Once Upon A Time – The Lives Of Bob Dylan
By Ian Bell
Mainstream Publishing – £20.00
I’ve read and reviewed a number of books on Bob Dylan, and what I really like about Ian Bell’s Once Upon A Time – The Lives of Bob Dylan is its non-sycophantic, yet exceedingly well versed and highly researched, kick-in-the-bollocks analysis.
In other words, the author isn’t afraid of coming clean where perhaps his subject might. That’s not to say Dylan has anything to hide – far from it. For if any sublime artist, and there aren’t many, has had their entire adult/working life devoured every which way, it’s surely Sir Bob. With the possible exceptions of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, surely no one has ever been so scrutinized, so analysed (and some might say patronised); so questioned, so discussed; so second (not to mention third, fourth and fifth) guessed as yer man Bob.
Yet still the books keep coming.
Still the hyper-evaluation is wrought with an individualistic need to be heard, read, developed and believed – depending on viewpoint and of course, fandom. Which, on far too many an occasion, is surely way too dressed up and random to be taken seriously – although such is most definitely not the case here.
Bell is obviously a fan. But he’s also a critic, and an excellent one at that. In the chapter ‘I Think I’ll Call It America’ for instance, he scathingly examines one of Dylan’s most semi-cryptic and controversial songs ever written, ‘Ballad In Plain D.’ And he does so in such an astute way, that it leaves many of his peers both vacuously pontificating as well as aimlessly wandering around in the gutless wilderness: ‘’Suze Rotolo believed it too. Though she could no longer tolerate the man, she did not once question his genius. That was no doubt part of the intractable problem. Fame, the cult of ‘Bob Dylan,’ was destroying their relationship as surely as his near-addiction to infidelity. All that remained was to put this love affair out of its misery. Dylan, deservedly, lost his self-respect in the process. The final scenes were ugly. They earned a song that was uglier still, cheap, nasty – you could call this poetry’s revenge – an abysmal piece of self-indulgence.’’
Where else might you stumble across, let alone read, such caustic, controversial criticism – especially at this late stage in Dylan’s career? Not many places I’d have thought.
Three paragraphs on (among others), the author continues along the same theme – only from Dylan’s perspective – substantiates his penchant for considered argument: ‘’Two decades later he had the good grace to regret ‘Ballad In Plain D,’ telling Bill Flanagan, ‘I look back and say ‘’I must have been a real schmuck to write that.’’ I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I’ve written, maybe I could have left that alone.’’
Throughout Once Upon A Time, Bell illuminates an area of the Minnesota Bard’s work, persona and mindset, that is of an entirely different persuasion than most. Thus ensuring its 563 pages are as much an enjoyable read, as they are both enlightening and refreshing
Earlier in the book, the writer effortlessly sheds his own take on Dylan the carefree, idiosyncratic, psychological tough-nut. He, who if Bell is to be believed, doesn’t really have a fleeting care in the world: ‘’To this day there is something dreamlike about his long career. He likes (or needs) to be elusive, but that fact doesn’t explain much. Wounded former friends, dropped like litter down the years, tend not to offer glowing character references. They say – and they have been saying it since the early 1960s – that he doesn’t give a damn. That doesn’t seem relevant either. If artists were to be disqualified from the cultural steeplechase on the grounds of obnoxious behaviour, few would make the starting line. That’s probably why nature’s groupies advance the faintly preposterous idea that a true creator is obliged – the Rimbaud thing again – to be a cold-hearted son of a bitch. Geniuses: what can you do?’’
Indeed, what can you do? Can’t live without ‘em, but at least we don’t have to live with ‘em. Instead, we can take and we can glean arbitrarily, at will, at any time of day or night. We can merely dip into whatever it is we want from our self-chosen geniuses – and let’s not mistake ourselves here, Dylan is a genius in every possible connotation of the word – without having to take any egotistical, excess, gobshite like behaviour along the way. We are forever entitled to thoroughly wallow within the pristine, beauty (of the poetry and the melody) of say ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ without having to resort to any form of sacrosanct, artistic wank or ransom.
It’s ours, whenever we want: for all the taking, all the healing, all the enjoying, all the whatever.
If however, you want to delve behind the veil and find out more behind what makes someone like Bob Dylan tick, then this is most definitely a book you should consider purchasing. You absolutely won’t regret it.