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Tangled Up in Bob

Three New Releases Offer Fresh Insights And Inspirations For The Dylan Fan

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/17/2004

There was little reason to expect much from Bob Dylan’s memoirs. All of his nonmusic writing in the past had been distinctly underwhelming, starting with his first book. Tarantula—copyrighted in 1966, reluctantly published in 1971 only to combat bootleg copies, and reissued this fall by Scribner—was self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness, typified by its opening line: “Aretha / crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused in drunk transfusion wound would heed sweet soundwave . . . ”

Dylan’s early liner notes were in the same vein, and the two screenplays he co-wrote—the four-hour-long 1978 drama Renaldo and Clara, with Sam Shepard, and 2003’s story of a down-and-out musician, Masked and Anonymous, with Larry Charles—were as unsuspenseful as they were incoherent.

So it’s a genuine, welcome surprise to discover that Dylan’s new book, Chronicles: Volume One (Simon and Schuster), provides the pleasures of a sharply original voice. There’s an occasional clunky sentence, usually when he tries to shoehorn in a fact or when he resorts to an exhausted metaphor, but those are redeemed by sentences that shine and jump like grasshoppers after the rain.

Typical of Dylan’s generosity and grasp of detail is this description of folk singer Dave Van Ronk: “Van Ronk was from Brooklyn, had seaman’s papers, a wide walrus mustache, long brown straight hair which flew down covering half his face. He turned every folk song into a surreal melodrama, a theatrical piece—suspenseful down to the last minute. Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison and I wanted some.”

Chronicles is also notable for its rather strange structure; the first two chapters are set in early 1961, just after a 19-year-old Dylan has hitchhiked through blizzards from Minneapolis to Manhattan. He uses flashbacks to describe his earlier life in Minnesota and flash-forwards to anticipate where his first encounters in New York will lead him, but everything is seen through the prism of that first winter in Greenwich Village. The third chapter jumps ahead to 1970, when he’s trying to escape from his own celebrity. He tries to write some songs for Scratch, a stage play by the poet Archibald MacLeish but instead turns those songs into his 1970 album, New Morning.

Dylan then jumps to 1987, which finds him so fed up with the music business and himself that he considers retirement, until a creative spurt leads to a batch of new songs that eventually become 1989’s Oh Mercy. The fifth chapter returns to 1961, and we’re back in Manhattan.

It’s tempting to believe that this structure, which avoids all his biggest albums, is a deliberate attempt to cast light on his career from unexpected angles, but one suspects that these are simply the first five chapters he finished. But even if that’s the case, and Dylan is going to fill in the gaps with more chapters in more planned volumes of his Chronicles, we have much to look forward to, for this is one of the best pop-music memoirs ever.

Dylan puts the emphasis where it should be, not on the business deals, love affairs, and drug problems but on the creative process, how specific inspirations led to new ways of making music. He will, for example, occasionally refer to “my wife” without ever giving her name or even acknowledging that she’s not the same person as the last “my wife.” But he goes into sharp-eyed detail about a chance encounter with a jazz singer in a San Francisco lounge, and how that triggered not only a whole new approach to singing but also the memory of blues legend Lonnie Johnson teaching a twentysomething Dylan how to play guitar in triplets. And he explains how both of these unlikely incidents led to his musical rejuvenation with Oh Mercy.

Chronicles also offers insights into Dylan’s influences and inspirations. In the first two chapters, he suggests that his breakthrough songwriting grew out of listening to old Big Bill Broonzy 78s by a crackling fire at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center; out of sitting in to hear Mike Seeger, who was “tense, poker-faced, and radiated telepathy”; out of listening to Roy Orbison, whose “voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself”; and out of crashing in a Greenwich Village apartment where he read “Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Montesquieu, Martin Luther—visionaries, revolutionaries . . . it was like I knew those guys, like they’d been living in my backyard.”

But above all, in Chronicles, Dylan argues that music is his connection to the public, so if he has anything to explain to the world, it’s his songs. After all, it’s not an artist’s marriage or drinking problem that makes him different from you or me; it’s the art, and it’s a treat to find a famous memoirist who realizes this. And Dylan provides insights that will delight anyone who has ever loved those songs.

Oliver Trager takes the same approach in his new reference work, Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Billboard). The book is organized around more than 700 songs—nearly every song that Dylan has ever written, recorded, or performed onstage—and each entry not only describes a song’s background and various versions, but also offers anecdotes, interview quotes, and a critical assessment in surprisingly lively prose. These are supplemented by entries on every film and album Dylan contributed to, as well as selected biographies of his collaborators.

That alone would make Keys to the Rain invaluable for any devoted Dylan fan, but this is not a book you’ll only pick up when you’re looking for a fact; this is a book you’ll pick up just to read, like passages such as this one about “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”: “Lost in the rain on Easter and inebriated on Burgundy wine and ‘the harder stuff,’ the alienated narrator slums in Juarez’s seamy skid row . . . just down the street from Poe’s Rue Morgue or under Lowry’s volcano . . . The jangly honky-tonk piano only adds to the bleakness.” You may want to argue with some of Trager’s assessments—I often do—but the fact that he’s worth arguing with is evidence itself of the book’s pleasures.

Of course, the whole reason we care about a Dylan memoir or a Dylan encyclopedia is his songwriting, his ability to put words to music as no one ever had before. Now all those words are collected in one place, Lyrics: 1962-2001 (Simon and Schuster). The words may come alive only when married to the music, but in these 610 pages you can focus on the language alone, on how he connected word to word, phrase to phrase, stanza to stanza, as carefully as any writer in any genre. And lest you think the words just poured out of him spontaneously, facsimiles of selected manuscript pages reveal Dylan’s own handwritten edits.

Of course, Dylan had his ups and downs as a writer; he could write something as negligible as “Wiggle Wiggle” or as enduring as “Mr. Tambourine Man.” As you leaf through Lyrics, though, you’re sure to stumble across passages from songs you had forgotten—or never known—and be surprised by the evocative power of a verse, like “Dark Eyes”: “A cock is crowing far away and another soldier’s deep in prayer/ Some mother’s child has gone astray; she can’t find him anywhere/ But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise/ Whom nature’s beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes.”

This is not poetry; these are song lyrics, a genre unto itself. But if play scripts are worth reading apart from their performance, so too are lyrics. And that being the case, they don’t get any better than these.

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Keeping it Together (6/30/2010)
Marah and the Hold Steady add a harder, not as hopeful edge to Bruce Springsteen's working-class angst

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