And the brand played on: Bob Dylan at 80 | Bob Dylan

“It’s gonna take a hundred years before they understand me!” Bob Dylan once claimed, “they” being the cohorts of fans, critics and Dylanologists who have dogged his tracks ever since Robert Zimmerman, chippy teen of Hibbing, Minnesota, became Bob Dylan, world-famous singer, songwriter, and pop’s most enduring enigma.

“That’s exactly the quote James Joyce made about Ulysses,” points out Sean Latham, professor of English at the University of Tulsa and head of the institute for Bob Dylan Studies recently established there. “Joyce said, ‘I put so many puzzles and enigmas in Ulysses it will take the scholars 100 years to solve them’.”

With the centenary of his masterwork arriving in 2022, Joyce has perhaps been proved right. Whether it will take as long to decipher Dylan’s extensive oeuvre – 600-odd songs, 39 studio albums, a novel, a memoir, one film as director, several more as actor, a half-dozen documentaries, innumerable concerts, a cache of paintings – seems doubtful given the critical and biographical weight already bearing on him as he approaches his 80th birthday on 24 May. The anniversary coincides with a burgeoning of the Dylan industry being led as much by US academia as by Dylan’s faithful following of “Bobcats”. Next month sees the publication of three major new books and one reissue: a new account of Dylan’s early life by his renowned biographer Clinton Heylin; a collection of new writing on Dylan, edited by Latham; an idiosyncratic reassessment of Dylan’s life and work from the writer Paul Morley; and a re-edited version of Robert Shelton’s 1986 biography, Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.

Central to it all is the establishment of the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, a depository of about 100,000 items bought from Dylan for a cool $20m by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Kaiser being one of the billionaire philanthropists in which the US seems to specialise. Master tapes, photographs, set lists, notebooks, manuscripts (on all of which Dylan retains copyright) – the archive has the lot, along with the leather jacket Dylan wore onstage at the 1965 Newport folk festival, when he “went electric”, and, who knows, the odd leopard-skin pillbox hat. In Tulsa it joins the Woody Guthrie Centre already established by the foundation in 2011 in honour of Oklahoma’s most famous son, Guthrie being the major role model for Dylan in his folk-singing years, before an earlier, rocking and rolling ambition resurfaced – “To join Little Richard”, as he told his high school yearbook at age 18.

Dylan in London in 1966.
Dylan in London in 1966. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The interest of academics in Dylan is nothing new – Boston’s Christopher Ricks, Princeton’s Sean Wilentz and Harvard’s Richard Thomas have all written thoughtful books – but its scale is increasing exponentially in the US. Latham’s The World of Bob Dylan, to be published in May by Cambridge University Press, includes 18 professors among its 24 contributors. Meanwhile Latham estimates the number of Dylan university courses on offer at about 100, and while the British National Bibliography lists 400 Dylan tomes he suggests the true figure is nearer 2,000; “I took delivery of 500 for the archive just the other day”.

“We are,” he says, “entering a new phase in the life of the academy, a deeply conservative institution that has its own rhythm. It took 50 years from the invention of film before it became a subject of serious intellectual inquiry, and with pop music we are basically in that window now – it’s clearly an important part of 20th-century cultural history, and in the past 15 years academic conservatism has been overcome.”

Latham’s book (or “curation”, perhaps) offers a comprehensive overview of Bobdom – musical influences from sea shanties and highland ballads to blues and gospel, his interest in Brecht and the Beat poets, the politics of the civil rights movement and the counterculture, and more. There is even room, in the perennial boy’s club of Dylanology, for female voices, including a chapter on gender and sexuality where Ann Powers contrasts Bob’s “buttoned-up scarfy layers” to the “semi-nude” posturings of rock gods like Robert Plant, and dates “the first time Dylan took off his shirt” to a scene in his 1978 symbolist movie Renaldo and Clara.

The book is, says Latham, “meant to introduce Dylan fans to new voices, a pivot between fandom and scholarship, a book you can use in a classroom”. Fair enough, though Dylan’s character – his intelligence, goofy humour, paranoia, cruelty and charisma – remains obstinately out of the scholars’ reach.

