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Bob Dylan’s movable feast
His Chronicles delivers the word

In 1992, Bob Dylan’s Good As I Been to You was as shocking as anything he’d done. The album was a collection of other people’s songs — ancient blues and folk songs, including the children’s ditty "Froggy Went a Courtin’," sung solo by Dylan, who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Dylan had recently been on TV, at the Grammys, accepting a special Lifetime Achievement Award — the artistic equivalent of over-and-out, so long, don’t let the door hit your ass. Gulf War I was in progress, and Dylan and his band played a number whose lyrics were unintelligible. Dylan then accepted his award from Jack Nicholson and made an enigmatic short speech about his daddy’s simple ways and the dangers of defilement in a corrupt world. The song, it turned out, had been "Masters of War."

The shows around that time were just as confusing. I saw him and his band play at Northeastern University and couldn’t pick out a single word, much as I strained to guess via snatches of melody and chord progressions. Dylan played keyboards. It all fed into the ongoing enigma of Dylan: what’s he doing? What does he think he’s doing? Was he becoming the Howard Hughes of rock and roll — albeit a very public one? There were occasional dispatches from the front lines. Dylan would deign to speak to an old hand from the rock press like the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn, and he’d make some sense.

Then came Good As I Been to You: intimate, fierce, words and images pouring out of Dylan’s mouth, clearly enunciated (no lyrics were provided in the CD booklet), strange stories that kept you on the edge of your seat — "Frankie & Albert," "Black Jack Davey," "Arthur McBride," "Diamond Joe." The guitar playing was just as fiery, not simple chording but the rushing single-note lines of the flat-picked variety. You couldn’t play like this — solo, on the notoriously resistant acoustic guitar, so much more difficult to manipulate than the electric — without focus and dedication.

It wasn’t until later, after cycling through some other music on my desk, including the latest Loudon Wainwright III CD, that I realized, hmmm, this guitar playing is a bit rough. He’s missing chords all over the place — but he obviously doesn’t give a damn. He’s plowing ahead, hell-for-leather, trying to catch that song under his fingers while it’s still there. A jazz-guitarist friend of mine, one who would know chords, later reassured me: "It doesn’t matter — the groove is incredible."

Later, of course, would come the real Grammy wins, the cluster of awards for 1997’s Time Out of Mind (and a more conventional acceptance speech). The concerts, too, began to hit a groove. There was no telling what songs Dylan would pull out of his vast repertoire, old or new, and most of the time, though his voice had been reduced to a nicotine-tar-encrusted reed, the words were intelligible, delivered with conviction.

Dylan’s new memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, is like Good As I Been to You: there are dropped notes and blown chord changes, but it carries one along on a tidal surge of storytelling, of memory and scenic detail. Dylan has never been a purist in any sense (not even when he identified himself explicitly and unambiguously as a "folk singer"). And this book will confound purists of all stripes. Although it begins and ends not long after Dylan’s arrival in New York City from Minnesota, the narrative weaves back and forth in time, mostly disembodied from specific dates. In various anecdotes, "my wife" is a recurring character, but it’s only late in the game that you might realize that Dylan is now talking about a different wife, and you might recall that, oh, yeah, years after Woodstock and Sara and the kids, wasn’t there some other, "secret" wife that no one — or at least not the general public — even knew about?

As my guitarist friend said, it doesn’t matter. Chronicles plunges us, in medias res, into the world of early-’60s Greenwich Village and never lets up. Dylan recovers his memories as in a dream and renders them with novelistic detail. "Lou Levy, top man of Leeds Music Publishing company, took me up in a taxi to the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street to show me the pocket sized recording studio where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’ — then down to Jack Dempsey’s restaurant on 58th and Broadway, where we sat down in a red leather upholstered booth facing the front window." At first, it seems Chronicles could be some bizarre hybrid of the Bob Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture and Bob Hope’s autobiography — all celebrity golf tournaments and playing hooky by the Beverly Hills Hotel pool.

But Dylan slips into that all-compassing groove fast. He recalls every detail of the junk-strewn apartments of friends where he crashed, famous folk singers (Dave Van Ronk) and people you never heard of (Greenwich Village bohemians Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel). His range of reference extends from Gorgeous George to Robert Graves. Dylan’s five senses are continuously firing on all cylinders, and he appears to know something about furniture as well as prose writing. "Above the fireplace, a framed portrait of a wigged colonial was staring back at me — near the sofa, a wooden cabinet supported by fluted columns, near that, an oval table with rounded drawers, a chair like a wheelbarrow, small desk of violet wood veneer with flip-down drawers — a couch that was a padded back car seat with spring upholstery, a low chair with rounded back and scroll armrests — a thick French rug on the floor, silver light gleaming through the blinds, painted planks accenting the rooflines."

The compositional technique is at once slapdash and exacting, like his songwriting, or his guitar playing. Details accrete, expand, then refine themselves down to a single point like a lead sinker. Episodes click along discursively, then double back and return to the narrative thread. Van Ronk looms like a giant: "In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was the king of the street, he reigned supreme." He passes by the awestruck Dylan "on a cold winter day near Thompson and 3rd, in a flurry of light snow when the feeble sun was filtering through the haze," then disappears amid random memories of Greenwich Village clubs and coffeehouses, the Gaslight and Café Bizarre, Richie Havens, Café Wha?, the Folklore Center and its eccentric (what else?) proprietor, Izzy Young, until — boom — who should show up at the Folklore Center but Van Ronk, and this time the young Dylan is able to approach him and even play a song for him.

It’s like this in one encounter, one vividly sketched character and scene, after another: Archibald MacLeish at his bucolic home in Conway, Massachusetts (he had invited Dylan to write songs for his play Scratch); the record producer Bob Johnston ("His idea for producing a record was to keep the machines oiled, turn ’em on and let ’er rip . . . ); David Crosby, who provides comic counterpoint in a scene where Dylan receives an honorary degree from Princeton ("He was teetering on the brink of death even then and could freak out a whole city block all by himself, but I liked him a lot. . . . He could be an obstreperous companion").

A flubbed note or dropped beat here and there doesn’t matter, and that’s one of the many points Dylan makes in this book, implicitly or explicitly. He achieves that perfect balance of the memoirist’s art — the meeting of the present narrator with the young self he’s re-creating on the page. One encounters the people, places, and events in Chronicles as Dylan encountered them, with a wide-eyed sense of discovery. He and Lou Levy hammer out a publishing deal — "not that there was any great deal to hammer out. I hadn’t written much yet." Meanwhile, the snow blows outside the window.

The book’s most conventional chapter recalls the making of Oh Mercy with producer Daniel Lanois — conventional in that it sticks with one episode from Dylan’s life and re-creates it in familiar terms: the artist at work, writing songs, recording them, the frustrations and the breakthroughs. But it’s the depiction of the physical world that sustains the chapter and gives it context. Dylan puts us in New Orleans with him, with its heavy tropical air, its cemeteries and its ghosts. Important as anything that happens in the studio is a trip he and his wife take up to the town of Napoleonville on a vintage Harley — it’s all of a piece with the songs and the sessions.

The "sensational" aspects of the book — the section published in Newsweek regarding his hiatus from touring following his motorcycle accident, his attempts to escape fame — are part of the story too, but in some ways the least of it. Chronicles answers the question what does he think he’s doing with vivid candor.

In the final chapter, Dylan returns to his signing with Leeds and with Columbia Records and the visionary producer John Hammond. Hammond gives him an advance copy of the Robert Johnson recordings, which, virtually unheard since their original release, were being prepared for their first, earth-shattering reissue. Dylan rushes back to the apartment of Dave and Terri Van Ronk to give it a listen. Dylan is stunned, Van Ronk indifferent. For Van Ronk, Johnson is derivative. For Dylan, Johnson seemed "like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. . . . The compositions seemed to come right out of his mouth and not his memory." They argue on. Van Ronk plays sides by Leroy Carr and Skip James and Henry Thomas and says, "See what I mean?" Dylan says, "I knew what he meant, but I thought just the opposite."

As he always has, Dylan is continually responding to that particular something beyond rational argument, beyond naming. His ear is to the ground, listening for the sound of that "invisible republic" that Dylanologist Greil Marcus wrote about and that Dylan tips his hat to here. He can hear and understand your argument just fine and agree with it in all of its parts and yet think just the opposite. "My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody."

Dylan’s hagiographers, whom he’s always trying to throw off his trail, will probably find a million discrepancies and contradictions in Chronicles, maybe even some outright lies. But they’d be missing the point. The point isn’t literal truth or names and dates but that "eternal ‘now’ " of music and theatrical performance that he refers to in his memories of Archibald MacLeish’s play, conjured here by the evocation of real things, objects, places, the sound of a voice in a room or on a record. As for the facts, as Dylan himself advised confused fans in the liner notes to one album, "Consult the playlists." And as for that secret wife, I’m sure she’d show up somewhere on Google.

Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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