More man, music, and mystique

The singer's 70th birthday has inspired a fresh collective outpouring from the world's foremost Dylanologists

What is it about Bob Dylan?

Routinely hailed as the voice of his generation, a man who expanded the possibilities of popular song, he is treated with the kind of awe reserved for literary giants and continues to be the subject of academic enquiry; his vast body of work is studied at universities and endlessly picked over by critics and biographers. Such is the esteem with which he is held that experts even have their own job title – Dylanologists – a privilege that has never been accorded to Beatles writers. All this for a man who has the temerity not to be dead.

More startling is that, despite the unevenness of his more recent output, Dylan is among the few artists over whom otherwise sensible critics and commentators are apt to completely lose their heads. And amazingly, these headless commentators are often allowed to publish books. There are well over 1,000 volumes on Dylan published in English, and as many again in other languages.

You may already know that Dylan is 70 next week, and though it's hard to picture the great man putting on a party hat and breaking out the bunting, the occasion has prompted a further landslide of literature, (and broadcasting – see opposite).

A co-operative self-publicist Dylan is not, and tackling this perverse, irascible and complex figure is no easy task. Given the sheer number of titles already in existence, any book about him must aim beyond straight biography, and find new structures in which to frame his art.

Christopher Ricks's Dylan's Visions of Sin (Canongate, £14.99) is a case in point, though the result is a sprawling, ungainly and infuriating work that assumes too much knowledge in the reader, and flings itself into analysis of Dylan's lyrics, placing him alongside Blake, Browning, Tennyson and Keats. (It was Ricks who began the fabled Dylan vs Keats debate some 20 years ago.) In a bid to separate itself from the literary overflow, the book uses the seven deadly sins to discuss his lyrics, shoehorning songs into categories of lust, envy and so on while trying, with unnerving intensity, to uncover the hidden intent.

Greater perspective is offered by Greil Marcus in Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 (Faber, £15.99), a collection of reviews, liner notes and essays that uses the songs as a gateway for broader discussions on American music. The doyen of music criticism and the writer most closely associated with Dylan, Marcus has certainly earned his "-ology". Thankfully, however, he's no mere cheerleader, a fact underlined by the opening words of his Rolling Stone review of Dylan's 1970 album Self Portrait: "What is this shit?" His tendency to write off great swathes of Dylan's career as mediocre will certainly annoy purists, but elsewhere he neatly articulates the excitement of being a young man in the Sixties watching Dylan and realising that "limits have been trashed".

Daniel Mark Epstein's The Ballad of Bob Dylan (Souvenir, £20) errs on the side of hero worship – he devotes a whole chapter to a single Dylan concert he attended as a teenager, complete with chord changes and set lists. But his personal anecdotes from the Sixties New York folk scene – he was chums with Allen Ginsberg, among others – lend atmosphere to a book unabashedly devoted to celebrating the singer-songwriter's legacy.

Dylan's own view of those who talk or write about him generally falls between irritation and indifference. So it was something of a coup when the late Robert Shelton, the former folk critic of The New York Times, received the songwriter's co-operation for 1986's No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (Omnibus, £19.95). This new edition restores several passages that were originally lost in the editing process, though the book prefers to concentrate on the glory years when Dylan was a trailblazing folk troubadour, and largely – some might say conveniently – ignores his subsequent decline.

Clinton Heylin's Behind The Shades: The 20th Anniversary Edition (Faber, £20) acknowledges Dylan's failings as a man, though the narrative pedals a different type of mythology, investigating his beginnings as a Woody Guthrie-obsessed youth in Minnesota and tracing his journey from scruffy folkie to protest pioneer to folk-rock innovator to grand old man of rock'n'roll. Heylin documents with particular relish the singer's decline into alcoholism in the Eighties and his duplicitous love life (he is unsure how many Dylan children there are). It's a fascinating read, but at the end you curiously feel no closer to knowing the man behind the shades.

Down the Highway (Doubleday £14.99) suffers a similar problem. Its author, Howard Sounes, certainly put in the legwork, interviewing 250 people over three years and rummaging through birth, marriage and death certificates, court property and tax records. But in his quest for detail, the brilliance for which Dylan is celebrated somehow evades Sounes.

This, of course, is the crux of the problem: that despite the acres of print, the man behind the songs remains ever elusive. Not only does he exist, tetchily, beyond criticism; he floats beatifically, some might say mischievously, above attempts to pin him down. Dylan's own Chronicles, a vivid and impressionistic memoir, is a thrilling read but its omissions make you loath to trust his version of events.

Perhaps this impressionistic image of his life is another of the great achievements of music's most reluctant messiah. In a culture creepily obsessed with its stars, intent on knowing their every banal thought, Dylan has managed to confound his most ardent admirers and maintain his mystique. We may never know just who Bob Dylan is, but one thing's for certain: it won't be for a lack of trying.

Bob's butt...

"In the mid-Sixties Dylan's talent evoked such an intense degree of personal participation from both his admirers and detractors that he could not be permitted so much as a random action. Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt. When he did they'd sift through the remains, looking for significance. The scary part is they'd find it – and it really would be significant."

Paul Nelson, from "Bob Dylan" in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller. Random House, 1976. (Quoted in Greil Marcus's Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010. Faber £15.99)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence