The Washington Post
Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylanby David Dalton
A Kaleidoscopic Look at the Many Faces of Bob Dylan
For almost half a century, Bob Dylan has been a primary catalyst in rock's shifting sensibilities. Few American artists are as important, beloved, and endlessly examined, yet he remains something of an enigma. Who, we ask, is the "real" Bob Dylan? Is he Bobby Zimmerman, yearning to escape Hibbing,/b>
A Kaleidoscopic Look at the Many Faces of Bob Dylan
For almost half a century, Bob Dylan has been a primary catalyst in rock's shifting sensibilities. Few American artists are as important, beloved, and endlessly examined, yet he remains something of an enigma. Who, we ask, is the "real" Bob Dylan? Is he Bobby Zimmerman, yearning to escape Hibbing, Minnesota, or the Woody Guthrie wannabe playing Greenwich Village haunts? Folk Messiah, Born-Again Bob, Late-Elvis Dylan, Jack Fate, or Living National Treasure? In Who Is That Man?, David Daltoncultural historian, journalist, screenwriter, and novelistpaints a revealing portrait of the rock icon, ingeniously exposing the three-card monte games he plays with his persona.
Guided by Dalton's cutting-edge insights and myth-debunking point of view, Who Is That Man? follows Dylan's imaginative life, integrating actual events with Dylan's words and those of the people who know him most intimately. Drawing upon Dylan's friends and fellow eyewitnessesincluding Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Stampfel , Larry "Ratso" Sloman, Eric Andersen, Nat Hentoff, Andrew Oldham, Nat Finkelstein, and othersthis book will provide a new perspective on the man, the myth, and the musical era that forged them both.
The Washington Post
Bob Dylan's life and legacy have received plenty of coverage, but few biographers have had the insight and writing chops of Dalton (Get Back), a founding editor of Rolling Stone who is at the peak of his powers in this engaging examination of Dylan's ever-changing persona. Though he hits the obligatory career highlights (e.g., Dylan's quick assimilation into the New York City folk scene, his electric set at Newport, the motorcycle accident that supposedly almost cost him his life, etc.), it's Dalton's keen observations of Dylan's chameleon-like qualities that make this study such addictive reading. Fully aware of the power of the public image, Dylan carefully cultivated his influences from the beginning (many of which he would adopt outright, such as that of Woody Guthrie), skillfully crafting an image of a larger-than-life folk messiah that eventually morphed into a grumpy, hoodie-wearing recluse, and back into a formidable presence in the music world. Dalton is at his best when he's examining Dylan from a thousand feet; his retrospective audit of the artist's early years and his career path are spot-on and full of critical insight. He artfully dances between fan and critic, fully admiring Dylan's work and putting it into a cultural perspective, while remaining somewhat awestruck by the artist's talent and creativity. This approach would have crumbled in lesser hands, but Dalton does a stunningly good job.
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[Dalton's] attempts at exposing, debunking, and celebrating the essence of Robert Zimmerman's Dylanness, and vice versa, make for an intriguing, often amusing, vision quest. Dylan's quirks, kinks, and inscrutability are fascinating fodder for endless interpretations. Dalton is entitled to his, and they're the opposite of dull."Robin Finn, The New York Times Book Review"
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... Dalton is a penetrating critic."Colin Fleming, Washington Post"
Addictive reading... This approach would have crumbled in lesser hands, but Dalton does a stunningly good job."Publishers Weekly, starred review"
The mysteries of Bob Dylan captured in even-handed, never-boring fashion... This lively and literate attempt to read a half-century's worth of brain scans from a literal living legend strikes the right balance between admiration and skepticism."Kirkus Reviews"
All David Dalton's books are wonderful, but Who Is That Man? is especially insightful, funny, and beautifully written."Marianne Faithfull"
Dalton's crazy poetic prose first caught my eye in Rolling Stone back in the day. Have loved his writing ever since. Oh yeaah!"Steven Tyler"
The first truly hip analysis of the ultimate hipster."Lenny Kaye
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Read an Excerpt
Who Is That Man?
By David Dalton
HyperionCopyright © 2012 David Dalton
All right reserved.
