Be careful what you wish for, the cliché goes. Having aspired from early youth to become stars, people who achieve that status suddenly find themselves imprisoned, unable to walk down the street without being importuned by strangers. The higher their name floats, the greater the levy imposed, the less of ordinary life they can enjoy. In his memoir, Bob Dylan never precisely articulates the ambition that brought him to New York City from northern Minnesota in 1961, maybe because it felt improbable even to him at the time. Nominally, he was angling for Leading Young Folksinger, which was a plausible goal then, when every college town had three or four coffeehouses and each one had its Hootenanny night, and when performers who wowed the crowds on that circuit went on to make records that sometimes sold in the thousands. But from the beginning Dylan had his sights set much higher: the world, glory, eternity—ambitions laughably incommensurate with the modest confines of American folk music. He got his wish, in spades. He achieved Leading Young Folksinger status almost immediately, then was quickly promoted to poet, oracle, conscience of his generation, and, in a lateral move, pop star.
Each promotion was heavily taxed. In his song “Positively Fourth Street” you can hear his half of a recrimination match with one or more former Greenwich Village competitors, once resentful and now obsequious. (“Fame opens up, first, every irony back onto one’s past; one is abruptly valued by one’s friends. Then actual envy and malice are hard to ignore. It is difficult just to be watched. There is injury to one’s sense of rebellion….”—John Berryman on Stephen Crane.1 )
The year of booing he endured after he started going onstage with an amplified band in 1965 is a familiar tale. In Chronicles, which is apparently the first installment of a memoir told in chronologically shuffled vignettes, he revisits the period after his motorcycle crash in 1966, after he had withdrawn from live performance and had only issued one rather enigmatic record, John Wesley Harding, a year and a half later. His silence contributed to his mystique, and that in turn became the focus of a craving for direction and guidance on the part of beleaguered youth in that time of failed revolution. As a result,
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….
And a person named A. J. Weberman began going through the Dylan family’s garbage and subjecting it to exegesis. (“One night I went over D’s garbage just for old time’s sake and in an envelope separate from the rest of the trash there were five toothbrushes of various sizes and an unused tube of toothpaste wrapped in a plastic bag. ‘Tooth’ means ‘electric guitar’ in D’s symbology….”2 ) Dylan was doubly consumable by his audience, at once the star on whose image any fantasy could be projected and the sage whose gnomic utterances could be interpreted to justify any feverish scheme. He had become a floating signifier of the greatest order of magnitude.
Overwhelmed by the situation he had semi-wittingly created, Dylan tried various means to escape it. In Chronicles he accounts for what seemed at the time to be eccentricities or missteps; they were, he says, intended to bore, mystify, or disgust his admirers so that they would leave him alone. He recorded a country-western album “and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and housebroken,” employing a crooner’s voice cleansed of all his lye and vinegar; had himself photographed wearing a yarmulke at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (“quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist”); started a rumor that he was enrolling in the Rhode Island School of Design; failed to show up at the major counterculture festivals. All the while he dreamed of “a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard.” This sounds suspiciously like a line of dialogue from the second act of an MGM musical, begging a question—is this candor, hindsight, irony, spin, rhetorical flight, or some combination thereof?—not unlike those that attend virtually everything else Dylan has written. He can’t seem to help putting forth vivid images equipped with yawning ambiguities. That means that even when he has been at pains to make himself transparent, he has given grist to the interpretation mills, which have rarely been idle in forty years.
