Who is that Man? David Dalton Explores the Many Faces of Bob Dylan

5 May
David Dalton Who is That Man Book Cover

Book Cover
Image from thenervousbreakdown.com

I just couldn’t get through Chronicles.  As a high-schooler and burgeoning Dylan fan, I was just looking for a true story behind the music. But I was quick to learn that when it comes to Dylan, there will never be a concrete truth, and the story you’re looking for is not going to be the story you’re going to get.

Enter David Dalton with Who is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan. This comprehensive Dylanography gave me many of the truths I sought as it taught me which truths to give up searching for.

In his own quirky, Gonzo-esque style, Dalton takes us through Dylan’s life chronologically by incarnation:

“Dust bowl singer, street urchin, son of Ramblin’ Jack, Folk Messiah, neon Rimbaud, Old Testament, Amish farmer, howdy-neighbor country boy, whiteface death’s-head mummer, Shropshire lad with flowers in his hat, Christlike Bob, born-again Bob, Hasidic Bob, Late-Elvis Dylan with the big WWF belt, Endless Tour Dylan, Jack Fate, Living National Treasure…”

Seems like Dalton’s got it all covered. But while the book is meticulously organized and theorized—devoting time not just to life events, concerts, and recording sessions, but also to lyrical analysis, Dylan’s lesser artistic works (movies and books), and what amounts to bursts of Dalton’s own creative short fiction—there is a tension evident throughout the book. Dalton can’t stop himself from mythologizing Dylan as he tears down every Dylan myth we know.

Who is that Man? exposes the Dylan Goes Electric at Newport myth of 1965 (the sporadic boos supposedly due to the quality of the sound system and not to Dylan’s instrumental choice), and admits that Dylan probably used his motorcycle as an excuse to get out of touring and other burdensome contracts. On some pages, Dalton will be tearing apart Dylan’s lies one by one, but on others he’s crediting Dylan for the invention of rap and heavy metal (I mean of course Dylan deserves credit for his countless musical innovations, but I had to roll my eyes a little at those two).

But in a way, these contradictions make sense. Like Whitman, Kerouac, and the other figures Dalton evokes throughout the book, Dylan contains multitudes. He is someone we both worship and resent, often at the same time.

In edition to the striking, thought-provoking pictures that begin each chapter, I was especially grateful for the time Dalton devotes to Dylan’s place within the counterculture. Dalton paints Dylan as a bridge between the Beat, folk, hippie movements and shows how he meticulously burned every bridge he helped build (topics I’ll be exploring in future posts).

I also used this book as an excuse to listen to Dylan’s albums one by one, chronologically, as they came up in the book. This gave me the chance to dive into some Dylan works I hadn’t yet heard in full, putting them in their correct context—Blood on the Tracks, for instance (how had I not heard “Idiot Wind?”).

One Dylan mystery that remains after reading this book is Christmas in the Heart. Besides one passing mention of Dylan as a “Tex-Mex Santa Claus,” this disturbing yuletide artifact remains unaddressed. Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.


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