IntroductionThose masterful images because complete Grew in pure mind, but out of what began? A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
—w. b. yeats, "the circus animals' desertion"
"I have here something that'll solve all our problems."
"Well, go on, what is it?"
"Oh great. That's all we need is another bootleg. What's this one? Copenhagen, April 30, 1966, reel two, second half missing? We've got eight thousand bootleg tapes, man; we're never going to find enough time to listen to them all in our lifetime."
"It's not like that."
"Oh, then what is it?"
[Looks around apprehensively] "Bob's brain."
"It's one of only three bootlegs of Bob's brain—off a cat scan from when he was, you know, in the hospital in 1997 with, uh, histoplasmowhatever...."
"Sounds a little gruesome."
"But do you realize what this means?"
"Listen ... man ... you okay?"
such tapes would be useful, no question about it, because it's pretty much what we want to know: What goes on in Dylan's brain? How does he think, what does he meeeaaan, what are the "keys to the rain," and such? But, hey, what happens in the neocortex stays in the neocortex, so we'll have to pursue other means to winkle out the elusive Bob. And this is only fitting since Dylan is essentially a Beat novelist in the manner of Jack Kerouac. The phantasmagoria of his great mid-'60s albums is an expression of his inner turmoil and mirrors the shattering of the culture. The songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde are seismic recordings of the conflicts in the streets and in his head, hallucinated autobiographies of himself and his times—the confused signals and psychic static of the '60s.
Dylan emerged just at the moment the counterculture was hatching, his life inextricably connected to the rise of mass bohemia. Dylan's own inner demons meshed seamlessly with its antiestablishment rhetoric, drugs, radical politics, mysticism, and amplified free-floating unrest. Dylan's personal story—whether he likes it or not—is entwined with the '60s and their aftermath.
An agile, subtle, polytropic mind, he registered America's 19th nervous breakdown with hallucinatory precision. Fragmented images and cubist songs replaced the storytelling and ballad tableaux of folk songs and transformed the agitprop of protest songs into a roiling, nightmarish vision in which you couldn't distinguish the chaos outside from the turmoil within.
However far he fled from the front lines, Dylan could never disconnect from the counterculture; he has an umbilical relationship to his time. It is no coincidence that his creative predicament at the beginning of the '70s paralleled a crisis in the culture. The public and private Dylans—his music, his times, and our perceptions of him—are inextricably linked, a sort of Zeitgeist Kid.
And this is where his many shape-shifting personas come in: dust bowl singer, street urchin, son of Ramblin' Jack, Folk Messiah, neon Rimbaud, Old Testament prophet, Amish farmer, howdy-neighbor country boy, whiteface death's-head mummer, Shropshire lad with flowers in his hat, Christlike Bob, born-again Bob, Hasidic Bob, Late-Elvis Dylan with the big WWF belt, Endless Tour Dylan, Jack Fate, Living National Treasure....
Dylan is a method actor who sees his life as an emblematic movie. You make a song real by becoming the character—the voice—who's singing it. Dylan's shedding and adopting of characters (dramatized in the 2007 film I'm Not There) is a form of authentic counterfeit—the minstrel as Hamlet. Dylan sees the entertainer as an American hero. His idols are all entertainers (and writers, a subcategory): Blind Willie McTell, Hank Williams, Dock Boggs, Marlon Brando, Elvis, James Dean, Kerouac. They—along with outlaws, drifters, hustlers, and poets—are the American figures Dylan most often invokes. In a country without a past, without a history, entertainers are our psychic guides through the wilderness. Songs are part of the American DNA.
dylan came out of the wildest, woolliest, rowdiest talking tales of all time. When rock 'n' roll erupted in the mid-'50s it was first seen as a novelty. The early singers, including Elvis, were a mythical parade of fantastic and freakish types. Legendary characters roamed the land: the outrageous Little Richard; Fats Domino, the living embodiment of Mardi Gras; Jerry Lee Lewis, the human threshing machine; the shape-shifting Bo Diddley; and Chuck Berry, the raunchy Uncle Remus of rock. And behind them—further back in time and remote from contemporary America—were an even more improbable cast of characters: Appalachian skillet lickers, jug band musicians, and apocalyptic Delta bluesmen like Son House and Skip James.
