“Wanted Man!” About “The Chameleon Poet: Bob Dylan’s Search For Self” by John Bauldie, 2021

“This is what art is about: an invitation to deduce something from it for yourself. What you find in it is up to you. Dylan puts it in the song for you to find.” (John Bauldie, 1980)

It was in the Summer of 1985, and my lonely days and years in search of the music of Bob Dylan came to an end, as I was invited to the home of what soon should become (and still is) my very good friend, Arthur, generously opening his archives for me. Another Norwegian collector, Magne, was also present this very night, and the completely new feeling of becoming an “insider” filled me with a joy I still remember like it was yesterday. It blew me away and I felt just like Aladdin standing in the middle of the Cave. (Unforgettable – that week and year only overshadowed by me being a father for the first time.)

As if this wasn’t enough, it was the very same night I, for the first time, was introduced to the works of John Bauldie – as the summer issue of the mother of all Bob Dylan magazines, “The Telegraph” was handed to me. The magazine was the fruit of Bauldie’s enthusiasm, talent and deep knowledge of “all things Dylan” – growing out of his “Wanted Man – The Bob Dylan Information Service”, Bauldie in the center of a growing group of devotees, also distributing the legendary “The Wicked Messenger” newsletter by Ian Woodward. To cut it short, in this pre-internet and pre-Google times I suddenly was bathing in more information than I’d thought possible. To top the game, the very open-handed John gave us the “Wanted Man Hotline”, a telephone answering machine where we could get the latest updates, a fantastic progress in those days, listening to John’s kind voice on a scratchy telephone line to get his reading of last night’s set list. “Wow!!! Did he really play Barbara Allen????!!! What?? Pledging My Time? That can’t be true!!?” In this “too-much-information-about-nothing”-reality we’re now living in, it might be hard to understand how important and enlightening John Bauldie’s work was, a guiding light and inspiration for many great writers and magazines to follow on the life and arts of Dylan, following in his footsteps, building on his work. His Wanted Man Study Series, his many books and booklets, his countless essays, his journalistic work in Q Magazine, it all sums up to a fabulous musicological and literary contribution, in so many ways – still, what, for me, always springs to mind when I think of John Bauldie, is the generosity towards us all, where he in the night taped a new message for the answering machine, me listening to the sound of his voice, always grateful for his unique service.

His tragic death in a helicopter crash in 1996, only 47 years old, was shocking to us all, a tragedy beyond words. His proud story of a brief encounter with Dylan, getting the knighthood in form of Dylan’s acknowledgement of “The Telegraph”: “I’ve seen a few issues of that. It’s pretty interesting”, combined with him being invited to write liner notes to the first set of the Bootleg Series in 1991, is a wonderful reminder of his importance and value in the world of Bob Dylan.

The Telegraph, Summer 1985

So this is the backdrop for my feelings when I open the John Bauldie release of this year, “The Chameleon Poet”, with the subtitle “Bob Dylan’s search for self”. This is why I got a bit misty-eyed even before I started reading, like when receiving a letter from a long lost brother, from another lifetime, one where we thought we could sit forever in fun, one where we could listen to John Bauldie on a scratchy telephone line.

While Bauldie through the years was writing on all aspects of Bob Dylan’s art and music, also including fabulous essays focusing on Dylan’s extraordinary gift as a singer, “The Chameleon Poet” is him focusing almost purely on the lyrics of Bob Dylan, as we find them in his songs, in his liner notes and in his poetic prose of “Tarantula”. “The Chameleon Poet” is an analysis of how we in Dylan’s words can trace the growth and development of both the man and the poet. Bauldie’s wide knowledge in poetry, himself a lecturer in English Literature, and his continuous fight to secure Dylan’s recognition as a major literary figure in the company of Shakespeare, Hesse and Baudelaire, of course got its final reward twenty years after his death, when Dylan receives the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2016.

Clinton Heylin worked close with John Bauldie, and informs us at the back of the book: “I read “The Chameleon Poet” in 1981, and spent most of the rest of the decade trying to persuade John to publish it. Well, it only took forty years, but now you can read it, too.” The author didn’t come to finish it for release himself, even called the book “my own heftily unpublishable critical book about Bob Dylan”, but used parts and extracts of it in his later writings, notably in “The Telegraph”, certainly finding value in the “lost book”, even if he might not have been satisfied with it as a whole.

Bill Allison, a close friend of John Bauldie from the early seventies, has written a great and heartfelt introduction to the book – “Portrait of the Artist as a Bob Cat”, giving the reader an insightful overview of the author’s much to short life, as well as the story of “Wanted Man” and of the history of the manuscript now finally released as “The Chameleon Poet”, all of this useful ingredients to the understanding of the context for the release at hand.

