Bob Dylan: Another 50,000 Mile Checkup

Bob Dylan: Another 50,000 Mile Checkup
In naming him one of the most important Americans of the 20th century, Life magazine said of Bob Dylan, "he pulled a generation along like a VW drafting in the wake of a semi." If that remains the general perception, it has only been through Dylan's diligence in guarding his private life from the prying eyes of opportunistic journalists and biographers. However, with his recent 60th birthday, that wall of secrecy — undoubtedly the envy of every other celebrity — seems to be slowly eroding. Whether this is a good thing or not is up to one's personal relationship with Dylan's work; some would say he's had it coming ever since he fashioned himself as Woody Guthrie's heir, but others like long-time Dylan scholar Greil Marcus would steadfastly maintain the events of his life should have no bearing on interpretations of the work.
How then to judge the two latest entries in the Dylan bibliographical canon? The one that's gotten the most attention is Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes (Grove), the reason largely stemming from the new personal and financial details he has uncovered. As an investigative journalist, Sounes admits off the top that his task was to present previously unknown information, since he felt in the shadow of still-relevant biographies by Anthony Scaduto, Robert Shelton and Clinton Heylin. This amounts to Sounes leaning on the theory that the women throughout Dylan's life (including his mother) have had a bigger effect on his music than anyone had previously thought. Sounes also sheds new light on Dylan's tortured relationship with early manager Albert Grossman, and how that may have motivated his crucial musical shifts.

But the big bombshell is the revelation that Dylan was secretly married and had a child with back-up singer Carolyn Dennis in the mid-'80s. The surprise is that they were married; the list of women that Sounes reports that Dylan has been involved with since his ugly divorce from first wife Sara in 1977 gives the impression that he's still more of a rock star than people give him credit for. This also unfortunately makes it impossible to listen to the brutal honesty on 1997's Time Out Of Mind in the same way after reading Sounes's detailed accounts of Dylan's recent affairs. Yet aside from such titillations, Down The Highway is a fairly standard bio that merely brings things up to date. We see a lot more of Dylan "the mere mortal," but anyone who's been inspired by the music will feel that Sounes's portrait is only half the man.
In a similar, but much more focused vein, comes Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (FS&G), which explores Dylan's complicated relationship with Joan Baez during his rise in the folk revival of the early ‘60s. To spice things up, Hajdu also intertwines the relationship between Baez's sister Mimi and cult novelist/folk singer Richard Farina. The subject matter seems painfully dated — it will probably be a favourite of Dylan scholars 100 years from now — but Hajdu peppers his tedious explanations of the significance of Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio with bold assertions that Dylan was persuaded to sleep with Baez to further his career (which seems plausible) and that it was Farina who told Dylan how to mix Beat poetry and rock'n'roll (which seems ridiculous).

The book picks up steam as the career paths of the four players become set: Baez going out of her way to bring Dylan along wherever she goes, ultimately leaving her a casualty when he "goes electric"; Farina's ambition vastly outweighing his talent, leaving him a literal casualty upon the release of his long-desired first novel, with only Mimi to carry on his slim legacy.

Whether Hajdu's work accurately represents this obviously complex dynamic can only be judged by those who were there, but by its conclusion, Positively 4th Street is a fascinating tale that once again shows Dylan in much more human terms (read: selfish, ambitious) than previous biographers have attempted. If anyone has the guts to make a movie about his life, this one would probably make the most viable screenplay. However, after reading these two books I'm now firmly in the camp that doesn't need to know any more about his life. In Dylan's case, the music will always tell a better story.