You Lose Yourself You Reappear: Bob Dylan and the Voices of a Lifetime

Paul Morley

Simon & Schuster, £20

Review by Alan Taylor

Come May 24, Bob Dylan will be 80. Rock stars are not supposed to live this long. “I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who, a wish granted its frenetic drummer, Keith Moon. Countless others – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones – went the same way, expiring like fireworks after briefly lighting up the night sky.

That Dylan was not one of them is as much a matter of good fortune as anything else. His riposte to The Who’s requiem might be Forever Young, which he wrote in 1973 as a lullaby for his eldest son: "May you always know the truth/And see the lights surrounding you." By then the sunshine of the 1960s had been replaced by the cynicism of the 1970s, the selfishness, self-indulgence and self-destructiveness of the Summer of Love by a sense of hopelessness and disillusionment. As Joan Didion wrote, “the centre was not holding”.

No-one was more aware of this than Dylan. In 1966, he was in a motorcycle accident and the rumour was that his life was hanging by a thread. Dylan himself did nothing to dispel the fears. Instead, he disappeared from view and years passed without a murmur from him. In fact, it transpired that he had not been badly injured; he had not even been hospitalised. As he related in his memoir, Chronicles. “Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race.” So he stayed home, recorded with The Band and took seriously his role as a father, determined, as he put it, to raise his children to cherish the American “values and ideals of equality and liberty”.

For a camp follower such as Paul Morley, however, Dylan’s vanishing act was a first rehearsal for what his own life might be like without his hero. Five decades and more on, Morley is still fearful of what that might signal. “A world without a living, thinking Bob Dylan was going to take some getting used to,” he writes. “Where would his death take the rest of us, and how we remember our own lives?”

For Morley, as for so many of us, Dylan has provided the soundtrack to our existence. Morley’s introduction to him came comparatively late. In 1970, he was 13 and addicted to Top of the Pops and two of its mainstays, Marc Bolan and David Bowie, who once wrote a hymn to Dylan. Hooked, Morley began to explore Dylan’s bulging back catalogue. He soon found John Wesley Harding, released in 1968. I remember it well because it was the first of his albums I bought. As was so often the case with Dylan, my first reaction was one of bemusement. It sounded like a country album but it soon became apparent that he had taken country music – as typified by the Grand Ole Opry – back to its roots and swaddled it in a suicide vest. Or, as Morley puts it in his inimitable, freewheelin’, stream of consciousness style: “He turned his mind and voice to the divinely commissioned singing of tales of evil and woe, spirit and matter where worldly aggrandisement meant nothing.”

The first thing to say about You Lose Yourself You Reappear is that while it is described as a biography it tests the label to the point of meaninglessness. No sources or bibliography are given and its author conducted no interviews with people who know Dylan. Nor, it should be added, did he interview his subject, but that is to be expected. Morley does, however, provide a selected album discography, which may be helpful to readers with no internet connection, and an eight-page reverse chronology of Dylan’s “Grammy History”, which will enrage anyone worried about the misuse of paper.

Rather, what Morley does seek to do is avoid mundane details and history, preferring instead to extemporise, as Hendrix did in his pyrotechnic version of All Along the Watchtower. “Bear with me,” he pleads on page 179, “I was just thinking how best to begin a book on Bob Dylan.” He had hoped that he would be able to see him in concert in 2020 but the pandemic put paid to that. In particular, he was eager to see what shape the musician was in, how his voice was doing. It is Dylan’s voice, and its many variations, that intoxicates Morley, from that of “an uptight, impressionable, know-it-all kid” to the “hell-and-fire, heavens-above voice” he used as a septuagenarian on a trio of late albums to sing songs by Sinatra and his ilk. Of the latter, Morley adds – in his own doth-protest-too-much manner – “his phrasing was impeccable, his musical understanding of the songs exquisite, his love for life undimmed”.

Dylan’s elusiveness encourages such flights. In interviews, he offers responses that raise more questions than his interrogators dare ask. Those who follow his trail inevitably end up side-tracked in a jungle of obfuscation, contradiction and doubtful truthfulness. As an artist, Dylan reserves the right to remain silent and defy exegesis. All he needs to say is in his songs.

Belatedly, Morley tells of his birth in Duluth, Minnesota, and his upbringing in nearby Hibbing, the town that was moved lock, stock and barrel to allow the company that owned it to mine the iron ore lying beneath its surface. We learn of his parents – his father, the family breadwinner, caught polio and lost his job with Standard Oil – and of his schooling where he had an inspirational English teacher and of his escape to New York and his meeting with a dying Woody Guthrie.

This and more we know from countless other books but what still remains a mystery is the source of his genius. How did Dylan metamorphose from Greenwich Village troubadour to become the definition-defying, tectonic plate-shifting voice of a generation, the one singer-songwriter against whom all others must be measured and are found wanting? On that question, Paul Morley, like the many who have gone before him, is, for once, left lost for words.

You Lose Yourself You Reappear by Paul Morley is published by on April 29 (Simon & Schuster, £20)