Tangled Up in Bob Stories: A Dylan Reading List

Image for post
Image for post
Bob Dylan playing on the Olympia stage, France, May 24, 1966, on his 25th birthday. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Music legends from Tom Waits to Joni Mitchell immediately heard Dylan’s genius in songs like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,“ but not me. It took me two decades to warm to Bob Dylan. It’s a common story. He’s one of those artists that people say will “grow on you,” or, in more patronizing terms: . No young person wants to hear that, but people I knew in high school loved Dylan, so I gave him a try.

Compared to all the loud, cutting-edge guitar bands my friends and I listened to in the ’90s, like Bad Brains and Meat Puppets, Dylan seemed to belong to what my naive teenage mind characterized as ancient rock dinosaurs like The Rolling Stones and The Who: historically interesting but obsolete. I was in high school. Shows what I knew. Dylan and The Who were nothing alike. As cool as Dylan looked in old photos with his cigarette and sunglasses, folk music could not have seemed less cool. My friends and I skated and moshed in the pit. Acoustic guitar didn’t move me. Then I heard about Dylan’s legendary 1966 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, from the tour where he played controversial electric sets. As a die-hard fan of live recordings, a legendary rock show seemed a great place to start with Dylan.

In the early ’90s I found a bootleg CD of the Royal Albert Hall show at the record store next to my high school. Swingin’ Pig released it. I had other Swingin’ Pig bootlegs, so I trusted it as much as you can trust black market record labels. When I played the album at home, it left me cold. This was what people fawned over? “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”? Compared to power chords and fuzz petals, Dylan’s rock sounded tame. His nasally voice grated, so I shoved the CD in a box where my unloved albums went.

In college, I spotted the CD buried in a drawer. I wondered how it would sound now. Even as a more worldly college undergrad who listened to Miles Davis and twinkly New Zealand underground like The Clean, Dylan’s music still bored me, so it went back in the drawer. This was my pattern during my 20s and 30s. I’d play the CD every few years, dislike it, and squirrel it away. As big of an idiot as I was, something about Dylan demanded respect. He was too venerated to just throw his CD away. Albums are like that. Sometimes your favorites find you at the time in your life and you love them upon first listen. Sometimes they grow on you. Dylan also seemed like the kind of artist you needed in your collection, to provide variety and a sense of history, as well as something mainstream to compliment all the adolescent statement albums by Misfits and Slayer. So that album came with me to different states and through different stages of my life. Even when I didn’t enjoy listening to old music, I always appreciated music history.

Image for post
Image for post
Jacques Haillot/Apis/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

In 1999, my then-girlfriend wanted to see Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan play. I was all in, because I loved The Beatles and knew these legends could die at any minute. Ringo was eh. Simon was fun. Dylan blew me away. He came out in some kind of clean, country music suit, a big hat, and tore through a rocking set that was more honky-tonk than the rambling folk-rock I expected. I watched, enraptured. The set rolled like a train that never slowed at crossings. Turns out, he was touring for his best new album in ages, . Dylan’s performance completely changed my mind about him. I never laughed him off again. But the experience didn’t turn me into a devotee. I didn’t buy that double album, and when I played again, I still heard no magic. When I met the woman who I fell for immediately in my late 30s, my musical taste had grown so broad that when she played me Dylan’s 1976 album , I finally heard Dylan’s peculiar magic. “Hurricane” and “Isis” were masterpieces. How had Dylan sounded so different to the younger me? How could I not like this? When I went to play her my old live bootleg, the CD case was empty. My last girlfriend had lost it and forgotten to tell me. No problem. In the intervening years, Dylan had officially released a better-sounding version of the concert as part of his official Bootleg Series, so I bought that, and the circle was complete. Now I listen to his live 1966 acoustic performances of “Visions Of Johanna” and it gives me chills. One good thing about taking this long to come around is that his most familiar songs still sound fresh to me. That familiar acoustic strumming can still elicit tears. Turns out that the Royal Albert Hall show I had was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. It’s a famous show and famous error. At least the bootleggers got the year right.

Stories like this abound in Dylan lore and fan circles: stories of transformation, reinvention, and musical progress. Those themes define Dylan himself. He’s always changing, putting listeners and scholars off the trail, to keep us guessing about who he is, about songs’ meanings, and what he’ll do next. That’s one reason Dylan scholarship and journalism constitute their own body of literary work. Here are a few of my favorite Dylan stories, written by everyone from Ellen Willis to Greg Tate. You can appreciate these stories even if you don’t dig Dylan’s music. Maybe you’re curious about the man himself, or you enjoy hating someone enshrined by so much hype. Like Dylan’s music, these stories will be here if you find yourself ready for them, though remember, you don’t ever have to be ready. His voice can still be pretty annoying.

* * *

Dylan” (Ellen Willis, Cheetah, 1967)

It all starts here: the Dylan literary cannon, and Willis’ writing career. Sure, in 1961 Robert Shelton wrote about Dylan for , but few people wrote about Dylan with such intelligence, electricity, and insight until Willis did. The Dylan cannon was still relatively small when his 1967 album came out. The 7800-word exploration that Willis took five months to write set the proverbial bar, marking a literary high-point against which all subsequent Dylan pieces, even rock criticism itself, can be measured. Willis created , and it proved to be the kind of smart scrappy magazine that published solid stories before quickly fading into obscurity after a year. It was of its time, but in that short time, it launched careers. After Willis’ Dylan piece published, a writer convinced editor William Shawn to cover modern music, and said Willis was the person to do it. Based on the strength of this Dylan piece, Shawn hired her to be the magazine’s first pop music critic, and the rest of her life is history. Pick any paragraph and you’ll see why.

“His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker’s ultimate antagonist,” Willis writes. “And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced us to come to terms with him.” Willis was an astute observer and listener. Long before Dylan’s knack for invention and reinvention became well-known parts of his appeal, she spotted the push and pull between his public and private lives, the artifice and the art, and how it reflected modern culture. “The tenacity of the modern publicity apparatus often makes artists’ personalities more familiar than their work, while its pervasiveness obscures the work of those who can’t or won’t be personalities.” That’s as true 50 years later. closed the year after her piece came out, but she’d made the leap from obscurity to , where she applied her brilliance to iconic underground artists like the Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls, before turning her back on music and this phase of her writing life all-together.

A Trip to Hibbing High” (Greil Marcus, Daedalus, Spring 2007)

When he first saw Dylan perform with Joan Baez at an outdoor stage in 1963, Marcus was 18 years old, and Dylan seemed to have no age, no sense of origin or identity. Dylan only had two albums out at the time, and already, he exhibited a unique, sui generis aura. “When the show was over, I saw this person, whose name I hadn’t caught, crouching behind the tent,” Marcus wrote in the introduction of his book , “so I went up to him.” This pivotal moment marked the beginning of Marcus’ writing career. He had witnessed one of the most influential musicians in history before his moment of emergence. This meeting also marked Marcus’ emergence. “Along with a lot of other things,” Marcus wrote, “becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.” Five years after that 1963 performance, Marcus published his first Dylan piece. He has since written enough about Dylan to literally fill books, but this piece always stood out because it addresses Dylan’s origins. To try to understand how childhood shaped Dylan’s genius, Marcus visited Hibbing High School, where Dylan graduated, and whose legend centers around the school’s striking architecture, lavish decoration, and creative influence. Speaking of origins: What’s the appeal of Dylan for Marcus? His answer could apply to many Dylan fans: “I don’t think about it, I just do it, or rather can’t help it.”

Tangled Up in Dylan” (Mark Jacobson, Rolling Stone, April 12, 2001)

Dylan has generated an entire field of study called Dylanology. Universities offer courses. Scholars publish books and discuss him everywhere from to . Long before Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature generated an international discussion about whether his writing was even literature and why, as Richard F. Thomas’s book puts it, Bob Dylan matters, and fans knew the answer.

“If Shakespeare was in your midst, putting on shows at the Globe Theatre,” one Dylanologist tells fan and reporter Mark Jacobson, ”wouldn’t you feel the need to be there, to write down what happened in them?” Jacobson spends time with fanatics to address that question, and he studies the line between appreciation and fanaticism, scholar and obsessive. Dylan fanatics are people who have collected 20,000 live recordings. They’re people spend their time comparing differences in individual songs performances, who even want to clone Dylan’s DNA. “Rock is full of cults,” Jacobson writes as he goes down the rabbit hole, “but nothing — not collecting the Beatles, not documenting Elvis — rivals Dylanology.” What was the limit? Jacobson writes: “I was looking for the limit.” The problem, he discovers, is the issue of accessing Dylan himself.

Image for post
Image for post
Here’s the kind of photo that impressed me as a teenage Dylan hater. Blank Archives/Getty Images

Intelligence Data,” (Greg Tate, Village Voice, September 25, 2001)

Greg Tate is a musician and prose stylist whose love of music and critical eye earned him a title as one of “the Godfathers of hip-hop journalism,” but he writes widely about music and culture. As a staff writer for the from 1987 to 2005, Tate covered enormous territory and built a unique body of work. Here he offers a fresh perspective on late-period Dylan, around the release of , Dylan’s follow up to the masterful album . Tate hears not only genius, but an “impact on a couple generations of visionary black bards has rarely been given its propers,“ from Curtis Mayfield and Tracy Chapman to Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.

How I Changed My Mind About Bob Dylan” (Catherine Nichols, Jezebel, September 16, 2016)

Unlike me, Catherine Nichols loved Dylan the first time she heard him. She was 16 and driving in the car with her dad. He’d introduced her to a lot of good old American music, but Dylan’s song “felt like a searchlight had been switched on shining directly into my eyes, an almost unbearable sense of significance,” she writes. “That’s how I became the last person on the planet to discover that Bob Dylan is really, really, really good. Then she wonders why: “The mystery I’ve wondered about ever since: what’s so good about him.” Her essay is my favorite kind of music writing: personal and analytical, driven to examine both the music and the particular way it works on her as a listener.

