Friday, June 30, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Chronicles - Volume One by Bob Dylan

    Now the rainman gave me two cures,
    Then he said, "Jump right in."
    The one was Texas medicine,
    The other was just railroad gin.
    An' like a fool I mixed them
    An' it strangled up my mind,
    An' now people just get uglier
    An' I have no sense of time.

Dylan goes eclectic! But before discussing the free-range assorted and sundry unstuck-in-time ruminations of Bob Dylan in word, I’d like to discuss one of the first times that he had gone electric in front of a restless contingent of smug Mr. Jones-style British folkies who couldn’t quite grasp the something that was going on.

In Bob Dylan Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (The Bootleg Series Vol. 4, actually recorded in Manchester) the audience participation portion of the program saw increasing restlessness as a good size of the crowd made their displeasure known over the plugged-in Dylan and his band (The Hawks, featuring most members of what would become The Band).

In a contentious culmination of biblical proportions of sorts, a fair-weather fan yells out “Judas” and you can hear Dylan -- in a retaliatory strike as he strikes up the band -- instruct the musicians to “Play this fucking loud!” as they launch into a blistering version of “Like A Rolling Stone.” But in another occurrence just as compelling a couple of songs earlier, after "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box,” the unruly mob is disruptively clapping in rhythmic, taunting disapproval.

In a speechifyin' masterstroke, Dylan starts jabbering away in a low-key non-sensical manner that could be -- and was -- misconstrued by the straining-to-hear audience as him addressing them in some coherent manner. The malcontented “folk snobs” soften their clapping, finally stopping altogether as Dylan speaks the only words that make any sense: “If only you wouldn’t clap so hard,” which was very well received by the more open-minded and receptive members of the multitude.

Though I never would consider myself a mildly ill-mannered folkie by any stretch of the imagination, I felt a little like a boorish Dylan devotee as I started reading Chronicles: Volume One. I knew beforehand that this long-anticipated autobiography played fast and loose with time, that there was nothing chronological about these chronicles that starts off with Dylan’s early New York ventures then backtracks to Minnesota, to Hibbing and Duluth and his days in Minneapolis before fast-forwarding to the 1980s and the recording of “Oh Mercy” after he drifted down to New Orleans and before heading out to the East Coast and early days again.

“Time is a Jet Plane, it Moves too Fast,” he once sang -- suits me, I didn’t want any stopovers or connecting flights of fancy, anyway. I was a stubborn and clueless Mr. Jonesian who wanted no-frills reading and expected a Volume One to be what it should be -- Dylan’s youth, education, first guitar, first big breaks, and so on. I wanted the traditional autobiographical build-up, the “it all started” step-by-step aspirations, the connect-the-dot progression, an index, the photos, clap, clap, clap, “Chronos!” Or, at least, that’s what I thought I wanted.

As it turns out, even though Dylan in a way “seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor” -- a characterization he applies to enigmatic bluesman Robert Johnson -- Chronicles, as meandering and roundabout as it might get, nevertheless imparts a reassuring sense as Dylan paints a masterpiece on page.

The tone is conversational, the style accessible and full of insight and humor, the subject matters fascinating with plenty of unexpected delights -- this is not the Renaldo and Clara of autobiographies -- and if a highlight or two is skimmed-over or a topic isn’t in this first volume, or at least foreshadowed or alluded to, there’s a good chance it will be in the second.

And, ultimately, if it’s not, that’s okay, too - 25 pages in, I had stopped resisting and halted my antsy mental clapping and clamoring enough to pay proper attention and listen, to let a literary “Judas” speak his mind. I of course would still like a full account of his meeting with the Beatles, conversations with Woody Guthrie, his feelings about how his “going electric” played out, or the post-Blonde on Blonde motorcycle accident that changed his course and gave him a much-needed break -- but such matters don’t seem as imperative as they once were.

I should’ve realized there are so many other incidents and thoughts we never had hint of, that never made it into the considerable number of Dylan biographies: his inner feelings about his first real love, family life, the particulars behind his name change, recording session tensions, admitted Self-Portrait commercial sabotage, a fleeting notion of quitting his recording career to run a wooden leg factory in North Carolina, Dylan’s meeting with John Wayne and the wrestler Gorgeous George, his admiration for Barry Goldwater and Ricky Nelson, his friendship with Bobby Darin -- plus we’re along for a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride on a motorcycle to soak in the local Louisiana color.

Is this -- as Dylan refers to himself in self-deprecating don’t-follow-leaders amusement -- the “Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese”?