With Joan Baez at the Newport folk festival.
With Joan Baez at the Newport folk festival. Photograph: Gai Terrell/Redferns

The principal motor of the Dylan industry remains the man himself, who has long shown an aptitude for the business side of the music biz, having been, like so many, financially stung early in his career. Last year he sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal Music for an estimated $300m, before which he had licensed songs for commercials for, among others, Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, Budweiser, IBM and Victoria’s Secret, appearing in the last himself, apparently summoned by a seductive, scantily clad angel. These days Dylan markets his own brand of liquor, Heaven’s Door Whiskey, alongside prints of his artwork (about £5,000 a pop). In the Latham book, Devon Powers argues that “Dylan became a brand because brands aspired to become more like him: to matter, to delight, to enrapture and, above all, to last”.

Dylan has certainly lasted extraordinarily well, rebounding from a career low in middle age – his role as a washed-up rock star in 1987’s Hearts of Fire and on disc with the Grateful Dead the same year marked his nadir – into a creative renaissance during his “third act”, a time when most pop stars have long since hung up their rock’n’roll shoes. A revival that began with 1997’s Time Out of Mind has continued with Love and Theft (2001) Modern Times (2006), Tempest (2012) and last year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, a quartet interspersed with three albums inconsequentially covering the great American songbook (ie Porter, Sinatra and co), a somewhat preposterous Christmas record and a sizeable memoir, 2004’s Chronicles Volume One, not forgetting his brilliant radio series, Theme Time Radio Hour. All have arrived against the background of the “never-ending tour” that Dylan declared back in 1988 and which has since delivered more than 3,000 shows, its progress halted only by the Covid pandemic.

It’s an astonishing work rate that has surely taken its toll. Arthritis means that Dylan can no longer hold a guitar; onstage he plays, and is propped up by, an electric piano. His voice – rarely a thing of beauty and most often an abrasively compelling affair described by David Bowie as “like sand and glue” – is in tatters, obliging him to abandon singing altogether for gravelly, dramatic declamation on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Yet like Matisse, forced to give up oils and canvas for cut-outs around the same age, Dylan remains obstinately true to his art, “refusing to let his career become embalmed” as Paul Morley puts it in his new book, out next month. Once you stop creating, you’re in the past.

Filming Hearts of Fire in London in 1986.
Filming Hearts of Fire in London in 1986. Photograph: Brendan Beirne/Rex

Other developments have kept Dylan newsworthy. Only stalled by the pandemic is the Broadway run of the Old Vic’s hit musical Girl from the North Country, a depression-era drama set in Dylan’s home turf on the “iron range” of Duluth and scripted by Conor McPherson using 20 songs from Dylan’s career. Dylan loved it. From further back there was playing for the pope in 1997, collecting the presidential medal of freedom (the US’s highest civilian honour) from Obama in 2012, and most of all being awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2016, an award about which he was diffident (“Nobel? Wasn’t he the guy who invented dynamite?” was a rumoured response), remaining silent for months before accepting the honour, then declining to attend the acceptance ceremony in Stockholm, where Patti Smith touchingly choked up singing A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.

Days before the deadline for receiving the $900,000 prize money, Dylan gave the required lecture, first comparing himself to Shakespeare, as much concerned with actors, mu
sicians, venues, audiences as literature, which he disingenuously claimed to have never thought about. He may have described himself as “a song and dance man” back in the 1960s, but authors’ names litter his songs – Eliot, Pound, Verlaine, Rimbaud among them – and he has along claimed kinship with the Beats, with Kerouac and Ginsberg, becoming friends with the latter. His lecture, ruminating on the impact made on him by Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey, was engaging enough, though it transpired that many of his ruminations on Melville’s opus were cribbed intact from the online resource SparkNotes: whether it was from convenience or to cock a snook at the academy (AKA “Mr Jones”) remains unclear.

Dylan has always been a thief. In his time lighting up the Greenwich Village folk circuit in the early 1960s, purists lambasted him for plundering the canon for his own songs, as if hijacking a 200-year-old melody mattered when it emerged as a masterpiece like Hard Rain. In his advancing years his pilfering has become rife, with lines from Virgil, Homer and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza among those sprinkled in his songs, while Modern Times featured verses from civil war poet Henry Timrod, leading Dylan to respond, when challenged: “You even heard of him? And who’s been making you read him?”

