Bob Dylan approximately
Considering his iconic stature -- as arguably not only our best songwriter but also the world’s most influential living artist in any medium, a rock star’s rock star rumored to be in the running for a Nobel Prize in literature -- it’s surprising how little is known about Bob Dylan. He has written more than 500 published songs, many at least obliquely autobiographical; he plays more than 100 concerts a year, each chronicled and discussed as avidly as if Shakespeare were out there playing Hamlet; his work is scrutinized in at least 120 books and on 1.5 million websites, yet even devout Dylanologists are at a loss for such rudimentary information as whether he is currently married or what he does when he’s not working.
Publication of the first volume of his memoirs hence raises hopes that oxygen will at last come rushing into this old vacuum, producing not only facts but also some sense of what it’s like to be Bob Dylan. Such hopes are stalked, however, by two attendant doubts, reducible to style and content.
As to style, though Dylan’s vivid lyrics are succinct enough to be taught to journalism students as textbook examples of concision, his rare specimens of published prose -- consisting, in the main, of a few opaque album liner notes and the botched ‘60s novel “Tarantula” -- have been as out of control as a first-time driver speeding on ice. One might reasonably wonder whether Dylan would compose a competent memoir or a swampy curiosity comparable, say, to Yeats’ discursions on the occult.
Happily, “Chronicles: Volume One” lays that fear to rest. Informal and unadorned in tone, it is tersely focused, laconically witty and crammed with information. (Although the ‘60s are frequently and rather fatuously defined as an era you don’t remember if you were really there, Dylan, who was the Sun at its center, evidently remembers plenty.) It is graced by bursts of admirably apt description -- he refers to an elegant woman’s “illegible smile” and summons up “early singers who sang like they were navigating burning ships.” Its generally sprightly pace occasionally unwinds like an old pocket watch to accommodate slow, rambling scenes that make for some of the book’s most compelling passages -- and sometimes actually do hint at what it’s like to be Bob Dylan. One of these unhurriedly describes hours spent in an oddball curiosities shop in rural Louisiana. Saying goodbye, its proprietor asks, “Got everything you need, then?” Dylan’s reply: “Yeah, but I need some more.”
Content is a more serious concern. From the outset of his career, Dylan concealed himself behind a shifting assortment of distortions and outright deceptions. When a Columbia Records publicist interviewed him on the day he signed his first recording contract, Dylan claimed he was raised in Illinois, was kicked out by his parents and “rode a freight train” to New York -- along with other bunk he now acknowledges was “pure hokum -- hophead talk.” (“The press?” he writes. “I figured you lie to it.”) Has Dylan now come clean? If he hasn’t, of what use is an autobiography that conceals more than it reveals, and bends the truth into an artful ensemble of, well, lies? Rather than dealing with such questions directly, Dylan spins them into an extended rumination on the relationship between art, truth and falsehood. More about that in a moment.
“Chronicles” is apt to startle those inclined to pigeonhole Dylan. As a youth, he reports, he loved polka dances, identified with the white-bread crooner Ricky Nelson (“we have a lot in common”), “liked the Kingston Trio” and was captivated by the Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini hit “Moon River.” He was disappointed when Albert Grossman, who later became his manager, didn’t invite him to join the folk supergroup that Grossman concocted and named Peter, Paul and Mary. Rather than sneering at commercialism, as did so many of his counterculture contemporaries, Dylan was fond of radio ads (“Before I had ever gone into any department store, I was already an imaginary consumer”) and unperturbed by prime-time television. “The sociologists were saying that TV had deadly intentions and was destroying the minds and imaginations of the young -- that their attention spans were being dragged down,” he recalls. “Maybe that’s true but the three minute song also did the same thing.”
No folk purist, Dylan started out as a rocker, was thrilled when the professional wrestler Gorgeous George gave his band a passing nod (“It was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years to come”), and switched to folk music, trading his electric guitar straight-across for a Martin acoustic only after he learned that holding a rock band together is impractical when nobody’s getting paid. (Something of Dylan’s preoccupation with money, along with his pride in fronting for what he has rightly described as “some of the finest musicians in the world,” is traceable to these early humiliations.) Fond of modern jazz, he sang off-hours with Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor (“Cecil could play regular piano if he wanted to”) and introduced himself to Thelonious Monk, saying he “played folk music up the street,” to which Monk replied, “We all play folk music.” Dylan writes that he once dreamed of graduating from West Point and dying gloriously in battle, and that he raised his children to respect “America, the country of freedom and independence.” His favorite politician was Barry Goldwater, “who reminded me of Tom Mix.”
