Hundreds of pictures, lavishly displayed, make Dylan essentially a fan book, but the text by Jonathan Cott is much more ambitious than the genre requires. Cott's interpretations are peculiarly pretentious, while his analysis of Dylan's origins and development avoids the hard questions.
Cott refers to the "ferment and subversiveness" of the 1960s, but he doesn't explain how Dylan's political engagements, especially with the civil rights movement, lay behind the protest songs that brought him fame. During that period the primary influence on his political ideas seems to have been his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who worked in New York City's CORE office. (She appears shivering at his side on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.) Dylan himself traveled to Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963 to give a concert for the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee's voter registration drive there. The book includes four pages of photographs of him in Greenwood, printed bigger than we've evern seen them. In general, the book's format makes a virtue of photograhs over text, but even here there are difficulties. Fuzzy snapshots are printed the same monstrous size as formal posed portraits, and the two are bled together; on one two-page spread, Dylan, his nose stuck into the page break, looks like a robin digging for a worm. Also, some of the captions are incorrect.
After staying up all one night talking about civil rights, Dylan wrote "Blowin' in the Wind." When Medgar Evers was murdered, he wrote "Only a Pawn in Their Game"; he sang it at the 1963 March on Washington. During the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote what remains his most powerful song, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," a series of chilling images of America. Two of those songs appeared on The Free-wheelin' Bob Dylan, released in 1963 just after the Beatles' simple "Please Please Me" hit number one on the British charts. Dylan was only 22, but he had brought his personal vision and his political commitments together with a power he would never again equal.
Another Side of Bob Dylan appeared the following year, and stunned his fans. It cast the political and the personal as antagonistic forms of liberation. "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," he sang, dismissing his engagement with social issues. The songs insisted that Dylan's private nightmares were more important to him than anything in the political realm. Deeply anti-authoritarian but hostile to organized politics, Dylan pointed the way to the apolitical side of the counterculture.
In 1965 Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home merged Woodie Guthrie's music with Chuck Berry's. Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, released in 1965 and 1966, respectively, confirmed that he had opened rock and roll to a wider range of personal statements than anyone had imagined possible.
When Dylan stopped playing his protest songs, some of his old fans called him a sellout and a phony. The same things were said when he "betrayed" folk for rock, then rock for country. But there was a strategy behind those moves: Dylan was undercutting the role of superstar. He was trying to disappear as an identifiable persona and tell his demanding and possessive audience, "You don't own me."
Once Dylan had shattered his persona as a protest singer, he could return to political issues whenever they engaged his imagination. In 1971 he released "George Jackson," a moving portrait of the Black Panther killed by San Quentin guards that year; Cott's book ignores the song. In 1972, John Lennon persuaded him to join in a concert tour to urge young people to vote against Nixon's re-election. The tour was to end at a "political Woodstock," a free antiwar concet and rally outside the Republican National Convention, then scheduled for San Diego.
Together with Allen Ginsberg, Dylan wrote and recorded "Going to San Diego" for the tour. When Nixon found out about the plan, he ordered Lennon deported, and the tour was canceled. The song was not released until 1983, on Allen Ginsberg's album First Blues. Cott doesn't tell any part of that story.
Dylan performed at many of the major political concerts of the 1970s--among them, the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh and the 1974 Friends of Chile concert which raised funds for political prisoners after the coup against Salvador Allende. While they receive no commentary in the text, the concerts are documented in the book's photographs, as are Dylan's 1976 benefits for Hurricane Carter, a former boxing champion imprisoned for murdering three people in a New Jersey bar.
The Hurricane Carter benefits were more a case of Dylan's sympathy for another misunderstood superstar than a genuine political project. Dylan launched a camapaign to establsih Carter's innocence, starting with a good song, "Hurricane." The Night of the Hurricane benefit filled Madison Square Garden; even Representative Ed Koch came. The campaign bore fruit: the courts ordered a new trial for Carter, who went free on bail.
The benefits were immensely successful, taking in some $600,000, but The New York Times revealed that 90 percent of the money was spent on "expenses" for Dylan's concerts rather than on Carter's defense. The woman who chaired the defense committee charged that Carter had assaulted her in a motel room and indicated that she considered him capable of murder. At the second trial the jury affirmed the original guilty verdict, and again Carter received a life sentence for murder. Dylan had no comment and neither does Cott.
Cott lacks the critical distance that would enable him to deal with some of those issues. He did interview Dylan, who told him, "Bob Dylan has always been here....Before I was born, there was Bob Dylan." Taking that statement to heart, Cott has found the earlier Bob Dylans, going back to "the first known troubadour poet, the eleventh-century Guillaume IX," who, like Dylan, "revealed many faces and voices." Cott also finds something of Dylan in the thirteenth-century Carmina Burana, in the fifteenth-century French poet Francois villon, the sixteenth-century Chinese philosopher Li Chih and the eighteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Dylan, we learn, took seriously "Walt Whitman's great and inspiring advice:. . .'Stand up for the stupid and crazy.'" (Perhaps Cott was thinking about Dylan's recent defense of right-wing Jewish groups.)
In addition to his other absurdities, Cott repeats the moth-eaten cliche that Dylan is "America's greatest poet," which Ellen Willis dispensed with fifteen years ago. "Poetry requires economy, coherence, and discrimination," she wrote. Dylan turns out five images where one will do, his phrases are often tangled, his metaphors are silly and he tries to make everything rhyme. He's a great songwriter but a terrible poet.
Dylan's 1979 born-again album slow Train Coming poses the greatest problem for Cott. He fails to see that in some ways it was another of Dylan's "betrayals" of his fans, another act of self-annihilation. It was also more than that. The problem isn't Dylan's embrace of Christianity; Biblical imagery and the theme of salvation were present in his music from the beginning. Other rock superstars have turned to Jesus: Elvis recorded four gospel albums, and Little Richard gave up his pop career to become an evangelist. While their Christian music expresses the desperate hope that Jesus will help them and that "everything will be all right," Dylan's slow Train Coming is a slick, ugly statement announcing that he is saved and the rest of us will rot in hell.
What happened? Borrowing Dylan's words, Cott says Dylan became a Christian because he "had offered up his innocence and had gotten repaid with scorn." His previous album, Street Legal, ahd indeed been treated scornfully; Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called it the work of a "boozy-voiced misogynist in his late thirties ... in love with his own self-generated misery." If only Christgau had called it "mysterious and gripping," like Cott, Dylan might never have taken shelte in the sign of the cross.
An expensive rock book doesn't have to be this dumb. Two earlier volumes in the Rolling Stone Press series, Geoffrey Stokes's The Beatles and Dave Marsh's Elvis, had stronger graphics and a genuinely serious text. Marsh, for example, argues that Elvis was a great example of the American capacity for self-invention, locked in a conflict with those who dominated American culture and dismissed him as a dumb redneck. Unlike Cott, Marsh does not avoid the dark side of his subject. But Elvis and the Beatles are somehow suited to this kind of visually elegant treatment; whatever Bob Dylan has become, this $35 coffee-table book isn't his format.