Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylanby Ian Bell
In Once Upon A Time, award-winning author Ian Bell draws together the tangled strands of the many lives of Bob Dylan in all their contradictory/i>
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Half a century ago, a youth appeared from the American hinterland and began a cultural revolution. The world is still coming to terms with what Bob Dylan accomplished in his artistic explosion upon popular culture.
In Once Upon A Time, award-winning author Ian Bell draws together the tangled strands of the many lives of Bob Dylan in all their contradictory brilliance. For the first time, the laureate of modern America is set in his entire context: musical, historical, literary, political, and personal.
Full of new insights into the legendary singer, his songs, his life, and his era, the artist who invented himself in order to reinvent America is discovered anew. Once Upon A Time is a lively investigation of a mysterious personality that has splintered and reformed, time after time, in a country forever trying to understand itself. Now that mystery is explained.
Bell writes beautifully, in rhythmic, incantatory, prose. An imagined reliving of an already imaginary life, and a book to sit alongside Richard Ellmann on Wilde, John Richardson on Picasso, and Peter Ackroyd on Dickens. This is the best Dylan biography yet.
Bell writes about Dylan's America with a cultural perception that is profound. Intelligent, challenging, and altogether worthy of its enigmatic subject.”
Ambitious. Bell handles Dylan brilliantly.
This is best described as a fully formed emotional biography, a fascinating read about an artist who, to this day, defends his right of artistic autonomy, refusing to be anyone but himself, whoever that may be.”
It’s an iconic American life, and Bell has written the most thorough, thoughtful, unblinded, skeptical but caring book that life has yet earned.
A British journalist peers across the Atlantic to suss out what Bob Dylan has been up to over the last half-century. Former Observer editor and current Herald columnist Bell (Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, 1993) opens with an incident that has been well-reported to the point of near-tedium: that inglorious moment in Manchester, England, in which a spectator yelled "Judas," only to have Dylan instruct the band, "Play it fucking loud." The year was 1966. Soon, Dylan would be different, but for that moment, he was tousle-haired, defiant and snotty: "Jean-Jacques Rousseau on a good day could not have contrived this savage boy," Bell smartly remarks. Packing his narrative with similarly learned cultural references, and sometimes sounding like an Oxford don speaking about the Beatles' Aeolian cadences, Bell ponders the deliberateness with which Dylan built up his vast body of work, from improbable beginnings to his latter-day minstrelsy. Bell often assumes a portentous, arch tone, as if he's caught Dylan red-handed in an act of flimflam: "Maybe Bobby Zimmerman just decided, back in 1958 or 1959, that you don't get to be a star if you're Bobby Zimmerman, from little Hibbing--where the hell?--in Minnesota." Perhaps, but maybe someone who's started in the music business as a teenager is allowed to reinvent himself, just as every other American is and maybe every other Briton, too. Alternately, Bell sometimes takes Dylan a little too seriously, a not-uncommon phenomenon in the vast literature surrounding him. Yet, he often hits just the right note, as when he divines that by merely seeking a little privacy after Blonde on Blonde, Dylan was adding to his legend: "Simply by stepping back from the microphone, Dylan had become ‘a recluse.' " A middling book. Greil Marcus is better on Dylan's place in the context of the "old, weird America," though Bell ventures some useful observations from afar.
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Once Upon a Time
The Lives of Bob Dylan
By Ian Bell
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Ian Bell
All rights reserved.
A Series of Dreams
Someone has just used the name Judas. It is a shout, nothing more, in the protective darkness of a provincial English concert hall a long—long—time ago.
The cry, two vowels stretched, is intended as a kind of remonstrance, a denunciation from the congregation. Instead, it confuses style with substance, sincerity with art, past with present, and worse besides. At a push it might count, if someone is being generous, as the impassioned defence of integrity, real or imagined. It would not be mistaken for wit.
As insults go it is oddly old-fashioned, Sunday school prim, strangely neurotic. Even in a nominally Christian country the idea that a popular entertainer could resemble the betrayer of the Saviour-of-all-Mankind is beyond stupid. Such seems to be the entertainer's opinion.
It happens, though, and then it's famous: Ju-das! Christ-killer. Yet in this case, for a novelty, the apostate has somehow managed to murder his own sanctified self. Without even trying. At a pop concert. Things are about to become legendary.
