The World of Bob Dylan/Edited by Sean Latham/Cambridge University Press
Four out of Five Stars
With the possible exception of the Beatles, no artist of the modern era has been as thoroughly dissected, discussed or documented as Bob Dylan. It’s only natural of course; while his songs are often cryptic, the impact he’s made on rock, folk and contemporary music in general is inestimable, and even now, some 60 years after he made his first public appearances in the clubs, cafes and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, scholars continue to analyze his work and dig deeper in hopes of uncovering any new revelation, no matter whether it’s obtuse or obscure.
Of course, the best way to tap into Dylan’s mantra and motivation is simply by listening to his music. Granted, his songs don’t always reveal themselves on first encounter or offer any hint as to his mindset. Yet one has to wonder if any outside observer can fulfill that task other than to simply share key moments from Dylan’s life and career, which is now encapsulated within his 80 orbits around the sun. Certainly his longevity alone is cause for celebration—as is the case with most archival artists of that certain ‘60s vintage, Paul McCartney, the Stones, Clapton, Led Zep and the Who included—but it’s Dylan’s enigmatic presence and his distance from other mere mortals that makes him such a natural object of intensive examination.
Still, any actual insights remain hard to come by. Few members of his inner circle offer any willingness to speak publicly or to share their asides. Anyone seeking any hint at all of what the former Robert Zimmerman is like in private will certainly be rebuffed with no recourse or opportunity to probe any deeper. That renders any treatise that focuses on philosophy simply speculative sans an actual discourse with Dylan himself.
That said, The World of Bob Dylan comes closest to offering the definitive Dylan guide. With contributions from more than two dozen writers, critics and commentators, it attempts to uncover every aspect of Dylan’s public and private persona through an in-depth analysis of his work, his influences and his inspirations. It’s a heady project to be sure, one that attempts to incorporate every major factoid, footnote, commentary and critique of Dylan’s lifelong trajectory, from his teenage years in Minnesota to his present iconic status. As a result, there are chapters given to tracing his chronology, his biography, his musical meanderings, his imprint on culture, the counterculture, protest, politics, and poetry, and even hypothetical looks at his spiritual and sexual sensibilities. The writing is mostly academic, which will likely dissuade the indulgence of a casual reader, but those prone to hypothetical assumptions based on both myth and music will find it a remarkable read and more than enough to provoke intrigue and interest.
Clearly then The World of Bob Dylan can be considered an important work that’s, by measure, both auspicious and intimidating given the depth and devotion revealed within. And while much of the information isn’t necessarily new, the fact that it’s complied so completely and coherently makes for a decidedly comprehensive journal and a ready reference for anyone who wants to probe the depths of the Dylan mythology.
One other thing clear is clear as well. When it comes to Dylan, apparently not all the answers are to be found simply blowing in the wind.