As a raw young singer hustling change in coffeehouses, Dylan recalls, “I did everything fast.” But he wanted to write songs too, and resolved that “I needed to slow my mind down if I was going to be a composer with anything to say.” He started hanging out in an upstairs reading room of the New York Public Library, reading hundreds of daily newspapers, circa 1855 to 1865, on microfilm. The Civil War, when “America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected ... would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
A sense of living history has haunted him ever since. Dylan invokes a cellar tavern he once visited near the Hudson River by noting that John Wilkes Booth used to drink there. Riding a motorcycle along the Mississippi River during a late-night recording-session break, he stops to survey the lowlands where, in the Battle of New Orleans, “Andrew Jackson and his ragtag army of pirates, Choctaws, free blacks, lawyers and merchants militia defeated Britain’s finest, sent them back out to sea for good.” He “paused momentarily” while passing Walt Whitman’s house in New York, “imagining him printing away and singing the true song of his soul. I had stood outside of Poe’s house on 3rd Street, too, and done the same thing, staring mournfully up at the windows.”
Dylan’s purpose in such passages is less to identify himself with poets and heroes of the past than to mirror the way he sees his work, as a matter of creating new things from old materials. He has some fun with this dynamic. “The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in,” he recalls. “What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line.” Later he adds, “It was said that World War II spelled the end of the Age of Enlightenment, but I wouldn’t have known it. I was still in it.”
Suitably for an author so deeply involved in the dialogue between past and present, Dylan structures “Chronicles” as slices of narrative -- which he has since compared to cards in a deck -- that shuffle back and forth over the years, leaping across decades. (Presumably the missing years are to surface in the memoir’s remaining two contemplated volumes.) If reassembled in chronological order, it consists of three main acts -- his early days as a struggling unknown in Minnesota and Manhattan, his retreat to Woodstock as a beleaguered superstar, and, decades later, his efforts to rekindle his lagging creativity.
The New York City sequences are remarkable for revealing Dylan’s sunny good cheer -- previously a well-kept secret -- and for a generous recounting of his artistic influences, from Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Dylan strives to make many of the more than 230 musicians he names come alive and graciously tips his hat to scores of people who first gave him a helping hand. There’s little here yet of the angry young man who would redefine the boundaries of songwriting with lines like the snarling opening of “Positively Fourth Street”: “You got a lotta nerve / to say you are my friend / When I was down / You just stood there grinning” -- to which Joni Mitchell’s first reaction was, “You can sing about anything now.”
Things get darker in Act Two. Unwillingly dubbed the spokesman for his generation, Dylan has retreated to Woodstock to escape legions of fans drawn to him like moths to a blowtorch, but it doesn’t work. “Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs of dropouts and druggies,” he writes. “Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night.... [R]ogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest began to arrive -- unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party.” Alarmed, Dylan arms himself with a brace of repeater pistols and a clip-fed Winchester, but “it was awful to think about what could be done with those things,” he writes. Besides, the chief of police “had told me that if anyone was shot accidentally or even shot at as a warning, it would be me that would be going to the lockup.... I wanted to set fire to these people.”
Act Three opens in 1987 on a middle-aged Dylan so burned out onstage that he can reliably perform no more than two dozen of his songs. (This can happen more readily than one might think. Playing rock, like playing in the NFL, is a high-stakes game of coolness and sweat, deftness and deafening spectacle that can burst at any seam.) Touring with Tom Petty, Dylan is dismayed. Although he is collecting “one more big payday,” he finds himself “no longer capable of doing anything radically creative” with most of his songs. “Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine,” he writes. “Try as I might, the engines wouldn’t start.”
He goes into rehearsals with the Grateful Dead in San Rafael, Calif., only to find the Dead eager to play more of his repertoire and unwilling to take no for an answer. Stammering an excuse, Dylan flees into the rainy night before a note has been played. Walking aimlessly down Front Street, he wanders into a tiny, narrow bar where, listening to an old jazzman sing, he suddenly has a vision of how he might take a new approach to performing.
He returns to the rehearsal hall and gives it a try. “At first it was hard going, like drilling through a brick wall. All I did was taste the dust. But then miraculously something internal came unhinged.” Soon, Dylan is asking his agent to book him no fewer than 200 gigs, with a different playlist every night. He’s been on the road in that fashion ever since. The transformation “was revelatory,” he writes. “I played these shows with The Dead and never had to think twice about it. Maybe they just dropped something in my drink, I can’t say, but anything they wanted to do was fine with me. I had that old jazz singer to thank.”
Good story. Can we believe it?
Which brings us back to Dylan’s meditations on truth. “Chronicles” is in large part a paean to folk singing, which Dylan characterizes as “a parallel universe ... more true to life than life itself.” But, he adds, “folk songs are evasive.” They offer “the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be.” Their lesson? “If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that.”
Reflecting on these lines and my own long-standing fascination with Dylan, I drove to San Rafael late the other night and walked down Front Street in the rain, looking for a bar that might match Dylan’s description of the aging jazz singer’s venue. My search ended a half block short of San Rafael Creek. Damned if the old joint wasn’t still there. *
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