It is perfectly possible that the succession of odd choices he made in the late 1960s and early 1970s were meant as deliberate roadblocks to set in the way of overeager fans. It is equally credible, though, that crooning, Zionism, returning to college, cornball self-parody (aspects of the 1970 album Self-Portrait), and, later, born-again Christianity and a range of varyingly slick show-biz moves were matters he considered quite seriously, if only for a week or a year, as ways of escaping from the burden of himself. What seems to have happened is that he lost or at least misplaced parts of his power and inspiration without actually achieving serenity. Speaking to David Gates in the Newsweek interview that heralded the release of Chronicles, he went so far as to claim that his artistic drought lasted from sometime in the early Seventies until 1998, when he issued his record Time out of Mind. Gates bit his tongue: “He’s talking about the 25 years that produced Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Shot of Love, Infidels and its sublime outtakes, and—no. Let’s not argue with the man who’s in possession of what really matters.”3
Everyone who paid attention to Dylan in that period will have a greater or lesser number of reservations about the quality of the work he did then, but his sweeping assessment is not altogether wrong. A majority of the songs from then are in some way at odds with themselves—compelling words hitched to perfunctory music, or strong ideas clumsily executed, or misfires caused by dunning self-consciousness, or well-conceived pieces sabotaged by their arrangement or production. Everywhere there is evidence of crippling internal struggle, of conflicting intentions that have arrived at a deadlock. It is telling that many of his best songs from that era were officially cast off and not released until much later, if at all.
It’s not easy to identify with Dylan’s predicament, since so few people have had the experience of finding themselves appointed prophet, and not having the assignment quickly washed away by the tides of fashion. And fame, although significant, is only part of the story. (Berryman on Crane, again: “One’s sense of self-reliance is disturbed. Under the special new conditions, one behaves—at best—at first as before; but this is not adequate. Also the burden of confidence in oneself is to some extent assumed by others; and the sudden lightness inclines to overset one.”) An even greater burden comes from being ceaselessly analyzed, as if one were the reviewing lineup at a May Day parade and the rest of the world was composed of Kremlinologists. And Dylan’s audience does not merely appreciate him; it wants things from him, particular things: insights, instructions, answers to questions, a flattering reflection of itself, a mind it can pretend to inhabit.
The responses to Chronicles include the common complaint that Dylan evades telling us what we want to know. He doesn’t explain how he wrote “Visions of Johanna,” for example, or what his emotions were during the process—he fails to conduct a tour of his peak moments, and he does not specify how he unbottles his genie. He doesn’t discuss such major works as Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde or the huge, only partly issued body of work known in aggregate as The Basement Tapes. He doesn’t mention Blood on the Tracks, either, although when he writes, “Eventually I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories—critics thought it was autobiographical,” it would seem, by process of elimination, to be the record he is referring to. But is he serious?
The way Chronicles is structured suggests that it is primarily about the interstices in Dylan’s life so far, periods when he was attempting to find or retrieve his own voice. The third chapter describes that period around 1969 and 1970 when pressure on him was greatest and his wish to escape from it at its most acute. It reaches a nonclimax with the recording of New Morning, which was a perfectly decent job of work, neither brilliant nor disastrous. The fourth chapter is concerned with the recording in New Orleans in 1989 of Oh Mercy, also a middling performance. Frustration and confusion are palpable there, too: he can’t control the recording process; the songs come out sounding unlike what he had intended; he can have anything he wishes and yet he is uncertain and adrift.
The other three chapters, which bracket the work and comprise nearly two thirds of it, are a very different proposition because they focus on the period between his arrival in New York City in 1961 and the issuing of his first record just over a year later. Even if Dylan had not been thrust so quickly into a position of unwanted responsibility, and even if his most fecund period—the years 1965 and 1966—had not been an epic blur of such intensity and speed (in both senses of the term) that it was sure to end in some sort of crackup, the eve of success, a sweet and achingly distant time, might well appear to him a career peak. Everything seemed possible then; no options had been used up and nothing had yet been sacrificed.
What Dylan describes in chapters one, two, and five is his education. For all the structural oddity of Chronicles, it is in many ways a very traditional sort of memoir, and nowhere more than in those chapters. We see the young man arrive in the city from the provinces, stumble around chasms and into opportunities, sit at the feet of the mighty, acquire necessary tools and skills, begin to be noticed, find a home, fall in love, and then we leave him on the eve of success, full of expectancy but serenely unaware of what is about to befall him. The young Dylan makes an appealing nineteenth-century junior hero: crafty but ingenuous, wide-eyed but nobody’s fool, an eager sponge for every sort of experience and information. As in the equivalent Bildungsroman we are given a set piece, a soiree at which are gathered all the leading lights of the world he is poised to enter.
