When thinking of the great Bob Dylan, we are usually met with the ice-cool image of a man shrouded in mystery. A man with a penchant for all things opaque, the freewheelin’ troubadour has long enjoyed an almost mythical fog that separates him from fans and critics alike.
Owing to his enigmatic lyrics and private life off-stage, Dylan is one of the most mysterious musicians to have ever walked the earth. This is an aura that has been cultivated in equal parts by the man himself and by the array of discourse surrounding him. His life reads like a romantic chronicle of old.
There are stories of him introducing The Beatles to marijuana, alleged song thefts, and even a deal with the devil. In short, Bob Dylan, the artist, is a well-written character and one that was established many moons ago. Given that there is literally mountains of information that exists regarding his journey, it is easy to build an idea of what the man would be like on first meeting.
These days, due to his artistic reputation, we think of him as this mysterious, demi-god like character that possesses an intellect that many would posit is not of this world. But then you find lesser-known stories about Dylan that help to bring all of the pseudo-religious nonsense back down to eath. To recount one of these, we have to cast our minds back all the way back to 1961. Here we meet Robert Shelton, the esteemed music critic, not the KKK ‘Imperial Wizard’. At this point in his career, Shelton was already a respected authority on the New York music scene, writing for The New York Times, and as a frequenter of the city’s music movement, he found himself striking up friendships with many of its key artists.
Being right at the heart of the scene, it meant that he witnessed a pre-fame, 20-year-old Bob Dylan perform at a handful of house parties.
Shelton became a big fan of the fresh-faced Dylan and deeply wanted to aid his musical journey by giving him a positive review in the paper. However, he was at a loss of what to do because he knew that Dylan’s shows were way too small to warrant a spread. This is where it gets interesting. Showing himself to be just another ordinary 20-year-old looking to make it big in the music business, Dylan knew he had to secure a write up from Shelton — this could be the key to unlocking the door to success. Therefore, he pestered Shelton to write about him, but to no avail.
However, all good things come to those who wait. In September that year, Dylan acquired a two-week opening slot for the bluegrass troupe, The Greenbriar Boys, at the hallowed venue Gerde’s Folk City in the West Village. This was Dylan’s biggest show to date, and it convinced Shelton that this was the right moment to afford him the review. He wrote: “Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap. His clothes may be in need of a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is busting at the seams with talent.”
Shelton’s conclusion is perhaps the most interesting part of the review. It reads: “But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.”
Firstly, this review was life-changing for Dylan. Shortly after the performance and the publication of the words, he was signed by John Hammond to Columbia Records. His debut album, Bob Dylan, was released on March 19, 1962, and the rest, as they say, is history. What’s more significant about this tale is not the fact that the review kicked off Dylan’s stardom or the fact that the character of Dylan we get here is markedly different to the one we know so well. Instead, it is the way that Shelton’s conclusion can be taken as the first instance where Dylan’s mysterious character was established. Just by mentioning Dylan’s “vague” antecedents, Shelton unknowingly kicked off the intrigue and mystery that would develop around Dylan as his fame increased.
Furthermore, Shelton was astonishingly sagacious with his account: “It matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.” Straight up indeed.