“I have here something that’ll solve all our problems.”

“Well, go on, what is it?”

“A bootleg.”

“Oh great. That’s all we need is another bootleg. What’s this one? Copenhagen, April 30, 1966, reel two, second half missing? We’ve got eight thousand bootleg tapes, man; we’re never going to find enough time to listen to them all in our lifetime.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Oh, then what is it?”

[Looks around apprehensively] “Bob’s brain.”

“It’s what!?”

“It’s one of only three bootlegs of Bob’s brain—off a cat scan from when he was, you know, in the hospital in 1997 with, uh, histoplasmowhatever. . . .”

“Sounds a little gruesome.”

“But do you realize what this means?”

“Listen . . . man . . . you okay?”

Such tapes would be useful, no question about it, because it’s pretty much what we want to know: What goes on in Dylan’s brain? How does he think, what does he meeeaaan, what are the “keys to the rain,” and such? But, hey, what happens in the neocortex stays in the neocortex, so we’ll have to pursue other means to winkle out the elusive Bob. And this is only fitting since Dylan is essentially a Beat novelist in the manner of Jack Kerouac. The phantasmagoria of his great mid-’60s albums is an expression of his inner turmoil and mirrors the shattering of the culture. The songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde are seismic recordings of the conflicts in the streets and in his head, hallucinated autobiographies of himself and his times—the confused signals and psychic static of the ’60s.

Dylan emerged just at the moment the counterculture was hatching, his life inextricably connected to the rise of mass bohemia. Dylan’s own inner demons meshed seamlessly with its antiestablishment rhetoric, drugs, radical politics, mysticism, and amplified free-floating unrest. Dylan’s personal story—whether he likes it or not—is entwined with the ’60s and their aftermath.

An agile, subtle, polytropic mind, he registered America’s 19th nervous breakdown with hallucinatory precision. Fragmented images and cubist songs replaced the storytelling and ballad tableaux of folk songs and transformed the agitprop of protest songs into a roiling, nightmarish vision in which you couldn’t distinguish the chaos outside from the turmoil within.

However far he fled from the front lines, Dylan could never disconnect from the counterculture; he has an umbilical relationship to his time. It is no coincidence that his creative predicament at the beginning of the ’70s paralleled a crisis in the culture. The public and private Dylans—his music, his times, and our perceptions of him—are inextricably linked, a sort of Zeitgeist Kid.

And this is where his many shape-shifting personas come in: dust bowl singer, street urchin, son of Ramblin’ Jack, Folk Messiah, neon Rimbaud, Old Testament prophet, Amish farmer, howdy-neighbor country boy, whiteface death’s-head mummer, Shropshire lad with flowers in his hat, Christlike Bob, born-again Bob, Hasidic Bob, Late-Elvis Dylan with the big WWF belt, Endless Tour Dylan, Jack Fate, Living National Treasure. . . .

Dylan is a method actor who sees his life as an emblematic movie. You make a song real by becoming the character—the voice—who’s singing it. Dylan’s shedding and adopting of characters (dramatized in the 2007 film I’m Not There) is a form of authentic counterfeit—the minstrel as Hamlet. Dylan sees the entertainer as an American hero. His idols are all entertainers (and writers, a subcategory): Blind Willie McTell, Hank Williams, Dock Boggs, Marlon Brando, Elvis, James Dean, Kerouac. They—along with outlaws, drifters, hustlers, and poets—are the American figures Dylan most often invokes. In a country without a past, without a history, entertainers are our psychic guides through the wilderness. Songs are part of the American DNA.

Dylan came out of the wildest, woolliest, rowdiest talking tales of all time. When rock ’n’ roll erupted in the mid-’50s it was first seen as a novelty. The early singers, including Elvis, were a mythical parade of fantastic and freakish types. Legendary characters roamed the land: the outrageous Little Richard; Fats Domino, the living embodiment of Mardi Gras; Jerry Lee Lewis, the human threshing machine; the shape-shifting Bo Diddley; and Chuck Berry, the raunchy Uncle Remus of rock. And behind them—further back in time and remote from contemporary America—were an even more improbable cast of characters: Appalachian skillet lickers, jug band musicians, and apocalyptic Delta bluesmen like Son House and Skip James.

Dylan’s as slippery as Br’er Rabbit but my quest hasn’t been to flush him out of his make-believe briar patch. Instead it’s to look for Dylan’s poetic intention, to read Dylan’s biography by the flickering light of songs. I’ve tried to follow Bob’s footprints in the quicksand and have often felt like a fumbling musician trying to keep up with Dylan at a recording session.

