Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, by Howard Sounes, New York: Grove Press, 527 pages, $27.50
Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña, by David Hajdu, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 328 pages, $25
Bob Dylan turned 60 in May, and his first album of new material in four years, "Love and Theft", came out in September. Those events, along with the recent release of the biographies Down the Highway and Positively 4th Street, have occasioned the most recent wave of ink spilled on the former Mr. Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota. His position in America's cultural landscape seems as rock-solid and over-large as Mt. Rushmore: He is widely acknowledged as the greatest songwriter of his generation, a man who irrevocably changed the popular song, a successful singer who is the constant butt of (undeserved) jokes about guys who just can't carry a tune.
Too much Dylan commentary gets trapped in Significance -- in documenting his importance in terms of his "influence," as if his worth is to be measured in the careers of Roger McGuinn, Barry McGuire, the Band, and a plethora of singer-songwriters with virtues widely understood as "Dylanesque." That is, a way with a colorful phrase, a "social conscience," or an unusual singing style.
Dylan has certainly been influential, and not always for the best. His seemingly effortless brilliance has a don't-try-this-at-home quality that has escaped emulators both great and small. Indeed, the more closely someone tries to ape Dylan, the more likely he or she is to sound ridiculous. (As Barry McGuire famously, ludicrously sang in the Dylan-inflected '60s hit, "Eve of Destruction," "Think of all the hate there is in red China/Then take a look around at Selma, Alabama.../Blood so hot, feels like coagulatin'/Handful of senators won't pass legislation.") The same held true for Dylan himself: The less he directly emulated early influence Woody Guthrie or Guthrie manqués such as Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the better he became.
What makes Dylan worth our continuing attention is not that he has clearly influenced other major artists, or that he "invented" folk rock, was the voice of his generation, ended the Vietnam War, moved to Woodstock, sang with Joan Baez, turned the Beatles onto pot, merged the Beats with a beat, or made the world safe for Loudon Wainwright III (and every other would-be "new Dylan"). What makes Dylan worth thinking about is that he has been -- and remains -- unprecedentedly great at what he does: writing songs and performing them.
Over a career that spans five decades, Dylan has written a huge body of wonderful songs with rich, fresh language, a vast emotional range, and an appreciation for and understanding of the totality of human experience. He has blended these with exhilarating melodies and musical backings. He has been absurd, tender, vengeful, smart, sexy, foolish, mystic, pious, nostalgic, journalistic, and phantasmagorical. He's a master of love songs (from "I Want You" to "Precious Angel"), word-drunk ramblings (from "Desolation Row" to "Idiot Wind"), and hymn-like anthems that sound ancient and necessary right out of the box (from "I Shall Be Released" to "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"). It seems likely that Dylan will be providing insight and pleasure to listeners for as long as digital storage media last.
Yet one thing Dylan has never been is "authentic," the prime value of the late '50s and early '60s folk-music milieu from which he arose. Both Down the Highway and Positively 4th Street provide valuable insight into how Bob Dylan violated the codes of his folk-scene background, which restricted performers to politically and culturally imposed limits thought to be more "real" than the "plastic" American culture exemplified not only by Eisenhower's America but by then-burgeoning rock 'n' roll. Dylan became the most successful product of the folk movement precisely by daring to be more than what its repressive version of identity politics allowed. Every step of the way, his career throws into question the usefulness of politicized restrictions on freewheeling cultural production and identity formation. Though it is rarely acknowledged, even or perhaps especially by his champions, Dylan's status as an American cultural icon is a reflection of his brilliance at continuous self-fashioning, not his "authenticity."
