Sometimes the “you” in my songs is me talking to me. Other times I can be talking to somebody else.... When I say “I” right now I don’t know who I’m talking about.
I’m not sincere at all.... I don’t want to talk about protest songs. That’s all I do is ... uh ... protest.
— Bob Dylan
Self-knowledge is a kind of funny thing because the less of it you have, the more you think you have. You see, that’s its twisted blessing. When I was 22 or 23 I had ... self-knowledge but I lost it along the way somewhere.... I think it’s hard to lose your old habits, even the ones that’ve led you wrong or come close to killing you.
— Bruce Springsteen
Their mythologies precede them: Bob Dylan, surreally hip and seemingly rootless; Bruce Springsteen, the Everyman with deep roots. One the antisocial poet and precocious patriarch of the post-Guthrie social protest anthem, the other a record company designee for the future of rock ’n’ roll post-Elvis; many thought he might even, gasp, be the next Dylan. Both grappled with the early hype that destined them for American Icon-dom. Each outwitted the hype; each admired the other.
The times they aren’t a-changin’ so radically that Dylan, at 71 a grandiose granddad, and Springsteen, at 62 a gym-chiseled civic paragon, have worn out their welcome with biographical prospectors bent on extrapolating shards of cultural and socioeconomic relevance from the recesses of their respective oeuvres. So, greetings from the genre of fusion biography, where biographers without a direct pipeline to the focus of the investigation delve into a rock legend with connect-the-dots fervour driven by a personal agenda.
David Dalton’s is to make lucid, accessible even, the chronic mutability of Dylan’s persona and musicianship by alternately insinuating himself into, and fantasising about, the goings-on in his subject’s elastic and evasive mind. Using anecdotal evidence like a literary trampoline, Who Is That Man? aspires to pin down the elusive butterfly and enjoy a vicarious contact high in the process.
For Marc Dolan, a professor at John Jay College and the City University of New York, the task is more academic and humour harder to come by. But then, Springsteen is no butterfly. Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’n’ Roll endeavours to get to the heart of its subject by viewing him through the economic, social, political, religious and family turmoil that formed a musician who found out early on how to make his guitar talk but spent painful decades refining what he needed to make it say.
Politics does not loom as large an informer of Springsteen’s social conscience as racially motivated social unrest. The professor in Dolan provides mini history lessons on the Rodney King debacle that left Los Angeles in flames (and left Springsteen unnerved) and the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City that provoked Springsteen’s incendiary “American Skin”. Bruce, the future of Western civilisation may depend on you, and Dolan doesn’t seem to mind; he notes that even Barack Obama jokingly remarked to his wife, Michelle, backstage at a campaign event that if he couldn’t be Bruce Springsteen, the next best thing was to become president.
And on to Dylan, who is scheduled to collect a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, from Obama. Deconstructing the fabrications of a serial self-mythologiser is an arguably fraught enterprise. That goes double if, like Dalton, you are quick to confess that the man in the mirror (ie yourself, the veteran author of more than a dozen celebrity biographies) happens to idolise the genius genie he is trying not so much to yank from the bottle as to transfer into a transparent container.
In Who Is That Man?, Dalton wants to inveigle Dylan into removing the shades and cowboy hat. He encourages him to take ownership even of the bittersweet message of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, though he understands Dylan’s irritation with Peter, Paul and Mary for morphing it into a sugarcoated pop hit. The hit, according to Dalton, made Dylan his first million and sounded a death knell for his involvement with the folkies.
As for Dylan’s antics, we know when we’re being manipulated: “Dylan’s ambition, like that of all other possessed egomaniacs – Sinatra, Bogart, Einstein, Picasso – was to implant an indelible image of himself in our heads. This he did only too spectacularly.” After time-traveling from Dylan’s Village folkie phase to his 21st-century appearance at Woodstock, Dalton compares him to “some great galleon encrusted with barnacles, seaweed, old shoes, tin cans, condoms” and brightly sums up his own fool’s errand: “Like Bob Dylan, the authentic American genius is a synthetic personality. They’re all hybrids, hence, inevitably charlatans. It’s the chameleon nature of the American hero — the confidence man, the hustler. His solution to the question of identity is that of the three-card monte player. Anyone looking for the Grand Unifying Theory of Bob is just going to have to keep looking.” Or read the book. Or both.
©2012 The New York Times News Service
WHO IS THAT MAN?
In Search of the Real Bob Dylan
Hyperion; 383 pages; $26.99
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE PROMISE OF ROCK ’N’ ROLL
W W Norton & Company;
512 pages; $29.95