Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

On my living room bookshelf, next to a few other books about the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, was an autobiography from 2004 I had bought some time ago, but not yet read. Chronicles: Volume One is a hardback of moderate size, containing 293 rough, deckle edge pages set in a Bodoni typeface, bolder and less legible than I normally like — the same typeface used for the Columbia Records word mark. On the cover is a black and white photo of New York City by Columbia staff photographer Don Huntstein. It appears to be looking north up Broadway and 7th Avenue from West 46th Street on a wet night in late 1960. You can almost smell the exhaust and feel the splashes from the passing cars. For all you know, some of the people in those cars might even be rascals or preachers.

Lying on the burgundy flannel comforter I like to throw over our leather sofa in wintertime, I opened the book and began reading. Before long, Dylan was newly arrived in New York City, sharing his French fries with Tiny Tim in the kitchen of the Café Wha?, and hanging out in the apartment of Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel, a cultured burrow of old records and older books, with a mysterious steampunk workshop in the back full of tools and firearms for good measure. Among his many readings at Ray’s place, Dylan was especially impressed by Thucydides and The Peloponnesian War, but in his book he calls it The Athenian General.

I remember when I myself sat with Tiny Tim in his Firebird outside a circus tent where the old football stadium used to stand on the Kenosha, Wisconsin lakefront. It was raining and muddy, and Tiny Tim’s suit, made of old canvas circus posters, smelled a little musty. In the back seat, I heard the plink of a ukulele string as my beautiful girlfriend moved it aside. “Miss Amy,” Tiny Tim called her. It was 1987, and Tim thought Al Gore could be a strong presidential candidate. 18 years earlier, 21.4 million viewers watched him marry Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Chronicles is not an account of the events of Bob Dylan’s life in the order of their occurrence. Instead, Dylan focuses on a few specific periods, jumps between them a bit, and often lingers on peripheral details for an extended time the way a dream or a music video might. Many of his songs use a similar technique. Like somebody’s exhausted brother-in-law from a bygone age, he wires and welds together striking scraps of imagery into a piece that rings dead true, even if you have no idea what it’s saying. Speaking one time about her cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” Sophie B. Hawkins said, “I completely feel the song, but I don’t understand it. I feel like it’s in Bob’s language and I’m singing it and I get it completely, and I bring my own meaning to it, and yet I will always, every time I sing it, be struggling with how to hear the words so I can better get a grasp on what I’m singing.”

Sometimes, the materials Dylan uses in his works come from somebody else’s works. He acknowledges this openly in telling how he hammered some of his early folk songs together. More recently, there has been controversy over plagiarism in Dylan’s paintings. Even in this Chronicles autobiography, there are folks who point out unlikely coincidences in wording between other authors’ writings and Dylan’s own personal recollections.

Chronicles takes the reader on a great many unexpected detours. At one point, breaking away from incredibly frustrating recording sessions for Oh Mercy in New Orleans with producer Daniel Lanois, Dylan takes off on a “’66 Harley Police Special, out of Florida with a powder-coated frame” for a safari through southern Louisiana with his unnamed, John le Carré-reading wife. The trip peaks after a stop at “a gas station off Route 90 near Raceland.” There, “across a vacant field stood an obscure roadside place, a gaunt shack called King Tut’s Museum.” The shop is “run by an old-timer named Sun Pie,” and he and Dylan have a surreal conversation about the Chinese and the American Indians and Bruce Lee while The Beatles and “Sea of Love” play on the radio in the background. Sun Pie describes the consciences of Bruce Lee’s foes as “vile and depraved,” a phrase Dylan apparently recycled in “Man In The Long Black Coat.”

One chapter centers on Dylan’s revulsion upon being branded “the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America” when receiving an honorary Doctorate from Princeton in 1970. Undesired obligations like this and the fans stalking him at home cause him to counter by pouring a bottle of whiskey over his head before walking into a department store and acting pie-eyed, in an all-out effort to gain back some private space for his family.

He also expounds at great length about a revolutionary singing and guitar-playing system which, coupled with a new touring strategy, theoretically make him indefatigable and gain him a completely new audience. I play a little guitar, but I cannot fathom what he’s talking about. It’s like some kind of mystical mathematics known only to Bob, and maybe Frank Sinatra.

For all of its quirkiness, though, this is a highly enjoyable book. The atmosphere of New York City in the early 1960s, the vignettes of St. Paul, Minnesota before that, the little anecdotes about writing songs in his welding studio at home, a dinner with Bono, and his visits with Archibald MacLeish are just a few of the highlights.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Chronicles is the collection of colleagues, competitors, and fellow artists upon whom Dylan heaps heartfelt praise and wonder. Mike Seeger is one of the highest heroes among these. Dylan describes his virtuoso authentic folk performances on numerous instruments and concludes that “to be as good as that, you’d just about have to be him, and nobody else.” It occurs to Dylan that he’ll have to write his own songs — “ones that Mike didn’t know.”

Another folk music master who thwarted Dylan’s dreams of success as the second coming of Woody Guthrie was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Dylan admits, “His tone of voice is sharp, focused, and piercing. He drawls and he’s so confident it makes me sick. All that and he plays the guitar effortlessly in a fluid flat-picking perfected style.”

To me, the most surprising revelation is how “Pirate Jenny,” a key song in an off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, pretty much blew Dylan’s mind and made him approach songwriting from an entirely new angle. The refrain about the “ship, the black freighter” makes him recall the foghorns of his youth, and the scrubbing lady’s hidden lethality leaves him breathless, dying to learn how the song works.

Time and time again, Dylan comes back to his fascination with anonymous citizens living their flesh-and-blood lives in the world at large, and often in the past. He writes of “thieves, scavengers or scallywags.” He yearns for songs about “debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children.” He notes people in the street, through windows. The art of Red Grooms speaks to him — “all the bums and cops, the lunatic bustle, the claustrophobic alleys — all the carnie vitality.” He finishes paragraphs with unexpected similes and metaphors that fall like God’s toenails from a mortuary sky.

Early in Chronicles, Dylan tells of a touchstone moment that he never forgot. It was the mid-1950s, and he was performing in his hometown, in the lobby of the National Guard Armory, where the professional wrestler Gorgeous George was staging his annual wrestling extravaganza. The superstar walked right past the young singer: “He winked and seemed to mouth the phrase, ‘You’re making it come alive.'”

I have seen Bob Dylan perform four or five times, but one moment from a show at Alpine Valley, where Stevie Ray Vaughan died, always comes back to me. I was in the second row and as Dylan was finishing a song, he looked down at me and motioned with his hand. When I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to communicate, he looked frustrated and finally just tossed his harmonica in my direction. Startled, I failed to catch it, and it tumbled across the concrete slab underneath a seat a few yards away, and some other guy retrieved it.

It would be cool to have one of Bob Dylan’s harmonicas, but being able to read Chronicles is even better.

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