Rock Reads: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

Reviewed by Anthony Kuzminski

As a 13-year-old boy, Sean Wilentz, with wide eyes and an open mind, saw Bob Dylan on Halloween at New York's Philharmonic Hall in 1964. He later recounted the wonder and exploration the music took him through on the liner notes when the show was released as part of Dylan's Bootleg Series in 2004. Wilentz went on to become a professor at Princeton, has been published in several high profile magazines including Rolling Stone and above all else is Dylan's "historian in-residence" for BobDylan.com. With a resume like this, one would expect any book he wrote on Dylan would be done so at a very high scholarly level. Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday) lives up to this assumption, but in a way no one could have imagined. There has been so much written about Dylan in his six-decades as an artist, one has to wonder what anyone else could add to his legacy. Wilentz proves up to task and takes the reader on a journey not just through Dylan's music, but American history as well in the fascinating new book, Bob Dylan in America.

My mentor always told me to stay away from words like "best" and "greatest" when referring to one's talent because to accurately use these words, it essentially means you are all-knowing about all things. That being said, Bob Dylan may be the greatest song lyricist who will ever grace this Earth and few will argue with me on this point. He has a way with words no one else can even come close to. But how does he do it? Bob Dylan in America helps us understand where this brilliance was birthed from. It isn't a forthright biography and is much more than accidental essays. He digs a tunnel so far reaching it goes back centuries. Also of note; Wilentz doesn't trod through Dylan's entire career, but particularly selected eras, albums and songs. While this may come across as scattershot, he digs into each era with such gusto; it's hard to not love what he embraces. Beginning with the musical influences of the 40's and 50's (including beat poets); he exhumes the genesis of Dylan's journey. He doesn't merely get in the ring with Dylan, but throws himself into Dylan's shoes excavating the past in a stimulating manner. Certain aspects of the book come across as erudite, but it's so well researched and provides so many eye-opening ties to our greatest songwriter, you can't help but be fascinated.

One of the more absorbing sequences on the book are around what may be his finest album, Blonde on Blonde.At first you begin to question what anyone could offer in regards to an album as time-honored as Blonde on Blonde Wilentz doesn't just merely recap stories from other books but he managed to track down some of those who performed on the album and pulled brand new interviews from them, most notably Al Kooper. Then there's his recollections of the 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour where Wilentz balances his personal feelings, Dylan's life and the influence of cinema on him. The 1945 film Children of Paradise plays a big part, as does the work of Francois Truffaut. It will make you pull out The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue and listen along as we discover the hidden influences and how even Charlie Chaplin plays a part in this storied moment in Dylan's career. There isn't much from the 1980's but there is an unexpected detour into the 1983 outtake of "Blind Willie McTell". Originally recorded for the 1983 album Infidels (produced by Mark Knopfler), it was left in the vaults when it could have been the album's defining moment. Despite critical praise for the song when it arrived eight-years later on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1�3, the song is a reminder of how the 1980's could have been different for Dylan. Wilentz provides the reader with insight not just about the song, but the bluesman Dylan wrote about. It should be dry and dull, but the prose leaps off the page making you not just want to re-listen to Dylan's song but discover who McTell is.

Above all else, Bob Dylan in America helps bring the reader into the most recent chapter of Dylan's storied career covering all releases of note in the last two decades. While the 1980's were hardly touched on, he vivaciously delves into World Gone Wrong, his 1993 acoustic album of traditional folk songs. Far too many Dylan biographers spend time on this period as it was preceded by Oh Mercy and followed by Time Out of Mind; both produced by Daniel Lanois. However, Wilentz argues that Dylan's true rebirth began with World Gone Wrong. It is here where Dylan began to revive his true folk roots and placed him in the mindset of a young restless man who arrived in New York in a period of great upheaval in the early 1960's.In many ways, Dylan's love for the music he grew up with has brought his career full circle over his last several studio albums and continued live performances. Bob Dylan in America pledges allegiance to all things America. It may sound hokey, but it's anything but. What you will find in its nearly 400-pages is in-depth studies as to not just what brought about certain songs and albums in Dylan's storied career, but more importantly, where it came from. It's not so much a book about Bob Dylan as it is about how America made Bob Dylan possible. We enter the world screaming with a clean slate. Over time, our parents influence, schooling, friends and family find a way to wrap us around their fingers and this overriding influence defines who we are. Bob Dylan's existence, as exultant and prominent as it is, is no different. Like a sponge, he absorbs everything that is close to him. He comes into contact with it, takes it in and found a way to spurt it out in his own way. Some of it is done in the most subtle of manners, and others is permeates entire albums and tours.

Bob Dylan in America is more than a requisite history class you take but only show up for the midterm and final; it's an elective class on Saturday morning you attend hung-over because it grips you. For nearly 50-years Bob Dylan, despite what anyone has thought, has merely followed his muse, even when the lyric bank was running low. Sean Wilentz details where and when Dylan discovered the books, artists, music and film that would create some of the most dissected and discussed music of the last fifty years. Instead of a personal biography, Bob Dylan in America stands as a testament to a man and a country that are so rich and varied in their history, they in turn help define one another.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter