Before I’m Not There, There Was Great Jones Street

Two vehicles to explain what a slippery guy Bob Dylan's been over the years.

"I was interested in endings, in how to survive a dead idea." This quote comes from Bucky Wunderlick, the rock star hero of Don DeLillo's 1973 novel, Great Jones Street. But it could've easily come from Bob Dylan.

There's no question Dylan was DeLillo's model for the Wunderlick character; at the beginning of the book, the character quits a tour and goes into hiding. When his management and friends ask him to comment on the rumors of his disappearance (death, hospitalization, boating accident, etc.), Wunderlick responds: "They're all true." When they ask for a statement on his present whereabouts, he says: "I'm wherever you want me to be." When a reporter from Running Dog News Service (seemingly DeLillo's parody of Rolling Stone) asks, "Can we discuss your personal life?" Wunderlick says, "Sure we can. I won't be here while we're discussing it because I'm going out now. But you go right ahead. Everything you report will be true."

DeLillo wrote these words more than 30 years ago, after Bob Dylan had gone into hiding following the infamous "motorcycle accident" after the 1966 world tour. The rumor mill was in full swing about Dylan's whereabouts. Was it really an accident? Was he just strung out? Dead? No one has ever really known. But what is for sure is that when he re-emerged, he wasn't the wild-haired, hawk-eyed, mod-poet star anymore. He was half poet, half country gentleman; a guy in a wispy beard singing long-winded tales of biblical nature and singing alongside Johnny Cash in Nashville. In other words, a new Dylan.

This week, another "inspired-by-Dylan" work, Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There, will hit theaters (see review, p. 91). This is the highly anticipated and sure-to-be-controversial biopic for which Haynes hired six different actors to play Bob Dylan in various phases of his career. This is a genius vehicle for illustrating what an elusive figure Dylan's been over the years. He's a man whose early pursuit of fame and subsequent drive to remain famous has left him with no central core. Who is he? We'll never know. And it's a good bet he doesn't know anymore either. When DeLillo wrote Great Jones Street, Dylan had only reinvented his public image a couple of times. Haynes was fortunate in that he had 40-plus years of reinvention to work with. But DeLillo hinted at the shape-shifting to come when Wunderlick says: "It was important, I knew, never to fear the end of any line I might trace. I'd have to hand myself over to the structures that defined the time. Float on its clotted coil. Become obsessed with power and self-loathing. How else to remake myself, to pass the point I'd found, the proportion needed and feared, nothing to nothing." This contains shades of Dylan's own shift in the '70s, when he turned his back on everything and just decided to rake it in (in 1974, I believe he was paid more per concert than any other artist up to that point), to become part of the establishment his original fans wished so fervently to dismantle.

Dylan's whole model of self-reinvention is singularly American, and it's an important lesson in success; stay one step ahead of the pack, keep 'em guessing, never apologize, never explain. It's harsh, to be sure, and leads to a life as isolated as Dylan's. Both DeLillo and Haynes seized upon this aspect of fame, the side that's darker than simply leading a life of excess. But what does it say about those of us willing to keep watching him, to keep guessing while he stays one step ahead of us? Dylan is, as writer Amanda Petrusich put it in razor-sharp terms, "the boy who doesn't love us back." He's the solitary man, and we're just sulking in our bedrooms. But, as Bucky Wunderlick says: "Americans pursue loneliness in different ways."

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