1/1/05: DYLANOLOGY PEAKS.
Bob Dylan, CHRONICLES VOL: 1. It's a masterpiece plain, simple, lucid and strange. It stands as the greatest Dylanology yet printed (with the possible exception of Paul Williams' Performing Artist series). The reminiscences of an icy wonderland 1960 turn-of-the-era New York City (packed with dense bookshelves and 19th century newspapers) that bookend the volume, shine with weird nostalgia and ghostly beauty. Wide-eyed and old beyond his years, the self-named Dylan comes from Minnesota, armed with archetypes from 17th century song, smack into the center of a strange and changing world. He absorbs Clausewitz, Melville, Balzac and soon enough -- jumpstarted by Brecht & Weil, Grunewald, Red Grooms, Dave Van Ronk and the Clancy Brothers -- he rents an apartment, builds a table and is ready to develop his own new radical art.
Rogel fans take note. Dylan writes of the importance of Irish music to his particular sensibility of rebellion in song. 'The rebellion songs were a really serious thing. The language was flashy and provocative -- a lot of action ... the words ... I loved these songs and could sing them in my head long after and into the next day. They weren't protest songs though, they were rebel ballads.... even in a simple, melodic wooing ballad there'd be rebellion waiting around the corner. You couldn't escape it. There were songs like that in my repertoire, too, where something lovely was suddenly upturned, but instead of rebellion showing up it would be death itself, the Grim Reaper. Rebellion spoke to me louder. The rebel was alive and well, romantic and honorable. The Grim Reaper wasn't like that.'
It's a deep point in a book which, not surprisingly, is filled with feints and tricks a'plenty. Dylan shows little patience with protest music and ordinary political expression. He informs us that his favorite politician in these days was Barry Goldwater! The difference he writes of here, the figure of the rebel in the rebel song vs. the folk storyteller, points to how he created the vivid narrators of his own 'protest' songs, who 'sing it and speak it so all souls can see it' from out of a near-perverse self-in-rebellion (did Robert Johnson read Whitman? -- Dylan only wonders), and not from out of the sort of day-to-day political experience of his first master, Woody Guthrie.
Bob Dylan's rebellions, of course, would grow increasingly cryptic as his career progressed. It's noteworthy that after the desk is built, Volume 1 gives no direct access to the soul in white heat of 63-67, who wrote and performed a veritable revolution in art and popular music into American history. Instead, the center of the book consists of two long chapters describing the making of two relatively obscure albums, 1970's New Morning and 1987's Oh Mercy.
In these chapters we're shown Dylans coming apart at the seams from the pressures of his fame, and very gently, attempting to put himself back together. After the bitterness of the New Morning story, the Oh Mercy chapter breathes with a gentle sweetness. Though he knows that his producer's ambition to build a record (see the Neil comments below) often get in the way of what were near perfect first takes of songs, Dylan shows himself yielding in an effort to cross into collaboration for the sake of the survival and sharing of his songs -- even writing the beautiful Shooting Star to give his producer the sort of song he seems to desire.
It's not a hopeless book. However ragged, the future for Dylan holds promise. In New Orleans for the recording of Oh Mercy, he takes his wife on a Harley ride through the countryside and comes upon a strange and unforgettable character. Selling all sorts of weird forgotten objects of pop and folk history in the swampland, Sun Pie is not quite a real person. Or maybe he's a bit too real. 'On his bones was the raw skin of the earth'. He's not a rebel but a kind of living protest. 'The kind of guy who would be the center of a procession in a parade, or maybe he'd be the nucleus of a mob´. With his teenage bride and bizarre prophecies (some quoted directly in 'The Man in the Long Black Coat') Sun Pie stands for the weirdest darkest Dylan -- there are mirrors in his store -- the Dylan that almost killed the mind behind the scenes. When Bob rides away from Sun Pie, it's to the completion of Oh Mercy and beginning of the never ending tour. Thank you, Mr. Dylan, for pulling through, and continuing to represent your particular sort of artistic freedom for the sake of our culture. But what of Dylan's prophecies of that culture's future?
'Somebody different was bound to come along sooner or later who would know that world, been born and raised with it... be all of it and more. Someone with a chopped topped head and a power in the community. He'd be able to balance himself on one leg on a tightrope that stretched across the universe and you'd know him when he came -- there'd be only one like him.... He wouldn't be swinging his hips and staring at the lassies. He'd be doing it with hard words and he'd be working 18 hours a day.'
Is it just me, or does this sound like the guy singing this song? Like Woody might have said, th' old world's dyin, but a new one's in th' e-mail.