As Bob Dylan turns 70, his memorable lyrics undergo intense scrutiny. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, he has become arguably the most influential and discussed singer-lyricist in the history of English-language popular music.
Biographies, essays and even Dylan's own bestselling ersatz memoir ("Chronicles, Volume One," published in 2004) have been appearing year after year, ranging from the scholarly to the gossipy. This year, Dylan books seem to be everywhere -- new books, as well as old books updated and reissued: Greil Marcus' "The Old, Weird America," updated with a new discography. David Hajdu's "Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña," a 10th-anniversary edition. "Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan," by Howard Sounes, updated.
There are even picture books: "When Bob Met Woody," by Gary Golio and Marc Burckhardt, published by Little, Brown, tells the story of Dylan meeting Woody Guthrie in a New York hospital.
Amid all those words, the Big Question lurks: Is it possible to understand Dylan the lyricist, Dylan the singer, Dylan the romantic figure, and Dylan-the-everything-else by printing words on paper bound between book covers?
The answer: Sort of.
I am the first to tell you that I am no Dylanologist. I have not listened to every one of his songs. I have not read every word written about him. I find some of his lyrics cryptic, and I would use a word stronger than "cryptic" if such a word came to mind. My favorite Dylan song is "License to Kill," which would be considered obscure by legitimate Dylanologists, and to compound my sin I prefer the song when it is performed by Tom Petty.
But I am intrigued by Dylan as cultural phenomenon, and sifting through the new titles has helped me understand him better, though incompletely.
Let's start with a new book, "Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown," by David Yaffe, published by Yale University Press. Yafee is ostensibly an English professor at Syracuse University. But based on the depth and breadth of his knowledge exhibited in this book, he must actually be a full-time Dylanologist.
Yaffe could have written a biography grounded in chronology. Instead, he tells the Dylan saga -- and its impact on American culture -- by focusing on four elements that at first might seem disconnected. They consist of Dylan's "cawing, derisive" singing voice; documentary films, and what they reveal and fail to reveal about Dylan; the relationship of Dylan's songwriting to African-American culture, and the conundrum of a daringly original lyricist being labeled a serial plagiarist because of how he appropriates the words and music of others.
In each of the chapters, Yaffe's startling assertions seem capable of starting debates among amateur Dylanologists. Could it be true, for example, that he is correct when he states that Dylan is underrated as a singer, that to hear the full power of his songs the caw is necessary? That without Dylan's voice there would be "no Leonard Cohen, no Lou Reed, no Patti Smith, no punk rock, no grunge. The entire persona of Bruce Springsteen would have to be reinvented from scratch. Neil Young would be unthinkable."
Yaffe's language is frequently evocative, as he endeavors to let novices to the Dylan canon in on the secrets. When he describes the remixing of Dylan songs by 21st-century hipster producers, he says "it was as if Leonardo da Vinci were giving his blessing to Marcel Duchamp to draw his Mona Lisa mustache."
Furthermore, Yaffe cleverly folds references to Dylan lyrics into the exegesis. He notes that "Dylan stays forever young, except that with each rebirth, he is also forever uncanny ... 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."
Such a statement could offer an out to amateurs like me; I could say, "Dylan is beyond understanding, so why bother?" But I want to bother, I want to understand the context of the lyrics, the connotations as well as the denotations.
So I consult books beyond Yaffe's. "Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments, Day by Day, 1941-1995," by Clinton Heylin is all about denotation. Many of the entries document the date he performed live in such and such a city, and which songs he included in the set. Sometimes, though, a glimpse of Dylan's character shines through. Here is an entry for May 22, 1979: "While in court defending himself against a defamation of character suit ... Dylan is questioned about his property. He replies, 'You mean my treasure here on Earth?'"
A biographer myself, I consult "No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan" by Robert Shelton. (First published in 1986, it, too, has been expanded and reissued this year.) While Dylan was becoming famous, Shelton was documenting the music scene for the New York Times. On Sept. 29, 1961, he wrote, "There is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent." Overall, the biography, while admiring, is no hagiography. Shelton knows how to write truth to power -- the power of the Dylan legend.
The thoughtful, complex books about the thoughtful, complex troubadour keep arriving. Last year, history professor Sean Wilentz published "Bob Dylan in America." Yaffe's book, and Shelton's updated one, will be competing this month with the new "The Balled of Bob Dylan: A Portrait" by Daniel Mark Epstein.
After all my study, I must confess that I still do not understand Dylan well, and although some of his songs mean more to me than before, I am often unenlightened by the multiple interpretations of his lyrics. Still, I do not consider the quest wasted. At least I understand Dylan better than before, however tentatively and incompletely.
- Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.