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What adds piquant pleasure to watching Dylan is that in most cases his shape-shifting seems calculated to annoy and enrage his current audience. And yet these turnarounds -- from folk to rock in 1965, from rock to country in 1969, from secular sybarite to fundamentalist Christian in 1979 -- have almost always ended up working out well both for Dylan's art and his pocketbook. (The turn to born-again believer only worked at first. His Slow Train Coming LP, on which Dylan consigned non-believers to Hell in no uncertain terms, was a big seller and earned Dylan his first Grammy, for the single "Gotta Serve Somebody." However, once the novelty wore off, his relentless preaching murdered his commercial prospects for over a decade. As Sounes accurately notes, "Electricity had annoyed folk purists, but religion bothered everybody.")
Dylan's life has been a series of inauthentic moves. It was fake for young rocker Dylan to become a folkie, fake for folkie Dylan to become a rocker, fake for rocker Dylan to become a country squire, fake for protest Dylan to become a poet of amphetamine-driven Beat wordplay and internalized reflections on romance, fake for superstar Dylan to become a vagabond minstrel with his 1975-76 Rolling Thunder tour, fake for secular Jew Dylan to become a vengeance-spouting born-again Christian, fake for that born-again Christian to return to secular pop and tour with the Grateful Dead, fake for rock star Dylan to return to acoustic folk-blues roots in the early '90s, and fake for a washed-up zombie to release one of the most vital records of his career, Time Out of Mind (1997), after knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door with a heart infection.
Because of this, attempts to lay bare the "real" Bob Dylan inevitably feel strangely insubstantial. You can't touch this Dylan guy. He's not there, he's gone, as Dylan once sang of himself. Then again, he's easy to find: This summer, for instance, he toured state fairs across much of the U.S., at last the ramblin', gamblin' man he pretended to be as a clean-cut kid hanging in Greenwich Village 40 years ago. Dylan knew all along, if often only instinctively, that nothing fresh, new, or startling comes from being "authentic." It comes from change, growth, evolution, electricity, and "selling out" to the wide world that exists beyond any blinkered, limited conception of proper culture.