Decades of reinvention
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Time out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan, by Ian Bell, Mainstream, RRP£20, 576 pages
Forget F Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum about there being no second acts in American lives. Time Out Of Mind, part two of Ian Bell’s magisterial biography of Bob Dylan, gives us a third and a fourth and sundry other acts in an ongoing drama.
Having survived a motorcycle fall in Bell’s first volume Once Upon A Time (2012), which dealt with the singer’s first 35 years up to the release of 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, Dylan here comes through a brutal, ignominious divorce, the death of Elvis Presley (which “mattered almost as much to Dylan as the loss of his marriage”), accusations of plagiarism, accusations of turning a blind eye to oppression in China and accusations of being drunk in charge of Keith Richards at the Philadelphia Live Aid concert in 1985.
Then there are the car-crash albums Dylan has put out during the four decades covered here – duff live sets, the gospel trilogy, what Bell calls the “folly” of Knocked Out Loaded (1986) and the “stupefying nonsense” of Down In The Groove (1988). Yet the story ends in triumph, with Modern Times topping the charts in 2006 and Bell declaring its predecessor (2001’s Love And Theft) and its successor (2012’s Tempest) among the “finest” things Dylan has done.
There are, of course, those who find Dylan’s singing something of a caterwaul. Bell is rather kinder about the “voice of a generation” but he can’t deny that decades of touring have taken their toll on Dylan’s untutored pipes. Over the years, the “range and fluidity of that once-extraordinary instrument [have been] reduced drastically”, he writes, before (positively) comparing the voice its owner once said was as good as Caruso’s with “the echoes of a scouring storm in a dry canyon”, and the sound of “weary, rusted girders parting”.
Not that Bell is taken in by everything Dylan has done. He has been to too many arrhythmic concerts and listened to too many badly mixed albums to be a full-time cheerleader. Time and again Bell shows how Dylan’s love of spontaneity, his loyalty to the notion that music is either made in the moment or is dead, has led to his rushing the recording process. Even when Dylan does put the hours in, says Bell, the results can be unsatisfactory. Shot Of Love (1981), Infidels (1983), Oh Mercy (1989) are just three of the albums crippled by Dylan’s last-minute omission of wonderful songs. Unless, Bell only half-jokily suggests, the omissions are intended to necessitate the existence of the numerous collections of out-takes Dylan has sanctioned over the past 20 years.
But if Dylan is far from saintly, Bell is surely right to argue that his infamous conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s had been a long time coming. Even during the heady days of the late 1960s counter-culture that he had done so much to inspire, Dylan was careful, when dismissing organised religion, not to dismiss faith itself. Indeed, says Bell, an album like John Wesley Harding (1967) “is meaningless if you ignore its religious content”. Quite so, which means that all that happened a decade on was that Dylan became a “hectoring evangelical”. Why? Again only half-mockingly, Bell wonders whether Dylan’s public piety might have been a strategy designed to suggest he was at one with the ascendant religious right.
I’m not sure that even the most extreme Dylan obsessive would go along with that, but even Bell has his flaws. He is too kind to the Dylan-scripted movie Masked and Anonymous (2003), and more cutting than he needs to be about 1976’s Desire (not, emphatically, Dylan’s greatest album, but one that aficionados often dismiss merely because non-aficionados enjoy it).
And while the 1980s were certainly not Dylan’s finest hour, it is at least contestable that the likes of Scritti Politti, The Smiths, Prince and Elvis Costello in his pomp ensured that it wasn’t entirely, as Bell suggests, a “charmless decade”.
But these are minor cavils and this is still, I think, the best biography that rock has had. If the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s long-awaited life of The Beatles, to be published in October, is a tenth as good, then 2013 will have been a bumper year.