BOB DYLAN AT 80: TWO BIOGRAPHIES ASSESSED | FEATURE
With the big 8-0 just around the corner, the man christened Robert Zimmerman has a brace of career-spanning bios fresh on the shelf: one an update on Robert Shelton’s definitive 80s book, the other newly penned by Paul Morley. John-Paul Davies has leafed through both…
NO DIRECTION HOME
Robert Shelton (Palazzo)
YOU LOSE YOURSELF YOU REAPPEAR: THE MANY VOICES OF BOB DYLAN
Paul Morley (Simon & Schuster)
On Mon 24 May 2021, Bob Dylan will turn 80 years old. The mercurial, magical mythmaker proves as impossible to capture on paper now, as ever. But these two, very different, biographies of the man who did more to change the course of popular lyric writing than any other individual find stories, answers, truths – and enough questions to leave the reader satisfied that they have learned something, but still with an appetite to search for more crumbs from Dylan’s ever-overflowing cornucopia of life.
The perspectives couldn’t be more different. Robert Shelton [pictured, top, with Dylan], 15 years Dylan’s senior, was very much still a contemporary of his subject: a friend, advisor, advocate and critic of the singer-songwriter he helped to break with his New York Times reviews of Dylan’s early gigs on the Greenwich Village folk scene. Shelton’s book begins with Dylan’s pre-fame familial life and ends with his second great peak of creativity in the mid-70s – which is where British pop critic Paul Morley really starts his tale, with the first album he ever bought as a new release, Planet Waves. Speaking as a fan and Dylanologist, Morley creates the argument that an understanding of Dylan’s much-derided singing voice is a convincing way into a greater appreciation of the artist as an ageing and constantly creating human being.
Both biographies (although Morley’s follows a chronology, it’s really more of an essay) are often at pains to defend Dylan. Shelton, who eventually published his first edition of No Direction Home in 1986, didn’t have the benefit of seeing Dylan emerge from the wilderness of his 1980s born-again period, reinvent himself and release some latter-day classic albums; he doesn’t pull his punches either, calling some albums out for being as awful as they are. But he does defend what he sees as publicly held misinterpretations of situations, justifying Bobby’s purely individual decision to go electric, and his mythologising of his past as narrative invention rather than capricious deceit.
These assertions are given weight by Shelton’s presence in Dylan’s life. He was there and brilliantly recounts many wild nights and incredible performances. Often, his defence is extended to those around Dylan, and he chastises the chanteur for his neglect of some and spite towards others. Shelton was given unparalleled access to the man who “owned the 60s” because Dylan came up with him, trusted him, owed him and liked him. Even after Dylan’s many fallings out with the press, Shelton was backstage, on the aeroplane and in the afterparties, capturing the voluminous Dylan as he poured forth on everything from his position on protest music to the torture of touring.
Morley takes up the defence of Dylan the singer. For all the lyrical invention, groundbreaking writing and sheer volume of classic material, singing has never been something Dylan has been revered for. But Morley puts the negativity back on the fans, on the writers and critics who sought to place their own standards and judgements on a vocal delivery that served a different purpose; that places context, meaning and nuance above intonation, dexterity and tone. Morley even goes as far as to defend those years when Dylan was roaming in the wilderness, searching for his Eden.
But Morley is in a better position than Shelton, who died just two years before Dylan’s true and prolonged return to form with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. He can look back on an artist who has entered his rightful place as the high elder of songwriting – who needed to live and die as many times as he has to find the graveyard voice of experience, knowledge and understanding that enabled him to create albums strong as last year’s Rough And Rowdy Ways.
The first edition of No Direction Home suffered, Shelton later claimed, from too much editorial involvement: the oilers of the machine around Dylan wanted a different, more celebritised celebration of their multimillion-selling asset. A second edition reinstated tens of thousands of Shelton’s words. This latest, well updated edition, with foreword and afterword by Elizabeth Thompson, is a compromise between the two.
The opening chapters are by far the most revealing, as Shelton was given the green light by Dylan to approach friends and family from hometown Hibbing, Minnesota. Toward the end, the more detailed critique becomes a little more prosaic – perhaps resulting from Shelton having less access to Dylan as the two grew apart, as people often naturally do over the course of almost two decades.
Morley’s relationship with Dylan has only grown over time, as albums and concerts became landmarks and memories in his own ageing. But it is, of course, without the intimacy that Shelton benefitted from. The moment where Morley imagines Dylan locking eyes with him in the golden circle, at a gig that never happened due to the Never Ending Tour being halted by COVID, is in stark contrast to the tales of Bob Shelton and Bobby Dylan careering around New York from party to party in 1963.
But You Lose Yourself You Reappear serves a different purpose from No Direction Home. Despite its coffee table appearance, Shelton’s two-decade tome is actually the better introduction to Dylan as it explores the years that formed him and the fame that informed his later period. Morley’s thinkpiece is for obsessive completists – impassioned Dylanologists who want to read a new and fresh perspective on why their idol is as worthy of their praise as they believe he is. Shelton begins with an imagined narrative of Dylan moving through Hibbing’s streets, much like his near-nameless Alias from Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. But his language becomes more descriptive and less inventive as the book wades through the years – perhaps due to editorial involvement. Morley [pictured, left] is able, always, to show his gift for writing on music through endless descriptors and able to make the experience of finding Dylan – or being found by Dylan as he describes it – the same life-changing experience we all have when coming across an artist that speaks to us like no other.
After reading hundreds of pages and thousands of words on Bob Dylan, I somehow feel that I know more, but understand less, of the mystery man with the pencil-thin moustache. No matter how much sifting through his history, documenting his present or dissecting his art that you do, his intrinsic genius and natural affinity with language that brought the streets into song cannot be distilled, described or analysed to any point that helps you truly grasp how he was able to do what he did.
Still, whether you’re waiting for Dylan to find you or searching for an answer to the question of why you love the loner so much, you have a choice of two brilliantly constructed biographies to help you celebrate a milestone many, certainly Robert Shelton, never thought the musician would reach. Oh yeah: happy birthday, Bobby.
words JOHN-PAUL DAVIES photos (from You Lose Yourself…) JOE ALPER ©THE ROBERT SHELTON ESTATE