Guest Review: ‘Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan’ by David Dalton

Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan

by David Dalton


Pub Date: April 24, 2012

Book received from: Publisher


Today I am featuring a guest review from a Bob Dylan aficionado, who has been there from the start of his career.  Bob Hypes joins us today from Spydersden.  Everyone say ‘hi’ to Bob, as he shares his thoughts from the newest Bob Dylan bio.  And now: Here is Bob on Bob.

Millions of words have been written about Bob Dylan since his first appearance in New York City in 1961. Some of those words were damning as befits any person of unique and singular talent. After all, by breaking new ground and setting new standards, they alienate those who wish for the status quo. Many more words written about Dylan have been in praise of the man, his talent, vision, and influence on the world in which we all live.

Now David Dalton has added a new volume to the pantheon of books on the subject of Bob Dylan, the man, his influence, and his art. The book, entitled Who Is That Man?:In Search of the Real Bob Dylan, published by Hyperion, was released on April 24, 2012.  As a long-time Dylan fan, I had the honor of being given an advance copy to review.

This unsophisticated boy raised on the iron ore range of northern Minnesota came to be known as “the quintessential New York hipster.”  That gangly, sallow, almost sickly waif, chain smoking cigarettes, and nervously tapping his foot to some unheard rhythm playing in his head, soon became the poet laureate of his generation.

Not just that, but also one of the most influential people of the twentieth century, through his words, his music, his style, and the mystery of exactly who and what he was, and who he would become. He will arguably be remembered in the hushed and revered halls of poetry, music, and cultural icons along side of Milton, Donne, Emerson, Whitman, and probably even Shakespeare. As much as any of them he changed the language, the perceptions, and the actual world around him simply by moving through it with a different vision than had been seen before.

Bobby Zimmerman came out of the bleak Minnesota iron range country of Hibbing, a monochromatic town in a black and white world. Easy-listening music and crooners populated much of the radio dial, harking back to an earlier age in taste and style. Gritty Delta blues could be heard through the static on a good night. Rock and roll was still thought of as a flash in the pan, and country was music for small town rubes and backwoods dwellers.

Then in the late fifties folk music made a big revival with acts like The Kingston Trio, Odetta, and Pete Seeger, and TV shows like “Hootenanny.” And suddenly that kid from Hibbing, calling himself Bob Dylan began learning traditional folk songs, writing songs of his own, and singing them all like no one had ever done before. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a’Changin’”, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and more.

Much of Dylan’s early work gave rise to the sub genre of folk that came to be known as “protest music,” and Dylan was the crown prince of protest, even as he rejected the title. But soon, Dylan turned up the color dial and the monochrome slid away. He began to write songs filled with imagery, tunes, dream sequences, and word play, and vocal inflection that changed the world, not just of music, but the world itself.

It is into that world that David Dalton takes the reader. From the middle-class Bobby Zimmerman to the twenty year old folk-singing hobo named Bob Dylan, to the enigmatic pied piper who mystified and enthralled those who would hear his words and see his vision. Dalton takes us from those traditional sounding folk songs that rolled off Dylan’s tongue with such ease and poignancy, to the marriage of surreal imagery and wrenching emotion with lyrics that can truly be called poetry.

As Dalton writes about the early period of the Dylan mystique, when he first came to New York and went to the head of the line of folk music hopefuls waiting to be the next phenom: “They didn’t know it then, but it was Bob they were waiting for. He’s the mysterious stranger who rolls into town and blows everybody’s minds, the rainmaker, the seventh son of the seventh son, the self-created mojo man, who with every breath he takes, whispers, ‘I’m your Hoochie Coochie Man; everybody knows I am.’”

Dalton has the good sense to dwell at some length on the drama inherent in that narrative arc and serves up a panoramic tale, interspersed with tidbits and analysis of the music and its impact, almost as much as he does about the man.

Part of what set Dylan apart, according to Dalton, and he’s correct in his assessment, is his use of words. Rock and roll had never been about the words in a song. Very few told a story, or gave us a specific point of view, or made us listen to what the singer was verbalizing. Dylan changed that. Like Dalton writes: “Words were the message, the book, but the primary instinct of rock had been essentially nonverbal.”

He goes on to say: “Lyrics were Dylan’s way of turning the tables. He was competing with three major bands – the Beatles, the Stones, and the Beach Boys – and the only way he could do it was with the power of his language….It tilted the nature of rock. You had John Lennon saying, ‘I don’t want to be Neil Sedaka anymore, I want to be Bob Dylan!’”

This book builds the bridge between the waif-like Woody Guthrie clone who blew into NYC with a rag-tag wardrobe and an acoustic guitar, and the amphetamine-fueled mercurial Rimbaud rock and roll poet who invented a new way of writing, singing, and thinking.

