by Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster, 2004
review by John Tintera
The article on Dylan in the leftist-leaning Reader’s Companion to American History declares that “if Dylan had died in his 1966 motorcycle accident, he would have achieved mythic status…[N]one of his subsequent albums rivaled the poetry and power of his earlier work, which stands as an eloquent expression of the political and the personal in rock music.” This statement sums up a popular sentiment about Dylan—that he was washed up by the age of 25 and never produced another song worthy of his great masterpieces of the early 60s. Now, at age 63, Dylan has set down in his own words a response to his critics.
Even holding his autobiography, Chronicles, Vol. 1, brings to mind Dylan’s contemporaries who died in the 60s—Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimmi Hendrix, to name a few. In hindsight it’s tempting to idealize the 60s, but it was a bloody mess of a decade. Dylan is lucky to have made it out alive, and he says as much in his book. In a particularly memorable passage, he recounts what it was like to have his address known by all the hippies and yippies in 1968—“This was so unsettling,” he says. “Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night.” The moral constraints that normally keep people in check were lowered and life had become a free-for-all. (By pure happenstance, no Mark David Chapmans were among Dylan’s trespassers.) As powerful as the music was of those who died in the 60s, it’s nothing like the full life of work we have from Dylan. Yes, he’s had his ups and downs, but if Dylan had died in 1966, we would never have had some of his best and most satisfying music.
Dylan is 30 years my senior, so I am not among the generation who heard him play in the Village coffee houses or booed him at the Newport Folk Festival when he first played electric guitar. I started listening seriously to his music when I got to college—when I was 19 and he was 49. I’d always liked the couple of songs they played on the radio, but it wasn’t until I heard his 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home that I was touched by his music in a profound way. Songs like “The Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” opened me up to new vistas of consciousness. Although I didn’t know it at the time, when I first started listening to him he was in the throes of one of his periodic “comebacks” to critical acclaim. He talks about this period at length in his book.
Suffering from a mysterious hand injury that left him unable to play guitar, and from a series of negatively reviewed albums, Dylan was on the verge of retirement. On a recent tour with Tom Petty, playing his classic hits felt to him like “carrying a package of rotting meat.” Suddenly, in the middle of the night, lyrics started to come to him out of that ethereal place where all great songs originate. He dutifully wrote them down, but stuffed them into a drawer, probably for good. Then, through a series of fortunate events, he was put in touch with record producer Daniel Lanois, whose gifts are powerfully evident on U2’s Joshua Tree album. Lanois and Dylan joined together to write and produce Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy.
In the book, Dylan recounts what it was like to make this landmark album song by song. It didn’t always go smoothly, and there were times when it looked like it just wasn’t going to come together at all. Dylan’s biographer, Bob Spitz, has noted that Dylan has a strong passive-aggressive side to his personality. At one point, frustrated with what was going on in the studio, Dylan got up and left for a road trip on his motorcycle, presumably abandoning a bewildered producer and group of musicians in the studio. In a nod to Kerouac, Dylan gives details about a couple of interesting conversations he had with some rural Louisiana characters during this trip, but not by way of justifying his tantrum. He just lays out the story, leaving the reader to put the emotions of the various players into the scene. It’s a great moment, and a deeply honest one, for in it is encapsulated not only Dylan’s famous (or infamous) way of dealing with conflict, but also a quiet admission to his ambivalence toward his own music that so frustrates his fans and critics.
Oh Mercy is undoubtedly a good album. Songs like “Disease of Conceit,” “Ring Them Bells,” and “Everything is Broken” are the best political material Dylan had written in 20 years, and “What Good Am I?” is probably the best song ever written about personal depression. The album moves, however, to a sphere beyond the political and the personal, venturing into what the rock critic Greil Marcus calls “the invisible republic” of American culture. The invisible republic is the place where our black markets live, along with our con men, crime families, desperate villains, and the devil himself. You can also find our Willie Lomans, Tom Joads, and Robert Johnsons there. In the song “The Man in the Long Black Coat,” Dylan creates a character and sets a mood worthy of a Coppola or Tarrantino movie. The first person monologue, “What Was It You Wanted” is even more terrifying—you feel like you’re standing before the judgment seat. When Dylan writes about making Oh Mercy, there’s no doubt he’s directing his words to all the critics who are sad he didn’t die in 1966.
After Oh Mercy Dylan recorded and released two collections of traditional songs, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. The songs explored a lot of the same dark, desperate characters and bleak emotional terrain of Oh Mercy and at the same time took him back to his early days as a folk singer doing covers of other people’s tunes in New York coffee houses. In what is definitely the best section of Chronicles, Dylan discusses in vivid detail his life in those days. He conjures up the characters, the kingmakers, the books, and the music that led him from Minneapolis to New York, the hot seat of the folk revival in America. Little things thrill, like the story of how he bought his first harmonica rack. It’s also charming to hear about the people who lent him a helping hand in the months and years before he made it big. From the minor music biz folks who let him flop in their one-bedroom Village apartments to the fellow musicians from whom he borrowed musical ideas, Dylan gives us an extremely entertaining and colorful view of a world where future greats still dwelled with crazy cats like Hugh Romney (A.K.A. Wavy Gravy), the guy who went on to emcee Woodstock.
What’s most satisfying about these passages, however, is that Dylan crafted them to reveal what led him to song writing. We learn that it was not his original plan. For the first few years of his career, he thought of himself strictly as a singer, storyteller and performer. Ironically, one stumbling block to forming an appreciation of Dylan is that raspy, whiny, often tuneless voice he brings to every performance. It’s worse now than ever. Yet, despite his fame as a songwriter, Dylan has probably toured and performed more than anyone in history. He himself calls it the never-ending tour. Suffice it to say that it could only take a person with the nerve and imagination of Bob Dylan to make as much as he has with the voice God gave him.
Though protest songs were definitely part of his pre-songwriting repertoire, and he became famous singing songs like “Times They Are a Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” writing and performing were never just about protest for him. After he first recognized his desire to write music, he tossed about for subject matter and eventually found himself in the archives of the New York Public Library, reading mid-nineteenth century copies of The Pennsylvania Freeman and The Chicago Tribune. Then, as now, the Civil War, with its heroes and its sinners fired his imagination. Of that period, he writes, “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
These days, Dylan is creating music that is probably more “countercultural” than ever. On his last two albums, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, he has recorded songs about catastrophic floods, slave ships, and lonesome drifters. The songs about love and romance seem to be written by a man whose relationships have left him shaking his head in bewilderment and disbelief. They come from a place a world away from the erotic confidence of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. In all, listening to these CDs is like getting a postcard from an American sage. The same is true for reading Chronicles. If the vocation of the prophet is to look behind the veil and to boldly state what he sees, then Dylan in his golden years is doing that as well as any person alive today.
Admittedly, Chronicles is a fan’s book. For the uninitiated, Dylan’s clipped prose might seem overblown, even pretentious. For Dylan's followers, it strikes the right blend of humility and electrifying cool. For those looking for spiritual insights, Dylan’s current work, both the new book and the recent CDs, carve out a sacred space amongst the reckless materialism of our age. That space is filled with suffering, but it’s a suffering that points the way to redemption. He says it best in his recent number, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:
The air is getting hotter
There's a rumbling in the skies
I've been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes
Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn't haunt me like it did before
I've been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven
before they close the door
©2005 John Tintera
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