(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Bob Dylan turned 60 in May, 2001, and the occasion did not go unmarked. Clinton Heylin published a heavily revised and expanded edition of his massive Dylan biography first issued a decade earlier, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. In Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, David Hajdu re-created the folk scene from which Dylan emerged. Many journalistic retrospectives (and an interview in Rolling Stone magazine) added to the bulging files. All this accompanied the big Dylan event of the year: the release of a new album, Love and Theft, which hit the street on September 11, a day as apocalyptic as anything Dylan has imagined. The advance reviews were mostly raves.

Also timed to cash in on heightened media attention, Howard Sounes’s book, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, is a workmanlike chronicle. While its dust jacket pretensions to be seen as “the definitive biography of this American music legend” are merely wishful thinking, the book is not without its merits. Sounes is not obsessive, as so many writers on Dylan are, and while he stays well clear of hagiography, neither is his account marred by the subtle anti-Dylan bias that runs through Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street. As a biographer, Sounes appears to be admirably fair-minded and commonsensical—no small recommendation in the world of Dylanology.

Alas, Sounes is a mediocre writer. He lacks the imaginative depth to engage Dylan and his music, and he relies far too extensively and uncritically on the more than 250 interviews he conducted with people who have known Dylan at some point in his life. At times revealing, more often banal and clichéd, the recollections and comments drawn from these interviews come with all the fallibility and partiality of memory, yet for the most part Sounes treats them as if they were simple reports of fact.

Still, even if flawed in the telling, the story Sounes recounts is compelling. While parts of it will be very familiar to anyone who has followed Dylan over the years, many readers will be particularly interested to learn more about his formative years, before his move to New York. The story starts in Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born in 1941, and in Hibbing, even farther north, the iron-mining town near the Canadian border where he grew up as Bobby Zimmerman. His parents, Abe and Beatrice (or Beatty, as she was called), were the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Lithuania. When a bout with polio left Abe bedridden for some time, he lost his job with Standard Oil in Duluth. He never fully recovered his health, but he was able to move his family to Hibbing and join his brothers in a small business, doing electrical repairs and managing a store that sold household appliances.

Hibbing partook of the postwar boom, and the Zimmermans were comfortably middle-class. However, this shared prosperity, Sounes notes, was in part the result of successful strikes by miners in 1949 and 1952: “For Bob, it was an early firsthand experience of people pulling together to achieve justice.” In addition to Bob, the Zimmermans had a younger son, David, although the brothers were never close. His parents were warm and supportive, especially his mother.

The family was not strongly religious. The Jewish community in Hibbing was small, and there was no local rabbi. An Orthodox rabbi from New York, “a very old man, with black robes and a white beard, like a character from the Old Testament,” was brought in so Dylan could study for his bar mitzvah, but once that was done, the community “did not want to keep the Orthodox rabbi on—he looked too old-fashioned in go-ahead Hibbing in 1954.” Nevertheless, Sounes says, the boy “did receive a solid grounding in the Bible—an important source of imagery for his song lyrics long before his Christian conversion of the 1970’s.”

There is an uneasy fascination to Sounes’s dutiful report on Bob Zimmerman’s high school years. The biographer even managed to track down Dylan’s first serious girlfriend, Echo Helstrom. Not a few readers will silently give thanks that they are not famous, that no one will hunt for every scrap of information from their teenage years. Nonetheless, there are no startling revelations here. Dylan’s fascination with the romantic movie-star rebel James Dean, for example, was shared with countless others of his generation. Nothing in this “background” accounts in any way for the transformation...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)