No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, Review

Robert Shelton’s biography of Bob Dylan is the definitive read on Dylan’s first four decades

(Updated) Robert Shelton was the first mainstream, music critic to discover Bob Dylan in 1961. Dylan was playing in Gerdes, a Greenwich Village folk club, at the time.

Shelton wrote up one of those performances and the rest, they say, is history.

Weighing in at a hefty 3 lb, 330 dense pages and 290,000 words, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan

is the definitive insider’s view of Bob Dylan’s life and career up to 1978. 

Obviously, casual readers of Dylan’s work are better served by reading the Wikipedia article.

However, many of us are fascinated by the iconic singer who made singer-songwriters the only real musicians.

Before Bob Dylan, songwriters, for the most part, worked on Tin Pan Alley and wrote hits for singers. Even Carol King, who later became famous as a singer songwriter, worked in the Brill Building churning out hit tunes for others.

Bob Dylan changed all that. He showed that you could write songs and become famous singing your own material.

Bob Dylan at Gerdes 1961

Dylan’s use of code in his music and weird press conferences begs for someone to decipher the riddles he created.

Robert Shelton is one of the best sources, albeit tainted by his friendship with Dylan, to connect some facts to the songs. Shelton helps to put many of the early songs in context.

Shelton’s NY Times article helped Dylan get widespread attention including a record contract with Columbia two weeks later.

Columbia Records producer John Hammond already knew about Dylan. It was the weight of Shelton’s review in the NY Times that pushed the recording contract onto the front burner.

Shelton’s inside story of Bob Dylan’s life became the basis of the best biography written about Bob Dylan’s explosive period of success and his comeback in the 1970s.

Bob Dylan is the topic of more than 990 books on but none of them reveal the man and artist better than No Direction Home.

Having read more than 50 books about Bob Dylan, I can safely say that none of them get as close to who Bob Dylan really is.

Robert Shelton became a Dylan’s friend during the next two decades after their introduction at Gerdes. He wrote extensively on Dylan and his work during this period.

At times Shelton toured with Dylan. He was there at most of the momentous moments in Dylan’s career such as the famous rock band performance that shocked the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Early on, Shelton asked Dylan’s permission to write this book and Dylan agreed.

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo captured forever on the cover of "Freewheelin Bob Dylan'

For their friendship, Shelton got exclusive access to Dylan’s parents and brother David. He also was able to interview people like Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend on the cover of Freewheelin Bob Dylan, and numerous musicians from the 60s.

To some extent their friendship makes Shelton slightly circumspect in reporting the “dirt” on Dylan.

Shelton refrains from a tell-all exploitation style which put him at odds with book publishers who wanted salacious bits about Dylan’s personal life, marriage and love affairs.

However, what we get is real inside information on Dylan, what he was doing, how he worked and created his songs and performances.  We also learn about his influences and relationships with other musicians.

After reading only a few chapters of No Direction Home it becomes obvious most of the other biographers are not privy to the detailed facts of Dylan’s life and career.

Bob Dylan shocks folk audience with rock performance at Newport Folk Festival, 1965

Dylan was known for treating journalists to interviews where he is toying with them, putting them on.  Dylan mostly played the role of trickster or joker with the media, most famously put down as Mr. Jones.

“You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Dylan sang in Ballad of Thin Man his composite for all the inane reporters who had attempted to interview him.

Dylan still does that. He told a recent Rolling Stone interviewer that he travels with a boxing trainer to keep himself in shape. Rolling Stone printed that Dylan myth as if it were true.

There are also innumerable verbatim interviews with Dylan in this book. Shelton gives hints but doesn’t outright call Dylan on some of the more outrageous statements.

When this book was republished, an interview with Dylan and Shelton claiming Dylan’s heroin use was leaked to the media. One can suppose that was intended to make the book a candidate for TMZ. Readers looking for that type of disclosure will be disappointed.

Robert Shelton and Bob Dylan Newport Folk Festival 1964 (photo copyright Ed Grazda from the back cover of No Direction Home Backbeat Books)

No Direction Home was first published in 1986 and re-published with some updating this spring in time for Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday.

Shelton felt his original publisher hacked the book up and much of the original material has been restored by the editors.  For an interview with editor Liz Thomson, click here.

The result is a lengthy book that sometimes tries one’s patience but in the end rewards with the most detailed portrait of the man and artist.

Robert Shelton died in 1995, a relatively obscure writer living in England. His great legacy is providing us a true biography of one of the last century’s most influential musicians.

The only criticisms of the book are that it ends just before Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and the Prelude tries too hard to emphasize Dylan’s significance.

No Direction Home is not related to the Martin Scorsese biography of Bob Dylan. That film was was produced by Jeff Rosen, who is chief Bob Dylan archivist at Columbia Records.

(First published July 1, 2011)

By Stephen Pate, NJN Network

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The Film 'No Direction Home' is available in CD, DVD, Vinyl, and MP3    

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