When she looks at two versions of one song — Dylan’s version and the version by The Animals — you get a knockout taste of her crystalline vision and the poetry of her sentences. “The Animals’ version should feel more exciting — it has a bounding and rolling melody, Eric Burdon’s voice is stronger and clearer. He lets the song build; he works up to a big roar of sincere misery, vigor and regret. The Dylan version, on the other hand, is snarled virtually at a monotone. The chain that hobbles him is not his own hedonism but the hopelessness and despair he can’t escape. *And yet one track feels like a beloved teddy bear and the other like the touch of living skin. There’s more in Dylan’s voice than anyone else’s; his voice transmutes the unnerving sensation of being wholly, troublingly alive.”

Although Dylan may have, as her father believed, taught “a generation of white boys with terse WWII-vet fathers how to connect to their own emotions,” Nichols didn’t initially find or need any lessons from Dylan. After she read his memoir, , she found a musician with many literary talents who could offer her insight as a female writer.

Bob Dylan’s Secret Archive” (Ben Sisario, The New York Times, March, 6, 2016)

There are few things are as exciting to Dylan fans as the prospect of new unreleased material. More home demos. More vintage concert footage. Hope endures for a reason. Lost treasures still surface, like the previously unknown recording of Dylan playing Brandeis University in 1963, found in the basement of magazine cofounder Ralph Gleason. And new footage from the reels D.A. Pennebaker shot on Dylan’s 1965 tour. Dylan has always been notoriously protective of his private life and his creative process, but for Dylanologists, who want to know how he creates, their dreams have come true.

For an estimated $15 to $20 million, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa purchased Dylan’s personal collection, which includes footage, written correspondence, film, and lyrics — 6,000 pieces in total — dating back to his formative years. This material will be displayed for the public, and for study, at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bob Dylan Center’s crown jewel: The notebooks that contain Dylan’s sketches for his album . This was once the holy grail among fanatics, rumored but not confirmed. Now there are three. Why Tulsa? The connection to Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s early influence and an Oklahoma native. Also, opportunity: a respected archivist approached the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa, and the Kaiser Foundation had the money. “Portland wasn’t always cool,” George B. Kaiser said. “Seattle wasn’t always cool.” Dylan could help revitalize Tulsa. It’s the motherload fans have waited for, and as announced in 2016, “it is clear that the archives are deeper and more vast than even most Dylan experts could imagine, promising untold insight into the songwriter’s work.”

Bringing Some of It All Back Home” (Clive James, Cream, September 1972)

was the loudest rock magazine of the 1970s. Based in Detroit, they covered the big names like Zeppelin and the ignored ones like the Stooges, and rereading this piece, you can hear its time. It is a thorough, thoughtful examination of Dylan’s creativity and approach to songwriting. ”What Dylan has exhausted is not any kind of subject matter,” James writes, ”but a specific kind of approach to the song: the approach that relies on the indiscriminate imagination.” But this piece is also one of those very thinky, early rock pieces that examines the larger rock culture as much as Dylan. It’s fascinating to hear what people thought of his body of work in 1972, since he kept producing more music for decades, yet James can say that ”a critical estimate of Dylan comes within reach.” Ha! Dylan himself said it would take people 100 years to really appreciate his work. The clock keeps ticking.

Bob Dylan, the Wanderer” (Nat Hentoff, The New Yorker, October 24, 1964)

Nat Hentoff is largely known as a jazz writer, but in 1964, he profiled a young Bob Dylan. And it’s good. The subhead describes this early Dylan as “A fusion of Huck Finn and Woody Guthrie, the musician writes songs that sound drawn from oral history.“ Thankfully Dylan became so much more.

Dylan and the Nobel” (Gordon Ball, Oral Tradition, 2007)

Speaking of Dylanology: After Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, a slew of think pieces and scholarly articles debated the prize and Dylan’s work. Was it worthy? In , Evan R. Goldstein asked a deeper question: “Why are intellectuals so besotted with Dylan?” Long before Dylan won the prize, fans and scholars were making the case for the award. Scholar Gordon Ball specializes in Beat Generation literature, but he saw Dylan perform at his famous 1965 Newport Jazz Festival show, where Dylan shocked fans by first playing electric. “In 1996 I first wrote the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy,“ Ball writes in the journal , “nominating Dylan for its Prize in literature.“ To get a sense of what Dylan scholarship is like, this makes for an interesting read. “My point,“ Ball writes, “is rather modest: that poetry and music share time-honored ground, that the two arts are often bound closely together, and that Dylan’s great gifts may be appreciated within such a performative lineage. Poetry and music aren’t mutually exclusive.“

The Wanderer” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, May 10, 1999)

Following Dylan on his now famous 1998 tour of , Alex Ross realizes how much the music matters more than the messenger, which is what the Dylanologist often miss.

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store