence.
Yet throughout his 2 1/2 decades of high public profile and his repeated ensnarement in musical and political controversy, Dylan has remained inscrutable. Chronically restless and reclusive, he has repeatedly followed his own eccentric artistic muse at the expense of alienating his audience. He has occasionally even reinvented his personal history to suit the needs of a particular time. His public pronouncements as well as the lyrics of his songs have, over the years, often served more as smoke screens than revelations -- riddles, conundrums, and non sequiturs which have heightened the Dylan mystique.
The latest biographer to probe the Dylan legend is veteran music writer Robert Shelton. Shelton, who covered music and the youth culture for The New York Times from 1958 to 1968 and who has been Dylan's "friend, critic and combatant" for the last 25 years, ultimately proves well up to the challenge of peeling away the onion-skin layers of willful obfuscation which have accrued around Dylan through the years. In fact, he has been diligently collecting impressions, interviews, and other data ever since the early 1960s, when he first met his subject.
Shelton has obviously taken great delight and satisfaction in playing James Boswell to Dylan's Samuel Johnson, vividly chronicling with fly-on-the-wall attentiveness their many personal encounters over the years. Yet he also has been more than a mere passive observer. It was he who gave Dylan's career its first taste of legitimacy with a glowing performance review in the Times in 1961. (Some years later, Shelton reveals in passing, Dylan more or less returned the favor by introducing him to marijuana.)
This is not an "authorized" biography, a term which, in the literary context, too often ends up rhyming with "sanitized." Shelton does make it clear, though, that he did have Dylan's basic approval and even passive cooperation on No Direction Home. (The title is taken from a line in Dylan's 1965 single, "Like a Rolling Stone," and hints at the singer's nearly life-long search for artistic and spiritual identity.) It is only occasionally that this mutual trust, admiration, and respect between subject and author becomes a minor hindrance.
Shelton has compiled literally hundreds of interviews -- with Dylan's parents, childhood friends, former girlfriends, and fellow musicians. And he's buttressed his ample firsthand observations with seemingly endless research. He uses all this to trace the singer's personal and musical evolution, all the way from his comfortable middle-class childhood in the iron ore town of Hibbing, Minnesota, right up through his continued and vital presence on the popular music scene in the mid-1980s.
As we first encounter the singer, a rosy-cheeked sometime Boy Scout and honor roll student who later came to be fascinated by the twin '50s legend of Elvis Presley and James Dean, he seems an unlikely candidate for future lionization as a counter- and later trans-cultural musical hero. His father, a successful furniture and appliance retailer, and his mother lovingly encouraged his earliest inclinations to sing and perform. By age 10, he was already spinning out lengthy, tightly-stanzaed, rhymed poems which they adoringly framed and hung on the living room wall.
A decade or so later, in the mid-1960s, we find Dylan at the height of his creative powers, on the verge of international fame rivaling that of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and an unlikely candidate for survival. He is emotionally ravaged, hopelessly paranoid, and beset with an almost debilitating nervousness. (As to what extent drugs entered into this, Shelton is none too clear.) He is heckled and jeered by audiences slow to fathom his rather abrupt transition from acoustic folk-protest music to a schizoid brand of surrealistic electrified rock 'n' roll. He engages in abusive and sadistic exchanges with the purblind reporters who dog his trail. SHELTON reports that their mutual friend, the late and distinguished music columnist Ralph Gleason, grew so concerned over Dylan's unhealthy pallor and obvious inner turmoil around this time that he worried aloud that Dylan might be suffering from a brain tumor. "I wanted to ask him what was killing him," Gleason later recalled.
With almost newsreel-like thoroughness, Shelton also documents the kaleidoscopic cultural backdrop of the 1960s (the folk music boom, the Civil Rights movement, and the first stirrings of the Woodstock counterculture) against which Dylan emerged. He also traces the sweep and evolution of popular American music, as it shaped Dylan and -- to a considerable extent -- was later reshaped by him.
By 1977, Dylan had achieved such stature as the shrill voice of ideological and existential protest that more than 100 college courses and several dozen PhD dissertations had come to be devoted to his songs. And, all the while, bitter controversy continued to rage as to the true dimensions of his talents. Producer Phil Spector: "The only poet around is Dylan. The Beatles should play Dylan's records five hours a day and learn what he's doing." Norman Mailer: "If Dylan's a poet, I'm a basketball player."
For all its wealth of detail, insight, and illuminating interpretations of Dylan's often impenetrable lyrics (the book includes extensive LP-by-LP song analyses, along with a 50-page song index and discography), No Direction Home is not without its flaws. For one thing, Shelton obviously wrote different sections of his text over a span of years. As a result, the opening chapters in particular have a patchwork feel to them as he struggles to set the tone and get his gargantuan narrative moving.
Then, too, there are points when you can actually feel Shelton flinching and agonizing as the bloodhound reflexes of the professional biographer clash with the more protective instincts of the long-time friend and admirer. This is particularly clear in his brief discussion of Dylan's 12-year marriage to, and subsequent multi-million dollar divorce from, Sarah H. Lowndes, who had an obviously profound impact on his life and his music. At one point, Shelton seems to almost whine rhetorically: "The British press . . . made front-page news with the family squabbles [revealed in divorce trial documents that were sealed in the United States]. Must I record it here for posterity?" To what I think is his ultimate credit (or at least to the ensuring of his continued friendship with Dylan!), he does not.
Shelton is clearly not in agreement with those critics whose tendency is to sanctify Dylan's best-known work, mostly from the 1960s, while dismissing his similarly-prolific output from the 1970s and 1980s. He obviously believes, in fact, that some of the singer/songwriter's more recent work is some of his best. Yet he undermines this contention ever so slightly by the almost cursory manner in which he dispenses with more recent aspects of Dylan's career: his 1978 conversion to Christianity, his more recent involvement with a Brooklyn cult of Hasidic Jews, and his rather anti-climactic appearance at the 1984 "Live Aid" Concert. Unlike the newsreel-like intensity of the first three-quarters of the book, the final sections read like a sketchy assemblage of news clips.
Even so, No Direction Home stands well above previous efforts, such as Anthony Scaduto's 1971 biography or Jonathan Cott's brief but informed text to the 1984 photo-bio, Dylan. In fact, it seems safe to predict that, even measured against works on Dylan yet to be written, there will be none to hold a candle to this vastly comprehensive, empathetic, and rather magnificent book.?Bob Allen is the author of a biography of singer George Jones.