It’s 1962, and an unknown folk singer stands awkwardly in the Gaslight Cafe strumming his guitar. Some customers ignore him.
Others listen and spread the word at Greenwich Village’s nearby Folklore Center about a hot talent named Bob Dylan.
One of the regulars is 11-year-old Sean Wilentz, whose life will become bound up with Dylan’s.
In 1963, Dylan meets poet Allen Ginsberg in an apartment above the Wilentz family bookshop. Sean is blown away by “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” with its cover image of Dylan and Suze Rotolo in snowy Greenwich Village, “a picture that, with its hip sexiness, was more arousing than anything I’d glimpsed in furtive schoolboy copies of Playboy.”
In 1964, Sean hears Dylan, then 23, play Philharmonic Hall and is chilled by the line “a black branch with blood that kept dripping.”
Wilentz grew up to be a Princeton professor known for his expertise on the U.S. Revolutionary era -- and, later, Bobdylan.com’s “historian in residence.” He connects the dots in “Bob Dylan in America,” arguing that American culture and Dylan’s work influenced each other.
“There isn’t an inch of American song that he cannot call his own,” Wilentz writes, dropping historical objectivity to show his fandom.
The hundreds of Dylan books include surveys of politics, literature and religion -- though nothing of this breadth. There are chapters devoted to possible Dylan links with composer Aaron Copland (both blended folk with another musical form, both paid homage to America and the common man) and Blind Willie McTell (based on Dylan’s song that name checks the blues singer).
It’s much quicker to get Dylan’s own list of influences in his autobiography “Chronicles: Volume One”: Woody Guthrie, of course, and Robert Johnson among them.
Wilentz -- whose father edited an anthology called “The Beat Scene” -- is more interesting when writing about Dylan’s friendships with Ginsberg and other poets, which he saw up close. Especially worthwhile are his memories of the Philharmonic Hall show, which included Joan Baez.
Granted access to unreleased studio recordings, Wilentz gives a detailed account of the making of the 1966 LP “Blonde on Blonde.”
Clinton Heylin has already explained much in “Dylan: Behind Closed Doors,” though Wilentz provides great details, such as how a lyric called “Freeze Out” gradually became “Visions of Johanna,” a song fans have been trying to decipher for decades. The identity of Dylan’s muse Johanna remains unknown, even as the song’s twilight imagery is untangled.
Wilentz’s friend Greil Marcus has been placing rock in a broader cultural context for decades.
His latest book, “Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010,” compiles many perceptive articles, such as the liner notes to the 1975 release of “The Basement Tapes.”
Marcus praises Martin Scorsese’s concert film “The Last Waltz,” noting “the mystery that still hangs on Dylan like a cloak.” The insights here don’t do much to remove Dylan’s mystery: That’s what keeps the fans fascinated and will spur more tomes.
Scorsese is quoted on the Wilentz cover, saying the book is “as thrilling and surprising as listening to a great Dylan song.” Still, give me a choice between reading these hardbacks and listening to some unheard Dylan (such as “The Witmark Demos,” released on Oct. 19) and I know what I would choose.
“Bob Dylan in America” by Sean Wilentz is from Doubleday in the U.S. and the U.K. (390 pages, $28.95, 20.95 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
“Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010” is from Public Affairs (481 pages, $29.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)