The occasion is a going-away party for Cisco Houston, a handsome (“looked like a riverboat gambler, like Errol Flynn”) singer of cowboy and lumberjack and railroad songs and friend of Woody Guthrie, so mature and gracious and imposing that he does not let on that he is going off to die of cancer. The party is held in a “Romanesque mansion” on Fifth Avenue, in a top-floor apartment with Victorian furnishings and a roaring fireplace. Pete Seeger is there, and the mana-ger of the Weavers, and Moe Asch (founder of Folkways Records), and Theodore Bikel, and Irwin Silber (editor of Sing Out!), and sundry cowboy artists, labor organizers, underground filmmakers, ex–Martha Graham dancers, Off-Broadway actors, and a passel of folk singers of greater and lesser importance. Dylan takes us around the room supplying thumbnail sketches of the cast, like a moving camera focusing briefly and then tracking on. He is able to look hard at them all because he is largely invisible to them, and he can provide details of their biographies because he is somewhat in awe of everyone. If this were a nineteenth-century novel, or its 1930s film adaptation, we might later be treated to a succession of scenes in which the hero conquers, supplants, wins over, or silences all the worthies in the room that night. That isn’t necessary here.
Dylan isn’t out to gloat or settle scores, for which it is far too late anyway. On the contrary, he is keen to record his debts and appreciations, an accounting that takes in a wide range of personalities from the entertainment world of the early 1960s, including such unlikely names as Bobby Vee (for whom he briefly played piano when Vee was on his way up and Dylan was unknown), Tiny Tim (with whom he shared stages and meals in the coffeehouse days), Frank Sinatra Jr. (for whose unenviable career as a shadow he feels tactful sympathy), and Gorgeous George (who fleetingly but memorably offered encouragement when the very young Dylan performed on a makeshift stage in the lobby of the armory in his Minnesota hometown). He knows that it will confuse his more literal-minded fans that he loves the songs of Harold Arlen (“In Harold’s songs, I could hear rural blues and folk music”), polkas, Franz Liszt, “Moon River,” Neil Sedaka, as much as he admires Thucydides, Clausewitz, Leopardi, Tolstoy, Thaddeus Stevens. He is proud that he has one foot in a vanished world:
If you were born around this time  or were living and alive, you could feel the old world go and the new one beginning. It was like putting the clock back to when BC became AD. Everybody born around my time was a part of both.
Dylan’s preoccupation with the past isn’t only an incipient codger’s gambol down memory lane. While he caused a big splash in the mid-Sixties for his dramatic break with folk tradition as it was then understood, the ways in which he has always kept faith with tradition look arguably more radical today. In an interview, considering younger musicians, he once noted, “They weren’t there to see the end of the traditional people. But I was.”4 Like his contemporaries he witnessed the reappearance of various blues and country performers—Skip James, Dock Boggs, Son House, Clarence Ashley, among others—who had recorded in the late 1920s and had returned to obscurity when the Depression all but killed the recording of rural music, and who were tracked down by diligent young fans in the early 1960s and enjoyed a few years in the limelight of northern stages at the sunset of their lives. Those people were embodiments of a past so far removed by technological and societal changes that they might as well have emerged from Civil War graves.
While folk music had taken on a new, confrontational attitude toward the world by then—a development for which Dylan was partly responsible—involvement in folk music still entailed an active engagement with the past. This meant that young performers, from the scholarly and meticulous New Lost City Ramblers to the slick and broadly popular Kingston Trio, saw themselves as carrying on a set of skills and themes and concerns and melodies and lyrics that had come down at least from the nineteenth century—even from the Middle Ages, with the earlier Child ballads.
