Reason Writers Around Town: Brian Doherty on Bob Dylan at the Los Angeles Review of Books


I review Ian Bell's excellently detailed new book Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan over at the Los Angeles Review of Books.


"The only thing they knew for sure about Bob Dylan was that his name wasn't Bob Dylan," Bell writes in one of his very few, but very apt, uses of paraphrased Dylan lyrics to explain Dylan. And this means that although much observational power is marshaled, in many, many pages, at the level of blood and bone and mystery, nothing is revealed. The Bob Dylan before he came into his power comes across full, real, understandable; you know him. The Dylan after still feels like myth, and more significantly, doesn't feel like he has much if anything in common with the kid who came from Hibbing to Minneapolis to New York City, trailing lies and self-mythology behind him, trying to eradicate "a teenager who had seen little of the world and done nothing out of the ordinary," obsessed with spewing a "pointless, enveloping cloud of self-created mystery."

Robert Zimmerman succeeded. He killed that guy….Whoever Dylan was at the beginning of that trail of vital self-murders was, Bell posits, himself a child of an alien land, Minnesota's Iron Country, in an alien time, before TV and rock 'n' roll and the interstate highway system, those wide-open and possibility-creating killers of a nation and a way of life…..

Bob Dylan is big. Intentionally or accidentally, his thought and emotions and expressions indeed have moved the world. As Bell writes about Dylan's 1964 buddy road trip: "they drank a lot, did plenty of drugs, took in the reality of segregation and other strange sights, and rambled on." It's like the entire 1960s white intellectual American experience in a sentence; Dylan cannot escape being an avatar for his people.

In 1965 he began the album that many claim marked his departure from political and social engagement, Bringing It All Back Home, with the lines: "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine / I'm on the pavement thinking about the government." Drugs and politics and a sense of foreboding — it's possible, as Bell suggests occasionally, at his most mystical, that Dylan just couldn't escape being in tune with the world. 

My 2001 Reason essay on Dylan's essential, and wonderful, inauthenticity, "The Free Floating Bob Dylan." Also, watch Bob Dylan wriggle masterfully out of being forced to say how much he loves Obama.