This cry, this bubble of emotion, is pique expended on trivia. The heckler, like all the people applauding his indignation, has just paid good money to be outraged. Yet there are no surprises here: the blasphemy in question—let's render that one unto little Caesar—has been well advertised. The miscreant has toured the world affronting his audiences. It's been in the papers and Britain is his last stop. But two things are really taking place.
First, the accused has never claimed allegiance to the thing betrayed. He is not—and he insists on this point—an adherent of the near-comical cult that has formed like a cyst around his name. Not interested.
Second, he has a history of his own. Among other things, he was born a Jew. Where else but in provincial England, as the century passes its middle age, could someone libel a Jew as Judas?
The accused, no doubt narcotised—many would like to believe it—certainly assailed, currently existing within the still centre of the cold flame of his own artistic firestorm, has a precise line of response to such attacks. It is almost a matter of rhetorical principle.
He says: 'I don't believe you.'
He adds: 'You're a liar.'
Then, turning to his musicians, all but inaudibly: 'Play it fucking loud.'
One way or another, art is in the room. One thing ends, another begins. From that, and then, to this.
The noise that follows, 'bootlegged' for decades, dishonoured by abysmal reproduction on cheap stereos, mythologised and misrepresented, denied and embraced and denied, is like the sound of a crashing wave. There is fury, too, in the music and the words, as though the singer is disputing gravity itself while it hauls him down, inch by inch, among those sullen listeners who are just like the character in his song. And they don't even know it. How about that?
In another mood, on a different night, he would have seen the humour, but now he's tired, exhausted. After fewer than five years as a recording artist he has evolved from an ingratiating impersonator, the grubby sprite echoing a sick man, the prodigy stealing the histories and songs of others, into something without obvious precedent. He has been both lauded and misconstrued (and that is funny), congratulated and conscripted. Many want to believe he is sui generis yet 'universal', fashionably subversive but, for them at least, always reliable. And, above all, a leader.
Of what? They act as if they own him, especially when he sings about freedom. They say he is wholly new. Yet somehow he seems to know all about an old tradition that binds things together, the perverse tradition that obliges him to seem to break, and break decisively, with all that is purportedly traditional.
Even that isn't really what's going on. This performer, this night, is still more evidence that everything comes from somewhere. Originality, says the cliché, is the ability to see afresh, and hear afresh, things that are familiar. In truth, the music that has baffled a jeering section of his English audience could be traced like veins beneath the skin all the way to a heartland. Sometimes he says as much. Sometimes he claims that it all adds up. Periodically throughout his career he will talk mysteriously of the underlying 'mathematical' logic of his music. Here, in these monstrous, blazing songs, is a progression—not necessarily progress—founded on first principles.
The skinny young man with the wild hair, sharp suit and glowing eyes did not invent rock and roll, or R&B, or the blues, or the structures of popular song. The auditory hallucinations promised by an electric guitar's pick-ups have been explored many times before, by better players. The division of labour within small bands of musicians, 'rhythm' and 'lead', is a practice born of economic necessity, not revolutionary intent. On the face of it, there is nothing—barring a voice that sometimes causes eyebrows to rise—that's new about this noise.
Besides, only a handful of years before these events the smart record-industry money was declaring the 'pop group' passé, the boom ended, a flash in the pan. That might have been one reason why this ferociously ambitious performer became a singer of 'folk' music to begin with. As the '50s became the '60s it had seemed as though the fires of rock and roll were going out one by one. Pastiche and inanity, harmless music controlled by cynical old men, had become the residue. The word was phoney. Hence the reverent fidelity, currently fashionable, to folk's older gods. Even for him, in the beginning, old songs had been the new wave, 'the underground'.
Now a lot of people are aggrieved, even furious, because the performer has seemed to abandon—how best to put this?—the musical settings appropriate to properly serious and 'literate' songs of the folk type. Specifically, they hold that a hollow-bodied guitar derived from the Spanish original sounding into a free-standing microphone is good, honest, authentic and true. An instrument with a solid body and embedded transducers is the howling symbol of venality, vacuousness, mere cash and tawdry thrills. It's offensive. It sounds like a betrayal. They say he has bartered away that precious integrity. The tab runs to 30 pieces of silver (and then some). Hence the tantrum in the dark.
