You Say, “Who Is That Man?”

And so, as of this typing I’ve only had access to this image for a few hours and [and I typed that a few days ago, this is not one of those up-to-the-minute blogs obviously, and of course, we are well into the expedition to chart the Land of Tempest having only sighted the shoreline–well, except the lucky and estimable Allan Jones] the picture has already settled itself as a cel in my attention–I already see scarlet voluptuous classicism, a touch of kitsch and mystery,  as I traipse through my day.  Pay in Blood, Long and Wasted Years–I’m already loving the itch of knowing the day’s not far now that these titles will no longer be just phrases, they will be 4 or 8 or 14 minutes of sound and sense and feeling, and will take their place in  the enormous noisy family of songs that live in our minds.   And all the Midrash fun and games already well under way: “9/11! 9/11 again!!” “Tempest! Oh no! Shakespeare’s last play! Does this mean…?? Can this mean…?? Ha! I knew Chronicles Volume One meant there would be no Volume Two, so by the same logic, naming this record Tempest means it won’t be the… you know what I mean….” 

Now, I know that a mile from where I sit, 50 miles, 2500 miles, other people are activated the way I am, by the singular eagerness and speculation and rumor-mongering and lunacy accompanying one more Bob Dylan record. It’s 2012, and we’re getting one more and we can’t merely be expectant and grateful. We just can’t.

David Dalton is a writer who appreciates this ritual, or syndrome, more than some others; he gets both the personal and the collective symptoms. His recent book, Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan unfortunately mutates the eagerness/speculation/rumor-mongering/generally harmless lunacy into a gauntlet: Bob Dylan, your inscrutability sentences you to be a fugitive from your fans’ right to your real, true self. The raison d’etre of the book can be summed up here below in Dalton’s own words :

Dylan is the most prolific writer of musical autobiographies of all time. But these are essentially works of fiction, and behind them there is a man who writes compelling tales about his character in a series of self-portraits that he then peevishly paints over. That’s who we want to know about. (311)

. First, the sorry old  illusion that behind any art is an essential, solid, authentic entity in the form of what-the-artist-really-means, and we yearn to get hold of that Thing. Ad hominem hermeneutics isn’t the richest way to explore art. It’s usually a dead-end, and a detour from what I think is the richer exploration–what am I in the encounter with this stuff made by another human being? Asking that is as personal and revelatory as art gets. Is what I think. Second, the presumption that fans have a proprietary claim to what-the-artist-really-means. Third, the presumption that Dylan’s entire audience is with Dalton in this urge to tear through “Tombstone Blues” and “Idiot Wind” and Chronicles to the man behind the fictions. The book is one “we” after another. Fourth, the strange fact–stranger than it is ironic–that Bob Dylan is indeed a sentient creature of flesh and blood, just like David Dalton.  Contemplate even for a moment what it may be like to be a sentient creature of flesh and blood  reading this:

So who is he? Which one is he? His ambivalence, his maddening evasiveness is essential to maintaining the quicksilver life of his creature. (326)

…and to know that you are the object of the writer’s maddened frustrations to obtain access to the secret coherence of yourself that you are maddeningly hiding from people you have–in this case–apparently met only once.  And, you are a creature.

Now contemplate that your appearance, your actions, your relations with other people, have been distributed, examined, and judged publicly for over forty years, in nearly every language in nearly every country, state, and province of the world.  How is it not transparent that the scrutiny can’t be separated from your wily genius? That a saga of investigation, speculation and frustration such as Who Is That Man? is its own answer  to its own title. That the Bob Dylan who maddens one is *really* *actually*  the man whose entire adult life has been publicly on trial for what-it-really-is. Cause and effect are confused here, is a way to look at this. I give Dalton credit that he is not disingenuous about this–he’s ardent, and convinced that Dylan’s evasiveness invites–demands–vivisecting. There’s really plenty of ardor, and also wit, and insight lacing the vivisection (now there’s a vile phrase, as Polonius would say), and some troubling errors and carelessness.

Dalton wishes to do justice to Dylan’s entire career, but the 60s dominate the book in the familiar default  way. It’s the story of the wild ones against the Little Boxes, presided over by their wild tiny dark prophet who went from being young David to being Dionysus, and there’s nowhere for the godling really to go after that but either down or mortal.  There are some engaging or eccentric pleasures in this familiar story, though: I like very much  Dalton’s skepticism on some of the disingenuousness or just plain naivete of the folk scene and its appetite for authenticity.  He gives us an entire chapter on Andy Warhol and Dylan, and an entire chapter on Tarantula. Dalton’s 13 reasons to read Tarantula are charming and smart, and when he skewers “the whole well-behaved Jonathan Franzenian fictional appliance…(243-4),”  I couldn’t have been happier. His riffs on individual songs can be terrific: I loved his description of Charlie McCoy’s guitar on Desolation Row. I enjoyed his take on New Morning, which he calls “his most disturbing record yet.”  I like that he refers to Things Have Changed as “mock misanthropic” (319), and I wish he’d devoted more attention to recent songs. In a book of 337 pages, by 279 we are only at 1976.

