The Many Masks of Dylan- But Mostly the Wily Jester

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, by Michael Gray. Continuum, 736 pages, $40.

Bob Dylan is a senior citizen. That’s right: The voice of a generation, the voice that implored millions to “stay forever young,” hit 65 last month. Robert Zimmerman with the Zimmer Frame blues? Not quite. As anyone who’s caught a recent Dylan gig can vouch, this soi-disant song-and-dance man may not be Fred Astaire, but he’s steady enough on his feet. True, he moves slowly nowadays, an air of ponderous deliberation hanging about his every step. But he looks in remarkably good shape—as lean, if not as lissome, as the Dylan of 40-odd years ago. Could he, you wonder as he essays another shuffling shimmy to the mike, be putting us on?

It wouldn’t be the first time. As Jonathan Cott’s eclectic selection of five decades’ worth of interviews proves, Mr. Dylan is one of our age’s great jokers. Back in 1965, the young Nora Ephron met him and asked whether he agreed with fellow singer Carolyn Hester’s contention that “the new sound, ‘folk rock,’ is liberating.” “Did Carolyn say that?” he shot back. “You tell her she can come around and see me any time now that she’s liberated.” Battling gamely on, Ms. Ephron wondered whether Mr. Dylan’s songs are full of chaos. Yes, they are, he said, “Chaos, watermelon, clocks … ”—a random litany of nouns that reads like René Magritte, or perhaps the Marx Brothers. A minute later, Mr. Dylan was telling Ms. Ephron about his collection of monkey wrenches.

Yet such surrealist flights look like apprentice work when set next to Mr. Dylan’s 1966 interview with Playboy magazine, in which, among other things, Nat Hentoff asked whether jazz had “lost much of its appeal to the younger generation.” “I don’t think jazz has ever appealed to the younger generation,” said Mr. Dylan. “Anyway, I don’t really know who this younger generation is. I don’t think they could get into a jazz club anyway. But jazz is hard to follow; I mean you actually have to like jazz to follow it; and my motto is, never follow anything. I don’t know what the motto of the younger generation is, but I would think they’d have to follow their parents. I mean, what would some parent say to his kid if the kid came home with a glass eye, a Charlie Mingus record and a pocketful of feathers? He’d say, ‘Who are you following?’ And the poor kid would have to stand there with water in his shoes, a bow tie on his ear and soot pouring out of his belly button and say, ‘Jazz. Father, I’ve been following jazz.’ And his father would probably say, ‘Get a broom and clean up all that soot before you go to sleep.’ Then the kid’s mother would tell her friends, ‘Our little Donald, he’s part of the younger generation, you know.’”

The lengthy quote is unavoidable. Try unpicking a discharge of imagist logic like that and you’ll quickly find yourself tangled up in goo. Which is, of course, the point. We are dealing with a master at laying false trails. Certainly nothing Mr. Hentoff was told got him anywhere near what one hesitates to call the real Bob Dylan. One hesitates because no one has more vehemently denied the existence of Bob Dylan than Bob Dylan. As he says in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, after reading a tabloid-newspaper report of his putative 80-a-day cigarette habit, “I’m glad I’m not me.”

Whoever he is, Bob Dylan doesn’t role-play so much as play around with the very idea of roles. When Mr. Cott himself talked to Mr. Dylan about directing his first feature, Renaldo and Clara, he clarified its confused cast list thus: “There’s Renaldo … there’s a guy in whiteface singing on the stage, and then there’s Ronnie Hawkins playing Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is listed in the credits as playing Renaldo, yet Ronnie Hawkins is listed as playing Bob Dylan.” But Bob Dylan made the film, insisted Mr. Cott. “Bob Dylan didn’t make it,” replied Mr. Dylan in what one fervently hopes was the tone of mock exasperation he perfected for Mr. Pennebaker’s picture. “ I made it.” Not for nothing was Mr. Dylan’s last movie called Masked and Anonymous.

Because for all his modernity, for all his cubist narratives and symbolist imagery, Mr. Dylan has never had any time for the 20th century’s cult of the id. Whatever else he may be doing as an artist, he’s adamant that he isn’t expressing himself. “The songs are the star of the show,” the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn quotes him as saying, “not me.” Yes, but he wrote them didn’t he? Not necessarily. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song,” he said of what is probably still his most iconic work, “Like a Rolling Stone.” “It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.” Only at the level of craftsmanship is he willing to discuss writing: “I’m not thinking about what I want to say,” he told Mr. Hilburn. “I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?’“ Little wonder Mr. Dylan admits to loving “Don’t Fence Me In” and what he calls Cole Porter’s “fearless” rhyming.

NOT SO MICHAEL GRAY, WHOSE LOATHING of such “supposedly sophisticated songs” is as profound as his love of Bob Dylan. The author of a 918-page study of Mr. Dylan’s art, Song and Dance Man, Mr. Gray has now written the 736-page Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, a book of such critical mass it comes complete with a searchable CD-ROM transcript. Type in the word “Hoagy” and you will be taken to this: “Carmichael is one of the many improbable people whose work and persona Dylan admires, possibly just to be perverse.” Type in the word “Sinatra” and you will learn that “your parents listen[ed] to [his] awful, syrupy music on their radiogram” and that his “musical world was the one rock ’n’ roll was born to abolish.” Well, maybe, though should Mr. Gray have turned on his own radiogram these past few weeks he might have heard a new D.J. on XM Radio discoursing worshipfully on the likes of Sinatra, Judy Garland, Glenn Miller, even Dean Martin. The D.J. in question is none other than Bob Dylan.

A critic needn’t like everything, of course, but if he’s to cut deep he must range wide. Mr. Gray knows his blues and his rock ’n’ roll—but that’s about all. Just as you wouldn’t trust a writer on classical music who told you the only guy that counted was Beethoven, so it’s hard to trust Mr. Gray even at those times when he seems level-headed. When he’s off his head, caterwauling at another writer on Dylan he deems to have got things wrong, he sounds like the worst sort of bitchy academic. Mr. Gray, who studied English under F.R. Leavis (from whom he’s inherited his teleologizing tantrums and canonizing curmudgeonliness), knows everything there is to know about Bob Dylan apart from the answer to the question: What know they of Dylan who only Dylan know? “Too much of nothing,” as Bob Dylan once sang—and that “just makes a fella mean.”

Christopher Bray, a biographer and journalist, is film critic of The First Post. He lives in London.