"Not since Rimbaud said ‘I is another’ had an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity… Dylan as an identifiable persona has been disappearing i...more"Not since Rimbaud said ‘I is another’ had an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity… Dylan as an identifiable persona has been disappearing into his songs, which is what he wants. This terrifies his audiences…”
Shelton’s book is a Citizen Kane-style kaleidoscope, a fragmented searching-out and recollection of shards from multiple perspectives, forming a bewilderingly contradictory portrait of America’s most enigmatic bard- and to be sure, any successful portrait of Dylan should aspire to be no less than a puzzle, a bewildering one, for what public figure is more intentionally protean, what pop star has ever lived as complexly masked and anonymously as Robert Zimmerman? However, Shelton is an especially privileged mosaic maker, as he was close to Dylan from the start of his career in New York. (Shelton wrote the 1961 New York Times piece that “discovered” Dylan, was his friend, critic, and media ambassador throughout the decades that followed, and even accompanied Dylan and the Band on the famous 1966 world tour- this is almost an “authorized” biography…) From early glimmerings of Dylan’s youth in Hibbing and Duluth, a chubby-cheeked kid aping Brando and James Dean, roaming the desolate streets of a hometown losing its vitality as the mining industry waned, through all of those wrecked and rugged mythic backroads of Middle America that led Bob circuitously to New York City and fame and the world beyond, the book’s pace mirrors its subject's phases of development- the early chapters loping through Dylan’s opaque early days as well as the history of American folk and Black music, the music that Dylan would come to incorporate, subsume, and transform throughout his career, the excrescence of Depression-era America still making those railroad tracks hum from coast to coast, vibrating like a plucked guitar string or a church bell in a little impoverished Minnesota town on the wrong side of the Mississippi, or echoing like the shadowy plains out of which Dylan emerged to be unwillingly christened folk music’s new protest messiah- an honor which he immediately rejected and violently shed. This chrysalis was strange, and was not to be owned by any community- for Dylan was ever and always aggressively individual, radically apart. Those left in his wake, so many interviewed by Shelton here, are as often bitter chewing over their memories of Dylan as they are gentle.
This was a young man struck with genius who knew exactly where he was going, exactly what he wanted to do, conformed to no one’s expectations, and tried terribly to leave no moral debts behind- failing as often as he succeeded, picking himself up and nursing bruises and scrapes and walking on after each fall. “Don’t look back” is his true credo. No Direction Home picks up intensity as Dylan’s life accelerates into absurd heights of fame and public expectations in the early and mid-60’s, as Dylan’s art mutated from Guthrie-esque acoustic social realist Leftist anthems and interpretations of traditional songs to the serpentine, wriggling, blues and R&B-infused surrealist nightmare grotesqueries of the three classic records produced from 1965 to 1966, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde- probably the greatest rock records ever recorded, though at the time and during the tour that followed, Dylan was villainized, demonized, rejected, and torn to shreds for the new direction his art was taking. The book crescendos to its maximum, a 15-page transcription of an exhaustion- and chemically-fueled monologue by Dylan, taking place on a jet plane in the early hours of a March morning in 1966- Shelton’s tape recorder left running while Dylan, then at the height of both his fame and his infamy, preparing to depart on the now infamously disastrous world tour- talks manically in run on sentences about his position, his place, his tides of troubles and antagonisms, where he came from, where he’s going, where he is within the spinning chaos of worlds that are his lives at that moment… a surreal, disturbing, scattered polemic, in quickly moving lines of free association… which turns out to be a kind of strange obsessive summary of that vanishing era before the motorcycle accident that, like a lightning twist of fate, sent him out of the public eye, into a self-imposed exile, and radically changed his musical and personal paths.
I have written at length elsewhere about my relationship to Dylan's music and words, no need to reiterate here. Pretty much everyone involved closely with Dylan’s rise and career in the 60’s is given a voice in Shelton’s book, and No Direction Home has to be the definitive compilation and detailed retelling about Dylan and his world during that decade. After the motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966 and Dylan’s withdrawal from public life and transformation that led to the re-emergence of the tranquil, the bucolic Americana in Dylan’s songs, especially on those records produced in the late 60’s and very early 70’s, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and New Morning, the book dwindles and sputters out. (There are 400+ pages on the early years and the 60’s, a mere 100 pages devoted to the next decade and a half.) This is not a fault in Shelton’s book if you look to it as a resource on Dylan for that particular time period. It is a meticulously recounted document, through a shifting, shimmering multitude of perspectives, of the most important years in the development of the 20th century's most beguiling popular artist.(less)
Being that I consider Dylan the finest artist of my times, and I'm lucky just to tread the same earth as him and be able to ingest his art, it's surprising I had no idea about Bell's books. I'll read 'em soon.(less)
Historians will tell you that Titus Andronicus is pure fiction, but I've done research of my own, and I will tell you that it is without doubt the mos...moreHistorians will tell you that Titus Andronicus is pure fiction, but I've done research of my own, and I will tell you that it is without doubt the most factually-based of Shakespeare's plays. In the main, this is because there is no time that "didn't exist". After all, aren't we all still "after-Ovid"? And so of all the real people who inhabit this play's bloody spheres, who might the hero be? I would nominate Lavinia, because Lavinia, dear reader, is us. History does to us what Titus Andronicus does to Lavinia. So in this most true of Shakespeare's plays (except of course The Tempest, which is so real as to be maddening), we should more than ever think of the Bard's decree that the function of theater is to hold as 'twere the mirror up to Nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.(less)