The conjurer’s art is a tricky one, all the more so when that sleight of hand is brought to bear on an individual’s identity. Bob Dylan has been rock music’s resident shape-shifter for more than 50 years now, replacing one persona with another, as fans, scholars, pop culture mavens and chat-room habitues make their case for the version of Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., that best encompasses all the others. Veteran biographer David Dalton has taken a more involved approach than we’re used to seeing as he sifts through each successive, mounting image of a man who doesn’t so much resemble someone you might pass on the street as he does a living, breathing construct, a superimposition of selves, lies, truths and lies that beget truths.
Dylan’s history, such as he designed it, resembles a great mash-up of literary styles: tall tales, farce, the picturesque, the picaresque, the road saga, the surrealist internal monologue. It all goes into the hopper, just as folk, rock, blues, Tin Pan Alley and cabaret went into the music. As Dalton notes early on, if you’re going to understand Dylan, you need to recognize that everything is mutable in his world, and often inverted. “His fabrications are the most profound, interesting, and authentic part of his personality,” Dalton writes.
If you’re into self-made people, the figure — a panoply of figures, really, all set on top of one another — that emerges here will represent an apex of sorts. Dylan had a normal background, pretty humdrum, even, but no interest in leading any kind of a normal life, and so he invented a back story that would make a profligate liar like Huck Finn blanch. Of course, if you believe that family dynamics are sacrosanct, you’ll probably be less than thrilled when you learn that Dylan enjoyed telling the press that he had no parents, even when he was sending them airline tickets to come watch his shows. Papa Zimmerman, as you might guess, was less than enthused, but he made excuses anyway, as a lot of people do for Dylan throughout his strange narrative. Dalton, fortunately, has the good sense to underscore the drama inherent in that narrative arc and serves up a big, wide, subsuming tale, interspersed with tidbits and analysis about the music that both soundtracks and mirrors it.
For all of the shelf-busting Dylan literature that’s out there, it’s rare that you find a book in which the music is discussed as adroitly as any aspect of the life. A lot of Dylan biographers stress the man’s vitriol, cataloguing one withering put-down after another, sometimes offering up a theory for how such and such a horridly offensive remark turned into a given song lyric. There’s a weird fetishization of Dylan’s top disses, and the music, which is both autonomous and tethered to Dylan’s shifting personas — one more paradox and inversion — gets distorted. Dalton is a penetrating critic, though, and when he makes the sage point that “Chimes of Freedom” — a song in which a lightning storm is a trigger for solidarity — is practically a hymn, the acerbity is provided with a foil, and we see that Dylan didn’t so much shed one identity for another as manage multiple selves at the same time.
Dalton then turns to the effect of this multiplicity on Dylan’s relationships and on the people who loved him. Dalton’s take on “Blood on the Tracks” (1975) — as gut-wrenching an album as there is in rock-and-roll — and the busted, pain-wracked man who made it is the freshest you’ll find. Bob-niks have debated the album’s autobiographical quotient ever since it came out, but as Dalton says: “Songs are autobiographical by definition. What you make up is you, too. Angels and demons are painted by the same hands.” So that’s what you get then: not a single identity, guise, art, but rather an individual who, we might say, was/is his imagination. The further that imagination can go, the more people come to populate the narrative of one man’s life, even though they all begin, and end, at the same point.
Fleming is a cultural critic who has written for the Atlantic, Rolling Stone and many other publications.