There are terrific observations: “It’s as if he’d given birth to a medium-size city and its inhabitants pursue him relentlessly” (304).  “”Nobody can talk to themselves as if talking to another person better than Dylan” (301). His skeptical take on the *authenticity* of the folk scene got a big hooray from me.  Ingenuity and insight collide frantically, like subatomic particles, in Dalton’s jazzy prose, with the weak moments. I don’t want to think that Dalton wrote this book in 72 hours without looking back, so I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and find a scapegoat for the careless errors that litter the book:

  • “Dylan as the miner’s son, for instance, in North Country Blues” (9). Son? What son would that be? We don’t even know the genders of Mrs. John Thomas’s children.
  • Every time Dont Look Back is transcribed, it’s got an apostrophe.
  • He is very careless about Hibbing and Dylan’s life there. The city and his childhood can’t be dismissed as a “grim reality” (11), and although Dalton says “Bob won’t play sports or join extracurricular clubs” (12), his yearbook entry tells us something else. I don’t care if the boy never attended a meeting of the Latin Club, it’s false mythologizing to describe the teenager as more of an outsider than he was.
  • A photo on p 116 of the menu screen to the Dont Look Back DVD is identified as “the opening credits.”
  • “Arthur Brown,” whoever that is, did not mix Empire Burlesque ( 293).
  • Page 279 refers to “Rolling Thunder Review.”
  • Street-Legal is repeatedly transcribed without the hyphen.
  • He describes the hat and wig get-up at Newport 2002 as another mystifying unpredictable shenanigan, but the rest of us recognize the outfit as Dylan’s costume from the ‘Cross The Green Mountain video. If why he chose to wear this is burningly fascinating to anyone, enjoy the quest to find the answer.

To conclude his story,  Dalton describes the world of The Never Ending Tour. He gets what matters about the shows, the weird vitality, the obscure and addictive spontaneities. And then he transfers his nostalgia for the 60s onto those of us a little younger than himself,  who are addicted and who are currently examining the fonts used on the Tempest cover to find correlations to a letter Walt Whitman wrote to Sarah Bernhardt ( I may have made that up). Dalton writes:

Sure there are all the old fogies, but they’re in the minority. In their place are the too late born Bobcats, who missed the 60s but for whom that decade was the golden age, and Bob its avatar and masterpiece. Then there are the youngest fans, who know some of the songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Forever Young” from the iMAC commercial. (332)

This is the ground from which I can’t be moved. It is not Golden Age fantasies that bring so many people who missed the Golden Age to Dylan’s concerts, and to preoccupations with his music. Many of us don’t envy you, nor feel we missed anything. Not to mention, Dylan’s thousands of post-60s fans outside the US, who have small reason to consider our 1960s their golden age. And those young ‘uns who attend the shows, many of them are serious and informed listeners whose opinions of Dylan’s music, and of the musicianship of the current concerts, are worth hearing. Try talking to some of us, young and not quite as young. Also, wasn’t “Forever Young”  the Pepsi commercial with Will I. Am?

The journal I painstakingly and slowly edit, Montague Street, is a testimony to the lively and passionate and serious thought people around the globe are applying to the inspiration and curiosity Dylan’s work provokes in them right here right now, not nostalgically. It’s peculiarly beautiful to be part of the generation that discovered him later than his contemporaries believed he could be inspiringly discovered.  So come on board, and make a space for David Dalton and anyone else who wants to join us, and let’s all steer our happy ships into this tempest of tours and records and what all else.

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2 thoughts on “You Say, “Who Is That Man?”

  1. I very much agree with your assessment of this book. It has its moments, some very good, but it is deeply marred by the fact that Dalton is oh so stuck on the 60s. It is annoying too, because he sometimes gestures toward a really interesting take on the whole of Dylan’s career, namely on how each new development should help understand past moments (how, say, World Gone Wrong help understand Self Portrait), but he just cannot let go of his 60s fixation long enough to actually explore that insight, and produce a more compelling book. And I completely agree that he really should not presume to speak for the younger “Bobcats”. They are able to speak for themselves, and I don’t think that many are sorry that they are not Dalton or that they have not shared his experiences . BTW there is a charming ebook on Bobcats by Adam Selzer, that tells more interesting things about some of them than Dalton’s Boomer narcissism assumes.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment–regardless of agreeing with me… I felt the same frustrations: Dalton would open up into an insightful response, or an ingenious comparison of disparate works, but next thing you know we’re on the same old ride, the same ups and downs, never higher than 64-66. And you’re spot on with the diagnosis of narcissism. To have played briefly or tentatively or full-throttle or dangerously in the wild fields of the 1960s became an identity for too many people Dalton’s generation, and too many of the *canonical* writers on Dylan are victims and carriers of this suffocating nostalgia. And it’s not just tedious, it stifles new narratives about Dylan’s art, coming from listeners whose responses are fully alive and simply not available to the usual story. Dylan is a living artist, listen to him instead of your own memories. And someday our vision of Dylan’s work and career will be supplanted, hopefully this will go on in cycles and series for a long old time. I like the idea of helping to build a bridge out of the nostalgia. So thanks. I have read of Adam Zelzer’s book but haven’t had a chance to read the book itself, I’ll look forward to that and thank you for recommending it here.

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