‘I hope Bob would think this version is close to what he wanted to write’

A biography re-released to coincide with Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday gives a real insight into the star’s life, says co-editor Elizabeth Thomson

IN SEPTEMBER 1961, New York Times journalist Bob Shelton saw a little known folk singer playing support in a smoky Greenwich Village coffee house.

He subsequently wrote the first review of a Bob Dylan gig. Two weeks later, the singer songwriter was signed to Columbia Records.

Shelton went on to befriend Dylan, hanging out in ‘the village’ during those heady New York years in the early 60s with the star and his girlfriends Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez. He was the first to interview Dylan’s parents Abe and Beatty Zimmerman, and was present at key moments in his career, at Newport in 1963, when he went electric at Philharmonic Hall in 1964, and on the Isle of Wight in 1969.

Despite completing his seminal Dylan biography in 1978, Shelton didn’t see it published for another eight years, and only then with heavy editing and interference from his publishers.

No Direction Home remains the only biography written with the star’s co-operation. It has been revised and updated to coincide with Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24. (Omnibus Press �19.95)

Publishing and music journalist Elizabeth Thompson, a close friend of Shelton, has co-edited the new edition. She was first gripped by Dylan on his 1978 visit to Earl’s Court, and the following year met Shelton at a Dylan conference.

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He mentored her through her early journalism career, and remained a friend and inspiration until his death in 1995.

Thomson, who lives in Muswell Hill, has pruned and clarified unwieldy sections, tightened up chronology, and restored 20,000 words of unpublished text, including interviews with Dylan, and his family, and friends from his pre-fame years in Minnesota. The biography also draws on interviews with Rotolo, Baez, Phil Spector, Allen Ginsberg and Pete Seeger.

Thomson says Shelton was never happy with the original. “He called it ‘abridged over troubled waters’. It was very long and it wasn’t a showbiz biography but a serious study contextualising Dylan as an important cultural figure, which fell on stony ground with his publisher. One problem was that by the time it was published, Dylan was going through his worst career patch and wasn’t regarded as the figure he is today. At one stage they wrote to Shelton that he’d get more readers if he said Dylan was homosexual. Bob shot back that he presumed it would also shift more copies if he was a mass murderer.

“I have restored some of the resonance of Bob’s writing and some of the expansive, free-flowing interviews that give an authentic insight into what Dylan was like at that time. I hope Bob would think this version was closer to the book he wanted to write 25 years ago.”

Thomson accepts that because of Shelton’s personal closeness to Dylan and the New York 60s scene, the book lacks a detached authorial overview. And the price he paid for being a friend of the singer was to omit prurient details about his private life.

“He was always upfront that in exchange for access to Dylan as a friend and an artist, he agreed that the wife and kids should be left out of the story, saying: ‘I am not going to sell off the relics of a friend’.

“What you do get is a real sense of what it must have been like to be in Greenwich Village at a very special and important time, seeing the singer song writing revolution. The early years of anyone’s career are always the most interesting and from 61-66 Shelton and Dylan were drinking buddies. Dylan passed out on his sofa, they met for dinner with their girlfriends, and kept in touch for another 12 years, meeting for interviews and at gigs.”

In his final years, Shelton took a humble job as arts critic for the Brighton Evening Argus. By now disillusioned with the muck-raking of journalism, and the trivialisation of the music industry, it was a downbeat end for the man Thomson calls “the father of popular music journalism”.

“In the late 50s and early 60s on the New York Times, Shelton was the only one writing seriously about popular music, jazz concerts and Woody Allen’s stand up gigs.

“He never capitalised on his fame or his past, and although Rotolo credits his review with launching Dylan’s career, he never claimed that he ‘discovered Dylan,’ he always said Dylan discovered himself. But it was a very perceptive review and I’m not sure anyone else would have got Dylan so quickly.

“When he and Dylan became friends it wasn’t thought of as ‘having access’ because there wasn’t a music business as such, it was a much more naive world. They were just part of the same circle. He regarded Dylan as a little brother, and Dylan trusted him. To the end, that trust was never breached.”