Get Sick, Get Well. Hang Around an Inkwell
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Columbia RecordsI held off reading the first volume of Dylan's memoirs for a while, afraid it'd be as muddle-headed as his prose usually is. In my first flush of love for Dylan back in my teens, I'd slogged through his first book, Tarantula, too intimidated at the time to admit its stupefying badness. Like all Dylanites, I puzzled over the liner notes to albums such as Planet Waves and John Wesley Harding, wondering if all that free-associating added up to anything. (Nope.) Though with his past two albums, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, he's pulled off one of the latest and greatest artistic comebacks of any pop artist, I still can't forget how distant, even solipsistic, Dylan seemed on his last tour: there he was, center stage at Staples, gazed at and revered by upward of 10,000 fans, but for all the attention he paid to putting the music across to us, he could have been going through the afternoon sound check.
Even though I kept eyeing the book at stores, I waited—waited while I kept hearing good things about it, about the book's generosity, its evocation of time and place, its quick-draw revelations, and—surprise—its clarity. And it turns out the book is generous, evocative, revelatory and (mostly) clear. It's also one of the strangest, most purposefully evasive and impersonal memoirs I've ever read, and if the Volume 1 wasn't appended to its title, promising future chapters of his story to fill in the gaping holes he's left, I'd be fatally confused.
For better and for worse, then, this is vintage Bob. The book could be subtitled, "My fascinating beginnings, and a lot about my least interesting years." Here's the structure of the book: the first two sections take us through Dylan's by-now-mythical journey from his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, to Greenwich Village and his first years on the folk scene there. And these sections don't disappoint. (Dylan doesn't mark the years, incidentally: the title Chronicles is almost a joke, given Dylan's sweet shamanistic disregard of calendar time.) Section Three is about his post-motorcycle-accident years (for non-shamans, that's post-'66 through about 1970), when he was raising his family, avoiding his own legacy and making gentle fluff like New Morning. Section Four starts in 1986, when he hit a creative nadir touring with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, then partially worked his way back up by writing and recording Oh Mercy. The last section goes retrospective again, to Greenwich Village and his signing to Columbia Records by John Hammond.
Now, Dylan may be fucking with us here. There is hardly a word about the two most productive periods of his life: about the string of albums—from Bob Dylan in 1962 through John Wesley Harding in 1967—that re-routed folk- and rock-music history for good and about that period from 1974 through 1984 when Dylan did his historic tour with the Band; recorded great or near-great albums such as Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Infidels; and went through his he-really-needs-to-explain-this Christian period ('79 to '82). Each time I picked up my jaw after reading Dylan pass over the most vital periods of his life and career, I thought, "He's only writing what he feels he understands and leaving the rest for later, if ever." What went on after Dylan boldly picked up the folk mantle from Woody Guthrie's deathbed in 1967; what went on when he decided to fuse folk with rock at the Newport Folk Festival; what went on when he combined rock and Rimbaud in Highway 61 Revisited; what went on as he became rock's first great image changeling in order to preserve some semblance of a private self as his fame reached epic proportions? All that is skipped.
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Frustrating as hell, of course, though what he has written about is sometimes as brilliant and funny and sharply observed and bizarre and in-the-grain American as his best records are. Dylan's a great portraitist: there are countless one-paragraph descriptions of people he met in the Village that are fabulously economical and evocative—they're like Picasso's tossed-off pen-and-ink sketches. He also has amazing sense memory: recalling a meeting with Lou Levy, the executive who signed him to his first publishing contract more than 40 years ago, he writes, "Levy was starting and stopping his tape machine—diamond ring gleaming off his pinky finger—cigar smoke hanging in the blue air. The place was like a room used for interrogation, a fixture like a fruit bowl hanging overhead and a couple of lamps, some brass ones on floor stands. Below my feet, a patterned wood floor." The book is filled with this kind of description—particularly in his brilliant travelogue about New Orleans—flash images that you get a sense Dylan's mind is stuffed with, whose meanings are unclear to him but which he's always playing with, hoping to turn them into account, hopefully into song.
What's even better is Dylan's many encomiums to masters of American music who inspired and guided him. Woody Guthrie: "All these songs together . . . it made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. . . . He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. . . . He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it, and it would come out like a punch." Robert Johnson: "I copied Johnson's words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and the patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction. . . . If I hadn't heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down." Johnny Cash: "Ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he's at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious, obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with anger." He celebrates all over the place: much of the book is a patchwork of love letters to Joan Baez, Hank Williams, Bono, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Dave Van Ronk. Maybe the truest thing that emerges from Chronicles, in fact, is Dylan's devotion to the American musical tradition—he's still a grave and happy student who was saved from Hibbing's slate-gray skies and stifling provinciality by music that "exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked up by it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm."
And then again, there are all those holes. Not just the chronological ones, either—those can be, theoretically at least, addressed in future volumes. What you miss here is any genuine sense of Dylan's inwardness outside the realm of music. This is a man who mentions his "wife" in one section, and then his "wife" in another section, and doesn't bother to point out they're different women. This is a man who can ramble on about playing in the snow as a boy, but can barely get a sentence out about his mother. This is a man who spends 50 pages writing about the making of the respectable but unremarkable Oh Mercy and doesn't even suggest, "Yeah, I know, I really ought to be doing this about Blonde on Blonde." Chronicles, Volume 1 is, again for better and worse, what we expect from Bob Dylan, who's as pure a product of America as Huck Finn, Woody Guthrie, Dean Moriarty, Augie March and James Dean: his senses exhilaratingly blown through by the country's wide-open spaces, his mind still innocently excited to red-hot embers by the most serendipitous of events, his heart still riotous and mysteriously unknowable—most of all, it seems, to himself.
Chronicles, Volume 1 by Bob Dylan; Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 304 pages, $24.
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