"Once upon a time" are the first four words of what rock critics deem the most important rock single of all times: 'Like a rolling stone'. Ian Bell takes the reader on a trip down the highways and bylanes of rock's greatest poet. The question regularly comes by: is Dylan a musician or a poet? Two stories stick out in describing 'Like a rolling stone'. The first is that the text is derived from some 20 odd pages of free thought writing condensed to 6 minutes plus of singing and the improvised recording. Slab dab put to tape without too much looking back. No one's seen the 20 odd pages, Dylan claims to have written and the recording surely sounds slightly chaotic, but most likely is perfect in its craft, callousness and sheer raucous playing.
'Once upon a time' shows several things. That Bob Dylan can't be trusted on anything. Everything's a smokescreen (or not), including his autobiography, 'Chronicles, volume one'. Dylan is a very lonely person, as highly gifted artists of any creed must be. Their art goes foremost above everything. He is totally his own man, probably because he has a problem with authoritarian figures in his life. This man worked very hard to become what he became. What amazes me most though: How can grown men and women look at a 22 year old for all the answers to seemingly all the problems in the world? There's a lot to do about Dylan's betrayal to the folk movement, but hey, history showed him right and we're talking about three years of his recording career that now spans 51 years. "Don't follow leaders", he sings quite clearly in 'Subterranean homesick blues'. So how could he ever be one himself? Ian Bell delves in, comes up with some great details and leaves enough room for the reader to judge for himself. Perhaps some points and questions come up a few times too often, but that did not bother me as this book is well written and points are made. A clear conclusion e.g. is that some fans apparently stopped listening
to Dylan's lyrics after he exchanged an acoustic for an electric guitar
(and didn't listen to or simply forgot songs like 'Girl from the north
country'). Personal observations of any sort, so also political, are always nearby with Dylan.
Dylan came into my life in 1976 with 'Desire'. For me Dylan was a name, with the exception of 'George Jackson', his early 1972 single. As far as I knew he was not played on the radio. In contradiction to most hits from just before my radio listening days, that started in 1967 or 68, I was surprised to find out later that Dylan had scored hitsingles like 'Like a rolling stone', 'I want you', 'Just like a woman', etc., only in 1965 and 66. Apparently they were just not played often. Although that I had several of his albums since 1976, it wasn't until 'The bootleg series, 1 - 3', that I became a real fan and stared to appreciate the first part of his career. I honestly thought the guy had no humour and couldn't laugh. This all changed there and then. 'Biograph' of 1985 had this kind of impact also, but to a somewhat lesser extent.
Ian Bell works all the way up to 'Blood on the tracks', so everything I missed out on. (It seems there will be a part two.) What sticks out most for me, is the tremendous drive of Bob Dylan. Although that all questions and points looking at purposes, choices and the lies/stories made by the boy and young man Robert Zimmerman are interesting, they would have been futile if Dylan hadn't broke big. We all make choices in life, don't we? Fact is and one that Bell touches on but doesn't make explicit enough in my opinion, is that Bob Dylan would have been Robert Zimmerman's name whatever would have happened. He changed his name before he signed any contract. So the conclusion that Zimmerman wanted to shed something is correct. Bell shows that Dylan kept shedding every few years. So his question: Who is Bob Dylan?, is an intriguing one. The drive is also in the music output, in the gathering, no, the soaking up knowledge, in adding and shedding friends and colleagues, in changing styles and going where he wants to go. For better or worse. So much, so fast and so different in just a few years. The last I want to touch on is the choices of output. The famously great songs that were not released until the 1990s. A mystery it is and will remain. Fact is a lot has been released since the early 90s, which made the impact of the Bootleg series so important and huge. So in a way we should be glad for that, after the mostly very bleak 80s.
Finally, 'Nashville skyline' is one of my favourite Dylan albums of all time. It just speaks in volumes to me. Perhaps because of the lightness of tone. Let me put that on record here, before I wind up.
Ian Bell's Dylan biography is well written, tries to tackle some tough questions and gives some answers without trying to turn Dylan into a saint. It does honour to the most controversial artist of the last fifty years. To his person, life, music and art. Well worth the read. And is Dylan a poet? I don't care. I enjoy his lyrics only in combination with the music and the better the song, the more I listen to the lyrics. He's a singer-songwriter.