Performing in 1998, one of many dates on the never-ending tour.
Performing in 1998, one of many dates on the never-ending tour. Photograph: Laurent_Ais/EPA

Scholars may deem such jackdaw habits “an intertextual creative process”: others regard it as blatant plagiarism. Certainly, when you see entire sentences from Jack London’s Call of the Wild wheeled out to describe his friend Johnny Cash in Chronicles, rock’s greatest bard appears to have crossed a line. Perhaps Bob should keep in mind Billie Holiday’s advice in God Bless the Child: “You can help yourself but don’t take too much.”

Dylan’s trickiness, his elusiveness, indeed his outright dishonesty, are legend. Arriving in New York he would tell people he was an orphan, was born in Oklahoma, had run away with the carnival… anything but the truth, which was always concealed, one reason, presumably, for the title of Heylin’s latest biography, The Double Life of Bob Dylan.

“For sure,” confirms Heylin, “but also something as prosaic as the fact that this exploration of his life will be in two volumes, and most importantly, to reflect Dylan’s Gemini nature; hot and cold, kind and cruel, hard and soft, wild and woolly, and most of all, public and private, artist and man.”

Heylin has long been Dylan’s most accomplished biographer, with 1991’s Behind the Shades moving on the singer’s story from the well-chronicled glory years of the 1960s to the quarter century beyond, and supplying a wealth of original research. The book has been updated three times since, while Heylin has also delivered two volumes analysing Dylan’s songs, Revolution in the Air (2009) and Still on the Road (2010). The arrival of the Dylan archive – Heylin is one of the first to be granted access – has already delivered fresh insights.

“It’s an impressive resource,” says Heylin, “and an important one to have in light of the usual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame approach, which continues to paint Dylan as a quirky protest singer from the 1960s. However, the archive doesn’t really start until after his motorcycle accident in 1966, which is where this volume ends. There are very few manuscripts from before then, but one coup was to go through the entire footage of Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document [DA Pennebaker’s renowned documentaries from 1967 and 1972] in that period of great creativity, where you see Dylan not just in interviews but in conversations, in down time, and witness that mind endlessly whirring… it never turns off!

“Plus all the studio tapes are there, with the studio dialogue intact, showing you the relationship Dylan had with his producers.”

These turned out to be more troubled than history has allowed. John Hammond, garlanded for his “discovery” of Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday, and who produced the first two Dylan albums, clearly didn’t understand his new charge. “From the outset Dylan was clearly aware that Hammond was offering him nothing. Even at the age of 20 he’s challenging Hammond. With Tom Wilson – producer of Dylan’s subsequent three albums – the relationship was more productive but Wilson still had to walk on eggshells.”

Archive aside, Heylin includes a huge amount of new material about Dylan’s early life as a teenage malcontent in Hibbing, a once prosperous small town servicing the giant open-cast iron mine at its edge, but turned shabby during the cold war 1950s. Here Bobby Zimmerman nurtured his crush on Brando and Dean, posed on his Harley, and assured acquaintances that one day he would be extremely famous. Mostly he was quiet and reserved, other than playing a school concert where he terrorised his schoolmates with noisy imitations of his rock’n’roll heroes.

“There is a photograph I wanted for the book, of girls looking on horrified,” says Heylin, “it’s like the scene in Back to the Future where Michael J Fox plays 21st-century guitar.”

From new interviews come a picture of Bob’s annual forays to summer camp, where he struck up deep friendships and became one of a trio of bad boys, much to the consternat
ion of his bewildered, authoritarian father and indulgent mother.

“What comes across is the number of people who say he knew exactly what he was doing from an early age,” says Heylin, “that he was completely driven and that nothing would blow him off course. There’s much more self-awareness to that young man than in previous versions of him, including by myself. I didn’t realise how burning his ambition was.

“There’s a tape of him performing a dozen songs recorded in January 1961, one that’s still uncirculated, Dylan is a week away from going to New York, he’s singing Guthrie, Hank Williams and the rest and it’s already Bob Dylan fully formed; the intonation, the harmonica, everything is there already.”