As I mentioned, this book’s main focus is, or was, as I understand it, to establish Dylan as a great, even major, poet, and, as Allison puts it, to ensure “that Dylan is given his rightful worth in the literary world”. In a quite chronologically approach, Bauldie combines his skills as a lecturer in English literature with his deep knowledge of the songs and other writings by Dylan (including the film “Renaldo And Clara”), and elaborates his own reading of this writings as a map to understand Dylan’s progress in search for self. It really is an interesting approach, and Bauldie’s use of references to Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”, to Shakespeares “King Lear” and “Hamlet” and to Baudelaire’s “Le Spleen De Paris” a.o., effectively ties the bonds between Dylan and world literature, both when it comes to artistic struggle and the eternal themes of the same literature. In the same way, Bauldie includes reference to Jung, f.i. in “Modern Man In Search of a Soul” to underscore the complex dualism of the artists position: “…on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire.” With all this tools at hand, Bauldie gives us his own perception of Dylan’s artistic travel and search, from “Talkin’ World War III Blues” in the first chapter, to “Changing of the Guards” at the end of the book, Dylan standing at the crossroad leading to Christianity. Bauldie himself describes his own journey in the book like this: “I’ve been concerned with Dylan’s many separate identities. Public and private personae are, in effect, separate selves whom Dylan recognised, confronted, explored and discarded as he has searched, through his art, for his true self. His greatest works are the products of this search.” It really is a fascinating approach, and I would think the book will stimulate every reader to examine his or hers own reading of Dylan – not to change it, but maybe as a useful tool to look at the picture from another angle, enlightened by the careful work of John Bauldie.

For me personally I think Bauldie’s treatment of Dylan’s evolving view of society, the world around him, the power and greed and corruptible seeds, and how this leaks into his songs through the sixties, might be the strongest part of the book, the one about “man and his part in, and relationship with, society”. He leads us gently through all phases and stages of Dylan’s work, from his social awakening to his “apocalyptic vision”, from finger-pointing to the bitter recognition of a life that isn’t just black or white, through the depth of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Desolation Row”. It makes me think of the great danish book by Jesper Tang, “Bob Dylan smiler” (Bob Dylan Smiles)(1972), also delving into the same questions and analysis, not in exactly the same way, but still related.

The author then continues into the forest of an even more complex terrain, reminding us that “the songs that deal with personal rather than social relationships are just as important in their contribution to the artist’s intellectual and psychological development.” Of course it is, and I couldn’t agree more. Still, when the songs and lyrics of love and hate becomes the main focus of the book, the author’s temptation to mix knowledge and “knowledge” of the artist’s biography with the literary analysis, here and there makes it take a few steps away from the quality of the first part.

As a man’s biography of course will be the most certain source for his art, a critic’s view can’t or shouldn’t lean to heavy into what has to be his own rudimentary insights into an artist’s thought dreams and personal life behind the shades. We all can have our theories about how there is straight lines from experience to art, one should be careful not to become to assertive about one single possible interpretation connected to the artist’s biography. The “truth” is obscure, too profound and too pure to be really sure, I guess. Even if some of the analysis of the love songs strikes me a bit too one-dimensional, there’s also a lot of beautiful passages in this part of the book, including tender interpretations of some of the greatest love songs. He treats the songs from the “Basement Tapes” with the same thoroughly intensity as the rest, and shares many interesting views of how some of the songs can be interpreted as Dylan’s quite sharp poetic self-analysis of the years recently gone by, perhaps also what is yet to come: “If some of the Basement songs portray the mania of life “on the road” – the futile quest after false ideals, the endless, hectic pursuit that will only result in the traps of dissatisfaction, shame and nausea – and if other songs voice the alter ego’s pleas for release or hopes of escape and alternative, more meaningful lifestyles, there are a couple of others that suggest the whole bizarre trip is going to provide its own conclusion, which will be sudden and final.”

The way he includes “Renaldo And Clara” as an integrated part of his critical analysis of Dylan’s work, is both relevant and beautiful: “Reflection is an image but not an imitation, and Renaldo and Clara is Bob Dylan’s mirror.” Bauldie makes it all fit into his main theme in a very credible way, Dylan’s focus on, understanding of and searching for identity, for self, as he sums it all up like this: “The most important thing Dylan has given us is the experience of himself. His art has always embodied the man who made it, and Dylan’s depth of feeling at every stage of his development has always been clear and expressed with total honesty. Care, passion and intensity came and went; disgust, disillusion, spleen, understanding and acceptance led to faith, trust, hope and belief. Failure gave rise to depression. And depression always returned to self-analysis, which gave way to insight, which, in turn, fed personal and artistic maturity.”

The release of “The Chameleon Poet: Bob Dylan’s Search for Self” is a touching tribute to the memory of John Bauldie, it’s an important reminder of Bauldie’s astonishing effort to shed light on Dylan as a major poet worthy of a Nobel Prize, and, most of all, it still, after more than four decades since it was written, speaks directly, fresh and enlightening to every one interested in the words and lyrics of Bob Dylan, in an unmistakably bauldian way. Even if you don’t accept every interpretation as the only valid possibility, all of them inspires you to think again, which is one of the book’s absolute strengths. Yes, there has been written hundreds of book on Dylan since this one was written, but it stands bold and proud besides them all, contributing important and interesting pieces in the puzzle, where it in its own way describes the ongoing fight between the artist and his twin, that enemy within, yes, sometimes they both fell by the way, but in the end they won the war. Both of them.

You really should read it. It’s pretty interesting.

Johnny Borgan

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