For a few heady years in the Village, Shelton and Dylan were buddies; hanging out, often with their respective girlfriends—Suze Rotolo and Baez in Dylan’s case. The friendship did not prevent Shelton from being critical, in person and in print, sometimes to Dylan’s annoyance. But he was fairminded and he understood from the moment he first heard him perform at a Gerde’s hootenanny in June 1961 that Dylan mattered, that his was a talent like no other. His review led to a contract with Columbia Records. The biography he proposed over dinner on New Year’s Eve 1965 was never intended as a potboiler—but neither was it intended that it would take twenty years to write.
Shelton talked to everyone—childhood friends from Hibbing, including Echo Helstrom and Bonnie Beecher, the real “Girl from the North Country.” To fellow students from whom Dylan begged, stole, and borrowed money, records, and songs as he passed briefly through university in Minneapolis. To the vast coterie of musicians and poets who scuffled for dimes in now legendary Greenwich Village clubs and hung out in Washington Square Park. He studied all the poets, and seers, and mystics who had influenced Dylan. And Shelton was there, a witness to all the crucial moments of Dylan’s formative years: at Newport ’63, and at the celebrated Philharmonic Hall concert of Halloween 1964. At Newport ’65, when Dylan went electric. On the pivotal 1966 tour with the Hawks. At the Woody Guthrie memorial in 1968, and the Isle of Wight in 1969. They chatted for hours in Manhattan in 1971, during Dylan’s withdrawal from public life, and long into the night in London during the 1978 world tour.
No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan was eventually published in 1986, when Dylan’s career was at a low ebb. Shelton always said it had been “abridged over troubled waters,” a characteristic pun. He hoped one day to revisit the book that had become his lifetime’s work, but he died prematurely in 1995, at just sixty-nine. In 2011, for Dylan’s seventieth birthday, a much fuller version was published: the book as Shelton had wanted it in 1979, before rows with his publisher over both length and aesthetics. At its heart was the only first-hand account of Dylan’s formative Village years, restored in all its pointillist vibrancy. It also restored the interview with his parents, Abe and Beatty Zimmerman—Shelton was the only journalist to whom they talked, the man they called when news broke of Dylan’s motorcycle accident— and the remarkable freewheeling conversation between author and subject during a late-night flight amid the sturm und drang of Dylan’s 1966 world tour.
This new edition, marking Dylan’s eightieth birthday, will be read by a young audience for whom the sixties are ancient history, and who cannot appreciate the extent to which Dylan’s music—listened to on twelve-inch vinyl, not in a pick ’n’ mix of streamed tracks—defined a community. The heart of No Direction Home remains Shelton’s unique eyewitness account, which brings the Village and Dylan himself vividly to life. This edition retains all the crucial elements of the original text, but trims some of the exhaustive (and at times exhausting) detail about Dylan’s student life, the history of Woodstock as an arts colony, and the extensive highways and byways where Shelton explored and explained the lives of Dylan’s countless confrères. The signposts remain for those seeking to learn more, from albums and further reading, and the 2011 edition can still be found. For serious scholars, there’s now The Bob Dylan Archive at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
What has been excised from this new edition is Shelton’s album-by-album commentary, and the lengthy exegesis on Dylan as poet, which drew extensively on the emerging field of Dylan studies taking root on American campuses during the seventies. Even in 1986, Shelton was still battling to make the case for Dylan as “an extraordinary poet” and “an artist of transcendent historical importance.” Dylan was, Shelton argued, “a new species of poet remarrying speech and song,” and he sought witnesses for the defense.
That he was then acclaimed by some outliers as the American Yevtushenko, the American Brecht, or Homer in denim, is now neither here nor there. For in 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions with the great American song tradition.” To his last breath, Shelton felt he had to make the case for Dylan as a serious creative artist in the great twentieth-century pantheon, alongside Chaplin, Picasso, Beckett, Welles, and Brando. It’s now clear that the final arguments have been successfully made, the case closed. How sad Shelton did not live long enough to see the cultural benediction.