There’s a line from “No Time to Think” by Dylan, that I think describes him and what he does, very well:

“Paradise, sacrifice, mortality, reality
But the magician is quicker and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink
And there’s no time to think.”

Whether Dylan is that magician or the tightrope walker in the back alley of “Desolation Row,” he is constantly shape shifting, calling up another spell with which to mesmerize the audience into thinking he’s not there. He performs sleight-of-hand tricks right before our eyes, and while we understand that we’ve been fooled, we can’t help but to wait breathlessly for the next illusion. And then we realize as the crowd shuffles out, that maybe Dylan’s been an illusion to everyone all along, that magician who gives us no time to think.

In his attempt to shed light into some of the dark corners of who and what Dylan really is, Dalton offers less a straight biography than an inspired, imaginative investigation into Dylan’s many sides. The author sifts the songs for real-life clues and tackles certain aspects of the Dylan story that have long been a source of controversy.

As Dalton notes early on in the book, if you’re going to understand Dylan, you need to recognize that everything is mutable in his world, and often inverted, and then writes: “His fabrications are the most profound, interesting, and authentic part of his personality.”

Although the book ends in a bit of a limbo, this compelling attempt to read a half-century’s worth of shape-shifting and re-invention from an actual living legend strikes a good balance between admiration and skepticism.

This book can be purchased at Amazon, or your local independent bookseller.

8 thoughts on “Guest Review: ‘Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan’ by David Dalton

  1. I think it’s a big joke that all these people have to make money today writing about dylan. bob is someone you see on a stage or hear in a record. but the real guy is zimmerman and your biographies probably won’t ever find him. i met him once and talked with him alone. he was kind of a dirty looking guy with big hands. like a parking lot attendant. not like star or a famous person. I wasn’t a journalist and didn’t have a camera, and he was OK but on the quiet side. zimmerman created bob dylan. so no one can figure bob dylan out. zimmerman keeps you on your toes but you’re always way behind and the books and university seminars are something bob is laughing at. get a life.

    • dylan’s shows and his albums make us think , move us, confuse us ,so why not fantisize about finding out who this elusive character is. There is no answer but speculating or writing a book “in search of” can be entertaining and fun.We are not talking about going through his trash but going through the things he has given the public for their perusual.

      • Craig, I agree with you in regards to speculating as to who Dylan really is. In my opinion, his elusiveness and mystery is part of what has made him the icon he has become. When public figures are too real, the public seems to lose interest in them. There is no definitive answer as to the man behind the sunglasses, but it is fun and entertaining to delve into the world of the man we all want to know. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Daud, I think you’re probably right. I do think he must be laughing at all, and I mean ALL, that is written about him. Anyone who REALLY knows him, won’t and can’t write about him. Maybe someone who hasn’t written a confidentiality agreement will write the definitive book. But in the mean time, we’ll have to pick and choose who’s telling the truth and who’s speculating. Personally, the real Dylan was the one of the late 70’s early 80’s. I say that because he was writing from first person unlike anything he wrote prior to that period and since. Just my two cents.

  3. As the author of the review, I would like to respond to Daud. Of course Bob Dylan is Bob Zimmerman. No one said otherwise. That you supposedly met him once and spoke with him doesn’t mean anything to anyone else but you. If you did, indeed, have this contact it merely gives you one perspective of the man and the legend, but is in no way definitive nor particularly valid. He could have been putting you on, since he is a known recluse and seldom, if ever, speaks privately with people he doesn’t know.

    And to end your comment with the term, “get a life” is ridiculous. You have commented extensively on the blogosphere about Dylan, fulfilling an apparent obsession, adding nothing to the knowledge of the man nor his work. The article to which you posted your comment is a reposting of review of a book about Dylan, not a pro nor con commentary on the man nor his work. If you don’t understand that salient fact, then maybe you shouldn’t be commenting at all. Then again, it does speak to your obsessive/compulsive need to insinuate yourself into anyone else’s commentary on anything to do with Dylan as though you are the preeminent expert on the subject. If anyone needs to get a life, maybe you need to look in the mirror.

    If you have further commentary on the subject please post it to my original book review, found on where I would be more than happy to match wits and knowledge of the subject with you.

    • i’m a dylan fan, been intothe music of Bob over 55 years…i’m 73 now, and want to read everything about the man…i think bhypes’ revview is spot on…and enjoyed the ‘peek’ at David Dalton’s creation…well done…

      • Thank you for the kind words. I’ve been a Dylan fan since 1962 when I first heard his debut album. I have everything he’s recorded that I can get my hands on, and a library of books about the man and his music. Nice to meet another longtime Dylan fan, and hope you’ll check the blog out from time to time.


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