Once Upon a Time: the Lives of Bob Dylan, by Ian Bell, Mainstream, RRP£20, 590 pages
“I’m glad I’m not me”, Bob Dylan laughs midway through Don’t Look Back, DA Pennebaker’s documentary account of his 1965 UK tour. Ian Bell’s Once Upon a Time is the first Dylan biography to grasp the import of that joke.
The book’s core belief is that its subject “must often wonder who the hell he really is”. Not even Dylan’s 35 studio albums offer much help. You can’t reconstruct the life from the work, argues Bell, because far from being the “confessional singer-songwriter” he’s often taken for, Dylan is in fact “a writer who turned himself into a character to give voice to other characters”. Over and over again, Bell demonstrates that his man is to biography what particles are to the uncertainty principle: you pin him down only by falsifying him.
In other words, anyone hoping for a diary-style trawl through Dylan’s first 34 years (Bell is at work on a second volume) is in for a disappointment. Though the book is broadly chronological, its narrative is more spiralling than linear – a chain of Nabokovian asides in which time is as squashed and stretched and twisted and turned as it is in Dylan’s 1970s masterpiece, “Tangled Up in Blue”. Bell’s discussion of the infamous moment at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall when a fan, angered by Dylan’s abandonment of acoustic instruments, shouted “Judas!” occupies 17 tautly argued pages. The years that separate the albums John Wesley Harding (1967) from Blood on the Tracks (1975) surf by in the course of a single 50-page chapter.
Bell has some hotly contestable judgments on Dylan’s recordings. He is refreshingly sceptical towards the critical commonplace “that the entire group of recordings known as the basement tapes … is in its entirety a masterwork”. He thinks Dylan’s double album Self Portrait (1970), famously dismissed with the question “What is this shit?” by the rock critic Greil Marcus at the time of its release, to be “misconceived, but not risible”. He’s even complimentary about Dylan, an album of half-baked covers and leftovers vengefully knocked out by Columbia after Dylan left the label.
More daring still, Bell is unconvinced by a lot of Dylan’s early political period. He doesn’t quite say that the so-called “protest” songs were the work of a careerist cynic. But he does point out that at the time Dylan fetched up in New York early in 1961, just as the Vietnam war was hotting up and fears of nuclear Armageddon were everywhere, songs of toil and fury were more likely to be given a friendly hearing than not. Dylan being Dylan, he didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew.
As its title hints, Once Upon a Time tells a familiar story. But Bell, a past winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing, tells it in an unfamiliar way – with a coruscating intelligence and historical sweep not often found in books about rock musicians. He writes beautifully, too, in rhythmic, at times incantatory, prose. In short, this is the best Dylan biography yet – an imagined reliving of an already imaginary life, and a book to sit alongside Ellmann on Wilde, Richardson on Picasso, Ackroyd on Dickens. Roll on volume two.