Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Chronicling Dylan

Bob Dylan never worried too much about the conventions of song writing, so why should he be expected to write an autobiography that runs in chronological order, or even that covers all the highlights of his life? Of course, he hints that the latter nod to normalcy could be made in coming years by naming his book, “Chronicles Volume One,” but I wouldn’t lay any odds that you’ll get anything you expect in future volumes.

Unless, that is, you expect more vivid prose, more spectacularly detailed (and probably partially fictional) recreations of experiences in the life of the man who turned rock’n’roll into a consciously artistic form of expression. Have you ever tried to remember events from your past with the clarity of a novelist? What do you remember even of the most important moments of your life? What clothes were you wearing during your first kiss? What was the weather like? How did your body move towards your partner? Who smiled first? What did the other person say right before you did it?

Heck, I’d really like to know these things, but the details are lost to the ages. Dylan, however, can write paragraphs like this one:

One winter day a big burly guy stepped in off the street. He looked like he’d come from the Russian embassy, shook the snow off his coat sleeves, took off his gloves and put them on the counter, asked to see a Gibson guitar that was hanging up on the brick wall. It was Dave Van Ronk. He was gruff, a mass of bristling hair, don’t give a damn attitude, a confident hunter. My mind went into a rush. There was nothing between the man and me. Izzy took the guitar down and gave it to him. Dave fingered the strings and played some kind of jazzy waltz, put the guitar back on the counter. As he put the guitar down, I stepped over and put my hands on it and asked him at the same time how does someone get to work down at the Gaslight, who do you have to know? It’s not like I was trying to get buddy-buddy with him, I just wanted to know.

That’s one paragraph in a book with thousands of them, full of memories and jokes and bullshit and dreams and insights and images and just plain interesting stories. There’s the guitar circle at Johnny Cash’s house with Dylan, Cash, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Harlan Howard, Kris Kristofferson, and others. There’s the insane encounter with a backwoods novelty shop owner who helped restore inspiration for recording the album, “Oh Mercy.” There’s the hungry way young Robert Zimmerman soaked up Woody Guthrie and Jack Elliott and blues and folk music, not to mention literature. There are the lessons in songwriting and the intention to make bold statements if you’re going to bother to make them at all.

Dylan could have written a straight-forward story, but I really like the way he did this instead. There are five chapters of varying length. The first hundred or so pages tell of his arrival in New York, and the steps he took to move from the tiniest coffee house stages to the bigger folk clubs. Then, there’s a 35-page interlude regarding the creation of “New Morning,” by any standard one of Dylan’s minor (yet good) works (albeit the first Dylan album I ever owned, given to me as either a birthday present or Christmas present when I was 23 years old by my friend Rene Spencer Saller, who wasn’t Saller then but who told me that she figured I should own at least one Dylan album if I was going to be a rock critic). Then, we move ahead to the late 80s, and 80 pages on the genesis of every song from “Oh Mercy,” one of Dylan’s many “comeback” recordings. (In here is some of the most intense lunacy on the subject of how Dylan changed his vocal style to enable his concert performances to be more than rote renditions of the same 20 songs; it’s so crazy you almost have to believe he believes every word, but then again, this is Dylan, and you just never can tell.) And finally, we’re back to the beginning, with Dylan meeting John Hammond and being signed to Columbia Records.

We never learn how Dylan started writing songs which matter, but we find out a lot about how the seeds were planted for same. We do learn how he wrote songs which he himself admits are not as important, which is not to say he dismisses their worth. “New Morning” was made when he wanted to turn his back on all the pressure of being BOB DYLAN, and who can blame him for that? That doesn’t mean he didn’t put anything into making these intentionally simple songs at all. (He does imply, however, that he did put virtually no effort into recording “Self Portrait” and “Dylan,” which makes plenty of sense to anybody who ever suffered through listening to them. I remember when I was a teenager, I heard Bob Dylan was somebody I should check out, so I borrowed “Self Portrait” from the library. It took me several years to realize that was not the right place to have started.)

But never mind all the things we learn, the true beauty of this book, the thing which makes it the autobiography equivalent of his songs, is the constant free association details he keeps spitting out. There is never a moment when Dylan seems bored or unsure of himself. His tone is vastly different in each period of his life, from eager student of all that art has to teach him to weary icon trying to escape his image to excited and combative veteran looking for new ways to make music. Assuming he can conjure up this sort of thing again and again, I’m ready to read five or six volumes right now. I’m also ready to read this book again soon, to pick up on all the tidbits which sped by too fast the first time.


Blogger Jan-Michael Cruz said...

You're a very good writer. Love this entry on Dylan's book.

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Blogger Bryan A. Hollerbach said...

"Then, there’s a 35-page interlude regarding the creation of 'New Morning,' by any standard one of Dylan’s minor (yet good) works (albeit the first Dylan album I ever owned, given to me as either a birthday present or Christmas present when I was 23 years old by my friend Rene Spencer Saller, who wasn’t Saller then but who told me that she figured I should own at least one Dylan album if I was going to be a rock critic)."

That, in itself, struck me as a pretty fine anecdote, Steve.

I had a similar response to The Motion of Light in Water, an autobiographical volume by science fictionist/semiotician Samuel R. Delany: engrossing reading even though it didn't detail much about the works he was then writing. (The Motion of Light in Water also sketches at one point an early Greenwich Village encounter between Delany and Dylan before Dylan "became" Dylan.)


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