This massive but never ponderous 600-page biography follows Dylan's enigmatic journey from strip-mining Hibbing, Minn., where he was born in 1941, to his disappointing Live Aid appearance in 1985.
Shelton, who was music critic of the New York Times during the crucial decade 1958-68, heard the 20-year-old perform at Folk City in 1961; he responded with the first influential review of Dylan's music, a model of prescient critical intelligence that concluded: “At times, the drama he aims at is off-target melodrama and his stylization threatens to topple over as a mannered excess. But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration.” Shelton remains equally perceptive and well-balanced on later phases of Dylan's career, from the absurd flak over his electrified performance of “Maggie's Farm” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 to his adoption of country cadences in “John Wesley Harding.” Shelton makes it clear that throughout his life Dylan has been an eclectic absorber of influences and styles, from blues artists to folk protesters; from Rimbaud to Dylan Thomas. True to its title in focusing largely on Dylan's evolving musical idiom (an impressive appendix lists all Dylan's recordings), the book nonetheless might also have been entitled “Life and Times”--for Shelton offers fascinating social history. Imagine the gifted Jean Redpath, now ensconced in mid-American respectability on Prairie Home Companion, sharing an East Village flat with the callow drifter Bob Dylan--and a half-dozen other impoverished folk-hopefuls--circa 1960. Or 19-year-old Judy Collins, the belle of the Denver folk scene (which otherwise did not take young Dylan to its heart) forming her first impressions of the young writer whose works she would later interpret so memorably. The others are here, too: Joan Baez and Eric Von Schmidt; Sara (the sad-eyed lady that he married) and Suze (the long-haired beauty who shared the cover of “Freewheeling Bob Dylan”). Shelton is a fine journalist with a lively understanding of his subject. Let it be clear, however, that the subject in question is the American musical scene and Dylan's place in it. Dylan the man remains remote, and Shelton refuses to falsify through speculation. Through quotation and anecdote, he simply provides a context that makes sense: from the baby who first performed by singing into his father's Dictaphone to the strangely inarticulate youth who trained up a persona around his memories of Woody Guthrie. This detailed, often absorbing account (it is better in its early chapters, but then so was Dylan's music) offers the best-informed look we are likely to get at this self- absorbed player of brilliant word-games who delights in confounding analysis of himself or his works. Asked by a reporter in 1965 what the most important thing in his life was, Bob Dylan replied, “Well, I've got a monkey wrench collection and I'm very interested in that.”
Shelton gives us that Dylan, monkey wrenches and all.