Dylan's as slippery as Br'er Rabbit but my quest hasn't been to flush him out of his make-believe briar patch. Instead it's to look for Dylan's poetic intention, to read Dylan's biography by the flickering light of songs. I've tried to follow Bob's footprints in the quicksand and have often felt like a fumbling musician trying to keep up with Dylan at a recording session.
When Chronicles was published, the complaints about the unreliability of his autobiography as fact seemed farcical. Grumbling that even when he writes his memoirs he's still making stuff up! The outrage! He's toying with us! Ping-ponging between fact and fiction—but we expect nothing less of him. After all, who are we dealing with? The mercurial, maddeningly evasive Bob. Smoke and mirrors is Dylan doing what Dylan does best.
His fabrications are the most profound, interesting, and authentic part of his personality. Like Don Quixote, he seems to have walked out of his own fable. And the stuff he makes up about himself is more truthful than any factual account could ever be. However petty, avaricious, cruel, callous, or shrivelingly cynical he may be, the oracular poet who wrote "Desolation Row" and "Visions of Johanna" isn't the same person as the fallible human in divorce proceedings, the sullen, devious interviewee, or the usurper of copyrights. His willful perversity is itself a form of impish magic, a way of keeping his carefully hooded persona animated and untraceable.
Dylan sees America as an endless, unfinishable song, which people add to and change as we go along, altering the rhythm, cutting up the lyrics and patching them back in a different order. He's the classic American type, the confidence man who tells the truth by dissembling and whose presence questions whether there is such a thing as a fixed personality. He is a startlingly unique character who is in fact a composite of American types: the song and dance man, the joker and thief.
His quest has been to cannibalize the great scrap heap of American history—its ballads, tunes, and nursery rhyme fables—and condense the multiplicity of its characters and their stories into a song. The purloining, pilfering, lifting, and outright larceny of songs, books, and images are all part of his magpie nature. He's in the mad American tradition of trying to stuff the Mississippi, the Rockies, Johnny Appleseed, Christopher Columbus, and Orphan Annie all into one whopping tall tale.
I've passed over some periods while slowing others down—suspending time the way Dylan does—so I could see the pictures more clearly and try to keep up with the chameleon as he slithers from one rock to another.
No one has more ingeniously tested the porous border between autobiography and fiction than Dylan; mixing reality and fantasy has always been his witchy brew.
He's the most cunning of self-mythologizers, and he's managed to entangle us in his allegorical character—his persona is so infested with the types he's collected along the way that often he doesn't seem to know where he ends and they begin—which creates an eerie sense of channeling on his Theme Time Radio Hour where he'll inhabit George Jones, Skip James, or a refrigerator repairman.
But even if Dylan has frequently gotten lost inside his own labyrinth of prevarications it has made him all the more mesmerizing. There are thousands of possessed fans out there with flashlights searching through his murky skull looking for clues.
Almost everything in Dylan is a re-creation of himself in folklore. America is a novel that we make up as we go along. Like Dylan, we are genuine fakes. Genuine like the people who came here, but larger than life, too big—fake. So we need stories, the taller the better: Our songs, movies, advertising, pop culture—these are the invented life that binds us together. Dylan's great insight was to see the mythic skin that the great snake America had shed—and put it on himself.
Even the way he came into the world is straight out of a tall tale.
Hibbing, Minnesota, circa 1959. Picturesque Main Street, like something out of a '50s sci-fi movie, comes to a sudden end in the largest man-made hole in the world—the abandoned Hibbing iron-ore pit.
Excerpted from Who Is That Man? by David Dalton Copyright © 2012 by David Dalton. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
David Dalton is a founding editor of Rolling Stone, recipient of the Columbia School of Journalism Award, and winner of the Ralph J. Gleason Best Rock Book of the Year award for Faithfull. He has written twelve books, including biographies of James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious and the Rolling Stones. He is the screenwriter for an upcoming Janis Joplin biopic.
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