Magazine article The Spectator

Sweetest Songs of Saddest Thoughts

Magazine article The Spectator

Sweetest Songs of Saddest Thoughts

Article excerpt

Once Upon a Time:

The Lives of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell Mainstream, £20, pp. 590, ISBN 9781780575735 In February 1966, in the first flush of his fame, an interviewer asked Bob Dylan what his songs were about. 'Oh, some are about four minutes, ' he responded. 'Some are about five. And some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.'

The joke was justified, in a sense. Why should any artist be made to reduce his work to a soundbite? At the same time, in Dylan's case, the verbal sleight was part of a pathology of evasiveness, a refusal, even an inability, to meet the eye of a question, which presents the would-be biographer with serious difficulties. How can you hope to unearth the truth about someone who devoted so much of his energies to burying it - a guy whose first girlfriend, to give just one example, only learnt that his real name was Robert Zimmerman after he got drunk and dropped his draft card?

Ian Bell acknowledges this problem in the title of the first instalment of his ambitious two-volume study, Once Upon A Time. What we're dealing with here, the phrase implies, is stories, and stories about stories. The author's tactic, which is itself evasive, is not to try to pin the singer down. The point, he seems to say, is that nobody knows. Here are some theories. Here are some stories that he told and some that were told about him. What's true is anyone's guess. As a stratagem, this fails spectacularly during the painfully dull first 200 pages of his book, which feint around their subject, parry at imaginary ripostes, and leave us longing for a real engagement.

Then at last the miracle years arrive. Albums descend like snow, culminating in Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965), Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965), and Blonde on Blonde (June 1966). In this blizzard of songs, the book comes into its own.

The key single, for Bell, and for a lot of people, is 'Like A Rolling Stone', the opening number on the second of these three releases.

Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

For Dylan, it was monumental. After writing that song, he confessed, he no longer yearned to write formal poetry, or novels. He realised he could say it all in music.

The 'debate' as to whether he should be considered a poet is boring, but Bell handles it brilliantly. Dylan, who may or may not have named himself after Dylan Thomas, thought of himself as a poet, or said he did. …

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