The young Dylan believed fervently in the passing of the torch, the laying on of hands—he learned blues chord changes from Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey, visited the paralytic Woody Guthrie in the hospital and played him his own songs (he doesn’t mention here a more purely magical transference, when Buddy Holly looked directly at him from the stage of the Duluth Armory in 1959, a few days before his death in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa). And while he was never as extreme as the folk purists, who were so involved with the past that they lived there, like Civil War reenactors who become experts on nineteenth-century underwear, Dylan treated history in a way that was not uncommon then but is sufficiently rare now that some critics of this book have professed their suspicions. In 1961 the past was alive not just in the songs but in the city itself—everybody who played at the Café Bizarre on Macdougal Street knew the place had once been Aaron Burr’s livery stable. Dylan tells us he made regular trips to the microfilm room of the New York Public Library, to read newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s. “I wasn’t so much interested in the issues as intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times,” he writes. But also: “The godawful truth of [the Civil War] would become the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
The songs of the folk-lyric tradition were half truism, half enigma. The key to the latter could perhaps be found in the past:
All of these songs were originally sung by singers who seemed to be groping for words, almost in an alien tongue. I was beginning to feel that maybe the language had something to do with causes and ideals that were tied to the circumstances and blood of what happened over a hundred years ago…. All of a sudden, it didn’t seem that far back.
Folk songs no matter how distant or exotic spoke with bare-bones candor and deployed blunt imagery much more immediate than the froth that came over the radio, telling of “debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers….” For a long time it didn’t occur to him to write his own songs (his first album only contains two, or maybe one and a half: “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York”—the latter is more recitation than song). Few did so then, because the gravity of tradition had been created by the implacable, burning-eyed Anon. and not by tenderfeet from the suburbs. And anyway,
It’s not like you see songs approaching and you invite them in. It’s not that easy. You want to write songs that are bigger than life…. You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular. The chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing.
When he did start writing,
I rattled off lines and verses based on the stuff I knew—“Cumberland Gap,” “Fire on the Mountain,” “Shady Grove,” “Hard, Ain’t It Hard.” I changed words around and added something of my own here and there…. You could write twenty or more songs off…one melody by slightly altering it. I could slip in verses or lines from old spirituals or blues. That was okay; others did it all the time.
That is, in fact, a fairly exact description of the folk-lyric process as it was enacted until about seventy years ago by the fearsome and remote Anon.
Once Dylan got started writing songs, other influences were not slow in coming. There was Red Grooms, his girlfriend’s favorite artist:
He incorporated every living thing into something and made it scream—everything side by side created equal—old tennis shoes, vending machines, alligators that crawled through sewers…. Brahman bulls, cowgirls, rodeo queens and Mickey Mouse heads, castle turrets and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, creeps and greasers and weirdos and grinning, bejeweled nude models…. Subconsciously, I was wondering if it was possible to write songs like that.
The same girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, worked backstage at a “presentation of songs” by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht:
I…was aroused straight away by the raw intensity of the songs…. They were erratic, unrhythmical and herky-jerky—weird visions…. Every song seemed to come from some obscure tradition, seemed to have a pistol in its hip pocket, a club or a brickbat and they came at you in crutches, braces and wheelchairs.
John Hammond, who signed Dylan to his first recording contract, was then about to reissue the neglected songs of the great Delta blues artist Robert Johnson, whose
words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence…. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines… happened, were said, or even imagined…. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.
Around the same time Suze Rotolo introduced him to the works of Rimbaud:
I came across one of his letters called “Je est un autre,” which translates into “I is someone else.” When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.
Dylan was now armed.