When Chronicles was published, the complaints about the unreliability of his autobiography as fact seemed farcical. Grumbling that even when he writes his memoirs he’s still making stuff up! The outrage! He’s toying with us! Ping-ponging between fact and fiction—but we expect nothing less of him. After all, who are we dealing with? The mercurial, maddeningly evasive Bob. Smoke and mirrors is Dylan doing what Dylan does best.

His fabrications are the most profound, interesting, and authentic part of his personality. Like Don Quixote, he seems to have walked out of his own fable. And the stuff he makes up about himself is more truthful than any factual account could ever be. However petty, avaricious, cruel, callous, or shrivelingly cynical he may be, the oracular poet who wrote “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna” isn’t the same person as the fallible human in divorce proceedings, the sullen, devious interviewee, or the usurper of copyrights. His willful perversity is itself a form of impish magic, a way of keeping his carefully hooded persona animated and untraceable.

Dylan sees America as an endless, unfinishable song, which people add to and change as we go along, altering the rhythm, cutting up the lyrics and patching them back in a different order. He’s the classic American type, the confidence man who tells the truth by dissembling and whose presence questions whether there is such a thing as a fixed personality. He is a startlingly unique character who is in fact a composite of American types: the song and dance man, the joker and thief.

His quest has been to cannibalize the great scrap heap of American history—its ballads, tunes, and nursery rhyme fables—and condense the multiplicity of its characters and their stories into a song. The purloining, pilfering, lifting, and outright larceny of songs, books, and images are all part of his magpie nature. He’s in the mad American tradition of trying to stuff the Mississippi, the Rockies, Johnny Appleseed, Christopher Columbus, and Orphan Annie all into one whopping tall tale.

I’ve passed over some periods while slowing others down—suspending time the way Dylan does—so I could see the pictures more clearly and try to keep up with the chameleon as he slithers from one rock to another.

No one has more ingeniously tested the porous border between autobiography and fiction than Dylan; mixing reality and fantasy has always been his witchy brew.

He’s the most cunning of self-mythologizers, and he’s managed to entangle us in his allegorical character—his persona is so infested with the types he’s collected along the way that often he doesn’t seem to know where he ends and they begin—which creates an eerie sense of channeling on his Theme Time Radio Hour where he’ll inhabit George Jones, Skip James, or a refrigerator repairman.

But even if Dylan has frequently gotten lost inside his own labyrinth of prevarications it has made him all the more mesmerizing. There are thousands of possessed fans out there with flashlights searching through his murky skull looking for clues.

Almost everything in Dylan is a re-creation of himself in folklore. America is a novel that we make up as we go along. Like Dylan, we are genuine fakes. Genuine like the people who came here, but larger than life, too big—fake. So we need stories, the taller the better: Our songs, movies, advertising, pop culture—these are the invented life that binds us together. Dylan’s great insight was to see the mythic skin that the great snake America had shed—and put it on himself.

Even the way he came into the world is straight out of a tall tale.

Excerpted from WHO IS THAT MAN? by David Dalton. Copyright © 2012. Excerpted with permission of Hyperion Books.

 

__________________________

 

DAVID DALTON is a New York Times bestselling author, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, recipient of the Columbia School of Journalism Award, and winner of the Ralph J. Gleason Best Rock Book of the Year award for Faithfull. He has written twenty-four books, including biographies of James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, the Rolling Stones, and, in 2010, a critically acclaimed biography of Andy Warhol, Pop. Dalton is the coauthor (with Jonathon Cott) of Get Back, the only book ever commissioned by the Beatles, and the screenwriter for an upcoming Janis Joplin biopic. He lives with his family in upstate New York.

 

TAGS: , , ,

TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

7 responses to “Excerpt from Who is that Man?, by David Dalton”

  1. D.R. Haney says:

    Well, well, well. David Dalton, whose James Dean biography I carried with me everywhere for a year or so when I was nineteen. He’s got great taste in subjects, and I see that one of them — Edie Sedgwick — is left out of his bio here. But, dear God, please don’t let Melissa Etheridge have anything to do with the Joplin biopic. She’s bland in equal proportion to Janis’s blazing brilliance, which is to say she’s as bland as bleached flour.

    • I just listened to Etheridge’s cover of ‘Piece of My Heart’ out of a particular morbid curiosity. Her version is a shining example of the harder one tries for soul the farther away one gets. After 60 seconds, I had to switch to Dylan’s bootleg of ‘Idiot Wind’.

      Nice to hear you’re a fan of Dalton’s writing, Duke. I haven’t read his James Dean book but might make that summer reading, along with this one above, just in case it’s not too late for me to cultivate a James Dean obsession.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Of course it’s nice to have corroboration, Nat, though I now think I expressed myself too harshly. Sure, ME is talented and everything, but she always felt impersonal to me, and JJ gave blood. But I only mentioned them together because at one point, I know, ME was involved somehow in trying to produce a JJ biopic — either that, or she was being considered to play JJ, which I’m sure is no longer the case.

