In Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown (out now in paperback) iterary scholar and music critic David Yaffe offers an appreciative yet incisive look at the different facets of Bob Dylan’s life, career and cultural impact. In this exclusive extract Yaffe introduces us to the multiple identities of Bob Dylan, and explains why his book, like Dylan’s varied career, is structured thematically, rather than chronologically.
Extract from Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe
In 2007, Bob Dylan, for the first time, was ready to be remixed. In the world of rock and roll, it was as if Leonardo da Vinci were giving his blessing for Marcel Duchamp to draw his Mona Lisa moustache. At the turntables, and arranging the ska horns, was Mark Ronson, who had worked with Macy Gray, Amy Winehouse, and Lily Allen, among others. The producer was, in other words, a millennial hipster, and he retranslated a 1966 track from Blonde on Blonde, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” into a revamped language, augmented by a group called the Dap-Kings.
Fortunately, there was nothing defacing about the results. The drums were changed, brass was added, and levels were altered to imagine a Dylan song on a dance floor for these new, insufferable kids. Director Rupert Jones filmed the entire video in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the epicenter of the moment’s urban hip (a neighborhood so precious, “cool hunters” from various marketing groups take the L train to check it out). Open casting was announced in search of various Dylan look-alikes, just from behind, and it was no shock that the hood was full of wannabe Dylans. Jones did not miss a single detail. To accompany a track barely longer than three and a half minutes, we follow the back of Dylan’s head through nearly half a century. We begin with a Super 8 image of Freewheelin’ Dylan with a Suze Rotolo look-alike on his arm (bypassing a man with twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest), then they enter a car, but Dylan comes out alone, now in black and white, ready to toss the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” placards. He keeps moving, leaving behind a crashed motorcycle, changing into cowboy boots, and black and white becomes color. He does not miss “Lay, Lady, Lay” opportunities in an urban Woodstock, but he does not hang around, either. Eventually, he is moved by the image of a black gospel choir perched on tenement steps and then a group of young black breakdancers strutting in front of a barbed wire fence decorated with graffiti. He enters a club, sees people dancing to this version of his music, but does not participate. He walks out into the night, wearing a cowboy hat and the kind of Western garb he has sported at recent concerts. Soldiers from Iraq whiz by. Night falls as he walks by the Williamsburg Bridge, guitar case in hand. We do not know what is coming next. The song is over.
Writing about Bob Dylan in the first decade of the twenty-first century is like that video, as if recalling a series of dreams. Millennial Dylan gives us truly eccentric interpretations of himself (Masked and Anonymous in 2003, Chronicles, Vol. 1 in 2004) and gives license to Mark Ronson and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, 2007) to go for broke. Dylan does not see his own history as linear, and he seems to interpret himself more thematically than chronologically. In fact, he overlaps, looking back, forward, then back again.
Thus, his astonishing memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1 starts in 1961, jumps to 1970, then 1987, then reverberates back to 1961, deliberately skipping the most crucial moments (perhaps saved for a future volume, perhaps not). Thus he allows his career to be summed up in a short video that nevertheless hit the right points for a brief and vivacious summation.
Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is in the spirit of these interpretations. Each chapter is thematic, not historical, even though the chapters, separately, move chronologically. When you finish a chapter in the twenty-first century, you will begin the next one back in the 1960s. What happened? There is another theme to cover. The themes include Dylan and singing, Dylan and blackness, Dylan and film, and Dylan and plagiarism. Together they attempt to elucidate the difficult pleasure that is Dylan, with his nasal voice, oblique lyrics, complicated relation to race, and controversial appropriation of words and music.
Yet Dylan stays forever young, except that with each rebirth, he is also forever uncanny. This is a song of Dylan’s selves. Dylan contains multitudes, and a book attempting to get to his genius must examine both the Napoleon in rags and the complete unknown, the Jokerman and the Queen of Spades, the lover and the thief. Taken together, they respond to what Dylan is giving us now, and the ways he is engaging our responses. You go to a Dylan concert in the twenty-first century—and in each year of the first decade, he played around 100 concerts, sometimes as many as 113— and you are either frustrated that the songs don’t sound the way they do on the record (uninitiated) or are fascinated by the change (initiated). There are the Bob Cats, the Dylan equivalents of the Grateful Dead’s Deadheads. They live for heading for another joint, and many people live for far less. Anything spontaneous or altered is adored, scrutinized, perhaps tweeted. How many songs on guitar and how many on keyboard? Did he smile? Did he make a stray remark? Did he croon or did he bark? What did he add to the mythology?
Indeed, if anything has been constant in Dylan’s career, it’s change. He walks into the car as one guy and exits as someone else. “I’m not there, I’m gone,” he sang, and yet here he is, sort of. As Richard Gere says on the voiceover toward the end of I’m Not There,
“Me? I can change during the course of a day. When I wake I’m one person, when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time.”
Now, Dylan’s change is part of what his diehard fans appreciate. Many of Dylan’s younger fans don’t necessarily care about the 1960s and don’t care if he’s Jewish or Christian or either. The songs and the singer just speak to them. We live in a moment when we no longer want to attack the old Dylan for leaving us, or for imagining that any change is permanent. It’s all part of the record now, but the longer he stays on that never-ending tour, he will also continue on an always changing cultural experiment.
Go to a Dylan concert today and you will be prepared for what he will do, but not exactly how he will do it. You have an idea he will play around fifteen songs and two or three encores. It is likely that a new song or two will find a place alongside wellworn chestnuts like “Visions of Johanna,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” or “Tombstone Blues,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” will be in the encore. Sometimes he’ll throw in something he has never performed before, like “Billy.” Sometimes he’ll dust off a song he hasn’t played for years, like “New Morning.” You can be sure there are plenty of people keeping track, sending the setlists to be archived on the website expectingrain.com (an allusion to a phrase from “Desolation Row”: “Everybody is either making love or else expecting rain”). You may feel transformed; you may feel disappointed. He may feel the same way. But he reinvents his past to the point where it becomes his future. “The future to me is already a thing of the past,” he sang later in life, when he could be whimsical about it all.
Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is for people who want to revisit Dylan’s past in the present tense, for mongrel dogs who teach, writers and critics who prophesize with their pen, mothers and fathers throughout the land, and everyone else who cares or is just curious. Why have we been making a such a big deal about Bob Dylan for half a century? Does he illuminate us or confuse us, or both? Does he seduce us or repel us? Sing sweetly or nastily? Is he the master breakup artist, or does he want us to bring that bottle over here?
Bob Dylan is all of these things and more. He exists on stage and in our dreams, our fantasies, our real and concocted histories, our colleges, our state fairs, and our concert halls at the same time. He is a text, yet he is still a moving target, unwilling to be pinned down. He exists as history, and yet he lives, walking into that dark, foggy unknown. This book will marvel at an accumulated half-century while continuing to ponder what can never be answered. “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” Dylan asked when he was just getting started. This book does not pretend to have an answer. More important is getting a handle on the man who asked the question, in all his assumed identities. The roads are still worth the hike.
David Yaffe is assistant professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton, 2005) and Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (forthcoming from FSG). He is a music critic for the Nation and has written articles for the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, the New York Times, Bookforum, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, The Village Voice, and other publications.
Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown is available now in paperback from Yale.