Of Dylan’s many achievements, the most fundamental was his hitching together of the folk-lyric tradition and Western modernism, connecting them at the point where their expressive ambiguities met. The merger was not entirely unprecedented, maybe—there are glimmers in The Waste Land of Eliot’s St. Louis–bred acquaintance with the world of “Frankie and Johnnie,” and Robert Johnson can certainly sound like a modernist, especially, as Dylan suggests, by virtue of how much he omits. But no one had previously planted a firm foot in each and assumed an equivalence between them. Dylan did not do this to prove a point; he was naturally omnivorous, and he intuited the connection without worrying about pedigree. As a songwriter, he knew what played to the ear, and disregarded the fact that such effects don’t always work on the page. His primary gambit was to take the blues or ballad form and some of its vocabulary and then expand it, or slash it, or smudge it, or make the literal figurative, or the figurative literal. He could, as in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” take the ancient ballad “Lord Randal” and transform it into a Symbolist catalog of apocalyptic images, or he could, as in “From a Buick 6,” take Sleepy John Estes’s “Milk Cow Blues” and employ it as the frame for a collage of blues-lyric fragments that makes perfect emotional sense even as it resists parsing (“Well, you know I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead/I need a dump truck mama to unload my head”).
In a revealing interview for a book called Songwriters on Songwriting, excerpted in Studio A, Dylan talks about the “unconscious frame of mind,” the state of suspension he uses to bypass literal thinking:
In the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work it back and then see if you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.
In other words, his use of rhymes is not unlike a Surrealist game or an Oulipo exercise, a way to outsmart front-brain thinking, and the same is true of his employment of folk-lyric readymades. When Dylan hit mid-career, though, exhaustion and self-consciousness and the weight of his own reputation pushed him into self-impersonation, and he began to write songs that laboriously strove for effects. He knows the difference. In the same interview he is asked about a line from “Slow Train”:
But that line…is an intellectual line. It’s a line, “Well, the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency,” that could be a lie. It just could be. Whereas “Standing under your yellow railroad,” that’s not a lie.
The former makes sense, in a stilted and poetistic way, while the latter apparently makes no sense, but in context it is inarguable (he misquotes it slightly):
And now I stand here lookin’ at your yellow railroad
In the ruins of your balcony
Wond’ring where you are tonight, sweet Marie.
The blanket dismissal of a quarter-century’s work that Dylan offered to David Gates is of course an overstatement, but it is a gauge of his realization that he had long mistaken or overlooked his greatest strengths. The ability to hatch an epigram—the way “To live outside the law you must be honest” emerges right in the middle of “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” between two lines twisted from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and the refrain—is a function of that unconscious frame of mind, that willed trance state, that educated lurching, not of the wish to construct an epigram.
Among the four fifths of the Basement Tapes material that remains officially unreleased is a song called “I’m Not There” (1956). It is glaringly unfinished—Dylan mumbles unintelligibly through parts of it, and throws together fragments of lyrics apparently at random—and yet it is one of his greatest songs. The hymn-like minor-key melody, rising from mournful to exalted, is certainly one reason for this, and another is the perfect accompaniment by three members of The Band, but the very discontinuity of the lyrics, in combination with Dylan’s unflagging intensity, creates a powerful, tantalizing indeterminacy that is suddenly if provisionally resolved by every return of the refrain:
Now when I [unintelligible] I was born to love her
But she knows that the kingdom weighs so high above her
And I run but I race but it’s not too fast or soon [?]
But I don’t perceive her, I’m not there, I’m gone.
The third line is clearly filler; what can be made out of the first probably contains an echo of a Stevie Wonder song played on the radio that same summer; the second, for all that it does not lend itself to reasonable interpretation, rings the bell, and it pulls the previous and succeeding lines along with it into relief and down to the last line, which includes the refrain. Every verse is crowned by one or more such glowing fragments, which materialize, linger briefly, and then vanish, like urgent dispatches transmitted by a spirit medium. The song evades the intellect to address the emotions through underground passageways of memory and association—biblical, in the case of that second line—and it is a document of the artist in the very midst of the act of creation.5
The song gives a sense of how Dylan works when he is tapping his richest vein: the form presents him with a container—a blues basket, a ballad box—which he fills with lines the shapes of which he can discern before he knows their specific content. Such a shape is not simply a measurement determined by meter—it is a ghost outline, maybe a half-heard utterance in which he can make out an emphasis here, a compressed cluster of syllables there, now and again an entire word, which he can use as a dowsing rod for the content. If the shape is not forthcoming, he can fill the space with a folk-lyric readymade. That he has been tapping this vein again is shown by every song on his most recent release, Love and Theft (2001). “Bye and Bye,” for example, has a melody derived from “Blue Moon” (“You could write twenty or more songs off…one melody by slightly altering it”); its final verse is:
Papa gone mad, mamma, she’s feeling sad
I’m gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war
Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be.
