Originally published in the mid 1980s, Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, a portrait of the Bob Dylan’s career through the late ‘70s, was met with wide acclaim (and, to be fair, some derision). Shelton’s immersive portrait was an exemplary take on what an artist’s biography could be. As a member of Dylan’s circle of friends, Shelton was there at pivotal moments both public and private, sharing details of his reactions to press, late-night musings, and behind-the-scenes gossip. Interviews with Dylan’s family and friends from Hibbing, Minn., fellow musicians, and compatriots in college and his early days in New York paint a much more human portrait of the songwriter as an impassioned, sensitive performer, far removed from the aloof, sunglass-wearing star who spoke in riddles with a marked disdain for interviewers. In celebration of the book’s 25th anniversary and Dylan’s 70th birthday, Backbeat Books is rereleasing the book with an additional 20,000 words that were cut from the original manuscript. The expanded version was edited by Elizabeth Thompson and Patrick Humphries, fellow Dylan experts and friends of Shelton. The result is a sparkling, fascinating look at Robert Zimmerman the human being as well as Bob Dylan, the artist he would become.
How long did you know Shelton?
I met him just after I graduated from college at a Dylan event in 1979. Someone asked me if I’d met Robert Shelton and just at that moment he walked in and we chatted and he got in touch. As he did with lots of people—he got me involved with lots of projects he was engaged in and with and then, eventually on the book. I knew him until he died in December of 1995, when I arranged for what remained of his archive to go to Liverpool University and subsequently arranged a memorial service for him. It was a long and not always easy friendship. I knew him for 15 years.
What were his feelings about the first edition of the book?
He always felt it was “abridged over troubled waters,” which is a very Shelton pun. He wrote too much and he wanted it to be published as two volumes and [the publisher] didn’t want to do that. So I think he died really disappointed by the whole thing. It wasn’t unsuccessful when it came out—it received a good deal of praise, but it wasn’t the book that Shelton hoped to publish. He strived to make it a different sort of cultural biography and by the time he was serious about publishing it, it was the year of Sir Albert Goldman and the tell-all biography. And rock biographies in particular had a very debased coinage by that stage. He was trying very hard to maintain his standards and keep the bar set high.
Shelton gets a little carried away at times when putting Dylan’s cultural significance in perspective, occasionally overstating his importance. Was it tempting to take out some of the book’s more melodramatic passages?
I did cut into it some. But he felt strongly about that. I felt that if I cut too deeply it would have been a betrayal of his wishes because that was what he thought was the heart of the book. Now, in 2011, the case has been made for Dylan as a serious artist. But in the ’70s and ’80s, when Shelton was writing, that wasn’t the case. So in a sense, that aspect of the book is very dated. But because he felt so passionately about it, I felt it would be wrong to slash really deeply.
How long did it take you to reintegrate the original content?
It was six months of really solid work. I sat with a scanned copy of the original edition on my right and the manuscript on my left. In a lot of cases I wasn’t restoring big chunks; I was actually putting [the original text] back in line by line. The opening chapter is a case in point. The text had been edited but it wasn’t much shorter; it just lost some of the resonance with which Shelton wrote. To be sure, he could be flowery or overextended, but he often found exactly the right words to say what he wanted to say. So I tried to ensure that his tone of voice comes through a little more strongly than it did in the first edition.
What got left out?
There’s still stuff that’s not in for a variety of reasons. He over-researched terribly so. There’s much more stuff on Woodstock than what I put back; there’s much more on Woody Guthrie in the ‘30s. But I think all that gives Dylan context and color. Shelton thought history and context mattered. So you can argue that it’s peripheral and that it’s another book, but I think it was important that it go in. You could argue that some of it could have been trimmed further. It was a difficult balancing act deciding what was being faithful to the memory of Shelton and his intent and creating a book that was manageable.
How was Shelton able to stay objective, given his relationship with Dylan?
Part of the reason he left New York to come to London was to remain objective. He felt people were looking over his shoulder there and trying to keep him in line. Some critics will argue that he wasn’t very objective. And indeed, there were times I felt that way. But he’s not really taking sides. He’s offering you a portrait of the times. It’s cinema vérité. You’re there. It was a set of standards with him. A code of ethics. He always said, “I don’t want to sell off the relics of a friend.” He felt very strongly about that, the more publishers pressured him; one publisher wrote in the margin, “you’d get more if you said Dylan was homosexual.” Shelton wrote, “and I’d get more still if I said he was a murderer.” There was a constant battle for Shelton to tell more. Not necessarily the truth, but to make it more of a tabloid tell-all. And Shelton was adamant that he wasn’t going to sell a friend down the river.
Do you think it would be possible for a book like this to be created today?
No. That’s one of the things that struck me when I was going through this. It was such an innocent age. It’s hard to imagine now what the press was like then. For example, the scene by the plane in Lincoln, Neb.; there were fans by the plane on the tarmac. You couldn’t have that happen today due to security reasons. You couldn’t have that access. Dylan didn’t have a press agent for years. It was only when things seriously began to be too much that the drawbridge came up. Everything’s so controlled now, and not just with rock stars, regarding what anyone can write. Shelton never wanted this book to be authorized by Dylan and never sought his authorization. The agreement was always that Shelton would have access to friends and family. No one else interviewed the parents or the brother.
Has Dylan ever commented on the book?
Not to my knowledge. In 1986 Dylan was in London filming that terrible movie “Hearts of Fire” and Shelton was summoned to his trailer. I met Shelton for a drink afterwards and he said, “that was Bob saying [the book] is OK.”