Confessions of a Traveling Tzaddik

12.6.2004 | David Walley | Music

Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, pp. 293, $24

This is a strange, enigmatic book by a strange, enigmatic man, less a biography than a kind of cultural history of a generation. Who would want to be Bob Dylan, for God’s sake? Someone had to play the role, though, and Chronicles is carved out of a shared myth of which Dylan had been a part, and ever since has been trying to come to terms with its fame and attendant manifold discontents. And though at times this book is not a completely satisfying read, still it is fascinating as much for what he says, as what he does not. Which is like the author himself, who tap dances on the edge of the boundaries between his reality and ours, and who has been doing so for more than forty years. “If you’re looking to get silly, you’d better go back from where you came” dear reader, “‘cause the cops don’t need you, and man they expect the same.” There was a period in my life when the rhymed couplets from “Blonde on Blonde”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Bringing It All Back Home” encapsulated my feelings as I suspect they did for many who came of age back when Dylan was blazing strong. You had to be there, and he was and so were we; he was on the stage while we were the crowd.

But that’s not entirely correct either, because even though he was on stage, critics seem to overlook that he also experienced the same cultural politics as so many of us who grew up in the Fifties, who went to college in the Sixties. So “you see you’re just like me, I hope you’re satisfied” [—- sorry I couldn’t help it, it fit]. Dylan was as much of a Witness as the rest of us really, but through the force of his own ambition, mated to Coincidence, his voice embodied ours, and assumed some heavy dues along the way, where he himself sat, “so patiently, waiting to find out what price, you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice”. And in effect, Chronicles is that payback, the literary device he has used to come to terms with paying those dues.

Dylan was hardly unique amongst the “heads” of his time. Like us, he fed on the intellectual smorgasbord of the Beats, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Beckett, Sartre, etc., listened to jazz spanning from Django to Miles, to folk music of all kinds, which for him was a window into an alternate universe, and all the classics, from Bach to Hank Williams; it was all folk music, wasn’t it? Isn’t it? He read Walt Whitman, was intrigued by the French Symbolists poets. He was completely mesmerized by the Brecht-Weill musical, “The Three Penny Opera”, but so was Jim Morrison of the Doors, a rough contemporary. Remember The Doors’ ripping version of “Whiskey Bar”? To his credit, Morrison also toyed with the idea of doing “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany”. Any artist worth a good goddamn read omnivorously then. Frank Zappa was a closet reader though he didn’t want it widely known because he was afraid it would interfere with his high school street cred, but that’s another story. Any person who claimed to be educated knew all this stuff too, for this was a time when it was hip to be bright, to be aware of the world’s cultural vocabulary.

Dylan tells us all about all that and about how the whirl of ideas sucked him into the maelstrom for a while. By the late Sixties, it burned him out, because there’s only so far you can ride a young man’s epiphany, or even that of a young generation. Like the rest of us, he hit the Saturn transit, that period between 27 and 30 when you realize that no, you’re not forever young, that you’re going to be a grown-up whether you want to or not.  It’s when you get crazy, disordered, and self-destructive, when the first people start dying in consequence of their actions; think Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison.  Dylan had his “accident” which took him off the stage, a good thing that, and when he came back with “New Morning” and “The Basement Tapes” — released 20 years later, but no matter — everyone wanted the “Old Dylan”, but the Old Dylan had left the building though we never really accepted that, and that griped him.

Chronicles is not an autobiography exactly because there is very little of the person who was Robert Zimmerman who became Bob Dylan, whose creative identity the author continues to wrestle with on these pages. If you want the “facts”, there are biographies by the score but they will only give you part of the truth, and only show you how he appeared to those who knew him at a specific “back then”. There are also precious nit-picky analytic texts that analyze how his lyrics inhabited those truths, Christopher Ricks come to mind here, but those are academic truths, not Dylan’s.

Too often, Dylan mailed them in, as he admitted to doing when he was struggling with his creative soul for more than fifteen years after the “accident”. But the best of Dylan’s lyrics, the transcendent ones, just hung there, alive and wriggling out of one’s grasp. Dylan’s honest enough with himself (and with us, his contemporaries) to admit that for a time he wanted to retire, to just pack it all in and quit, and to tell us how hard he worked to re-invent himself, to resume his own creative struggle his own way thank you very much.

The best thing about Chronicles for readers who are searching for the truth about Dylan is his honesty when he bothers to be honest. Like when he takes us with him when to the MacDougal Street folk scene, before that rocket to the moon, and recalls how he was a spectator, watching himself watch himself like that old LSD saw. Or maybe he’s still so detached now; you really don’t know in this book, and after a while it doesn’t matter. But as he’s exploring his perceptual reality, he’s also playing with that of the reader, who must accept his sentiments sui generis, his truth as he presents it, for that is what occupies him, and that is what he is choosing to share with us, and that, my friends, is his artistic struggle. It’s the “why” not the “what” of the man, not the biographical chaff, but the creative specifics that give us a window into his artistic enthusiasms, and show us where they took his troubadour art, his roadtrip encounters with Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Bertrold Brecht and Arthur Rimbaud. When he was turned on to Rimbaud by his first girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, he tells us that he

came across one of his letters called “Je est un autre” which translates into “I is someone else”. When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier. It went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul and Woody’s (Guthrie) hopped-up union meeting sermons and the “Pirate Jenny” framework. Everything was in transition and I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up. Not quite yet, though.

And he was someone else, but in our heart of hearts, behind our own facades and self-created myths, so were we in the Straight World.

This isn’t a perfect book by any means, and it could have used some judicious editing, especially to tighten the narrative flow, but who’s going to edit Dylan? Maybe that’s a form of respect, maybe just cowardice. Either way, Chronicles, is an account of an artist who happened to be Bob Dylan as well as a cultural travelogue about all those who drank from the same intoxicating fountain of American culture in the Fifties and Sixties — those secret readers, apprentice beatniks, blues fanatics, rock and rollers, those seekers after elusive truths, through literature or later through drugs, who like Mister Dylan are now looking back at it all and wondering how we got here, and what it all might mean, weaving and unweaving our stories like Penelope at her loom.

Once upon a time there was another Bob Dylan, from another time and space who in the midst of that shit storm when Ambition, Time, and Circumstance conspired to make him “The One”, remarked in Tarantula, a book which he now dismisses as juvenile and the ravings of a blown mind, that one man’s truth is another man’s lies. But Tarantula is also part of his myth, and though the moving finger having writ, has moved on, that book also had some prescient truths, that apply to his present tense, and to and ours, too, so it’s worth a glimpse:

here lies bob dylan
 demolished by Vienna politeness—
 which will now claim to have invented him
 the cool people can
 now write Fugues about him
 & Cupid can now kick over his kerosene lamp—
 bob dylan-filled by a discarded Oedipus
 who turned
 to investigate a ghost
 & discovered that
 the ghost too
 was more than one person.

It’s a comforting to know that Dylan, our Ragtime Cowboy/Wandering Jew is still on the road more than 200 nights a year so we can see him at a venue nearby. We’ll see soon what Dylan is next to come, and how that one will dispose of the Dylan’s of yore, the wild-haired young man, the born again, the author of Chronicles, and all the rest. And we’ll see how he disposes of the rest of us, bit players in a shared myth he keeps revealing. But if we can’t, and need to reconnect to our cultural and artistic roots damn near forgotten, drowned out in this jangling hip-hopping post-literate cyber age, there will always be Chronicles, Volume One. Thanks Bob.

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