Bob Dylan, |
Chronicles, Vol. 1
(Simon & Schuster, 2004)
"There was a lot of halting and waiting, little acknowledgement, little affirmation," Dylan writes in the early pages of his addictive memoir, "but sometimes all it takes is a wink or a nod from some unexpected place to vary the tedium of a baffling existence." Time and again in Dylan's Chronicles, Vol. 1, this distinctly American voice grabs and drags the reader into a wisdom and experience unavailable to mere mortals.
Sure, we all have our memories: reflections and scraps of personal truth passed on to whomever happens to trundle through our lives. But there is only one Bob Dylan, and no amount of age or learning changes that. Flooding over with an encyclopedic understanding for blues, folk, country and rock history as well as an illuminating excavation of Dylan's rich reading life, opening Chronicles is like opening a university in the palm of your hand.
Chiefly, it is a great American road novel in which the ferocious prose of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac mingle with the impressive demeanor of that one college professor you never forgot. From Dylan's uniquely bucolic portraits of life at the center of the burgeoning counter-culture in 1960s Greenwich Village to his vividly drawn characters and fascinating digressions, one gets the feeling while reading this book that an instant classic has been born.
Dylan's ability to ground himself within a larger historical and cultural context throughout the book -- a particular time and place in which the invention of Bob Dylan was possible -- is extraordinarily revealing. It is precisely what Bill Clinton attempted to do in his own recent My Life, but Dylan's Chronicles succeeds where Clinton failed because of his refreshing modesty. Some of its best sections have nothing to do with the man himself. In particular, Dylan's descriptive style echoes the literary geniuses to which he so frequently alludes, as with this scene of murder on Carmine Street:
I was heading to meet Mark, walking along Carmine Street, past the garages, the barbershops and dry cleaners, hardware stores. Radio sounds came shifting out of cafes. Snowy streets full of debris, sadness, the smell of gasoline ... when I got to the place, Spoelstra was already there and so was the Dutchman. The Dutchman was lying dead in the doorway of his storefront. There were splotches of blood on the ice and red lines in the snow, like spiderwebs. The old man who owned the building had been waiting for him and stuck a knife in him. The Dutchman was still wearing his fur hat, long brown overcoat and riding boots, and his head was propped up on the stoop under the pearl gray sky.
If it weren't for Dylan's name engraved in bold silver print on the spine, one might mistake this for an opening scene from some lost Dostoevsky story. But for the many Dylanologists among us, there is plenty of meat and potatoes to go around. While the obvious craving is for detailed accounts of such famous sessions as those that brought us Blood on the Tracks or Blonde on Blonde, it is in an intimate and vulnerable recounting of the "Oh Mercy" sessions that we get a tantalizing sense of Dylan's recording habits.
While not considered one of Dylan's most representative releases, 1989's Oh Mercy was nonetheless his best album since Desire 14 years earlier, and went far to efface the cryptic failures of the creative downswing that culminated in those late '70s and '80s albums. Shot of Love or Infidels yielded bursts of engaging listening, but paled in comparison to now-legendary outtakes that sprang from those sessions, such as "Carribean Wind" or the breathtaking "Blind Willie McTell."
"A song is like a dream," Dylan writes amid his depiction of the Oh Mercy sessions, "and you try to make it come true. They're like strange countries that you have to enter." Elsewhere Dylan describes the original song as "a door to a dark room ... you think you know what's there, where everything is arranged, but you really don't until you step inside."
But Dylan admits that he may have stepped inside for the last time long ago, and it is this mingling of resignation and resurrection that makes Oh Mercy such an interesting album. "The mirror had swung around and I could see the future," Dylan confesses, "an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs ... My haystacks weren't tied down and I was beginning to fear the wind." But as the electric ferocity of his prose confirms, that wind still blows, and if haystacks like Time Out of Mind have blown anywhere, they now reside where "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Idiot Wind" ended up: eternally entrenched deep in the American consciousness.