An Opportunistic Folkie
Some Dylan diehards scorned journalist Howard Sounes' Down the Highway for being a more gossipy tome than the mighty poet deserved. Gossipy it is; no other Dylan bio will tell you how he stole fellow Greenwich Village folkie Liam Clancy's lass while Clancy was playing at being a wandering troubadour in the early '60s. Still, Sounes has done the reporter's job well: He interviewed dozens of people (many missed by previous Dylan biographers) and dredged up many previously unknown tales. Very much because Sounes does not try to assess Dylan the artist (it isn't even clear if he finds Dylan's music all that interesting), this is the most satisfying Dylan biography yet, an entertaining set of anecdotes and memories of a fascinating, if ultimately unknowable, man. Down the Highway is thankfully unmarred by shoddy and tortured theory or criticism. Sounes is a storyteller, not an archeologist of historical truth. Some of his fresh material (such as his discovery of a secret second Dylan marriage from 1986-92, to backup singer Carolyn Dennis) comes from examining marriage licenses, court records, and business documents. But most of it is gleaned from tales told by Dylan associates, unverifiable in the main, and to be taken more as legend than cold fact. The book is nonetheless delightful for all that.
In Positively 4th Street, David Hajdu (author of an award-winning biography of Billy Strayhorn, one of Duke Ellington's composing partners) spins a dense group biography of Dylan and a trio of his close pals during the early '60s: folk goddess Joan Baez, her recently deceased sister Mimi, and Mimi's husband Richard Fariña, a hipster-hustler best remembered for the popular countercultural student novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966). Hajdu nowhere bludgeons the reader with the meaning or larger importance of the story he tells. He trusts that the inherent color of his subjects and his own skill at presenting character through incident will captivate -- and it mostly does. Hajdu clearly sees Richard Fariña as the linchpin. He has even complained (lamely) that he didn't want his book coming out amid the hype surrounding Dylan's 60th birthday; his is not just another Dylan book. (I suspect Hajdu wanted to write a straight Fariña bio, but that linking him to Dylan was the only way he could sell his proposal.)
While he resolutely shows-not-tells, Hajdu unconvincingly implies that Fariña's early blatherings about poetry-with-a-beat were key to Dylan's artistic renaissance circa 1964-66, when Dylan grew beyond folk and became a true cultural giant. Complaints from other early Dylan associates that Dylan ripped them off and sucked them dry have been proven absurd by time. While Dylan doubtlessly copped a song or two or some vocal mannerisms from, say, folkie Dave Van Ronk, Van Ronk has had decades to prove himself Dylan's equal and failed. But any fantasy of influence and promise can be projected on Fariña, since he died before his long-term creative powers could be fairly judged. In a bizarre, almost unbelievable, turn of events, Fariña was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, on the very day his novel was released. That event ends Positively 4th Street, and in his last sentence, Hajdu reveals that Fariña's next project was to be a memoir of his days with the Baez sisters and Dylan. It's as if Hajdu has creepily adopted Fariña's goals as his own.
Hajdu glorifies Fariña (who seems merely self-aggrandizing and opportunistic to those more immune to his charms), makes Joan Baez look about as ridiculous as possible, and shows Dylan escaping her folkie-leftist orbit to become an artist of greater power and breadth than that scene could accommodate. The key to Dylan's escape from Baez's world, as cruel as it was to his erstwhile lover and early career booster, was his inauthenticity: Dylan jumped situations and styles opportunistically or by chance.
Falling in love with Congress of Racial Equality volunteer Suze Rotolo led him to write his early social conscience/protest hits. He was dragged to Southern civil rights events by folk elder Theodore Bikel, not his strong desire for social justice. As Sounes relates it, Dylan himself told people that he wrote the anti-war anthem "Masters of War" merely because he thought it would sell.
What did authenticity mean to the folkies with whom Dylan passed his younger days? As Hajdu explains it, the folk aesthetic in the '50s was "styled as largely antithetical to the times...[It] posed challenges to Eisenhower-era conservatism...put a premium on naturalness and authenticity during a boom in man-made materials, especially plastic...celebrat[ed] the past rather than the 'new' and 'improved'...it was small in scale...when American society, with its new supermarkets, V-8 engines, and suburban sprawl, appeared to be physically ballooning. Folk music was down to earth when jet travel and space exploration were emerging."