Dylan’s surprising ‘Chronicles’
Bob Dylan has worn – suffered, he would likely put it – numerous labels and faces since striking like a thunderbolt on the music scene in 1961. In his latest incarnation, as a memoirist, it was inevitable that another facet of Dylan’s complex persona would be revealed, and anybody’s guess what sort of character that would be.How about all-around good guy, dedicated above all to his family, with nary a bad word to say about anyone? In “Chronicles, Volume One” (Simon & Schuster; 293 pp.), Dylan heaps praise on virtually everyone he comments on: early girlfriends, the folk singers he met upon his arrival in Greenwich Village; obvious influences like Woody Guthrie, and less obvious ones like wrestler Gorgeous George. There is little trace of the acid wit, the put-down artist or the aloof genius here; the meanest Dylan gets is to say he wasn’t interested in, or existed on a different plane from other artists and writers. He has favorable things to say about the Kingston Trio, the sort of buttoned-down folk group against which Dylan was supposedly revolting, and names as his favorite politician Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate and conservative senator from Arizona who campaigned against the Civil Rights Act.Dylan sees himself as nobody so special – and certainly not the conscience of a generation, a tag he loathed and feared so much that he claims he began making intentionally lousy records in the hopes that the press and public would knock him from that mantle. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation I was supposed to be the voice of,” he writes. Dylan makes little of his view of world news – he barely even mentions such presumably character-defining events as the Kennedy assassinations and the Cuban missile crisis – and still less of his desire to be a shaper of public opinion. Repeatedly he points out that current events meant little to him, and that he felt more in tune with and more interested in the past. Old songs, old books, old wars, says Dylan, occupied his mind more than the social upheaval that was happening in front of his own eyes. He felt a particular kinship with the enlightenment-era writers: “Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Montesquieu, Martin Luther … it was like I knew those guys, like they’d been living in my backyard.”Perhaps the only thing that distinguished Dylan in his own mind was his obsession with folk music. His early days in New York seem to have been consumed entirely by listening to music, talking to fellow musicians and folk-club owners, dissecting songs and working his way into the Greenwich Village scene. And what ultimately turned Robert Zimmerman, a Jewish boy from the North Country of Hibbing, Minnesota, into Bob Dylan, was the growing realization that there was within him a form of self-expression that didn’t exist anywhere else, and definitely not in folk music. If there is a thread of a story line in “Chronicles”‘ stream-of-consciousness approach, it is Dylan’s wrestling with the need to break with folk tradition and write his own songs. After a year in New York, Dylan, spellbound by the combination of bluesman Robert Johnson, his first love Suze Rotolo, and the Brecht-Weil tune “Pirate Jenny,” felt the pull of songwriting: “My little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral.”Though remarkably readable, “Chronicles” has little discernible structure. The first of three planned volumes does focus on the formative years, but jumps from incident to influence to inspiration. Inexplicably, the lengthiest segment of the book concerns the making of “Oh Mercy,” Dylan’s 1989 album produced in a constant push-and-pull with producer Daniel Lanois. And those looking for details on the fabled chapters of the Dylan saga can forget it. The notorious Woodstock motorcycle accident, for instance, gets exactly one sentence. Instead, readers get great insight into the making of the middling 1970 album “New Morning,” which began as an attempt to write songs for “Scratch,” a play by poet Archibald MacLeish.Most interesting are two episodes which penetrate Dylan’s struggle to remain creatively inspired and artistically relevant. One involves the Dead: Rehearsing for the 1987 Dylan & the Dead tour, the Dead pushed Dylan to re-learn a vast repertoire of his songs, many of them long neglected. Dylan was forced to face his magical past and his downbeaten present: “I couldn’t see how I could get this stuff off emotionally,” he wrote. “I felt like a goon and didn’t want to stick around.” Looking to escape, Dylan wandered off and landed in a jazz club, where the anonymous singer unknowingly unlocked Dylan’s creative door: “It was like the guy had an open window to my soul. … I could feel how he worked at getting his power, what he was doing to get at it.” Dylan returned to the Dead’s rehearsal studio and embarked on his road back to inspiration.The process of rediscovering his voice reached a spiritual peak a few months later, at a concert in Locarno, Switzerland. Having lost, in mid-concert, whatever bump he had experienced with the Dead, Dylan reached down and found a new level of artistry: “It was like a thoroughbred had crashed through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension.””Chronicles” is Dylan at his most straightforward; paradoxically, this adds a layer of complexity to the icon. How are we to square this goodfellow with the writer of such acerbic songs as “Positively 4th Street” and “Idiot Wind,” and a song loaded with contemporary politics, like “Neighborhood Bully?” The book continues at least one consistent thread of the Dylan story; it defies easy expectations. Dylan doesn’t use the ink to settle scores, pronounce on the state of the world or untangle the mystery of his lyrics. “Chronicles” makes it clear how Dylan seems himself – not as a visionary, sociopolitical analyst or spokesman for the counterculture, but as a musician fiercely dedicated (usually) to his craft.There are, of course, two volumes still to come, meaning two more faces of Dylan yet to be glimpsed.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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