Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Bob Dylan --Chronicles -- Volume One

This surprisingly pleasant book chronicles some important events in Dylan’s career. The book begins with a quick telling of his childhood in Minnesota and an extremely romantic version of his first year or so in New York City, and ends with a Huck Finn version of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, and a re-telling of his first year in New York from another point of view.

In the middle, Dylan speaks about his time in Woodstock after his motorcycle crash, the making of the album New Morning, and the making of the album Oh Mercy. It is hard to know what to make of the middle three segments: Dylan writes about avoiding the press in Woodstock after his crash, but not about the height of his fame, and the middle of the 60s. I guess it is hard to write about the storm when you are sitting in the eye of it. Dylan writes about New Morning, but not Blonde on Blonde, where many of the same people also worked with Bob. Dylan starts a segment where it appears that he is going to talk about the Never-Ending Tour, an object of great interest to those of us who love Dylan, but were not part of the 60s, but then he drops it completely to talk about the making of Oh Mercy, an album that I am fond of, but hardly one of his more successful albums. Some of these middle passages contain pages of tough sledding, including an obscure section about the difference between odd-number and even-number music systems (huh). He has another section describing, in impossible detail, a motorcycle ride through the Louisiana bayou with a woman who Dylan refers to as his wife, but should not be mistaken for the other wife that he describes at great length earlier in the book. You have to think Bob was editing old notebooks, although the description of Bob attending the Frank Sinatra, Jr. concert in the Rainbow Room, circa 1969, is a hoot.

Maybe Bob will cover some of these missing topics in Chronicles Volume Two, assuming, of course, that there is a Chronicles Volume Two. I wouldn’t hold my breath. I will certainly run out to read Volume Two the first day that it comes out.

In the meantime, I will happily continue to re-read the New York City and Minnesota sections of Volume One. These chapters are really a history of the care and feeding of one of the most important minds (you can have your own opinion about good or bad, but you can’t argue important) of 20th-century America.

Long stretches of these chapters are devoted to Bob describing what he was reading, and what he was listening to at the time. Of greatest interest to me, of course, was the following passage:

“The New York Public Library … radiates triumph and glory when you walk inside … In one of the upstairs reading rooms I started reading articles in newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to about 1865 to see what daily life was like … It wasn’t like it was another world, but the same one only with more urgency, and the issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern … You wonder how people so united by geography and religious ideals could become such bitter enemies. After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. … It’s hard to find any of the neoclassical virtues, either. All that rhetoric about chivalry and honor – that must have been added later.”

You can’t know whether Dylan was really reading all that stuff in the reading room at the same time he was reading all the stuff he was claiming to read in the apartment of the people he was staying with, being exposed to all the music he says he was listening to, at the same time he was going like a meteor through the Greenwich Village folk scene, a co-worker of Tiny Tim, a protégé of Dave Van Ronk, a lover to Suze Rotolo, and a discovery of John Hammond. Maybe Dylan condensed a lifetime of reading and listening and learning into a few short months for narrative tension. Who cares? It was all really interesting.

I enjoyed all the sections where Dylan described his hunger to hear the obscure folk singers, most of them from the 20s, the old Folkways album crowd. I enjoyed his discussion about how he was listening to Robert Johnson and to the song “Pirate Jenny” at the time he was recording his first album.

I also enjoyed his discussion of the folk scene in both Minneapolis and New York in 1960 or so. Completely self-centered, and unconsciously, but relentlessly, competitive and ambitious, Dylan describes why he stopped being content with singing the old folk songs, and had to start writing his own songs. It is also interesting how many people help Dylan in this book, and being the object of all this attention, you can see, even now, how hard it must have been for Bob Dylan – both then and now -- to process it, to understand that not everyone is in Bob’s position – with a free couch to crash on every night, and not the same one every night.

It is a short book, and I have been fairly dismissive of half of it, but where the book cooks, where he discusses the Civil War, and Robert Johnson and Pirate Jenny, and his time in Minnesota and Greenwich Village, it touches something central. You can see that everyone reading it will come away with their own nugget, their own place where they can see how part of their head is like Bob Dylan’s, and wonder whether or not, somehow or other, Dylan was the cause of the change in your consciousness. If listening to The Basement Tapes or John Wesley Harding changed the nature of the music in my mind, became the thing that lead me to do my own writing about Ulysses Grant in the 1850s, or my recent decision to read and write a book review about James Buchanan.

You sense that Bob is putting you on a little bit, playing hide the ball, describing things accurately, but somehow misstating their relative importance in his scheme of things. Sort of like a carnival barker who showed you far less than he promised, but still showed you something so interesting that it is impossible to say that you were being ripped off.