Reason Writers Around Town: Brian Doherty on Bob Dylan at the Los Angeles Review of Books

I review Ian Bell’s excellently detailed new book
Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob
over at
the Los Angeles Review of Books


“The only thing they knew for sure about Bob Dylan was that his
name wasn’t Bob Dylan,” Bell writes in one of his very few, but
very apt, uses of paraphrased Dylan lyrics to explain Dylan. And
this means that although much observational power is marshaled, in
many, many pages, at the level of blood and bone and mystery,
nothing is revealed. The Bob Dylan before he came into his power
comes across full, real, understandable; you know him. The Dylan
after still feels like myth, and more significantly, doesn’t feel
like he has much if anything in common with the kid who came from
Hibbing to Minneapolis to New York City, trailing lies and
self-mythology behind him, trying to eradicate “a teenager who had
seen little of the world and done nothing out of the ordinary,”
obsessed with spewing a “pointless, enveloping cloud of
self-created mystery.”

Robert Zimmerman succeeded. He killed that guy….Whoever Dylan
was at the beginning of that trail of vital self-murders was, Bell
posits, himself a child of an alien land, Minnesota’s Iron Country,
in an alien time, before TV and rock ‘n’ roll and the interstate
highway system, those wide-open and possibility-creating killers of
a nation and a way of life…..

Bob Dylan is big.
Intentionally or accidentally, his thought and emotions and
expressions indeed have moved the world. As Bell writes about
Dylan’s 1964 buddy road trip: “they drank a lot, did plenty of
drugs, took in the reality of segregation and other strange sights,
and rambled on.” It’s like the entire 1960s white intellectual
American experience in a sentence; Dylan cannot escape being an
avatar for his people.

In 1965 he began the album that many claim marked his departure
from political and social engagement, Bringing It All Back
, with the lines: “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the
medicine / I’m on the pavement thinking about the government.”
Drugs and politics and a sense of foreboding — it’s possible, as
Bell suggests occasionally, at his most mystical, that Dylan just
couldn’t escape being in tune with the world. 

My 2001 Reason essay on Dylan’s
essential, and wonderful, inauthenticity, “The
Free Floating Bob Dylan
.” Also, watch Bob Dylan wriggle
masterfully out of being
forced to say how much he loves Obama

from Hit & Run

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