Almost invariably, whenever I walked in the door of a sanctuary called Scoutscroft, my parents’ home in Coldingham, the music would already be playing. Edinburgh, Glasgow and the rest of a troubled world are distant here, though maybe not distant enough. There is often music while the old man works, and music once he has finished - for tonight, at least. Beach driftwood crackles on the fire; books surround a beaten-up armchair; cigarette smoke hangs in a permanent haze; a noble hound sprawls at his feet like a contortionist possum. And Bob Dylan plays.

"My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf

Come sit down on my knee

You are dearer to me than myself

As you yourself can see."

On December 10, the Nobel Academy will hold a prize ceremony in Stockholm at which the guest of honour will be conspicuously absent. Dylan, though reportedly "incredibly honoured" to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature, has begged off due to other commitments. What those commitments might be remain mysterious, but when Bob Dylan says he has better things to do, one is inclined to believe him. Meanwhile, those who fulminate about bad manners seem to believe the award is more important than the recipient, which kind of negates the point of an award.

Some people will devote a great deal of time and effort to letting you know just how much they don't care about Bob Dylan. Predictably, since the Nobel announcement, there has been a raft of think-pieces from those prepared to devote thousands of words explaining why they don't get what the big deal is. Hamlet's mother had a few words on the subject of those who protest too much.

A not unimportant point: when my father, the late journalist Ian Bell, embarked upon the quixotic project of a Dylan biography - two doorstopper volumes, ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’ - one of his key motivations was to argue, without apology, that the singer deserved the Nobel. As someone who had picked up his share of baubles (even continuing to do so posthumously), Dad set no great store by awards. I think the award for Dylan mattered for him more as a matter of honesty. It is not the first time since his death he has been proven right. It won't be the last, either.

Famously, the world is not short of books on Dylan. Furthermore, with the exception of a few qualified exceptions, Dad recognized the massed ranks of Dylan scholarship as the biggest assembly of misanthropes and weirdos one could hope to find outside of ... well, Scottish journalism? He would be drawing a new map on some very old terrain, previous geographers of which had gone mad in the attempt.

Additionally, my father was writing at a time when our culture, and the discourse surrounding it, was - with ample justification - growing increasingly weary of old white men and their solemn pronouncements on the even older white men who peopled their own personal pantheonic mythos. Dad's efforts would have to justify themselves. They did.

Then again, my father was the man who once said: "Other people have opinions; I have taste." Those who knew him can decide for themselves to what extent he was joking.

When he wrote his first book, ‘Dreams of Exile’, a slim, piercing, poetic life of Robert Louis Stevenson, my father's distinction was in approaching his subject not as a biographer, but as a journalist. While retaining all his hack's tools and talents, Dad's work on Dylan instead reminds us that biography is an art. And writing this particular biography was a task he had been preparing for his entire life.

What effect did Dylan have on my life? That would take another two books to explain, and I doubt they'd sell as well. It suffices to say that being a teenage Dylan devotee in the age of Linkin Park baffled some, amused others and established one amongst many points of connection with the man who now lives in my memories.

Later, as the years went by, as friendships were formed and old records revisited, a common experience would be recognized, often wordlessly: that this was something our parents had shared with us. Beyond good music, my friends and I struggled to figure out precisely what. Maybe good music was enough. Maybe it still is.

"I can see for myself that the sun is sinking

How I wish you were here to see

Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking

That you have forgotten me?"

The following represents a selection of my father’s writing on Dylan, from both his books and journalism. Writing about art and artists is always difficult; it should be. But Dad made it look easy.

Those who are curious might be interested to know that the biography originally had a different title. 'Play It F**king Loud.'

What is a poet?

The Swedish Academy does not publicise the discussions or chat about the tastes of its 18 members when they are done selecting the Nobel laureate in literature. Dylan has been nominated each year since 1997, and each year the arguments over his place on the bookies' lists have resumed. How can one whose art depends on pop music be suitable for the highest honour available to a writer? Where Dylan is concerned, the game is now ancient: poet or not? If a poet, of which variety, and by which criteria? Specifically, how can poetry be said to exist if it fails to 'survive' on the page?

Some still talk and write as though the very question demeans the august prize. Some of Dylan's own admirers meanwhile dismiss the entire debate, as though to clear the ground for bigger claims. Of course he is not a poet, they will say, but he is the greatest songwriter in a golden age for songwriting and that alone is a big enough thing. Talking to the fan magazine Isis in 2005, the author and Dylan scholar Greil Marcus made the familiar point. The prize is for literature (it turns out). Our boy sings, performs and writes songs. Besides, said the scholar, Dylan has plenty of awards and no shortage of money. Marcus argued that 'thousands' of novelists were more deserving. Elsewhere, he had said confidently that Dylan's songs are not 'true literature'.

