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Down the Highway, The Life of Bob Dylan
Howard Sounes
[Black Swan £7.99 pbk]

Ignore the catch-all phrase on the cover ‘A Sunday Times Bestseller’ – as meaningless as the ‘Please welcome Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan’ that introduces his concerts – this is an admirable biography. Sounes, a biographer as opposed to music-journalist, brings a levelheaded clarity to his subject. It takes a biographer to point out the similarities in verse 5 of Tangled Up in Blue to Dylan’s own life.

Dylan is a profoundly private man, a fact indicated by the shot of him on the cover watching an out of shot movie wearing shades. Sounes employs a number of judicious ‘probably’s, but we see the length of his reach in the preface. Following a description of 1992’s dull ‘Bobfest’, a celebration of thirty years of Dylan’s recording career, the reader finds himself at an aftershow party that reads like a novel – Dylan passing round the guitar and exchanging songs – and reveals scenes that Clinton Heylin (author of Behind the Shades) would die for.

The revelations of the book, principally Dylan’s second marriage, do seem like invasions of privacy and are refreshingly free from scandal. Ex-lovers consider him a ‘stand up guy’.

It must be a frustration to Sounes that there are a few inaccuracies – a fundamental error in a reference to Dylan’s ‘4 outlined epitaphs’, and a reference to Dutch ‘journalists’ instead of Klas Burling.

Proponents of Dylan’s voice, which Sounes claims emulated the speech patterns of idol Woody Guthrie’s Huntingdon’s Chorea, point to its texture and grain. Sounes doesn’t have the texture of a Robert Shelton or Paul Williams, but he is admirably concise. His chronological approach elucidates the order in which he did things. Bob moves through these pages at such a rate that at the end of each chapter he has already moved on. As book so in life, we are playing a game of catch up.

As Dylan has been keen to express in interviews, he has a very full private life, and from this perspective, decisions that can appear baffling to the Dylan aficionado – the omission of masterpiece Blind Willie McTell from the Infidels album for example – seem understandable. He is not always thinking in terms of the musical genius Bob Dylan; his response when questioned was that he has made lots of records.

We get a sense of Dylan’s extraordinary life, but occasionally there is a sense that the music, as if taken for granted, is ignored. That said, like Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, it does the job as well as possible within its confines. When Sounes gets to stretch his legs in the final chapter, a tour documentary from personal experience, his admiration of the music comes through. 

Sounes is generous spirited, supposing that the taciturn Dylan would have been deeply upset at the break-ups in his relationships and passing of acquaintances. We get a sense of Dylan’s affinity with children, and at one stage see him jump on a bed with Johnny Cash for joy.

The most memorable image for me is of a young Dylan playing guitar late at night, singing nonsense words and jotting down the occasional phrase. 10 years later he wrote Lay Lady Lay after humming la la la la over a chord progression. His is music that consciously presents the unconscious, which is one of the reasons for its enduring power.

This is not the way in to Dylan’s music – no music book is – for that one must turn to his albums, beginning with Blonde on Blonde, music so powerful and enchanting it can change your attitude to life. Yet it is a portrait of the man behind the music and his human dealings. Against talk of his travelling time and supernatural powers, his losses and dissolved relationships are in painful relief. Such that one wishes him well. Good luck!

                   © Matt Bryden 2002