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.
"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)