||A Review of: Chronicles: Volume One
by Lyall Bush
I live in Seattle, and on November 3, I was reeling from an election
result that didn't surprise me yet managed to leave me stunned. In
the evening I finally put on some Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited,
his still strange and unsettling record from 1965 that is also one
of the towering pop artifacts of the 20th Century. Every time I
listen to the music I understand American life better. In every
song the assured 24-year-old was reinventing popular music and also
making a new world out of trance-inducing quadruple rhymes and
sliding, fragmentary story shapes in which Gypsy Davey, Noah's great
rainbow, Miss Lonely, chrome horses, and the mystery tramp all meet
and move in Jack Kerouac's lyric hipsterisms, Walt Whitman's cadences,
Arthur Rimbaud's visions. Most importantly for a post-election
hangover, I was discovering Dylan's suturing of potent language and
swirling music again. Together they seemed to form their own defense
against deranging power:
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home.
That's how "Ballad of a Thin Man" opens, amid heavy piano
chords, and culminating in the famous chorus, "Because something
is happening here / But you don't know what it is / Do you, Mister
Jones?" If I had to identify just one kernel of Bob Dylan's
musical genius it would be in his deep understanding of self and
its fractions: listen once and Mister Jones might seem to be, say,
a clueless super patriot in a red state. Listen twice and it's me:
"You try so hard," he sings, laughing over the lines.
"But you don't understand."
Dylan's pop genius exploded continuously over eight albums between
1963 and 1968, and they affected everyone from the poets of Greenwich
Village to the Beatles, whose writing deepened and grew adult after
listening to Dylan. Writers studied his lyrics, filmmakers followed
him, weekly magazines tried to draw portraits of him. From one photo
to the next he seemed a different man with a different face. He
wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Hard Rain"
when he was 23. When he was 24 and 25 so many songs came to him
that he began to write everywhere-in cars, trains, and in backstage
rooms with milling people. He turned his back, famously, on folk
music, and then on electric music. He became a Christian for the
full decade of the 1980s, and when his religiosity seemed to fade
he found the producer Daniel Lanois, who helped him make new music
greasy with darkness and death, ticklingly humorous, deadly grim.
In 40 years he has written over 700 songs, the finest of which seem
to many people to have come out of the same head waters as Hank
Williams's writing, but with the rapturous lyrics that put you in
mind of literature. Listeners think of Emerson, T.S. Eliot, Andre
Breton. But he sounds like no one else.
He was overtly political only until 1964, when he demonstrated a
dazzlingly complete absorption of the roots music on Harry Smith's
six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music. After 1964 his politics
all moved indoors. The lyrics grew gnomic, romantic, trancelike,
private, and yet it was this turn that brought him his status as a
prophet whose music laid out the nation's interior monologue:
Don't put on any airs when you're down
On Rue Morgue Avenue
- "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues"
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
- "Desolation Row"
And Louise holds a handful of rain
Tempting you to defy it.
- "Visions of Joanna"
It's not until late in Chronicles, which is being advertised as
Volume One of a three-part autobiography, that the few episodes
that Dylan works to describe in the book become clear. He is trying
to re-create his life on paper by recounting what happened when he
first arrived in New York in 1961, at 20. In that first year he met
everyone, played at the Caf Wha? and the Gaslight, signed onto
Columbia Records and within a year began to write original songs
that would take up permanent residence in the culture. Chronicles
underscores that Dylan took his deepest inspirations from what Greil
Marcus called "the old, weird America"; he wanted to take
old Appalachian murder ballads and black man's banjo music and use
their earthy power to drive a wedge into beautiful and empty songs
like Ricky Nelson's "Travelin' Man." Dylan met the
scholar-singers in New York, too, and he knew early on that he
didn't want their purity. Instead, he wanted to push various kinds
of music together in his songs like furniture: the social outrage
in Woody Guthrie, for example, might meet the sexual explosiveness
of Little Richard ("Like a Rolling Stone") and produce
something utterly grown up-cynical, worldly, funny, mean, romantic,
sympathetic-that was what a real traveling man could sing. Weird,
old America had to meet new, weird America.
So that's where it begins. Thereafter Chronicles follows a chronology
much the way the Old Testament does. After the initial episode of
his signing with Columbia Records, he circles back to his arrival
in New York in a freezing January, where we learn that he spent
long hours at the Folklore Center listening to the old music. We
hear that he couch-surfed at different places in the Village where
he also read everything: in one four-page burst the list of books
he says he read is astonishing: Rousseau, Ovid and Poe; the Greek
classics, Lord Byron, Shelley and Balzac; Dostoevsky and Dickens;
the Inferno. "The books were something," Dylan writes.
"They were really something." You can see how his early
saturated lyrics must have come out of this scrounging from borrowed
libraries. The rich catalogues in "Hard Rain" make a
magpie weave of Woody Guthrie, the Old Testament and Dante-the books
Dylan's sense of storytelling in Chronicles is a songwriter's, which
is to say that it's circular and recursive. Two middle chapters
wander into the 1970s and the 1980s before they return to New York
in 1961. The book is, as a result, unevenly interesting. The chapter
on how he made 1989's "Oh Mercy" is largely forgettable.
But there are spots in which the writing holds you, where it is
clear-eyed and lovely. Here is one short passage in which Dylan
describes his response to reading Vom Kriege, Karl Von Clausewitz's
Romantic-era book about war. Writing at 63, Dylan captures some of
his 20-year-old self: "Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet.
Without realizing it, some of the stuff in his book can shape your
ideas. If you think you're a dreamer, you can read this stuff and
realize you're not even capable of dreaming. Dreaming is dangerous.
Reading Clauswitz makes you take your own thoughts a little less
At 20 he was open to a hard-eyed pragmatic, philosophical book about
war that taught him the value of self-doubt and of seeing external
events in terms of his inner life. Chronicles could use more insights
like this. But I'll take the scraps he gives us here; and hope that,
as he sings in "Stuck Inside of Mobile", that this isn't
really the end.