Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, you realize that Dylan is never going to let you see the source of the residual, simmering anger that has always been so close to the heart of everything he has ever done in the arts. It’s visible here too, directed now at the excesses of his fans in the 1960s, even at himself, especially in the 1980s – his presentation of himself as a burned-out has-been is especially convincing – but these are in fact far later appearances of an emotion that shows up so fiercely in an early song such as Masters of War, even in the justice-tinged sarcasm of Hattie Carroll. As much as his ability to bring collage to pop song-writing along with a post-surreal sensibility, it’s Dylan’s anger that always has given his music such an expressive range. He’s not the only musician with this dark aspect – it’s what separated out John Lennon as an artist from the rest of the Beatles, it’s why Neil Young is still capable of producing new work as vibrant as anything he was doing with Buffalo Springfield way back when. Dylan likewise.


But it’s rare &, if Chronicles is to be believed (for what it does far more than for what it says), has much to do with the elaborate wall of persona Dylan has constructed all these decades, the better to protect whatever is hidden within. Yet like any actor who’s played the same role endlessly for four-plus decades, Dylan himself may no longer be able to separate out himself from the sad-faced harlequin he inhabits on stage night after night.


Chronicles is, as the reviews have suggested, pretty much a terrific book. It’s episodic rather than comprehensive, focusing on hinge moments in Dylan’s life & career. What’s telling is which ones. It’s the exact opposite of the celebrity I wrote this & then I sang that kind of narrative. With the exception of Dylan’s presentation of his life in New York City before he’d recorded even his first eponymous album, he is more interested in moments of great frustration. What makes the book terrific is not just the counter-intuitive approach, but also Dylan’s writing skills. To say he has the eye of a novelist, as virtually every review of this book has done, is just part of it (which I hope to get more into, tomorrow). Dylan conflates elements – a careful reader will note that events ranging from 1960 through ’63 are presented in one chapter & everything from 1967 to at least 1970 in another. These episodes are less the representation of events than balled-up figures for larger emotional nodes.


The one that has gotten the greatest attention in the media – a large chunk of it was excerpted in Newsweek as the book came out – is Dylan’s allergic reaction to the problems of celebrity, the post motorcycle crash period of the late 1960s. Reading it made me dig out my DVD of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the documentary made of Dylan’s May, 1965, tour of England. May, 1965, is an extraordinary moment in Dylan’s career – Subterranean Homesick Blues has already been released & Dylan finds himself climbing the pop charts just one month before he will bring up the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to back him up at the Newport Folk Festival, which history has anointed as the moment that folk plugged in to a loud chorus of boos. It is less than six years since an 18-year-old Elston Gunnn¹ was briefly the piano player for Bobby Vee’s band, The Shadows. Within another year, Dylan will have transformed rock & roll, joined the Beatles & Stones in putting the final nails into the coffin of Tin Pan Alley, becoming a far larger cultural figure than any folksinger would ever prove to be.


Already in 1965, the critics are struggling to pin Dylan down to a manageable journalistic trope & he is doing everything he can to avoid cooperating. Even as he’s able to fill venues as large as the Royal Albert Hall, and has the usual screaming girls waiting to throw themselves over the hood of his limo, what’s instantly audible to the critics is that when he plays, quite unlike the Beatles, the audience is absolutely silent, listening with rapt attention. Indeed, by 1967, the Beatles have abandoned concerts altogether simply because they can’t even hear themselves playing over the screams & wails of teenyboppers. Not so Dylan.


Not yet 24 when this film was made, Dylan’s feints with the press corps lack the upbeat humor that characterized the Beatles’ version of verbal sparring. Yet the underlying impulse is identical – the press are seen as nothing other than a necessary evil, a channel for marketing one’s records & events, but one that is apt to swallow up the unsuspecting. Dylan is both amused & appalled as he reads aloud his press reports in the British media to Joan Baez, Bobby Neuwirth & Albert Grossman. He is presented as the Mystery Spokesman, his least favorite role, and the reports clearly want to set him up against a young Scottish newcomer, Donovan. Throughout the movie, Dylan jokes about & sort of half-trashes Donovan – “the next Bob Dylan” – yet when he meets him, Dylan listens attentively & with respect. He might not care for Donovan, the persona, but he makes no assumption that this has anything to do with the real Donovan Leitch


Like the Beatles, whose first trip to India was motivated as much by a desire to flee the media as it was a curiosity about Eastern culture, Dylan seems to have been unprepared intellectually for the very same celebrity he so calculatedly sought. It’s as if none of them had ever contemplated what was already happening to Elvis – or were living in some “it can’t happen here” sort of fantasy – so that when the tour buses dumped fans on your doorstep, this was a big surprise. Dylan’s own reaction to it, by his own account, was horror – the image he presents of himself by the 1970s comes off like a cartoon of Munch’s The Scream. His strategy was to do everything possible to alienate his fans – change his song style, his singing voice (on Nashville Skyline), even his religion, anything to snap the connection. The problem was that his very persona had been built around inscrutability – any new shift away from the predictable simply fueled the mystery. Dylan was no more able to get away from it than was Elvis, and still isn’t, tho the really nutsy parts of megafame mostly abated for a reason Dylan seems also not to have anticipated. He got old.


The question that Chronicles poses, for me at least, and never quite answers, is whether or not Dylan still lacks those intellectual resources. For a musician as famously as well read as Dylan, his prose style wavers between Charles Bukowski & Jack Kerouac. He admits not never being able really to read Pound. He is surprisingly silent about his relationship with Allen Ginsberg (someone who, even before the Beatles, sought & found refuge from sudden fame in India), about whom, if we are to believe Marianne Faithful, Dylan penned the ballad Just Like a Woman. Indeed the poet whose presence in this book is front & center is not Rimbaud, McClure, Ginsberg or any of the Beats, but Archibald MacLeish, who approached Dylan for songs for his play Scratch, an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. After penning a few that would end up on his album, New Morning, Dylan senses that his vision & MacLeish’s really don’t mix, even if he likes the man & is awed to see photographs of MacLeish accepting the Pulitzer on the walls of his Uphill Farm study. But it’s precisely the awe that is telling here. Even with 30-years hindsight, Dylan can’t really separate received culture – that veneer of media – from the work itself. Given the role of media in his own life, that’s a gap worth exploring.



¹ That third n is not a typo. Vee insists that this is how Dylan spelled it.