Masks are central to Dylan's career, as he adopted a variety of personae throughout his 40-year-plus career. No popular artist has perplexed and infuriated audiences more - by going electric, going Christian, going Hollywood or simply refusing to play his songs "right." When he appeared on the Grammy Awards broadcast in 1991, he performed a punk-hard "Masters of War" that was all but unrecognizable. So it's anybody's guess as to what the collective approach will be from the impressive lineup of artists gathering to honor "Zimmy"'s 68th birthday this Saturday, May 16 at the Kleinert/James Arts Center in Woodstock. (For the record, his birthday is May 24.)
Dylan's longtime buddy and former neighbor, the legendary performer, writer and educator Happy Traum, will lead the affair, which is also a benefit for the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. Singer/songwriters including Kelleigh McKenzie, Andy Friedman and Doug Yoel (who also runs the forward-looking RKM division of Now Forward Music) will be among those performing. There will be raffles for Dylan tickets, rare recordings, limited-edition photos and other wondrous artifacts for Dylan fans and aficionados.
Sorting out the many faces of Bob could be its own academic discipline - Dylanology - and it's an industry that has been working overtime since 1997, when Dylan returned to creative form with Time out of Mind. Since then, books have been written on "Like a Rolling Stone," Blood on the Tracks, the Rolling Thunder Revue and his Greenwich Village days (one by girlfriend-at-the-time Suze Rotolo). Martin Scorsese joined the Dylanology business when he produced the retrospective documentary No Direction Home in 2005.
Amazon.com lists more than 14,000 books on Bob Dylan, so amateur Dylanologists better renew their library cards if they plan to get serious. You can't read them all, but here are some starting places:
The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus: Marcus boldly discusses music as having a life of its own in the larger culture, and has been hugely influential over a generation of critics. Besides enticing a lot of people to buy bootlegs of the complete Basement Tapes, Marcus found a way to discuss Dylan that didn't limit him, pin him to single motivations or make him seem smaller for the effort.
The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray: Gray disguises his book of Dylan criticism as a reference book, and often a funny and pointed one. You won't curl up in bed with it, but if you pull it out to look something up, you'll stay with it to read another entry or five.
ExpectingRain.com: This outpost for contemporary Dylanology has a community that regularly posts links to news stories, set lists and concert reviews. Dylan doesn't simply live in the past; neither should you.
Chronicles by Bob Dylan: The man in these pages is far from the punk who incited a riot at Newport in 1966 when he plugged in his electric guitar. He's your pal, a little unsure of himself and wowed by this big ol' world. I don't believe this represents his authentic voice any more than I believe the other personae do, but it's an entertainingly odd one - particularly when he talks about recording "Oh Mercy" in New Orleans.
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews edited by Jonathan Cott: There's no substitute for Dylan in his own words, and the Playboy interview included here loaned a lot of dialogue to I'm Not There.
On the Road with Bob Dylan by Larry Sloman and Kinky Friedman: This account of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue sets Dylan in the midst of a traveling circus and shows more casual and cruel sides of him than we're used to.
The show this Saturday, May 16 at the Kleinert/James Arts Center in Woodstock starts at 8 p.m. and is a steal at just $15. For more information, log on to www.woodstockguild.org or call (845) 679-2079.