        David Dalton in fact wrote two books about James Dean; the second was more of a coffee-table book, loaded with photos, but I had outgrown my Dean phase by the time it was published, so I’m much better acquainted with the first.

        Oh, and Dalton was also apparently, at one time, involved in a James Dean movie project, though I don’t know in what capacity. But I knew about it because, one night, when I was at the height of my James Dean phase, I was browsing in a bookstore in the Village and a female employee came up to me and said, “Excuse me. I know you must hear this all the time, but you look exactly like James Dean. I mean, you know that, right?” Well, yeah. I mean, I was dressed like Dean, with a Dean haircut, and I was slouching like Dean, and when I answered her, I mumbled appropriately with my eyebrows raised in that trademark Dean way. Then she said, “Are you an actor? Because David Dalton is a friend of mine — do you know who that it is? — and he’s working on a movie about James Dean, and I’ve just got to pass your number along to him.” So I gave her my number and never heard anything back. Not that I expected to hear anything back. I was just glad that someone who knew James Dean’s biographer had approached me to say that I looked “exactly” like James Dean. You know, all that hard work had had a payoff.

        For better or (as I would tend to think) worse, there are people out there who never outgrew their James Dean phase, so it’s probably not too late if you want to go for it, Nat.

  2. jed jones says:

    Clearly Dylan was in a James Dean stage of his own during the 60’s.
    I find his lyrics to be less mysterious when you take them all quite literally.
    I think he is a brilliant song writer who’s poetry is driven by true heart and soul.
    His mysterious life seems to be a dilligient effort to at least have a private life.
    But his work tells the whole story. There has never been a better love song writer.
    Perpetually searching for that true lover, I only wonder if he’ll ever really find her.
    Perhaps in the next life. Can’t wait for the new work coming out this year.
    At least I hope it’s new, the only real mystery is what he’ll do next.

    JED

    • D.R. Haney says:

      “Clearly Dylan was in a James Dean stage of his own during the 60′s.”

      Aye.

      Dean cast a long shadow for a guy who only lived to the age of twenty-four. His influence on young actors continues, even when they’re unaware of it (as I think many of them aren’t), but he also had a huge influence on rock culture, starting with Elvis, whose own James Dean phase was manifested in, for instance, his close friendship with Nick Adams, who appeared alongside Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. I believe Elvis sought Adams’ friendship for the very reason that Adams knew Dean, who modeled himself after Marlon Brando. It’s funny; Brando hasn’t been nearly as influential in the long run as Dean has been, I think because Brando never, onscreen anyway, played a teenager, and Dean’s troubled-teenager persona has been the key to his longevity as a pop-culture icon. None of his many imitators have ever quite done the troubled-teenager thing as well as he did it, maybe because his troubles were authentic or, anyway, ran deeper.

      Someone once speculated to me that Brando managed to live to old age, as the other great “rebel” actors of his generation (including Dean) didn’t, by gaining weight and exaggerating his eccentricities, which discouraged interest in him. I think of this in relationship to Dylan’s idiosyncratic lyrics and his refusal (inability?) to explain them, which may or may not have been a survival tactic, though it’s certainly allowed him to be private in public, much as you say, Jed. But it hasn’t discouraged interest in him. The world is full of artists who try as hard as they can to be intriguingly obscure, or simply “weird,” but no one finally cares. And then there are those, like Dylan, who don’t appear to try (and maybe they aren’t trying) to spark speculation, yet people knock themselves out in trying to explain what they really meant with this or that. Kubrick is another such artist. The theories I’ve heard about The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut! Theories about the Book of Revelations almost pale in comparison!

      But there’s no one in rock culture who can stand alongside Dylan in terms of mystique, including the Beatles, as “weird” as some of their lyrics (Lennon’s especially) could be. And which Beatles are still alive? The two most accessible: Paul and Ringo.

  3. jed jones says:

    I don’t think he is trying to be mysterious, I think it comes naturally to someone who speaks and thinks in rhyme to
    be different than the rest of us. I do think that once you start looking at his words as a true metaphor for exactly what
    they describe, true love, or true injustice set to music, his work is simply a new universal language.
    And his followers all over the world seem to get that somehow. Playing to sold out audiences in Buenos Aires last month
    are a testamony to that . My only frustration is that the press seems to want to dwell so much on his past
    accomplishments. If there is anything we should learn from any great truth seeker, is to live in the present!
    Thanks for your expertise on James Dean in the discussion, I imagine it is simply impossible to consider oneself
    an expert on Mr Dylan.
    JED

    • D.R. Haney says:

      It’s impossible for me to consider myself an expert on Mr. Dean. David Dalton knows far more than I do, or ever will, on the subject, and much of what I know comes from him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *