A British journalist peers across the Atlantic to suss out what Bob Dylan has been up to over the last half-century.
Former Observer editor and current Herald columnist Bell (Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, 1993) opens with an incident that has been well-reported to the point of near-tedium: that inglorious moment in Manchester, England, in which a spectator yelled “Judas,” only to have Dylan instruct the band, “Play it fucking loud.” The year was 1966. Soon, Dylan would be different, but for that moment, he was tousle-haired, defiant and snotty: “Jean-Jacques Rousseau on a good day could not have contrived this savage boy,” Bell smartly remarks. Packing his narrative with similarly learned cultural references, and sometimes sounding like an Oxford don speaking about the Beatles’ Aeolian cadences, Bell ponders the deliberateness with which Dylan built up his vast body of work, from improbable beginnings to his latter-day minstrelsy. Bell often assumes a portentous, arch tone, as if he’s caught Dylan red-handed in an act of flimflam: “Maybe Bobby Zimmerman just decided, back in 1958 or 1959, that you don’t get to be a star if you’re Bobby Zimmerman, from little Hibbing—where the hell?—in Minnesota.” Perhaps, but maybe someone who’s started in the music business as a teenager is allowed to reinvent himself, just as every other American is and maybe every other Briton, too. Alternately, Bell sometimes takes Dylan a little too seriously, a not-uncommon phenomenon in the vast literature surrounding him. Yet, he often hits just the right note, as when he divines that by merely seeking a little privacy after Blonde on Blonde, Dylan was adding to his legend: “Simply by stepping back from the microphone, Dylan had become ‘a recluse.’ ”
A middling book. Greil Marcus is better on Dylan’s place in the context of the “old, weird America,” though Bell ventures some useful observations from afar.