Bob Dylan has always been one of the most perplexing artists of our age - a guitar-slinging cryptogram as elusive as the meaning of his finest songs, and the best doorway into Dylan has always been a good, solid book. From standard music biographies to books hamming him up as a cultural messiah, there are dozens of volumes aimed at cracking Dylan's impenetrable shroud of obscurity. Sweeping the bulk aside, though, what follows are the crème of what's out there, geared for anyone from the new fan to the seasoned aficionado to the academic.
Wrote Greil Marcus in 1978: “Who is this man? you ask. Where did he come from? He's a visitation, not a singer.” No other American writer has followed Dylan as closely, extensively, and for as long as Marcus, whose new anthology contains his finest Dylan writing covering four decades, including reviews and essays written for Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. With his thoughtful style anchored in personal reflections and rich analysis, Marcus peels back the layers, revealing Dylan, and incidentally himself, at critical junctures of their ever-evolving careers.
With all the media hype, you'd think they just released Dylan's Dead Sea Scrolls. While a book putting Dylan in the context of American cultural history—his influences and legacy—is one that needed written, Wilentz hasn't necessarily delivered it. At least not the way he may have initially intended. The book is disjointed, and the author connects Dylan to purported key influences with the vaguest of threads. However, there are moments of greatness throughout (along with the very real danger of slipping into a morass of nostalgia). Giving readers a fresh frame of reference, Wilentz's examination of Dylan as a torch-bearer of the Beat Generation is especially thorough. Overall, excellent reading.
More than Dylan's lover, Joan Baez was also his biggest promoter. As the author points out, a smitten Joan would bring a still-unkown Dylan onstage for duets, even sacrificing her time for him to showcase his music. Without the Queen of Folk's initial support, Hadju claims, Dylan may have likely never enjoyed his early rise to fame. Also explored is the story of Mimi Fariña (Baez's sister) and her husband Richard, author of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Prominent folk musicians in their own right, the Fariñas were on the fast track to fame when Richard died in a motorcycle crash just after this debut novel was published. One of the most important, obscure chapters in Beat and folk revival history. Note: Read with caution.
Heylin is the go-to guy on all matters Dylan, and he's carved out a fine career focusing on one man and his music. Revolution in the Air is the first volume in a two-part encyclopedia-style series that examines the first half of Dylan's massive 600-plus song catalog. Often criticized for his abrasive tone, Heylin's cutting wit is sometimes taken as arrogance. If you can groove on it, though, Heylin will have you cackling from cover to cover. A mammoth undertaking, this book is as biographical as it is analytical, and a necessary companion for any serious fan who wants to understand Dylan's songs more than skin deep.
While it took Dylan 13 years to write the first half of his 600-song catalog, it would take him 33 years to write the second half. Although the lyrics didn't come as easily as they did during his 1960s high-flying youthful peak, the second 300 of songs were more sophisticated as Dylan took bigger risks. In this sequel to Revolution in the Air, Heylin begins with the 1974 album Blood on the Tracks and ends with 2006's Modern Times, exploring Dylan's artistic reinventions and pivotal breakthroughs that cover the latter part of his ongoing and prolific career. The combined books total 1,000-plus pages of pure adulterated Dylan.
Named after a University of Minnesota Bob Dylan convention with the same title, this anthology takes on many aspects of Dylan from an academic perspective. Several essays deal with race, tracing Dylan's immersion into black American folk and blues traditions. Meanwhile, essays on Dylan in relation to the Beat literary movement, Johnny Cash, even Andy Warhol give this reader a pop culture edge that blurs the lines of academic writing. Although this kind of upper-division writing isn't for everyone, this anthology culls out many interesting perspectives on Dylan for scholars and critical thinkers.
The author of Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and the Basement Tapes now takes on the cumulative peak of Dylan's long journey home: the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue. With a cast of characters that included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Bobby Neuwirth, Jacques Levy, poet Allen Ginsberg, playwright Sam Shepard, Rolling Stone magazine's Larry Sloman, et alia, Dylan's gypsy road show was one of those seminal 1970s events that defined an age. Beginning in Greenwich Village in 1975, Griffin chronicles the tour from inception to finale, leaping from bus to stage, state to state, while fully exploring Dylan's rarely seen four-hour film spawned from the tour, Renaldo and Clara.
Cambridge University has published profiles on every dead white philosophical and literary great from time immemorial, from Hume and Plato to Nietzsche and Mark Twain. Breaking with tradition, this Dylan anthology marks the first time the honorable Companion series profiled a living pop culture figure (the Beatles got theirs six moons later). This is a solid primer for any scholar wishing to dig a little deeper into America's most complex singer-songwriter. Very accessible in comparison to most academic writing, this thin volume comes in at an easy 190 pages, concentrating on Dylan's magpie songwriting and minstrel performance styles. The final third of the book examines eight key albums that demonstrate Dylan's nonstop artistic growth.