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The essential Bob Dylan

24th May 2011 - Rhian Jones

Just as socialists are often the most off-putting thing about socialism, so research suggests that nothing deters people from listening to Bob Dylan like a certain type of Bob Dylan fan telling you why you should. So I won't spend my time here attempting to convince you of the merits of Dylan himself, and turn instead to the relative merits of books about him - almost all of which can be found in this month's promotion to mark his 70th birthday today.

Jacket image of Behind the Shades by Clinton HeylinBiographies of Dylan are legion, and mostly tend towards either the safe (Robert Shelton's No Direction Home) or the sensationalist (Howard Sounes' gossipy Down the Highway). Clinton Heylin's Behind the Shades, updated within the last month, is perhaps the most comprehensive, albeit bombastic in tone. Also enjoyable is Larry Sloman's picaresque recollection of the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, On the Road with Bob Dylan.

It's a constant source of frustration to observe how little of the visceral joy it's possible to take in listening to Dylan, and how little of his lyrical and musical oddity, interest, exuberance and frequent sheer silliness, finds its way into published writing on his work. Much critical analysis and appreciation is aridly academic, squeezing the material dry of juice and colour. A notable exception, and the book which introduced me to the dubious pleasures of looking for meaning in popular music rather than just listening to it like any normal person, is Michael Gray's Song and Dance Man (unfortunately out of print at the moment). Gray has the distinction of being both interesting and amusing in his use of structural analysis, literary criticism, history and biography to examine the blues, folk and rock heritage of Dylan's songs and their social, political and artistic frames of reference. His enthusiasm for his subject is so endearing, and his depth of research so impressive, that you can forgive his having footnotes which occupy half the page and chapter titles like 'Even Post-Structuralists Oughta Have the Pre-War Blues' (or perhaps in your book these are positive plus-points - they sometimes are in mine).

A good and less highbrow analysis from a slightly different perspective is Paul Williams' Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, a series of three books focusing primarily on Dylan's performances at various concerts over a period of almost forty years. While Dylan has long cast off the restrictive mantle of 'protest singer', his undeniably fundamental place in the history of music and protest is dealt with in Dorian Lynskey's huge and wide-ranging 33 Revolutions per Minute. Continuum's series on classic albums includes a miniature gem by Mark Polizzotti on Highway 61 Revisited. Reissued on 26th May is Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz, currently historian-in-residence on Dylan's official website.

Jacket image for Like a Rolling StoneThere's always Greil Marcus, of course, if you're looking for all-round context and content, powerfully and passionately written with what seems like an intuitive understanding of Dylan's work, life and times. Marcus, the former Rolling Stone editor and cultural historian, has just published his collected writings on Dylan under the surprisingly pedestrian title of Bob Dylan: Writings, 1968-2010. If you only have the appetite for a choice cut from that particular slab, his Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads places the eponymous song in its context of a United States fragmenting under the pressure of civil rights movement at home and military crisis abroad, and plausibly locates within it the cultural anxieties and nascent identity-formation of an entire age.

For Dylan in his own words, there's his 1971 book Tarantula. How you feel about Dylan's abilities as an experimental novelist will depend on how you feel about his occasional sleeve-notes, and indeed how you feel about sub-Joycean stream-of-consciousness prose in general. Like them and you'll love Tarantula; any more lukewarm response and you'll find his more recent semi-memoir Chronicles a safer bet. The first volume in a projected series, Chronicles probably contains more truth and more entertaining lies than anything else written about the man.

What's left to write? It can't have escaped your notice that every single book recommended above has a male author. I scoured the shelves for any trace of writing on Dylan by women, and could only find the relatively obscure Bob Dylan and Philosophy by Cathy Porter and, online, an excellent post by the blogger Sady Doyle, Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know: In Defense of Bob Dylan.

I'm unsure of the reasons behind this disparity. While this doesn't detract from the quality of any book in this post, it may be a simple, if sad, fact that Bob attracts a certain strain of male biographer and critic in the same way as he appeals to a certain brand of male rookie singer-songwriter hoping that the appreciation of style over technical ability has become the rule rather than the Dylanesque exception.

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