Culture  /  Annotation

Tangled Up in Bob Stories: A Dylan Reading List

The author reflects on his own journey with Dylan, and shares some of his favorite pieces of Dylanology.

... a sense of history, as well as something mainstream to compliment all the adolescent statement albums by Misfits and Slayer. So that album came with me to different states and through different stages of my life. Even when I didn’t enjoy listening to old music, I always appreciated music history.

... a sense of history, as well as something mainstream to compliment all the adolescent statement albums by Misfits and Slayer. So that album came with me to different states and through different stages of my life. Even when I didn’t enjoy listening to old music, I always appreciated music history.

In 1999, my then-girlfriend wanted to see Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan play. I was all in, because I loved The Beatles and knew these legends could die at any minute. Ringo was eh. Simon was fun. Dylan blew me away. He came out in some kind of clean, country music suit, a big hat, and tore through a rocking set that was more honky-tonk than the rambling folk-rock I expected. I watched, enraptured. The set rolled like a train that never slowed at crossings. Turns out, he was touring for his best new album in ages, Time Out of Mind. Dylan’s performance completely changed my mind about him. I never laughed him off again. But the experience didn’t turn me into a devotee. I didn’t buy that double album, and when I played Royal Albert Hall 1966 again, I still heard no magic. When I met the woman who I fell for immediately in my late 30s, my musical taste had grown so broad that when she played me Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, I finally heard Dylan’s peculiar magic. “Hurricane” and “Isis” were masterpieces. How had Dylan sounded so different to the younger me? How could I not like this? When I went to play her my old live bootleg, the CD case was empty. My last girlfriend had lost it and forgotten to tell me. No problem. In the intervening years, Dylan had officially released a better-sounding version of the concert as part of his official Bootleg Series, so I bought that, and the circle was complete. Now I listen to his live 1966 acoustic performances of “Visions Of Johanna” and it gives me chills. One good thing about taking this long to come around is that his most familiar songs still sound fresh to me. That familiar acoustic strumming can still elicit tears. Turns out that the Royal Albert Hall show I had was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. It’s a famous show and famous error. At least the bootleggers got the year right.

Stories like this abound in Dylan lore and fan circles: stories of transformation, reinvention, and musical progress. Those themes define Dylan himself. He’s always changing, putting listeners and scholars off the trail, to keep us guessing about who he is, about songs’ meanings, and what he’ll do next. That’s one reason Dylan scholarship and journalism constitute their own body of literary work. Here are a few of my favorite Dylan stories, written by everyone from Ellen Willis to Greg Tate. You can appreciate these stories even if you don’t dig Dylan’s music. Maybe you’re curious about the man himself, or you enjoy hating someone enshrined by so much hype. Like Dylan’s music, these stories will be here if you find yourself ready for them, though remember, you don’t ever have to be ready. His voice can still be pretty annoying.

“Dylan” (Ellen Willis, Cheetah, 1967) It all starts here: the Dylan literary cannon, and Willis’ writing career. Sure, in 1961 Robert Shelton wrote about Dylan for The New York Times, but few people wrote about Dylan with such intelligence, electricity, and insight until Willis did. The Dylan ...