No, they are the deeds and traits of a fully human individual and musician who considers himself “more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper,” one whose mercurial complexity, resoluteness and vulnerability constitute the core of his wide-ranging songwriting artistry. If anything is to comprise a cohesive and consistent -- and often enthralling -- theme in Chronicles, it is the music itself, and musical breadcrumb trails and clues in relation to impulses and influences, future songwriting craftsmanship, performing methods, and recording techniques -- which may or may not be followed up on in Volume Two.

Going from folk to rock, his Christian album period, the ever-altering song structures - events and actions we may have seen at the time as expect-the-unexpected impulsiveness, as abrupt or radical change, may have actually had their seeds planted early on. “Little things foreshadow what’s coming, but you may not recognize them,” Dylan says at one point, “but then something immediate happens and you’re in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it - you’re set free. You don’t need to ask questions and you already know the score.”

Some of this foreshadowing we might be able to surmise, though we never realized the intensity or depth of Dylan’s emotions. A lot of his post-divorce anguish pours out (“like it was written in my soul from me to you”) in 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, but Dylan takes convincing pains in his autobiography to explain how much more his family meant to him than his career. And we think we know the appeal of common-man folk music to a small-town upper mid-westerner like Dylan -- and we get a nuts-and-bolts description of how Dylan gained an encyclopedic knowledge of this music that was “all I needed to exist” -- but in Chronicles we get explicated some philosophical underpinnings to the genre that was “more true to life than life itself”:
    Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes. Vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom
At the same time, Dylan, feeling that much of folk music was out of date with “no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time,” felt impelled to write songs, new songs of a socially conscious slant, songs of protest.

He would go on to make his mark in writing and performing these newer songs, and he vividly recounts the dizzying, surreal spin he was in as he elatedly gets signed up by Columbia and starts his recording career. More tellingly, perhaps, is his sense of priority on the day he signed the contract: having also been given an advance record by the then-rediscovered Robert Johnson -- Dylan rushes to a friend’s house, but instead of crowing about the record deal, he excitedly plays Johnson's record while barely containing his enthusiasm about this unburied 1930s-era blues treasure.

The influential Johnson also figures in Dylan’s evolution as a lyricist, though latently so. In the early ‘60s, still a folk singer, Dylan -- so enamored of the blues legend’s compositions, which “seemed to come out of his mouth and not his memory” -- started “mediating on the construction of the verses, seeing how different they were from Woody’s.”

Indeed, Dylan was taken with the free association and allegorical nature of many of Johnson’s lyrics, with their “big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction.” Furthermore, Dylan was also fascinated by the ballad “Pirate Jenny” from a Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical, and did a similar deconstruction on its lyrical content and aspects of free association -- again, still a few years before any stream of his consciousness imbued “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Highway 61 Revisited.

In addition to having an intuitive grasp of disparate back-burner inspirations for possible later use, Dylan is resourceful in the face of setbacks, taking full advantage of serendipitous happenstance and tapping into long-ago lessons. In the late ’80s, for example, Dylan -- looking for ways to keep playing guitar after a bad hand injury, draws upon a different technique shown to him 20 years earlier by an old jazz and blues great, Lonnie Johnson -- methods that have implications for the way Dylan restructures the playing of older songs. You may think the modifications of songs performed in concert or the barely-recognizable “Masters of War” he performed on an awards show on TV a few years back was just because he has a healthy art-for-art’s sake reverence for on-your-toes perverseness. It could be that, or there could be more practical reason.

Dylan also revitalized his singing style about the same time when, taking a break in a frustrating rehearsal, he happens to stop into a bar where an older singer in a jazz band -- who seemingly “had an open window to my soul” -- triggered with his vocalizing style something “revelatory” that revitalized Dylan to a point where “because of the different formulaic approach to the vocal technique, my voice never got blown out and I could sing forever without fatigue.”

Regardless, however, Dylan was contemplating quitting music altogether -- that wooden leg factory in North Carolina was looking better and better, I guess. Of course, we all know that none of that happened, and that Dylan still shows no sign of slowing down. But at the time, though the re-emergent good fortune allowed him to continue his tour with Tom Petty, the shows became “monotonous,” to the point where “I’d see the people in the crowd and they’d look like cut-outs from a shooting gallery, there was no connection to them, just subjects at random."

Things got better for Dylan again, fortunately, but I must admit to some mixed feelings: I was at one of those Bob Dylan/Tom Petty shows, having luckily attained front-row center seats. Thought there was a tight connection there somehow -- I swear we made eye contact! -- but turns out... I was just another faceless, random sitting duck. Betrayed.



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