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Monday, February 19, 2018

Chronicles, Volume 1

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 there was a lot of debate about whether song lyrics were literature. But it should be noted that Dylan has written a couple of books. He wrote a novel called Tarantula that by most accounts is incomprehensible, but his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, is very accessible and quite a joy to read.

Dylan has long remained a sphinx, unknowable and has often led people astray on who he is and where he came from. This work, while we can't know for sure if it's entirely true, does shine a bit of light on the man, talking about his parents and where he grew up (Hibbing, Minnesota, for the record). But we still can't say we know the man. He leaves us wanting more.

Chronicles is not a chronological autobiography. It contains five chapters, not necessarily in order, of different times in Dylan's life. Three of them concern his early days, another he is at the height of his fame, and another concerns something of a musical rebirth.

I hadn’t come in on a freight train at all. What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, ’57 Impala—straight out of Chicago, clearing the hell out of there—racing all the way through the smoky towns, winding roads, green fields covered with snow, onward, eastbound through the state lines, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, a twenty-four-hour ride, dozing most of the way in the backseat, making small talk. My mind fixed on hidden interests...eventually riding over the George Washington Bridge," he writes of his entry into New York City. He wanted to be a folk singer, and to meet Woody Guthrie, his hero. He would do both.

I've always wondered what it was like to be in Greenwich Village in the early sixties, when Dylan was playing coffee houses and passing the hat for money. He describes those days in terms both poetic and blunt: "Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffling around, bundled up—salesmen in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes." He would gain quick success, being signed to Columbia Records. He befriended people like Tiny Tim, Dave Van Ronk, and Joan Baez.

The chapter that is set in about 1969 finds him living in Woodstock, New York, and talking about his father, who had just passed. "My father was the best man in the world and probably worth a hundred of me, but he didn’t understand me. The town he lived in and the town I lived in were not the same." Dylan as father is a fascinating prospect, but he doesn't talk much about it, only that there didn't seem to be much discipline: "If they wanted to play basketball in the kitchen, they played basketball in the kitchen." I just can't wrap my mind around Bob Dylan, dad.

He did resent being labeled as spokesman of his generation: "I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I
was supposed to be the voice of."

I found the chapter entitled "Oh Mercy" to be the strongest. It is the late '80s, and Dylan is in a bad place. He has seriously injured his hand. After touring with Tom Petty and then the Grateful Dead, he is considering retiring from concerts. He plays only about twenty different songs, even when his band pleads for him to do others. But then he has a turnabout. He is taught how to play guitar differently (it has to do with even and odd numbers, but not playing guitar I don't understand it). He decided he would tour again, 250 dates a year, and not play the same songs for each concert.

He also records the album called Oh Mercy with producer Daniel Lanois in New Orleans. This is one of the most enlightening descriptions of the creative process I've ever read. Dylan relates how the songs came to him, and how they were recorded. He also throws in a side-trip he took to Mississippi with his wife on a motorcycle. The album would be a critical comeback for him.

The book isn't perfect, and my complaints are things Dylan was probably well aware of. He refers to his wife in two different chapters, but they are two different women (he isn't married to anyone now). Sometimes the prose is lazy, with cliches like "phoney baloney." But he turns out to be a master stylist. Here he is describing how he felt the first time he heard Guthrie: "Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room."

This book was published in 2004, and we're still waiting for Volume Two. Bob?

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