Down the Highway

25th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Turning 60 has not slowed Bob Dylan's never-ending tour (the legend will be performing at the Ahoy on 2 May). Marius Benson finds that a new biography provides some reasons why he spends so much time from home.


"All artists borrow - great artists steal."

Bob Dylan has been borrowing and stealing for half a century - records, tunes, ideas, shirts, money, lovers, guitars, women - everything has been fair game in creating his art and living his life.

In his wake he has left a lot of bruised friendships, broken hearts - two wives and countless lovers.

In the balance against the havoc he has created is a body of work which transformed popular music.

Which way that balance tilts probably depends on what you think of his work and whether you have been one of those over whom he clambered to get to the top and stay there.

Now 60, Bob Dylan is touring at a pace few would match. His April visit to Berlin was the third in three years.


He puts on a show roughly every third day, somewhere in the world. He looks every minute of his age and it is easy to wonder why he drives himself so hard.

His own explanation is typically elliptical: This is what I do - I don't know anything else.

A new biography by Howard Sounes suggests another reason for his restless nature - if you are going to cause the level of emotional churn and grief that Bob Dylan stirs up, it's probably just as well to not stay in one place too long.

From his earliest days in the small town of Hibbing Minnesota Dylan has demonstrated a genius for combining personal charm with a level of sexual treachery and self-promotion that was ruthless and shameless.

*quote2*He created fictive worlds in his art while in his life he developed self-serving mythologies. These were initially to enhance the fairly banal truth of his comfortable and loving upbringing in the American mid-west.

"My daddy was an electrical goods shop keeper" is not a great line for a blues singer. Nor is: "My Mum loves me and I love my Mum."

Howard Sounes paints a detailed picture of young Bobby Zimmerman. His parents gave him a mildly musical background, but from the earliest age he demonstrated a love of music and even more of performing.

His performing debut is put at a family party when, aged four, Bobby is pictured as stamping his foot and shouting: "If everyone in this room will keep quiet I will sing for my grandmother."

He sang first Some Sunday Morning and when an encore was called for he came back with Accentuate The Positive.

The ability to present verbatim words spoken in 1946 is one of the special gifts of this biographer. But even as an apocryphal tale the scene is an engaging one and it is easy to believe that the boy Zimmerman had some such experience, an early rush of the thrill of applause, which set him on his lifetime search for fame.

*quote1*One of the strengths of Down the Highway is the clear way that the author shows Dylan as being driven by a hunger for fame, quite apart from his genuine love of music and search for artistic truths.

Another major pursuit that runs through Dylan's life, from his early teens to his 60s, is a pursuit of women.

He took a blinkered view of his goal when he set his mind on a bed partner, nothing and nobody else mattered, and he is equally without consideration in dumping them. Dylan seems to keep his finest and most tender emotions for his art. In life he is often a user.

Still, we have often enough been told to trust the art and not the artist.

Dylan is in the very first rank of artists of the past century, with Picasso, Joyce - pick your own pantheon.

In common with many he has left a trail of destruction behind in parallel with his trail of creation. It is the sort of life that could leave you at 60 looking a little torn and frayed, and a bit nervous of staying in one place too long.

April 2002

Down the Highway by Howard Sounes. Black Swan (UK) pp 623, EUR 20.

Subject: Book reviews

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