Dylan’s ascent once he arrived in New York was vertiginous, his relationship with his contemporaries complex and often barbed, his love affairs with Suze Rotolo (with whom he is arm in arm on the cover of Freewheelin’), and Joan Baez intense and eventually unhappy. If there is fault in Heylin’s telling of the tale, it’s that the breathless pace of Dylan’s life allows little chance to explore the songs flooding from him, but then, as Heylin says, he’s done that job elsewhere. Meanwhile, Double Life is the definitive, scrupulously researched biography of a life steeped in mystery: “He didn’t want anyone to know anything about him,” says an early sidekick. Plus ca change…

With the late Tom Petty, one of Dylan's many musical collaborators.
With the late Tom Petty, one of many musical collaborators. Photograph: Shutterstock

Heylin is sceptical about other biographies, almost all of which simply recycle old material. Not so No Direction Home by the late Robert Shelton, a New York Times journalist, early Dylan champion and later a friend. No Direction Home should have been the book fans wanted to read at the close of the 1960s, but Shelton dragged his feet interminably and it eventually appeared in 1986, by which time it was already superseded and its omissions glaring. Its reissue next month is notable mainly for its handsome photographs, most from the 1960s.

Paul Morley’s You Lose Yourself You Reappear, out at the end of April, doesn’t pretend to be a biography. Rather, it’s a gleeful, erudite romp across Dylan’s career from a lifelong fan (who knew?). “It’s a personal response,” Morley says. “‘Bob Dylan has always been a kind of fiction, and you can use the facts to create the figure.” Morley’s timeframe – “from Pearl Harbor to Trump” – allows him to leap between eras, follow songs back and forth and indulge his passions – Dylan’s speed-driven novel Tarantula for example, encountering which as a teenage Marc Bolan fan “made Dylan more than a musician”. Bon mots abound, whether it’s Dylan and Baez as “a folk Burton and Taylor” or the lengthy decoding of Bob’s late-era pencil moustache: “a little sleazy, it puts Dylan in a club of devilish dandies and rogues he’d be happy to be a part of.”

Many of the more prosaic facts are packed into a couple of late chapters, which nonetheless prove evocative, especially the portrait of Hibbing, the founding place of the Greyhound bus “at the wrong, northern end of Highway 61 but connected to the warrior energy of Mississippi bluesmen”.

At 80 Dylan has lived a third of his country’s history, becoming both cultural titan of modern times and shaman from “the old weird America”. He once claimed “the Dylan myth wasn’t created by me – it was a gift from God”, but he has been a willing accomplice, a magus distilling his personal gnosis as much from religion as from music or art, one steeped in Judaism and Christianity, though ancient Rome is a surprisingly consistent strand. Women remain the other element in the alchemy, but despite a trove of love songs, variously tremulous, ardent or betrayed, Dylan remains an old testament prophet, forever promising “A wave that can drown the whole world” or warning “You gotta serve somebody”. Apocalypse is always imminent, but first, he’s heading for another joint on the never-ending tour.

‘If Dylan didn’t exist you’d have to invent him’: Q&As with the authors of four new Dylan books

A Restless Hungry Feeling: The Double Life of Bob Dylan Vol. 1: 1941-1966 Hardcover – 8 April 2021 by Clinton Heylin

Author of A Restless Hungry Feeling: The Double Life of Bob Dylan Vol 1 1941–1966, a newly rewritten early life of Dylan. Heylin also wrote Bob Dylan Behind the Shades and published a detailed analysis of every song by Dylan, in two volumes: Revolution in the Air and Still on the Road.

What would you give to Bob Dylan for his 80th birthday?
A copy of my new book, just to jog those ol’ brain cells.

What is your favourite Dylan song, and why?
Visions of Johanna. Because it’s poetry, performance art and perfection in a seven-minute slice of song.

What is the most surprising thing you found out about Dylan while writing your book?
That he tells a lot of “porkies”. Maybe not that surprising.

Which modern artists do you think are comparable to Dylan?
He is incomparable. Obviously.

How would you sell Dylan to someone who says they’re not a Dylan fan?
Open up your ears and you’re influenced. Bob Dylan said that.

Complete this sentence: Without Dylan there would be no…
Ed Sheeran. He has a lot to answer for.