But offensive is good for someone, and scandal is better: at this moment that might as well be the only law in pop's little world. No record sales will be harmed in the making of a famous concert. Perhaps this is one reason why a section of the crowd have paid to be disgusted: the bedlamite's horror has admirers too. Some people, very shallow people, actually like this new stuff.
On this English night, in any case, the performer cuts an ambiguous figure. He doesn't much enjoy being insulted, but he will defy anyone for the right to make music as he chooses. He doesn't have to suffer the abuse, yet he persists. He has been backed into a corner, yet he does not retreat. Bob Dylan is mulish, but no one's fool.
There's more. These days, as though by nameless instinct, he seems to sense a need to split and scatter his audience, to provoke and challenge them, if he is to make any headway. Just as he has taken the familiar elements of American popular music and rearranged them into strange kaleidoscopic configurations, so he expects his listeners to reorder their preconceptions. Or boo him. As he sometimes tells his band: if people have paid hard cash for their tickets, they can boo all they like. That's their privilege. They get it or they don't. It is that sort of decade.
The date in question is 17 May 1966; the place is Manchester, a monochrome industrial city in the north-west of England. Dylan and five musicians have been around the world in eight months with only a very few short breaks. It has been hard, heavy going. The scandal—some truly think in those terms—has been unfolding bit by bit since the folk and blues festival at Newport, Rhode Island, in July of the previous year. Three ferocious songs performed with a high-class pick-up band at that event have set off derisive echoes (and some handy publicity) at every other stop on the latest tour. Audiences have been placated, even lulled, with 'acoustic' numbers in the first act of the little touring melodrama, and have applauded accordingly. The least of them have betrayed the poverty of their borrowed opinions by taking it for granted that the choice of instruments alone guarantees folk music. But if they have missed the point it is because they had no pressing interest in finding the point. They know what they like.
In fact, if lyrics alone are the issue, these solo performances, with their phantasmal harmonica passages endlessly sustained, are scarier than anything you might hear from a Fender Telecaster. 'Visions of Johanna', 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue', 'Desolation Row' and the rest are thick with dissociated imagery, dark with foreboding or ecstatically vivid, but bereft of 'messages'. Sceptics say they are bereft of any meaning. They say these songs are just a juvenile's ill-digested idea of poetry beneath a patina of 'significance'. Try reading the verses, they say. They say that a lot. Then they set to work on the performer's so-called singing voice.
Yet these songs, like the old folk blues, arise from psychic deeps. They share that ancient sense of supernatural mystery and fundamental truth while breaking apart the familiar linkages between image, metaphor and meaning. They are old/modern, weird/familiar. No one, fan or not, says they are anything other than strange. This is no accident. These are no more the folk songs of audience expectations than Dylan is a Peace Corps volunteer.
Still, thanks only to his choice of guitars, the singer, a few days shy of his 25th birthday, gets away with the opening half of the Manchester show. At this juncture the customers keep their bafflement to themselves. Many are even prepared to tread gingerly on the path being marked out: the 'Mr Tambourine Man' tune remains an infinitely seductive thing, after all. What's it 'about'? That's the funny part. Those who don't mind the voice can never quite say why, or to what, they respond. A few have theories, though, and even in Manchester the crowd will accept novelty if it doesn't sound heinously 'commercial', or just too bloody loud. They are not yet ready to notice the deconstruction and reconstruction of the entire art of songwriting.
In Manchester, the first set goes well. An intermission follows. Afterwards, as though in response to a supernatural dog whistle or a malign secret chord, all hell erupts. The annals, wherever they are kept, acquire a new chapter.
When recordings from the night are released to the wider public a generation later, one legend will be extinguished and another encouraged. The former is a slight matter: the bootleggers got it wrong, as many had long since known or guessed. Illicit copies of the tapes were ascribed for years to London's Royal Albert Hall—all spoke of 'the Albert Hall concert'—not Manchester and its century-old Free Trade Hall, with its ghosts of Mr Charles Dickens and his theatricals. But there were no regal Beatles in the audience to encourage Dylan against the groundlings on 17 May up in the Northwest. Hence the second legend. When, in 1998, Columbia issues The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966, the packaging on the handsome box asserts that 'Dylan blazed a trail of confrontational'—red ink for that word—'performances that changed rock and roll'—more red ink coming—'forever'. Partly true.