Remarking on the speculative betting generated by the 2011 Nobel, the permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy, one Peter Englund, compared Dylan to 'a literary UFO'. It was a neat way to dismiss a phenomenon and an inadvertent confession. Englund, and perhaps the Nobel Committee itself, didn't know what to make of Dylan. This said nothing about the singer, but amounted to a slightly depressing comment on the guardians of world literature in the twenty-first century. Dispassionately, their response throughout has been puzzling. Either they want to say - but do not dare - that the Nobel must not be sullied by popular song, or they don't want to get into arguments liable to raise questions about their criteria, and hence about the nature of literature itself.

- 'Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan'

The never-ending tour

A Dylan show these days is pot luck. Two and a half thousand concerts, an untrained voice given insufficient rest, the ravages of recreation, age itself: even some dedicated fans have stopped asking why he does it, year upon year, and begun to question whether he should be singing live at all. Undaunted, NET (Never Ending Tour) veterans hold out the promise of the magical nights when everything comes together. The teenager hoping to hear the legend might end up with a different view.

But he's Bob Dylan. Advice has always been wasted on this artist. Hindsight has tended to show that he knows better than his critics and fans. Some of them need the myth of the Never Ending Tour more than they or he care to admit. Even if the voice has all but gone and the songs have been mangled to suit that lingering growl, such people cannot imagine the world without him.

Now that's art. Like him, it endures.

- 'Bob Dylan and the Myth of the Never-Ending Tour', the Herald, 16 Nov 2013

The voice, the voice

The ragged glory that was once his voice remains a problem for part of his audience. Who goes to see a poet perform if they can't necessarily make out every word, or pin the words they think they know to a melody? The 21st century Dylan asks a lot of his audiences.

Then again, he gives back more than anyone else ever could. Three things were striking about this performance.

First was the voice. The idea that it has been lost forever was exposed as a half-truth. When it mattered, Dylan brought real power to his singing.

That was the second thing. This concert worked least well when Dylan offered his handful of classic songs and best when he attacked new material. "Pay in Blood", "Early Roman Kings", "Scarlet Town" and, above all, "Long and Wasted Years", all from Tempest, were luminous.

Dylan all but discarded half a century of song-writing for the sake of one album and it worked brilliantly. You could note that the set offered hasn't altered during most of a long European tour. But the sight of a 72-year-old renewing his art and himself was thrilling.

- 'Review: Bob Dylan, Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow', the Herald, 16 Nov, 2013

Prospero's Tempest

Tempest is one of the finest things he has ever done: add it to the list. At this stage in the game the stock of superlatives is almost exhausted. Most of the things said in praise of Dylan have been said many times before. That's a problem, if it matters, for the reviewer's trade. The habit of asserting that album A is the 'best since' album B might do for a five-year pop career, but not for a career more than half a century long, one tangled up in arguments that often have nothing to do with music. In the case of Tempest, the 'best since' yardstick would be extended, regardless, even unto Blonde on Blonde. You would be better off talking instead of Picasso in his final years of raging turmoil, remaking Old Masters obsessively, mocking death, locked in a futile combat with age and libido. You will not have said much about Dylan's album, but you will have located the territory.

Tempest is a work of grim relish and flamboyant recklessness. Dylan has spent most of his long career seeming not to give a damn what anyone thinks, but with this set the contempt for restraint is ostentatious. Whether the issue is artistic method, politics, age, truth, women, religion, or a profound desire for revenge against all-comers, this Dylan doesn't care what you think. He's pretty sure that God doesn't care, either.

- 'Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan'


Someone has just used the name Judas. It is a shout, nothing more, in the protective darkness of a provincial English concert hall a long - long - time ago.

The cry, two vowels stretched, is intended as a kind of remonstration, a denunciation from the congregation. Instead, it confuses style with substance, sincerity with art, past with present, and worse besides. At a push it might count, if someone is being generous, as the impassioned defence of integrity, real or imagined. It would not be mistaken for wit.

As insults go it is oddly old-fashioned, Sunday school prim, strangely neurotic. Even in a nominally Christian country the idea that a popular entertainer could resemble the betrayer of the Saviour-of-all-Mankind is beyond stupid. Such seems to be the entertainer's opinion.

The accused, no doubt narcoticised - many would like to believe it - certainly assailed, currently existing within the still centre of his own artistic firestorm, has a precise line of response to such attacks. It is almost a matter of rhetorical principle.

He says: 'I don't believe you.'

He adds: 'You're a liar.'

Then, turning towards his musicians, all but inaudibly: 'Play it f**king loud.'

One way or another, art is in the room. One thing ends, another begins. From that, and them, to this.

- 'Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan'

Ian Bell’s ‘Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan’ and ‘Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan’ are both available from Mainstream Publishing