Book Review: Once Upon A Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan

Once Upon A Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell is a biography of Bob Dylan and the legend of Bob Dylan. Bell is from Edinburgh is a columnist with The Herald and The Sunday Times. He won the George Orwell Prize for political journalism. Bell is also the author of an award winning biography of Robert Louis Stevenson. 

Bob Dylan is a person everyone is familiar with, Blowing in the Wind, Rolling Stone, “Everyone must get stoned.” I remember listening to Bob Dylan on AM radio, and by the time I was old enough to pay real attention to music in the 1970s he took a backseat to Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen. That is not a slight on the man and his music, but more of a statement about the time of my youth and my ignorance of Dylan beyond the pop culture sound bites. He did briefly popped back into prominence for a short period when in my Catholic education I was told Saved was Dylan finding his way, but I liked Slow Train Coming better. 

Bob Dylan is a man of legend and that is where the “Once upon a time” comes into play with this biography. Dylan, was born Robert Zimmerman and was raised in a Jewish household in a mining town in Minnesota. He was 19 when he arrived in New York with a new name, new history, and without living parents. He tells how he ran away from several times starting at age 12. The stories continued in interviews of how he listened this singer or guitarist or his experiences with Woody Guthrie. Eventually he was caught on many these stories. His embellishments on the truth were not malicious or attempting to hide, but rather to be more interesting. It is not unusual for public figures. Someone who set the national tone during Dylan youth, Tailgunner Joe McCarthy was not a WWII tailgunner. 

Bell puts everything in historical perspective discussing in parallel Dylan’s life and national and international events. The Beat Generation, the folk music movement, civil rights, Vietnam, all bring change to America and American’s views. Likewise, Dylan’s music changes too. From folk, blues, rock, and country Dylan drifted into all forms of American music except for jazz. His personal life is included. Joan Baez, the motorcycle accident, challenges with his music, and other aspects of his life are included. These events are well documented with end note following each charter as well as a bibliography at the end of the book. 

Once Upon a Time is a very detailed history of Bob Dylan’s from his youth though the release of Blood of the Tracks. This is a comprehensive biography. Biographies of Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, or even punk rock I have read do not have anywhere near this detail. There are over 300 pages of text and this book stops at 1975. I enjoyed reading Once Upon a Time and will admit I learned more than I thought I would, or could about Bob Dylan. An excellent biography of one of America’s most well known and long lived musician . Although “not authorized” it does seem to be a fair account of events. A great read. 

Patti Smith


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