The sleeve notes themselves observe that though 'some cheered' others barracked the band or 'simply walked out'. In the usual story,opinions were less evenly divided: they hated it. So how did that work? Why is anyone still talking about Bob Dylan in the twenty-first century when the received account tells of a majority reaction so baleful, so murderous, in Britain and around the world, that it should by rights have destroyed his career? If so many people detested the second half of the 1966 shows so much, surely no one would remember the artist or the concerts, far less care. When you fail to keep the customer satisfied you go out of business. Someone must have enjoyed those performances enough to grant the Manchester concert and the artist an abiding legend and a singular reputation. Or was it his bad luck that only fools were buying tickets that year?
The 1998 release had the effect of setting a myth in stone. This, it said, was the unparalleled moment. Here was the transformative gesture, the confrontation, that defined Dylan's pre-eminence in his generation, and in his art. This artefact above all others needed to be heard and understood with the urgency that attended its making. But the surviving contraband evidence differs. It says that the previous night's performance at the unglamorous Gaumont in Sheffield was just as remarkable—arguably the superior concert, in fact—and that the show given at the Liverpool Odeon on the 14th was also better than pretty good. Manchester was just another stop on a long tour, its set list—in 1966 an oddly rigid thing by Dylan's later standards—no different from all the other set lists. What marked out the date, the place and the recording was only partly to do with music. This was the Judas album, and the moment.
Another thing. What did separate the supposedly acceptable acoustic set from the ensuing electric heresy? Mere noise? By the standards of what was usual in 1966 Dylan opened with a performance a thousand degrees of separation from his old folk-minstrel civil-rights persona. Those spooky, angular songs, that harmonica like the sound of an animal refusing to die, that voice with its precisely mangled timing, every word bent and twisted, and each number going on forever—they went for all that without a murmur? So the recorded evidence seems to suggest.
The word 'counter-culture' wasn't yet in use in 1966, but most of the legend of Manchester arose from its vainglorious assumptions about art. All true art had to be—didn't it?—novel, 'challenging', dissident, 'out there' and always, above all, misunderstood. The whole point was that the straights would never get the point. Thus (apparently) would the world be transformed. So Dylan's difficulties with audiences and electromagnetic induction that year were taken to be symbolic, whether he liked it or not, of a bigger quarrel. Given the choice, he might have preferred enraptured applause.
Clearly, outrage made a bigger spectacle of itself in Manchester than appreciation. Yet the fact is that Dylan won through in the end, his rising star undimmed, his sales of vinyl increasing. The song that followed his exchange with the accusing voice in the darkness, performed in the teeth of the storm, had already provided him with his first top-five single almost a year—so who was really shocked?—before the fracas at the Free Trade Hall.
The concert recordings show, nevertheless, that many in the crowd were truly, thoroughly pissed off, despite being forewarned, by those drums, keyboards and guitars. If they knew anything at all, they knew that Bob Dylan was the most unusual talent in the music business and knew, as all the critics agreed, that he was to be taken seriously. Yet in Manchester and in many other places a large part of the hip, educated demographic went nuts, and not in a good way, when he and his band plugged in.
Perhaps the crowds were merely dedicated audiophiles who deprecated abysmal sound systems. Perhaps the loudest noise most of them had ever heard robbed them of their wits. Or perhaps they wanted the fight.
There are still some old leftish folkies who mourn the Dylan they lost, missing in inaction, in the pop-culture wars. For a few brief years he really mattered, and mattered deeply, to them. It wasn't just the changing-the-world stuff, or the decision to exchange a pristine, truth-telling gift for mere wordplay, Top 40 hits and fancy boots. It went deeper. Their Dylan was antithetical. In the first wave of his creativity he dissented from all the fraudulent capitalist games of the music industry and the denatured society it represented and sedated. This was an article of faith. His art was pluralist, of 'we' and for 'us'. Protest songs had been written because, as it happened, there were a lot of things to protest against. That had been his story, too, for a while.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Time by Ian Bell. Copyright © 2012 Ian Bell. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Meet the Author
Born in Edinburgh, Ian Bell is a winner of the George Orwell Prize for political journalism. He is the author of Dreams of Exile, a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, and is currently a columnist with the London Sunday Herald.
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