The World of Bob Dylan

Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, where the Dylan Archive is kept, and where the new Bob Dylan Center will open in 2021. Latham is co-editor of The World of Bob Dylan, which brings together leading rock and pop critics and scholars writing on Dylan.

What would you give to Bob Dylan for his 80th birthday?
His band and a microphone, in a Covid-free concert call. His music comes alive in performance, and he’s not done yet.

What is your favourite Dylan song, and why?
Blind Willie McTell. It’s a poetic history lesson about race, nation and culture all rolled into five artful verses, each more astonishing than the last.

What is the most surprising thing you found out about Dylan while editing your book?
That so many pathways lead into and out of Dylan: music, literature, politics, marketing, philosophy, social justice – his work touches it all.

Which modern artists do you think are comparable to Dylan?
James Joyce. Together, Joyce and Dylan are the two most innovative and globally influential artists of the 20th century.

How would you sell Dylan to someone who says they’re not a Dylan fan?
As I tell my students who know almost nothing about Dylan: start by picking your favourite musician and you’ll almost immediately find a Dylan cover.

Complete this sentence: Without Dylan there would be no…
Serious poetry in popular music. He showed all who came after him how to make it into a deep, meaningful and human form of art.

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (Illustrated edition) Hardcover – Illustrated, 15 April 2021 by Robert Shelton (Author), Elizabeth Thomson (Author, Editor)

The revising editor of Robert Shelton’s Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, and the author of Joan Baez: The Last Leaf, both pub
lished by Palazzo.

What would you give to Bob Dylan for his 80th birthday?
Dinner at the Washington Square Hotel, Greenwich Village, where he lived in the early 1960s. Joan Baez immortalised their affair at what was then the Hotel Earle in Diamonds & Rust.

What is your favourite Dylan song, and why?
Chimes of Freedom, because of its rich symbolism and metaphor, and extraordinary humanity.

What is the most surprising thing you found out about Dylan while editing your book?
I was struck again by Dylan’s single-mindedness and his youthful brilliance. If he’d died at 25 his legacy would be immense.

Which modern artists do you think are comparable to Dylan?
Nobody. To paraphrase Voltaire, if Dylan didn’t exist you’d have to invent him.

How would you sell Dylan to someone who says they’re not a Dylan fan?
Play them The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Blood On the Tracks and Oh Mercy.

Complete this sentence: Without Dylan there would be no…
Idiosyncratic untrained vocalists singing about existential angst.

You Lose Yourself You Reappear The Many Voices of Bob Dylan Paul Morley (author)

Author of You Lose Yourself You Reappear: Bob Dylan and the Voices of a Lifetime, along with numerous other books about music.

What would you give Bob Dylan for his 80th birthday?
I had already decided to give him something unique that I’d make myself, like a few sentences, which became a book. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled…

What is your favourite Dylan song, and why?
Murder Most Foul. Because he manages to compress for ever into a song, like he always hinted he could. (See below.)

What is the most surprising thing you found out about Dylan while writing your book?
I’m always taken by surprise, and surprise is hard to fake, that All Along the Watchtower, which touches on everything under the sun, is only two and a half minutes long. (See above.)

Which modern artist do you think is comparable to Dylan?
Gerhard Richter.

How would you sell Dylan to someone who says they’re not a Dylan fan?
a) He’s written some of the greatest, fiercest love songs of all time. b) Watch the “Like a Rolling Chum” episode of Pawn Stars, where Chumlee asks Dylan for his autograph. c) He relished wordplay as the best way of driving out devils.

Complete this sentence: Without Dylan there would be no…
… one who knew how to ask the right questions. The kind where the only answer is poetry.

A Restless, Hungry Feeling: The Double Life of Bob Dylan, Vol 1 1941-1966 by Clinton Heylin is published by Bodley Head on 8 April (£30). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply

The World of Bob Dylan edited by Sean Latham is published by Cambridge University Press (£20)

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, edited by Elizabeth Thomson, is published by Palazzo (£20)

You Lose Yourself You Reappear, Bob Dylan and The Voice of a Lifetime by Paul Morley is published by Simon & Schuster on 29 April (£20). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply

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