Twenty-five years ago this week, critic Robert Shelton, in a widely quoted New York Times review, called Bob Dylan a bright new voice in folk music. Dylan, just 20, was still playing clubs around the Village, honing the folk-edged, socially conscious style that would soon establish him as second only to Elvis Presley as the most important figure ever in rock 'n' roll.
Where Presley defined the rebellion and celebration of rock for a teen-age audience in the '50s, Dylan brought an intelligence and range to the music in the '60s that enabled rock to appeal to an older audience--one that was seeking ways to express its outrage over social issues, ranging from segregation to nuclear arms.
Shelton was in an ideal position to see Dylan's emergence, both the bold artistic leaps and the tension that frequently accompanied those advances--as Dylan battled against cries of betrayal from folk purists when he rejected the notion that "protest" was the only legitimate theme and when he adopted a hard-biting, electric rock style.
Shelton, who enjoyed Dylan's trust, became so fascinated with this young singer/songwriter that he went to Dylan's home town of Hibbing, Minn., to explore the artist's roots.
Conversations with Dylan's parents and high school chums suggested a restless spirit, someone battling to free himself from his environment. To Shelton, the young Dylan was an "introvert who set his high school on its ear with wild rock 'n' roll; the homebody turned motorcycle cowboy; the courteous youngster who was as truculent as he could be; the anti-sentimentalist (who) fell in and out of love; the son of the middle class (who) spent most of his time with poor folk; the white boy (who) studied black jargon."
Dylan was no less a puzzle during his 20s when the pop world--responding to such anthems as the prayerlike "Blowin' in the Wind" and the raucous, unrelenting "Like a Rolling Stone"--almost seemed to revolve around him. In some ways, indeed, Dylan's psychological profile was becoming as fascinating as much of his music. Some people accused him of cold calculation; others described him as an eccentric genius.
While mass acceptance clearly interested him, Dylan resisted the demands of stardom. He seemed especially uncomfortable being interviewed--often turning his rare visits with the press into elaborate put-ons where he resorted to double talk or invented bizarre biographical disguises that shielded his middle-class Minnesota roots. "I hate to be predictable," Dylan told Shelton.
By 1966, Shelton had a contract to write a biography on Dylan. When he informed Dylan, the songwriter indicated he was pleased, Shelton writes. Dylan even agreed, the author says, to help clarify things. "I want you to have explanations of my songs in your book," Dylan is quoted as saying. "Things nobody else will ever have."
But Shelton soon fell victim to Dylan's elusiveness. Following up on Dylan's invitation, he asked the songwriter to clarify the identity of Mr. Jones, the object of ridicule in one of Dylan's most biting tunes, "Ballad of a Thin Man."
As Shelton waited with tape recorder in hand, Dylan parried, "Well, I'm not going to tell you that way. I'm going to tell you about the stuff that I want to tell you about. . . ."
Strangely, Shelton seemed to lose contact with Dylan shortly after that exchange. There is so little information in the rest of the book that you wonder what Shelton was doing the last 20 years. He certainly wasn't gaining insight into this complex antihero. And that absence neutralizes the few valuable passages about the Hibbing years and Dylan's struggle to maintain his independence within the music community.
The book is filled with recycled tales, unexceptional expositions of Dylan songs and reporting of Dylan's life in the '70s and '80s that is so sketchy it suggests Shelton had nothing more to go by than clippings of articles others had written. Coupled with a flat writing style, this leaves the book far less urgent and convincing than Anthony Scaduto's already limited 1971 biography, "Bob Dylan."
"No Direction Home" is at least the 19th book about Dylan's music or life and the fact that it, too, is a disappointment underscores the problem with pop biographies. Pop heroes are profiled so extensively in the media that there is little value in simply retelling the facts. The challenge is to explain the psychological motivation of these artists.
Perhaps we want to know too much about them. For many people in the rock generation, these musicians--the Dylans, Presleys, Lennons, Springsteens--become, for at least part of our lives, the vehicle for defining and articulating our frustrations and desires. By learning more about them, we may also be trying to learn more about ourselves and why we respond to them--and measure our actions by theirs.