There was something miraculous about Bob Dylan, circa 1965-66. You can hear it in the albums he recorded in those years, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and you can see it in D A Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back, which
is the story of someone who is already touched with greatness, but is getting better still. It is unclear how much drugs had to do with it - and the book is a little coy on the subject - but Dylan had completed his autodidact's education in folk music, beatnik-hipsterism and symbolist poetry. He had got the Beatles stoned, Allen Ginsberg had become his court jester and all the sharpest girls in New York were his for the taking. And it was all done with the attitude of the smartest guy in any room, who could produce songs, as he later said, "three or four at a time".
And then something happened. According to the official version, Dylan had a motorcycle accident, after which he retreated to a house in upstate New York. And when he returned to the world, he wasn't quite the same. He would continue, on occasion, to write some great songs, but he would falter, write some truly awful songs, be accused of plagiarism, and take bewildering turns into film-making and born-again Christianity. It was as if Dylan had forgotten how to be Dylan.
Looking back at it now, that movement into revivalist preacherdom doesn't seem quite so baffling. Like an athlete who looks to God's grace (and Dylan is nothing if not a competitor - every offstage frame of Don't Look Back shows him alert for the slightest intellectual or songwriting challenge), he seemed finally to be accepting his need for a helping hand. But it was also a performing strategy. He had done the Woody Guthrie folkie, the post-Kerouac hipster, the rock'n'roller and the Johnny Cash country crooner. The preacherman was only one step along from the carnival huckster-clown he had acted for his Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-1970s.
Sean Wilentz's peculiarly titled book (where else might we have expected to find Dylan?) claims to be a sort of cultural archaeology, locating its subject in past traditions, and not just musical ones. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton, and his manner is at times excessively professorial.
Too often, the reader becomes fidgety and restless as the author conducts one of his dogged excursions to the pre-Dylan source. We are told, for example, that the phrase "sucking the blood of genius and generosity", which Dylan paraphrased on his song "Summer Days", comes from a speech that Abraham Lincoln gave to the Washington Temperance Society. Wilentz draws in a breath and releases a quick history of the said Washington Temperance Society. The point had seemed to be about Dylan's relationship to his sources - at what point does influence become theft? - but Wilentz then digresses into a history of Dylan's appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival, returning to the subject of plagiarism only in the following chapter.
Dylan's own memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), describes his curiosity and appetite for influence with great charm and sometimes evasiveness. But Chronicles itself would be accused of lifting from other writers' work. The range of Dylan's sources in his later periods
is impressive - Ovid, the Southern American civil war poet Henry Timrod, contemporary Japanese yakuza memoirs - but it had always been like this, for Dylan as indeed for his precursors. As Willie McTell said of his own songs, "I jump 'em from other writers, but I arrange 'em my own way."
Wilentz has sincerity, a wide breadth of knowledge and deep enthusiasm, and there are some marvellous photographs here, especially the snapshots of bohemian life in New York City in the early 1960s. But Dylan in America reads more like a collection of articles, reviews and essays than a coherent book.
We learn that Wilentz was very proud to be nominated for a Grammy for his sleeve notes to an authorised release of a Dylan bootleg collection. Those notes form the basis of one of the book's chapters. Another contains a lengthy review of the film Masked and Anonymous (2003), which Dylan acted in and co-wrote, and which is an interesting failure at best. However, there is no mention of Todd Haynes's I'm Not There (2007), which captures the spirit of Dylan's work, with all its episodic dazzle and disjunctions - but then you realise that Wilentz wrote about Masked and Anonymous at the time of its release. Indeed, this book seems to be a rehash of everything he has ever published about Dylan.
It is unclear quite what this - or, indeed, any - Dylan book is for. We don't read books about him for psychological insight because, evidently, there isn't any to be had (appropriately the most insightful biography of Dylan is one that isn't: I'm Not There). We could turn to websites for "analysis" of the lyrics or reminiscences of Dylan's concerts and lists of the source material for his compositions, or for tendentious connections drawn between Dylan and Aaron Copland - even if they won't be written up as elegantly as Wilentz does here. Maybe the point is just to tell us to listen to the music. Halfway through reading this book, I realised I hadn't listened to Blonde on Blonde in years. I'm grateful for the reminder.
Bob Dylan in America
Bodley Head, 400pp, £20
David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "A Film by Spencer Ludwig" (Fourth Estate, £11.99)