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Dylan‘s Back Pages: Chronicles Recall the Odyssey of a Young Folksinger on the Rise

Robert Downes - October 21st, 2004
There’s an old story about a talking dog in a bar. No one remembers what the dog has to say -- what’s amazing is that a dog is talking at all.
Such is the case with Bob Dylan’s new autobiography, “Chronicles,” the first in a three-volume series that was released in early October. The marvel unveiled in the book is that for the past 44 years of his stellar career, Bob Dylan has been notoriously silent, obscure or cryptic at best on the meaning of his songs and just how he came to be arguably the greatest American songwriter of all time.
In “Chronicles” we take that journey with the 19-year-old Dylan at the most innocent period of his career -- the hungry, searching, uncertain years as a near-beggar on the streets of New York City.
Since those days, Dylan has become the American Sphinx, an enigma who has somehow survived and thrived through nearly the entire history of rock while scores of his contemporaries have fallen into obscurity or death itself from drugs and alcohol -- poisons which Robert Zimmerman (“you can call me Bobby”) has also been intimately familiar with, yet somehow dodged, like a blind man at the gate.

In “Chronicles” we learn for the first time why Dylan has been so intensely guarded in revealing himself through the years. In a word, it is fame that made him hesitant to give his fans any further excuse to hound him. After achieving a blinding level of success early in his career, Dylan found himself set up as a reluctant messiah for the nascent counterculture. “The big bugs of the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation,” he recalls. “That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”
He talks of fans breaking into his home in Woodstock, New York, walking on his roof at night, and showing up at all hours with the sure belief that the “spokesman of a generation” would be thrilled to play host.
“Intruders started to break into our home day and night,” he writes. “Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs of dropouts and druggies. Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night. At first, it was merely the nomadic homeless making illegal entry -- seemed harmless enough, but then rogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest began to arrive -- unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry.”
Trying to protect his wife and growing family, Dylan writes that he set out to change his image, deliberately spoofing reporters with bizarre interviews and doing odd things with his career, such as showing up at the Wailing Wall in Jeruselem, wearing a yarmulke. “I had assumed that when critics dismissed my work, the same thing would happen to me, that the public would forget about me. How mad is that?”

Now that Dylan, 63, spends most of his time living on his bus, performing a neverending tour around the world, perhaps he feels more relaxed about recounting his experience. Especially in a world that has moved on to other pop idols.
In any case, “Chronicles” is a bit like the filming of “Lord of the Rings” in that it’s something you wait 30 or 40 years to see, never believing that it will happen in your lifetime.
The book begins and ends in Greenwich Village, 1961 with Dylan signing his first recording deal with Columbia Records. It’s a charming device that pulls the reader through several decades of Dylan’s ups & downs to the ‘90s and back again. At one point, the national poet laureate Archibald McLeish informs him that both poets Dante and John Donne always took their work back to where it had started; only at the end of the book do we realize that Dylan too is in this league.
As a writer, Dylan lives up to his legend as a poet. His book is much like a Dylan song in that it curves in and out of scenes in his life like a mobeius strip to random memories that have stuck in his head for no apparent reason. His photographic recall of the past captures a vivid picture of a dirt-poor, couch-begging 19-year-old scrapper on the verge of destiny.
Unlike his mediocre ‘60s book, “Tarantula,” which was a stream-of-consciousness mess, Dylan has written “Chronicles” in a staccato, conversational style, like a man recalling scenes over beers in an East Village bar or mulling his strategy behind an iffy hand of cards. He writes like Raymond Chandler in the Phillip Marlowe detective novels -- there’s are many brief, tough-guy observations followed by long passages of poetically descriptive prose that captures both the moment as well as an interior monologue.

There’s little in the way of a conventional autobiography here; little about his birth, family, early years or college days. There is only one line mentioning his alleged broken neck from a motorcyle wreck in the late ‘60s (except for the admission that it was an excuse to hide out from the world) and nothing about the the claim that Dylan has seduced hundreds of women. Yet this territory has already been covered by scores of rock journalists and biographers.
What’s important to Dylan is the process by which he became a songwriter. He tells us only that he arrived in New York City after a long drive from Chicago, plunging into a folk scene that was populated by scores of other performers playing for nickels and dimes at coffee joints and “basket houses.”
Dylan arrives at the bottom of the folk ladder -- the ultimate nobody outsider from the bleak Iron Range of northern Minnesota, an uncool place that no one knows or cares about on the music scene. At the time, musicians are lock-stepped into performing traditional folk songs from Appalachia or Olde England, or else performing commercial folk pop in the vein of the Kingston Trio.
You can easily understand why Dylan went on to write tunes like “Positively 4th Street,” blasting those who blew him off initially. “I saw a lot of people that I’d meet again not too far off, a lot of the folk community hierarchy, who were all pretty indifferent towards me at the time and showed very little enthusiasm. They could tell that I wasn’t from the North Carolina mountains nor was I a very commercial, cosmopolitan singer either. I just didn’t fit in. They didn’t know what to make of me.”

