Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown
by David Yaffe
Yale University Press
The day after John F. Kennedy’ s inauguration, fifty years ago, Robert Zimmerman, of Hibbing, Minnesota, who had rechristened himself Bob Dylan in honor of the Welsh poet, first arrived in New York City. He got off the bus, tramped over to Gerde’s Folk City, and started singing for his supper. Since then, Dylan’s Methuselah career has presented us with more inscrutability than we can grok—a fact Todd Haynes celebrates and enumerates in his cinematic masterpiece, I’m Not There. It’s fruitless to attach any one mask to Dylan. At 70, he’s had the time, the luck, and the swagger to wear them all: songwriter, poet, painter, filmmaker, film star (0f sorts), singer, and author.
Dylan is a shape-shifter, a premodern postmodernist. He’s legendary and real, the tightrope-walker still plying 100 concert dates a year. His long life lacks a singular narrative. Like Miles Davis, his genius has been to forge a new identity, frame it with a new sound, then abandon it for—or be called by—another turn.
“Every three years,” Yaffe writes, Dylan “turned into someone else, and every time he changed, his audience was nostalgic for three years earlier.” These “others” include Woody Guthrie imitator, protest singer, balladeer, existentialist, rocker, Christian, and Jew; the movie enigma Jack Fate; and the song-and-dance man doing a Christmas album for charity and “Angels in Venice” for Victoria’s Secret. With such a Juju-ability, it’s no wonder Dylan hated being classed a spokesman for the sixties.
Here’s an example of how the balletic Yaffe leaps across the vast Dylan stage:
‘When you think that you lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more,’ he sang in 1997. The art of losing, says Elizabeth Bishop, isn’t hard to master. It’s not so easy to experience either, and listening to Dylan in the three decades that followed Saved  is to witness, bit by bit, how he could still summon his greatest powers, not only while he was losing range in his voice but because of it.
Yaffe often lands on this transcendent point—that Dylan is the sum of his parts. Only via these linkages, in combining so many musical, literary, and filmic influences, do we have the critically reliable means to situate Dylan’s continental and time-bending essence. As a result, Yaffe’s synthesis of scholarship and analysis shines. Its rays never dim as he lights up the man’s hybridization. “Dylan has, in effect, come to embody the cultural pastiche he wove together so inimitably from ‘Desolation Row’ to ‘High Water Everywhere,’ [a 1927 Charley Patton tune] incongruous elements yoked together.” I would add that each album or period developed its own congruity, which, for Yaffe to piece the whole Bob into one grand quilt, requires a good deal of intelligent design.
Four contrastive weaves comprise the author’s patchwork: Dylan’s ironic, derisive voice; his mythic film image; his African-American sensibility; and his appropriation (some call it theft) of others’ material in the folk-music tradition. My favorite is the third of these. Dylan covered black artists, including Patton and Blind Willie McTell, and, according to Yaffe, married (and divorced) a black woman (they have one child) as well as blended musically with the Staples family; he wrote tunes about black citizens Hurricane Carter and Hattie Carroll, criminally framed by whites; he played the March on Washington in 1963 and the Apollo Theater in 2004 (backed by Wynton Marsalis’s band); and he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 who later, at the White House, honored Dylan’ s contribution s to the civil rights movement.
I’m not sure, given Yaffe’s classifying élan, that Dylan is a complete unknown. (The reference is to “Like a Rolling Stone.”) It’s not Dylan who’s unknown. His music and his moods are familiar to us all. What’s unusual is that Dylan has embodied America’ s multicellular culture a s few artists have. Is there anyone as artistically diverse in expressive media as Bob? Leonard Bernstein comes to mind. It’s tough to think of others.
The second bother is too many Dylan-heads are enthralled solely by the language component. What Dylan has accomplished he has done in music and words and not in words alone. I wish Yaffe (and other “music critics”) would explore the sound of Dylan’s bands and how that sound, from the caustic rumble of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to the soulful precision of The Band, in combination with the poetry, epitomizes a new orality, a new musical speech.
Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and The Memoir and the Memoirist.