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)

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London