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January 12, 1990 - Image 27

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-01-12

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

WILL THE
r REAL BOB

DY

PLEASE

STAND UP?

DAVID HOLZEL

Special to The Jewish News





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He won't, says the author of a new
biography of the musician, because
the real Bob Dylan doesn't exist.

hen Bob
Dylan took
the stage in
Tel Aviv's
Hayarkon
Park in September 1987, his
Israeli audience was expec-
ting the messiah.
What they got in Dylan's
first concert in Israel was a
self-absorbed and indifferent
performer who filled the
program with obscure songs
and generally ignored the
existence of his worshipful
listeners.
Some of the Israelis who
attended that day had
waited the length of Dylan's
25-year career to hear
"Blowing in the Wind,"
"The Times They Are a-
Changin" and "Like a Roll-
ing Stone" performed live.
These songs held deep mean-
ing for Dylan's fans, and
they were dumbfounded by
his contemptuous perfor-
mance. Stunned journalists
were ready to write Dylan's
professional obituary.
Writer Bob Spitz begins
Dylan, his biography of the
singer, with the chaos and
confusion of that Tel Aviv
concert. For Spitz, it was
emblematic that the sound
system blew out near the
end of the show.
Dylan ends a day later
with a concert at
Jerusalem's Sultan's Pool. It
was as if another Dylan had
taken the stage. The singer's
performance was charged
with electricity, passion and
urgency.
What had changed in that
one day symbolizes the
mystery of Bob Dylan's life
and career. The pursuit of
this mystery fills the 550
pages of Dylan.
"In between these two con-
certs is the substantiation of
my theory that this guy is
whoever he wants to be, who
cuts across all manners and
customs and does not really
care about his audience or
feel he has to live up to their
expectations," Spitz says.
"He could do something one
night, then turn around and
be a different person the
next night."
The how and why of
Dylan's changing personas,
shifting musical styles,
rebirths and returns is the
quest Spitz followed in the 4
1/2 years he worked on the
biography.
The journey begins in
1941, when Bobby Zimmer-

man was born into a middle-
class Jewish household.
Spitz follows Bobby through
his childhood and adoles-
cence in the culturally
desolate mining town of
Hibbing, Minn., where the
youth discovers country
music and rock and roll.
Spitz chronicles a short
college career when Bobby
Zimmerman of Hillel House
is replaced by Bob Dylan,
folkie and free spirit.
The trail leads to Denver,
where Dylan unsuccessfully
tries to launch his folk-music
career, then to New York's
Greenwich Village, where
he soon establishes himself
as the preeminent topical
songwriter.
In 1965, Dylan ditches his
acoustic guitar for an elec-
tric one, becoming the
psychedelic poet of the
counterculture, then, in
turns, country squire, retur-
ning rock messiah, Gypsy
band leader, Vegas-style
entertainer and born-again
Christian.
And Dylan could be all
these people, and have all
sorts of adventures that
can't be documented — like
his childhood spent as a
chronic runaway —because,
Spitz says, Bob Dylan is not
a man, but a character.
"We never had anybody
like him before, who was
putting one over on us and
we knew it and we just
didn't care."
Because Spitz, at least for
his book, did care, he didn't
attempt to interview Dylan.
He relied, instead, on con-
versations with those who
knew the singer.
"When [Dylan] is inter-
viewed he's going to do it his
way and that way basically
is telling people stories,"
Spitz says. "Now are they
lies? I don't think they're
lies. Because he set up this
character of Bob Dylan to
house all these stories."
The character Spitz paints
in Dylan is painfully inar-
ticulate except in his music,
streaked with paranoia, con-
temptuous of authority,
emotionally closed and
unable to form close rela-
tionships.
Earlier biographies never
asked why Dylan is this
way. Spitz chose to make
this terrain his own.
"I started the book from
the belief that everybody is
the product of his envi-

ronment. And if we're going
to find out who he is, we
have to go back and find out
who he was before he was
Bob Dylan," Spitz says.
"Here was a kid who was
not only Jewish in a town
where there were no Jews,
but artistic in a town where
that was heresy."
Hibbing, Minn., was a
worn-out mining town whose
land had been stripped bare
in the pursuit of iron ore. Its
people were workers with
puritanical values who
scorned curiosity and free-
thinking.
Says Spitz: "Here was a
guy who had so much pas-
sion inside of him, and feel-
ing and talent that were
suppressed. And I think that
turned into rage that
became Bob Dylan, who told
his audience, 'I don't care
about you. I'm going to do
what I want no matter
what."'

W

hile Dylan's switch
from folk music to
rock in 1965 and
from rock to country music in
1969 left confused fans in
the lurch, it was his embrace
of Christianity in 1979 that
most stunned his devotees,
particularly his Jewish ones.
Spitz explains that Dylan
embraced fundamentalism
as most drowning men
would seize a life preserver.
"He was at a crisis in his
life. He was drinking heav-
ily. His marriage was falling
apart. He was very depress-
ed."
T-Bone Burnett, a
guitarist in Dylan's band,
offered the rope of faith.
Dylan not only grabbed the
rope, but rang the bell
attached to it.
But Jesus didn't teach
Dylan love or hope. The
singer, despite his new
stance, retained the core of
rage. By 1980, Spitz writes,
Dylan was preaching "a
cosmic cataclysm in his con-
certs. Paranoia had returned
to Bob's discipline, cloaked
in a guise of holy prophecy."
Dylan, throughout his life,
was torn between being
Bobby Zimmerman and Bob
Dylan. In the last few years,
Zimmerman has resurfaced
in Dylan's life.
"I don't think he ever
didn't want to be Jewish,"
Spitz says. "I think more
than anything, Bob wanted
to be that middle-class

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

27

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