The Free-Floating Bob Dylan

The wonderfully inauthentic art of America's most vital singer-songwriter


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."

Echoes of this complaint against the unprecedented wealth and opportunities of postwar America sound through the Beats (whose style Dylan pinched in some of his mid-'60s work); intellectuals such as Paul Goodman, whose classic Growing Up Absurd (1960) argued that the "system" in the '50s gave young men no meaningful, authentic choices for life, leading the intelligent and spirited to rebellion; and J.D. Salinger's massively popular The Catcher in the Rye (1951), whose protagonist Holden Caulfield, the patron saint of disaffected, whiny kids everywhere, tellingly directs his harshest contempt at "phonies." Far from merely an era of bland conformity, it seems one couldn't swing an Organization Man in the '50s without whacking some sort of far-out rebel.

Hajdu's explanation of the folk authenticity ethos is evocative, and certainly as good as or better than anything the folkies themselves could have come up with. Folk authenticity was an ill-defined quality you claimed to possess, one that dripped virtue and decency, and that your enemies lacked. Yet the insistence on it was a self-deluding exercise at best. The usually white, usually well-off college kids who championed folk were not the rural, mountain, poor, and often black folk who had actually developed and kept this music alive. By pretending that singing those songs meant absorbing the values that their original guardians exemplified, the folk revivalists were faking it, becoming something that they were not.

But their values still seemed to them "real" somehow. They resolutely sided with nature vs. artifice, cotton vs. rayon, wood vs. plastic. They were opposed to what they saw as the commercial and intellectual values of the dominant culture. While rock 'n' roll in the '50s may have scared many mainstream Americans, to folkies it was just one more plastic, inauthentic product of the Commercial Machine. The Pete Seegers and Joan Baezes of the folk world sought to replace such crass, moneymaking music with songs that reflected what they saw as the struggle and dignity of the common man.

It's easy to laugh at the folkies now, to find their music effete and dull and to find absurd their dream of building a proletarian social consciousness by playing precious British love ballads and songs about miners' travails. But within their own circumscribed world, who can fault them? They had a music and style they loved and wanted to preserve. As Joan Baez buddy (and son of Masterpiece Theater's Alaistair Cooke) John Cooke told Hajdu, "One of the things that made [folk] music different and better than whatever everybody else was listening to was the fact that everybody else wasn't listening to it….It was anticommercial music."

Alas for snobs like Cooke, folk music became a full-on cultural explosion by 1963. Joan Baez became a major pop star; folk was the subject of a weekly ABC TV show Hootenanny and used as a general-purpose cultural signifier in everything from pinball machines to candy bars. Folk may never have lived up to its implied politico-cultural promise to re-authenticate a plastic American middle-class "death culture," but its insistence on authenticity remains a cornerstone of self-consciously cool subcultures, ranging from punk's disdain for "posers" to hip-hop's concern for "keepin' it real."

Going Electric

By any definition, authenticity is something Bob Dylan lacked, even before he adopted his stage name in 1960. Born in 1941, he has warped and changed year by year, evincing no solid core other than an ability to write great songs. He was a small-town, middle-class kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who loved Little Richard more than anything. He went off to a hip college scene at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and, as insecure new college kids are wont to do, shed his past. He fell in with a crowd of hard-left folkie types and became consumed by the Woody Guthrie myth—not through the man's actual music but through Bound for Glory, his autobiography about life on the road.

Though he fancied himself a vagabond, Dylan traveled the country only a little bit—one trip to Colorado and back to Minneapolis, with occasional visits to another left-leaning college town, Madison, Wisconsin. According to stories Sounes dug up, he burgled records from benefactors along the way and lied madly to create a phony legend about himself. He eventually tracked down his hero Guthrie in New York. Guthrie was dying, his voice uncharacteristically slurred by late-stage Huntington's Disease. Guthrie's wife complains that Dylan, thinking he was tapping into Guthrie's essential style, began emulating some of the verbal tics brought on by his illness.

Dylan was well-known for pinching techniques and songs wholesale from others during his early days. Indeed, his genius is intertwined with his ability to both pick up and shed new influences and styles over time. As one Hibbing friend told Sounes, Dylan "had it calculated all the way….Each step, how he was gonna do it, and how you get to be a star." Even while he was the young king of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Dylan violated "authentic" folk codes, first by writing his own songs in a folk or protest mode, and then by returning to his real, hidden roots—the rhythms and electricity of rock 'n' roll. Dylan's live debut with a full electric band happened at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. A legend has bloomed around it: When he performed three songs with an electrified rock band, hidebound folkies booed en masse, shocked and appalled that Dylan dared to challenge folk's limits.

The reality is that he'd already released Bringing It All Back Home, which included a whole side of electric rock. At the time of the Newport show, his rock classic "Like A Rolling Stone" had been released as a single the week before and would in three weeks hit number 2 on the charts. It's unlikely most of the audience was shocked or angered by anything other than a bad sound system. Still, there's no question that folk reactionaries such as Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax were appalled by Dylan's performance. Seeger still maintains that if he'd had an ax that day, he'd have cut the electric cable to shut Dylan up.

Dylan has carefully played to the myth of the overwhelming boo, once noting in his best hipster-bitch mode that "I can't put anybody down for coming and booing. After all, they paid to get in….Lots of whole families had driven down from Vermont, lots of nurses and their patients, and, well, like they just came to hear some relaxing hoedowns, you know, maybe an Indian polka or two. And then just when everything's going all right, here I come on, and the whole place turns into a beer factory."

Musical Chameleon

More than his folk comrades, Dylan recognized that authenticity—at least the folkies' restrictive version of it—is likely to lead to artistic stagnation and irrelevance. "He not busy being born is busy dying," Dylan sang. Yet even as he was leaving the folk world's values behind, Dylan couldn't even manage to be an authentic apostate. Through most of "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," which appears on the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home, he seems to be channeling Paul Goodman. Dylan trowels on disturbing visions of the emptiness of modern life, spitting at standard authority figures and the lie of commerce, at "toy guns that spark/flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/It's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred."

Like Goodman, Dylan tried to lay bare the supposed spiritual emptiness of consumerism and middle-class life. So even as he was selling out by going electric, Dylan failed at being authentically inauthentic. Or to put it differently: He was a contradictory human being, with no allegiance to entrapping cultural codes. He had everything he needed, he was an artist, and as he exited the folk world, he didn't look back.

For the most part he still hasn't. In every step of his career, Dylan's vitality as a singer and writer has come from creating new personae and new voices. A generic Dylan imitation is something every drunken wag at a party thinks he can nail. But listen in a row to vocal performances ranging from "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965) to "Lay Lady Lay" (1969) to "Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979) to "Things Have Changed" (2000). You'll hear an immensely skilled vocalist who can sing with marvelous expressiveness in a wide variety of styles and tones. While rock performers such as David Bowie and Neil Young get more play out of being "musical chameleons," it is equally true of Dylan, who has invented fresh ways for a rock band to sound on almost every one of his albums since the mid-'60s. It's rare that a song from one would not sound out of place on another. On tour, he reinvents his own oldies every time he plays them, radically altering the tempo, tone, and arrangements. Dylan's singularity as an artist comes from his penchant for—perhaps even his commitment to—constant reinvention of the self. As one might challenge Holden Caulfield, what does it mean to be a phony if constant change is what the individual personality chooses? We are all nothing more than what we are—existence precedes essence, as Jean-Paul Sartre, another hip intellectual who loomed large in Dylan's early days, said. Thus, authenticity becomes a slippery idea indeed. Perhaps endless carping about who is more "real" could be settled in the manner of Bishop Berkeley, by the debaters bashing themselves against rocks.

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.