too much typing—since 2003


"here is your throat back - thanks for the loan"

I just finished reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, and what most impressed me about it was how well the distinctive Dylan voice translated into writing. Curiously - and perhaps because this is his first actual book - early on that made me suspect a ghostwriter...yet the more I read, the less likely that seemed, since such a ghostwriter would've had to have been more Bob than Bob to do it. No, I'm pretty persuaded it's Dylan's book - surely (as with every published book) some editorial assistance, but Dylan all the same.

The decision to structure the book by beginning and ending with Dylan's early days in New York City - and then skipping over the years of his biggest songwriting success, instead focusing in turn on his years of lost songwriting faith, and on a resurrection of sorts - serves to highlight the way Dylan views songwriting as a vocation. I mean that word in its priestly sense: Dylan studied the songwriting that influenced him (Woody Guthrie, of course - but also Weill/Brecht and Robert Johnson, among others) and took seriously the notion that ti wasn't just a matter of hammering out tunes, that his songs had to be his own in a very deep, real sense.

That, in turn, relates to what is most Dylanly in Dylan: his use of language, its concreteness and rootedness in place and time. Even in what reads, on the page, as his high surrealist period (roughly from Highway 61 Revisited through Blonde on Blonde) draws from specific and particular objects, objects that typify both his upbringing in the Midwest of the 1940s and 1950s and his deep study of the folk-music tradition, with a strong coloration derived from his reading and the intellectual world of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. (I hadn't thought how important the Civil War was in Dylan's work, but this book makes that clear, for example.) For Dylan, objects are verbs: they are vehicles, transformative in nature. Lines like this one, from "Visions of Johanna," "harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain": at first it seems gratuitous imagery, incongruous objects stitched together in homage to the famous Lautreamont phrase "beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," along with a harmless pun on keys musical and lock-opening - except that actual harmonicas, actual skeleton keys (and of course the actual rain) aren't random objects but very much a part of Dylan's world. You can be sure Dylan had in mind the look of a night watchman's or building super's ring of keys, worn, or perhaps even rusted; and the rest of the line takes off from the look and circumstance of that image: something lonely, maybe shady, or even sepulchral about the man and his keys, a something evoked by the wheezing, hollow sound of the harmonica. As to how those lines fit with the rest of the song: Dylan (and the book, too) seems to shy away from telling us too much too directly, mistrusting those who'd leave no white space for listeners to draw their own conclusions in - and so he drew specifics with great detail, but left the specifics, the what of the situation, more hazy and blank, trusting that following those verbs would eventually allow the appropriate nouns to be summoned forth.

That, too, may underlie Dylan's decision to talk around the peak of his career: maybe he needed to rethink its beginnings, and what fell out from the amazing string of records through 1966 or so, before he could get to that. Certainly, the "New Morning" chapter makes clear what his unwished-for anointment as "voice of a generation" cost him, psychically, personally, and (it's implied) musically. Perhaps future volumes will address those years - or perhaps they won't: it wouldn't really surprise me if Dylan felt there was nothing more left for him to say about them.

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