Bob Dylan at 80: Biography's insider view of a 20th century icon

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, edited by Elizabeth Thomson (2021 edition)

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, edited by Elizabeth Thomson (2021 edition) - Credit: André Langlois

As the great American songwriter Bob Dylan reaches his 80th birthday next week, an updated version of a classic biography has been released. 

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home was written by Robert Shelton, a former Spaniards Road resident and often said to be the founder of rock music journalism. 

Shelton, born in Chicago, became friends with Dylan in Greenwich Village, New York, during the 1960s folk revival. The biography was long planned but did not see the light of day until 1986, and even then Shelton was not happy with the results of his editor and publishers’ work. 

Shelton died in 1995 but 10 years ago, to mark Dylan’s 70th birthday, a restored version was edited by journalist Elizabeth Thomson, who lives in Muswell Hill. This year’s new update of the book is a shorter, more accessible, illustrated volume. 

Robert Shelton (centre) introduces Dylan to the fiddler Clayton McMichen at Newport in 1964

Robert Shelton (centre) introduces Dylan to the fiddler Clayton McMichen at Newport in 1964 - Credit: Jon Alper

Thomson, who first met Shelton in the late ‘70s and helped him get the original edition published, told the Ham&High that from early on he had a clear idea of the singer’s stature as a cultural figure. 

"The principal row about Shelton's book, from the get-go really, was that he didn't want to write a rock and roll potboiler,” she said.  

“He wasn't just selling off the relics of his friends, as he put it. He wanted to write a serious biography of someone – and we're talking in the '60s and '70s saying this – he regarded as a very important 20th century figure that should be seen alongside Picasso, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando.”   

Arguments about the definition of ‘poet’ notwithstanding, Dylan’s growth as an icon since the mid-nineties and his Nobel Prize In Literature have put paid to any doubts about his place in history. 

Dylan looking the epitome of cool as he meets the press at the May Fair Hotel, London, in May 1966

Dylan looking the epitome of cool as he meets the press at the May Fair Hotel, London, in May 1966 - Credit: Tony Gale/Pictorial Press Ltd; courtesy of Alamy

Thomson last year published the biography Joan Baez: The Last Leaf and is founder of The Village Trip festival, which is set to return to Greenwich Village in September. She said revisiting the book reminded her how intimate the folk scene was, into which Dylan launched himself. 

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"I suppose I'm just surprised again by the utter determination he had to make it, and I'm always struck by the real brilliance of those '60s albums, certainly until Blonde on Blonde – the electric albums and the acoustic albums as well. That period is astonishing,” she said.   

In 1961, before that run of classic albums, Shelton spotted Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City and wrote a famous profile for the New York Times which foresaw the acclaim to come (“a searing intensity pervades his songs”, “both comedian and tragedian”). 

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at Savoy Hotel gardens London in May 1965

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at Savoy Hotel gardens London in May 1965 - Credit: Pictorial Press; courtesy of Alamy.

"People need to remember that when Shelton was writing in the ‘60s, there wasn't Rolling Stone. There was no rock journalism,” said Thomson.  

“There was no music journalism other than classical music journalism really, and the New York Times was the closest thing America had to a national newspaper, so he wasn't just writing for the people of the Village.

"They had Harold Schonberg writing about the Metropolitan Opera in Carnegie Hall, which was obviously read across the nation, and then there was Shelton going down to these dingy little clubs, or sometimes to Forest Hills to hear a bigger concert, writing about these artists who would be very famous, some of them, in a national newspaper, and that's quite extraordinary." 

Shelton and Dylan became friends, hanging out and going on double dates, and this led to unrivalled access, not only to Dylan, but to his parents – Abe and Beatty Zimmerman – whom no other journalist has ever interviewed. 

With the biography still in mind, Shelton would later leave New York, living for a time in Hampstead, but the pair met again when Dylan visited the UK on tour in 1978. 

Thomson said: "Shelton sort of regarded Dylan as a younger brother, in a way, and I think I think to some extent during that period that Dylan regarded him as an older brother." 

Robert Shelton and Elizabeth Thomson September 1980

Robert Shelton and Elizabeth Thomson September 1980 - Credit: Thomson collection

Thomson herself first met Shelton at a Bob Dylan conference in Manchester in 1979. They became friends and she took on the role of “conciliator” between him and his editor and publisher. 

She said: "He was never happy with the book, which came out at a real low time in Dylan's career in '86 – 'abridged over troubled waters', as he always said. He always intended to revisit it but he died quite suddenly of a stroke in '95, only 69." 

To coincide with Dylan's 70th birthday in 2011, Shelton's family supported the release of a restored version, more akin to Shelton's vision. The new edition is a “more narrative version” of the classic text.   

Bob Dylan in 1966

Bob Dylan in 1966 - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

"I met Dylan finally in 2003, backstage at Hammersmith, which was kind of surreal, not least because I was on stage side while he was playing his last two encores,” said Thomson. 

 "I said I was a friend of Robert Shelton. He said: 'Really nice guy, really helpful.' 

 "He remembered him fondly, which was nice.” 

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home By Robert Shelton (Revised Illustrated Edition) is edited with a new foreword and afterword by Elizabeth Thomson, and published by Palazzo.

Journalist Liz Thomson

Journalist Liz Thomson - Credit: © Yada-Yada