Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I will wager that when Bob Dylan turned in the manuscript for Chronicles: Volume One to the editors and Simon & Schuster, it contained four, not five chapters. The fifth, "River of Ice,” originally must have been woven into what we now have as the first chapter, “Markin’ Up the Score.” Both cover the same territory – Dylan’s time in Minnesota prior to his arrival on the streets of New York. What remains of that first chapter up at the book’s front is anticipatory, the excitement of embarking on the great adventure of a young man’s life. What is now the fifth chapter covers Dylan’s initial discovery of the music of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson & Brecht's Pirate Jenny, coming to realize what Dylan’s commitments to music really mean, "loading up" as he says in advance of finally becoming a songwriter.


While Dylan was already committed to folk music – it’s guitar-centric acoustic tradition fit in better with a kid fresh out of high school living in a $30 a month apartment better than attempting to be a pianist who only knew how to play piano in the key of C, backing up Bobby Vee; Dylan was already playing around Minneapolis with Spider John Koerner (later to be part of Koerner, Glover & Ray, the best of the white-boy-play-country-blues acts in the folk revival of the sixties) – what Guthrie meant to Dylan wasn’t an extension of folk nearly so much as it was the idea that a man could write his own music & sing literally about current events. (About the only pop singer who sang his own songs during that period was Neil Sedaka.) Dylan describes his recognition of the possibility as if it were Ginsberg’s vision of William Blake. Suddenly Dylan’s impulses all fit together.


Dylan had already assumed that he would be using a stage name – elsewhere in Chronicles he discusses the logic by which Robert Allen Zimmerman took on the name Bob Dylan – he wasn’t even used to being called Bob at the time – tho he never mentions why. It was, of course, common enough in the 1950s for actors to turn themselves into different persona (Marion Morrison becoming John Wayne, Norma Jean Archer becoming Marilyn Monroe). Blues musicians had their own tradition – McKinley Morganfield becoming Muddy Waters, Chester Arthur Burnett turning into Howlin’ Wolf, Riley B. King taking on the nickname Blues Boy, then shortening it to B.B. When Dylan, on the spur of the moment, turned himself into Elston Gunnn in order to back up Bobby Vee’s band, The Shadows, Vee & his brothers were still going by their real surname, Velline.¹ Dylan had expected, he writes, simply to call himself Robert Allen. Then he became conscious of just how common that combination was & thought to change it instead to Robert Allyn. The “y” tho made him aware of how the last name had no strong consonants, all liquids & schwas. So he took Dylan Thomas’ first name & tried that. Now the hard “D” made him rethink the more formal two-syllable Robert, & thus he arrived at Bob.


The process, as Dylan describes it, is exactly how a poet thinks through the composition of a line or phrase. Dylan doesn’t seem to recognize this as an instance of writing, any more than he acknowledges that the name’s biggest effect – at least at first – was to make a WASP out of a kid who had grandparents who had been born in Odessa & in Turkey.


Dylan’s prose has improved immensely from the days of Tarantula, which I recall as being weak, even as an imitation of William Burroughs. It’s still rough hewn, tho, and very much a creature of an education that coalesced in the 1960s. Almost any paragraph will demonstrate my point:


One time Clayton and myself came in late and Ray was asleep in a big chair – he looked like he was asleep in the room with the light on his face – dark hollows under his eyes, face caked with sweat. It looked like he was dreaming a dead dream. We just stood there. Paul is tall, has dark hair, Vandyke beard, resembles Gauguin the painter. Paul takes a deep breath and seems to hold it forever and then he turns around and leaves.


This is part of a longer passage focusing on Ray Gooch, an opium smoker with a serious gun collection & a fondness for Faulkner & Marx with whom Dylan stayed for a time in the early 1960s. Paul Clayton was a folksinger in the circle around Dave Van Ronk. The paragraph itself makes no narrative contribution to the larger story Dylan is telling – it’s just coloring. Its purpose seems to be to capture a visual image Dylan wants to convey. Yet Dylan never develops his relationship with Clayton in the book – tho he seems to have gotten the tune for “Don’t Think Twice” from him – and the total lack of any detail on Gooch or his girlfriend Chloe Kiel anywhere outside of Dylan’s book has caused some reviewers to presume it’s a pseudonym or composite. It looked like he was dreaming a dead dream strikes me as being a very typical Dylan move: evocative without actually providing content. Its prosody is strong, based on hard consonants & reiteration. Further on, Dylan needs to spell out not just that Clayton resembles Gauguin, but Gauguin the painter, as tho the allusion might be obscure. This is not the prose of somebody who’s read a lot of deconstruction, or so far as I can tell, any serious writing not already widely in circulation among college students in the 1960s. On the one hand, this keeps Dylan’s prose from coming across as tamed, but on the other it has a curious time capsule quality to it, as tho you’d just discovered a new book by Hubert Selby, Jr. or Edward Dahlberg.


Like these depictions of Gooch & Clayton, Dylan’s book is filled with colorful characters, quite like his songs, tho in fact only once does it really engage even half seriously with his relationship with another person, Daniel Lanois, who produced Oh Mercy. Dylan never sees eye-to-eye with Lanois, before, during or after the recording & much of the chapter named for that album is about learning to give up control in the process of collaboration. Even here, Dylan offers no real insight into what he means by “I was incapable of taking a lot of his emotional trips seriously.” And a reader who comes to this book with no knowledge of Dylan, whether from another culture or some distant future, is apt to come away with the presumption that there has been a single, unnamed wife referenced throughout the book. It’s not that Dylan is not forthcoming, but rather that the horizon is always so claustrophobic. It’s not so much that hell is other people, the way Sartre puts it in No Exit, as it is that they remain the great mystery for Dylan: colorful, attractive, but impossible to know.


Reading Chronicles & watching Don’t Look Back again after all these years made me reassess some of my thinking vis-à-vis Dylan. For one thing, I think a lot of what gets taken as being very metaphorical in his music of the late 1960s can also be understood as being very literal, if you’re just willing to accept the vocabulary in which he works. This may make Dylan far less of a poet, tho it may also make him an even stronger songwriter if you stop to think through its implications.



¹ Dylan also told them he had been touring with Conway Twitty, which wasn’t true. Even then, the mysterious embellished past was at work. Vee insists on the third n in Gunnn, tho Dylan in Chronicles only uses two. When Dylan & other sources conflict, I follow the rule of always going with the other source. The third n makes perfect sense for a man who soon would add an internal y to his name.