With “Once Upon A Time: The Many Lives of Bob Dylan” award-winning British journalist Ian Bell has made a significant contribution to understanding the legendary singer-songwriter by placing him – and his music -- firmly in the social, cultural, historical, and political context of his time. While Bell’s biography ends in 1975 with Dylan's triumphant release of “Blood on the Tracks,” it nonetheless harvests existing interviews and biographies to present a cohesive narrative that follows the young Robert Allen Zimmerman on his path to international stardom. He knows his subject:
He is a moral artist and a rowdy artist, a spiritual writer and a sexual writer, a political creature without politics, a believing sceptic and a sceptical believer, an improviser and a craftsman. He gives a lot of concerts, too, which pleases a lot of people. Dylan is a public artist who keeps himself to himself, the self-effaced screen on which his society, America and the world, projects its presumed realities. Then he sings, and ignores all the rest.
Bell makes much – perhaps too much -- of Zimmerman’s change of name and apparent repudiation of his Jewish roots – and his father -- in small town Hibbing, Minnesota. He was a teenager when he broke away from home, taking a cue, perhaps from the heroes of children’s literature who function in worlds where parents are seldom present to interfere.
Bell gets it wrong, a bit. The young Dylan was really making his new, invented, self the star of dreams and fantasies. But Bell also gets it right, as he tracks "the kid's" arrival in New York City: “New York was the tabula rasa, the blank page. “
Bell’s Dylan is a chameleon and a sponge, with as many lives as a cat. He absorbs and masters the Greenwich Village folk music scene. He gets lucky and lands a recording contract with prestigious Columbia Records. He jettisons the folk mantle and steps forth as an original poet-songwriter, whose words somehow captured the pulse of a tumultuous time. He went electric in Newport and alienated his folk music fans. Exhausted by a demanding tour and apparently strung out on drugs, he famously retreated to Woodstock, NY, where he raised his kids and made music in the basement with The Band. He emerges from his self-imposed exile to reposition himself in the music world – on his own terms. He remains an American original.
Bell writes smartly about Dylan's period of virtually unparalleled creativity, when he turned out three landmark albums – “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61Revisited,” and “Blonde on Blonde” before his retreat:
Dylan’s accomplishment in the recording studios between the first days of 1965 and March 1966 continues to grow in stature as a singular moment in American culture. If benchmarks matter, it deserves to be reckoned alongside “On the Road,” Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” John Berryman’s “Dream Songs,” Jasper Johns’ “Flag” or Aretha Franklin Singing “Respect.” Dylan’s songs were never intended as a single body of work: that wasn’t how he operated. He didn’t know often or clearly, where the writing was taking him: his statements only hint at what he had glimpsed. Yet they hang together, these Dylan albums, like three movements in a larger piece of art, like a triptych.
For all Bell’s insights – and there are many in this scrupulous biography – Dylan remains a mystery as even Bell admits:
The famous mystique, like the abhorrence of interpretation, is founded on an implacable reticence. . . . Dylan’s need for privacy, then as now, was artistic as well as personal. It invites you to make another guess, this time about the personality drive by such a need. The songs, like the erstwhile juvenile folk singer, might as well have sprung from nowhere.
Yet, Bell argues, Dylan’s oeuvre didn’t really come from nowhere. His songs come from a wellspring of Americana. His is a uniquely American voice informed as much by his own originality as by his bone-deep understanding of traditional American blues.
Persistent, inevitable, are the multitude of ways in which he deploys an American voice. If it’s genius we seek, that’s where the genius lies. It is also why the confessional singer-songwriter model doesn’t fit a writer who turned himself into a character to give voice to other characters. His art is an infinity effect. As we have seen, he favours that Rimbaud thing in theory: There is no I.
“Once Upon A Time” is a perceptive portrait of an artist whose life – like his art – is one of constant renewal and invention. It is also a serious social history of times that were a-changin’.