a discussion of
CHRONICLES, VOLUME ONE
by Bob Dylan
A few weeks ago, I wrote of my hope that new Bob Dylan fans might look to the Idiot Child for some ideas when choosing a book or two to read about the minstrel from Hibbing. I now take the liberty of casting myself forward into that fantasy.
A good place to begin is with the man’s own words, in CHRONICLES, VOLUME ONE.
In 2004, at the age of sixty-three, Dylan surprised us all by publishing a clear and honest memoir that explains his beginnings as a songwriter. It describes in sensory detail the early days in New York City, as well as a few critical transition points in his career. The book is a latter day wonder and further proof that Bob’s best work with the poetics of the English language cannot be confined to any one period or even one form. Of course, we will always know Dylan as a musician and songwriter first, but the simple lucidity of CHRONICLES flushes away, for at least a moment, our frequent desire to decode lyrics and conceptualize a message. As always, Bob defies expectations. The slogans die on our lips when we read that Dylan wanted “to set fire” to the “dropouts and druggies” who descended upon him in Woodstock and that Barry Goldwater was, for a time, the musician’s favorite politician.
Someone said (please share if you can remember who) that Dylan is indeed an emblem of the sixties — the 1860s. CHRONICLES shows us that man. Yet he writes with the same voice we hear in his latter period songs, in lyrics written at the turn of the millennium. It is a voice that spans generations and defeats all attempts to place the musician just HERE or perhaps only HERE. Yes, it’s true, in 1965 the songwriter turned folk perfection on its head and made it rock out. He was a prism, catching all the light of the moment and refracting it back in brilliant shards, opening minds and blinding eyes. Much has been written about Dylan’s supple facilitation and/or channeling of those freaked out seconds, days, weeks, and months. But the mature timbre of 21st century Bob, rough-hewn in a way he could only pretend at forty-six years earlier, looks out, not over one moment in time, but over centuries. CHRONICLES is written with the same tone and sense of transcendence as the civil war ballad “Cross the Green Mountain” and the mash-up throwback LP “Love and Theft.” Without doubt, the cracked crystalline vision of “Highway 61 Revisited” is beautiful, but his later art, including CHRONICLES, is less a product of a singular time, and more a product of “time out of mind.”
In CHRONICLES, Bob summons with clarity the simple innocence of the years in Minneapolis and New York. He returns frequently to thoughts of family, both the one he sired in his late twenties and the one he left behind in Minnesota. He writes of Hibbing tenderly, evoking memories such as the quiet, chill splendor of a Christmas season in the 1950’s. To some readers this will come as a surprise, because we are not accustomed to thinking of Dylan as an innocent. After all, back in 1962 and 1963 he was already acting like an old folk blues man. And the first thing most Americans heard from him, just a short time later, was the detached wisdom of “Blowing in the Wind,” and the cruel truths of “Hard Rain.” Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the electric revolution. But I love thinking of the boy from the North Country, growing up quiet and leaving home loud. Dylan gives us such a relatable portrait of that young man in CHRONICLES, with an intimacy that belies the myth of the “mysterious and silent recluse.”
In his memoir, Bob speaks of a gradual progress toward artistic success. He is gracious in giving credit to friends and he writes with humility about the influence of past masters. He tells us about the couches he slept on, the books he read, and the records he listened to. And while it is reasonable and sensible to question a name or two (Ray Gooch and his wife seem to be composite figures), I doubt there is much that could be called fiction in the life Dylan portrays. His art has always balanced on the edge between inner and outer truth. In CHRONICLES, Dylan gives us more than simple facts and places and anecdotes. He guides us on a look around his mind, in the settings where it began to develop and then explode.
We experience the aspiring songwriter listening in awe to a Robert Johnson LP given to him by John Hammond. Okay, no big news there; everyone knows that Dylan was and is a scholar of folk as well as a musical sponge. But what strikes me is what Dylan says next. He copies out the lyrics so that he can “more closely examine the big-ass truths wrapped in a hard shell of nonsensical abstraction.” When I read this I remembered sitting in a temporary bedroom in my twenties, in the mid-eighties, transcribing the lyrics of “Changing of the Guards” from an old cassette so that their full weirdness and power could wrap their arms around me. I know I was not alone in that pre-internet era ritual of copying out the words of Dylan — not to revere the man but to immerse more completely in a vibe that resonated in soul-time — that created an inner harmonic — that added extra dimension and depth to the culture at hand.
When Dylan copied out the words of Robert Johnson he was looking for a common humanity, one that both linked to, and transcended, the strife of his times. The same also, when he sat in the New York Public Library reading microfiche newspapers from the period of the Civil War. With sharp artistic instinct, he realized that the “folk movement” and the “protest movement” were transitory, while the folk song and the human struggle were timeless. In his memoir and in the later songs, Dylan shows that his own mystery, so beguiling and confounding, is mostly a product of being human and of paying close attention to the common human mystery. Bob knows deeply that there are things he does not understand, such as the prose of James Joyce. And after a visit with the poet Archibald MacLeish, he wonders if he, “and everyone else,” has been marked with “a secret sign” from before birth.
In CHRONICLES you get the idea that Bob is not so different than you or me or Sun Pie, the crazy shop owner he encounters on the outskirts of New Orleans, in the chapter about the making of “Oh Mercy.” Truth and fiction-wise, who knows, perhaps Sun Pie is a figment of his mind. But most likely not. Most likely he was a real person that Dylan met, who mirrored one slice of his own soul. That’s the kind of person we seem to meet up with in Bob Dylan’s song-world — which is also the real world, as I have experienced it. Where we each have many layers of personality and self and desire, and each quality is reflected back at us by those we love and admire and also, unfortunately, sometimes by those whom we dislike.
CHRONICLES gives it to us straight. The wonder of Dylan’s art is the is the clear window it offers. Bob seems like such a mystery and a cipher, but in CHRONICLES he makes it plain, once again, that his mind is just another angle on your mind. That’s why we like the music so much. It contains me and you and Robert Johnson as well, and he pulls it off in a way hardly anyone else has been able to do. The prism of the sixties has flattened into a glass so transparent and light that it is nearly undetectable. Dylan borrows what he loves and gives it back, with added beauty. We feel recognized. That’s a good feeling.