Bob Dylan turned 65 last month, and the literary interest in him that spiked with his 60th birthday still runs strong. Two brand new books have joined my short list of essential reading about the most creative and dynamic artist of the rock era.
Edited by Jonathan Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews is a 29-piece collection of just that. Dylan gets a bad rap as a grumpy interviewee; he’s actually as engaging and incisive as a conversationalist as he is as a writer, as long as you realize he often engages in some tongue-in-cheek mythmaking to get his interviewer wound up. Reading Dylan talk about himself over the course of his career is a nice supplement to his excellent first memoir, Chronicles: Volume One.
As of this writing, my copy of Michael Gray’s The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia hasn’t yet arrived, but early notice and the author’s previous work make me confident of its worth. Gray’s Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan is the most fascinating and exhaustive analysis of Dylan’s lyrics imaginable, written with a sharp eye for detail and a clear head. (His withering critique of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” held by some to be Dylan’s finest “protest” song, exposes Dylan’s feet of clay.)
The question of Dylan’s status as a bona fide poet in the Western tradition is argued convincingly by Christopher Ricks in Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Greil Marcus dissects Dylan’s greatest single song in Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, and he offers a ridiculously arcane, but still fascinating, breakdown of Dylan’s Woodstock work with The Band in The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, first published under the title Invisible Republic.
By far the best Dylan biography is Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. And with Can You Feel the Silence?: Van Morrison, Heylin has also produced the best biography of one of the few musicians who can be considered Dylan’s peer.
In terms of importance and craftsmanship, Peter Guralnick could justifiably be called the Bob Dylan of music writers. I’ve just begun reading his latest, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, which continues Guralnick’s long string of portraits of the famous, infamous, and obscure men who have created American rock, country, and blues.
Guralnick’s books Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues, Country, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lost Highway: Journeys & Arrivals of American Musicians, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, and Searching for Robert Johnson are all available in paperback and they offer an entire summer’s worth of musical discovery.
I’ve already used the phrase “essential reading,” but that’s the only way to describe Guralnick’s two Elvis biographies. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley is the joyous beginning. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley is the heartbreaking, slow decline. Together, they demystify Elvis with exhaustive detail and countless eyewitness accounts, but the grand, tragic narrative never flags.
Nick Tosches’s Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘N’ Roll is quirky and sometimes frustratingly self-indulgent, but that’s what makes it the most entertaining survey of the white antecedents of rock, especially the almost-forgotten minstrel Emmett Miller.
For the best chronicles of the birth of country music, pick up Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg, as well as Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler.
And Richard D. Smith captures perhaps the most influential and innovative country musician ever in Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass.