When I was a senior in high school, there wasn’t just about anything I wanted to say that I didn’t think could be said better in a Bob Dylan song. Even the stuff I knew was sappy like Lay Down Your Weary Tune or on-the-nose like My Back Pages seemed to strike a ringing truthful sappy chord. Me and all of my friends were the “little boy lost” in Visions of Johanna who took themselves too seriously. Grayson Taylor was A Big Girl Now; Elizabeth Kellogg was the Girl From the North Country; if someone saw Kendall Genre, I wanted them to “say hello for me”; there was always one girl or another who would “never know the hurt I’d suffered, nor the pain I’d rise above; and I would never know the same about her, her holiness, or her kind of love. And it made me feel so sorry.”
While Dylan’s voice is certainly an acquired taste, (which some, admittedly, never acquire), and his music for the most part lacks virtuoso instrumentation (Jimi Hendrix) or collaboration (Dave Matthews Band), verses from songs like It’s Alright Ma, Chimes of Freedom and Gates of Eden have lyrics which are themselves the stuff of great poems or songs. Only A Pawn in Their Game remains one of the most poignant pieces of social and political commentary. When the Ship Comes In was a perfect anthem for the litigation against Big Tobacco. And I am frequently trying to remind myself to “wish no harm, nor put fault, on anyone who lives in a vault; but it’s alright ma, if I can’t please him.”
Yet every actor, gangster, politician, talk show host, sports legend and celebrity of any kind (including virtually every has-been, almost, and never-was) seems to have his or her own published memoir, and I have read or seen several different interviews with Dylan over the years that seemed either self-important, self-righteous, or just plain weird.
So it was refreshing when, one day, in the airport, having run out of Ken Follets and Nelson DeMilles and John le Carres, I picked up the paperback of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (Volume One) to find it surprisingly coherent.
I still don’t know whether I would find the book remotely interesting if I didn’t find Bob Dylan’s music so interesting.
Which is precisely the problem with all of these celebrity memoirs. (Or elongated strings of lightweight op-ed pieces.)
Are we interested in Bill Clinton’s book, or Oprah Winfrey’s book, or Lawrence Taylor’s book, because they have actually led interesting lives, or have anything actually interesting to say?
(And are willing to say.)
We have that National Enquirer-type interest in all of the gossip and the name-dropping and the name-calling; and what he or she thought about this or that. But all of that is fleeting and transitory. Unless the commentary itself is perceptive.
(Which is why I find all of the celebrity discussion about the tabloids so interesting. What it’s like for them. How they are treated. How unfair it is. What they go through. Like when the Reality TV veterans get together, and are interviewed, and say stuff like “what people have to understand is….” Why? Why do people have to understand? The plight of the Reality TV veteran? A full .00001% of the population? Yes, celebrities and gossip sell. The public is interested in their lives, their thoughts, their opinions, their triumphs and their tribulations. But they don’t really care. They’re not invested. One story is pretty much just as good as the next. It’s very replaceable. Like popcorn. Yes, the interest is real. But it’s shallow.)
In any event, as someone who has frequently revered artists like Bob Dylan, or William Faulkner, in such a way that the thought of doing something new, or different, or better, has seemed hopeless and futile, I was reassured by Dylan’s own recollection of not even entertaining the idea of writing his own songs when he first started out, because he believed that Woody Guthrie had said just about everything that could be said in a folk song in just about the best way that anyone could ever say it.
Writing about Mike Seeger, Dylan recalls that:
“I knew I was doing things right, was on the right road, was getting all the knowledge immediately and firsthand – memorizing words and melodies and changes, but now I saw that it could take me the rest of my life to make practical use of that knowledge and Mike didn’t have to do that. He was just right there. He was too good and you can’t be ‘too good,’ not in this world, anyway. In order to be as good as that, you’d just about have to be him, and nobody else.”
“Folk songs are evasive – the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again it’s exactly the way we want it to be. We wouldn’t be comfortable with it any other way. A folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff. A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening.”
Probably overstating things just a bit, but – particularly for someone interested in traditional folk music, seemingly preoccupied with the Civil War, and apparently spending hours pouring over antebellum newspapers at the New York Library – a distinctly “modern” view of things.
At the same time:
“James Joyce seemed like the most arrogant man who ever lived.” Joyce, in Dylan’s words, “had both his eyes wide open and great faculty of speech, but what he say, I knew not what.” Asked to write songs for the dark play Scratch by Archibald MacLeish, Dylan remembers wanting to ask McLeish to explain James Joyce to him. “To make sense of something that seemed so out of control.” McLeish’s play was about “essential evil” and “devastating truth”, which, at that point in his life, Dylan says he was trying to avoid. Dylan knew that McLeish would have explained Joyce to him, but didn’t ask. “Deep down, I knew that I couldn’t have added anything to the message of his play. He didn’t need my help anyway. He wanted only to talk about the songs for his play and that’s why I was here, but there was no hope and there was nothing to be done and soon that became obvious.”
While Dylan’s Chronicles are very readable, I’m still not sure whether they would be all that interesting or informative if you weren’t interested in Dylan. There are, perhaps surprisingly, a number of interesting historical and geographical portraits and vignettes which are interwoven into the work. But there is also a lot of name-dropping and homage-paying and other pop culture references which are fairly meaningless to anyone who is not familiar with the characters or the times.
Dylan’s glorified, romantic descriptions of New Orleans would likely be fairly irrelevant to most people, in most circumstances – yet were hauntingly ironic to someone who grew up in the city reading Chronicles in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
I was, in the short term, disappointed that there wasn’t more exposition on the origins or meanings of the songs on albums like Blood on the Tracks or Bringin It All Back Home. (Maybe he’s saving that for Volume Two). But, in the long run, I’m probably happier to make of them what I wish.
“There are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”