But coming just out of his teens, Dylan was blessed with a tremendous drive to be onstage, seemingly with no self-doubts or stage fright. “Actually, I wanted to play for anybody. I could never sit in a room and just play all by myself. I needed to play for people and all the time. You can say I practiced in public and my whole life was becoming what I practiced.”
By the time he hit New York, Dylan had also resolved to become good enough as a solo performer on guitar and harmonica to make it on his own. He notes that during a succession of high school bands, other groups with better-paying gigs kept stealing his sidemen. Later in his career, Dylan would have his pick of the best musicians in the world, discarding them like Kleenex for new projects.
After seeing Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers, an “extraordinary, skin-stinging” performer on guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica, Dylan realizes that he’ll never be as good a musician as this natural, even if he spends a lifetime at it. “The thought occurred to me that maybe I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know,” he writes. “That was a startling thought.”
In fact, writing one’s own songs was virtually a revolutionary act at the time. Despite the musical foment of Greenwich Village, its musicians were slavishly devoted to copying traditional ballads. And not much was happening musically in America at large.
“Things were pretty sleepy on the Americana music scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” he writes. “Popular radio was sort of at a standstill and filled with empty pleasantries. It was years before The Beatles, The Who or the Rolling Stones would breathe new life and excitement into it. What I was playing at the time were hard-lipped folk songs with fire and brimstone servings, and you didn’t need to take polls to know that they didn’t match up with anything on the radio, didn’t lend themselves to commercialism.”

But, Dylan could sense the first twitchings of an earthquake in what music historian Greil Marcus would come to call the “invisible republic.”
How Bob Dylan came to write his incredible songs at such a mediocre time in pop history is one of the mysteries he slowly unwraps in the book.
“I did everything fast,” he recalls. “Thought fast, ate fast, talked fast and walked fast. I even sang my songs fast. I needed to slow down if I was going to be a composer with anything to say.”
He claims that he started reading American newspapers from 1855-1865 on microfiche at the New York Public Library for inspiration, finding the country’s struggle and spirit in the process through tales of slavery, war, riots, oration and the Bible. Along with the union tales of Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie, these titanic struggles and stories of injustice would go on to become the heart of his songs.
The future songwriter also read many of the great poets -- Byron, Coleridge, Poe, Shelley; later his songwriting would often be compared with the work of the French teen genius poet Arthur Rimbaud. He read snippets of Thucydides, Balzac, Melville, Rousseau, Gogol, Dickens and Machiaveilli. He ransacked the American Folk Arts museum for ancient folk songs. It’s tempting to believe that Bob Dylan was so busy reading that he couldn’t have had much time on his hands to perform; yet he writes with such knowledge and authority of these artists that it’s not hard to imagine him teaching comparitive literature at the graduate level.

The influence of Woody Guthrie is often commented on in many biographies. What’s revealed in “Chronicles” is that Dylan was also moved by such diverse singers as Ricky Nelson, Harry Belafonte and Johnny Rivers. A huge influence was Hank Williams whose work taught Dylan the craft of melody. “In time, I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the artchetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars and they had to be there. Even his words -- all of his syllables are divided up so they make perfect mathematical sense.”
A shocker for the young Dylan was an encounter with the recordings of blues legend Robert Johnson, whose work was virtually unknown at the time. “The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window,” he writes. “When Johnson started singing, he seemed like guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard.”
Like many musicians since, Dylan appropriated Robert Johnson’s licks and chord progressions, recycling the sounds on songs such as “Highway 61.”
As for the intense imagery of his songs that catapulted Dylan into the first level of poet/songwriters, he says his imagination was sparked by a theatre presentation of songs by Bertolt Brecht, a Marxist German playwright whose works were banned in his own country, and that of Kurt Weill -- the two had a hit with “Mack the Knife.” What drew Dylan in was a show-stopping ballad called “A Ship the Black Freighter,” filled with imagery of a scrubbing woman tending to a ratty waterfront hotel with a black freighter just off the dock in the fog. In a lightning clap, Dylan realized he wanted to write the same kind of songs.
“This is a wild song. Big medicine in the lyrics. Heavy action spread out. Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin. And then there’s always that ghost chorus about the black ship that fences it all off and locks it up tighter than a drum. It’s a nasty song, sung by an evil fiend, and when she’s done singing, there’s not a word to say. It leaves you breathless.”

Dylan went on to write songs in the same vein -- filled with poetry and the rough heart of America; drained of cheap sentimentality, his songs rang true. His songs come at you sideways, like a truck speeding in the corner of your eye, seconds before impact. Within a very short time, the 21-year-old’s creations were being sung by The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Peter, Paul & Mary, Sonny and Cher, Johnny Rivers and scores of other artists. With more than 500 known songs to his credit (and perhaps hundreds of others which have gone unrecorded), Dylan has had a profound influence on many titans of rock -- The Beatles, The Clash, U2, Bruce Springsteen -- and is still on tour, making some of his best albums long after many have slipped into that “quiet night” written of by the poet Dylan Thomas.
Speaking of which, Robert Zimmerman writes of how he chose his name soon after leaving his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Initially, he planned to call himself Robert Allen. Then he decided that Allyn “looked more exotic, more inscrutable.”
“Then sometime later, unexpectedly, I’d seen some of the poems by Dylan Thomas,” he writes. “Dylan and Allyn sounded similar. Robert Dylan. Robert Allyn. I couldn’t decide -- the letter D came on stronger.” Yet, Robert Allyn sounded too stilted, and Bobby was being used by too many other performers in the late ‘50s, so he settled on Bob. Bob Dylan.
That, at least, is what Bob Dylan claims happened in “Chronicles.” Whether it’s the truth we’ll never know, because he’s also a notorious spoofer and leg-puller who admits that he makes things up when he doesn’t know the answer. The book is like a Dylan song -- there are insights into a young songwriter’s soul, but inside jokes as well and the sense that you’re being left hanging on the verge of unknown possibilities.
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