The first and last lines are brazenly drawn from the common well, while the middle lines had to have been dispatched straight from the unconscious. The song’s atmosphere is breezy and menacing; the first and last lines of each verse supply the breeziness, the middle two the menace. The printed lyrics do not, of course, account for Dylan’s vocal performance, which, of a piece with the white suits and riverboat-gambler hats he has been affecting lately, renders uncannily credible the grandiose rhetoric of the middle lines; nor do they convey the insouciant creepiness of Augie Meyers’s roller-rink organ. Treating Dylan as merely a writer is like judging a movie on its screenplay alone.
Blood on the Tracks (1974) is cited by many as their favorite Dylan record—Studio A reprints Rick Moody’s moving, breathless pledge of allegiance to it, in which he calls it “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape.” It is, to be sure, quite an achievement, with a wealth of lived experience in its dense, intricately plotted songs. And yet, in comparison to the songs on Blonde on Blonde or The Basement Tapes, which are genuine, sphinx-like, irreducible, hard-shell poems whether or not the words can ever be usefully divorced from the music, such numbers as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” are prose. They are driven by their narratives, and their imagery is determined by its function:
I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like
There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door
You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle.
The smoke issuing from the boxcar door, which is there only to fill out the line and supply an end rhyme, does come out of nowhere, but everything else seems cooked—the palmist is from central casting and her warning is generic; the soldier on the cross is on loan from an anti-war poster (he seems to be wearing a gas mask); the connecting lines are rhetorical and flat; it could, after all, be a lie. This is not to say that the song is bad, merely purpose-driven, with every verse hastening us along to the point, which is “We’re idiots, babe/It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” And that, in turn, is a great line from a note left on a pillow at dawn. Nothing on Blood on the Tracks hobbles in on crutches or speaks to the future or appears on the wall in letters of fire. It is a brilliant account of the vicissitudes of a love affair, an exemplary specimen of the confessional culture of the period, a remarkable work of emotional intelligence. It is so many people’s favorite Dylan album in large part because it is the one that people can imagine themselves creating, were the muse to tap them on the forehead with a nine-pound hammer.
But who, on the other hand, could imagine coming up with “John Wesley Harding/Was a friend to the poor/He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand”? The outlaw looks like Shiva, a brace of guns in a brace of hands, the apotheosis of Western legend by way of an apparent awkwardness of syntax, and the impression endures even if we know that Dylan lifted those five words from Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre,” in which the striking miners’ women sell their potatoes and with the proceeds “put a gun in every hand.” It takes an unusual mind to pick that unremarkable scrap from Guthrie’s pocket and paste it athwart a completely different sort of genre piece, like Kurt Schwitters inserting a bus ticket into a landscape.6 Dylan drives critics mad, because while his vast range of sources can be endlessly itemized and dissected, the ways in which he puts things together teases rational explication before finally betraying it. (Crane quoted by Berryman: “An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself through certain experiences sideways and every artist must be in some things powerless as a dead snake.”)
You can find almost anything in Dylan’s lyrics, employ them as balm for heartbreak or call to riot, engage in bibliomancy by sticking a knife between the pages of Lyrics and divining fortune from the line the tip has come to rest upon. You can find Dylan’s rhythms and word choices and as it were his fingerprints in literature that predates him. Michael Gray, who is probably Dylan’s single most assiduous critic, turns up a quatrain by Robert Browning that the mind’s ear has no trouble hearing in Dylan’s voice, and not only because the end rhymes prefigure “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:
Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks with cowls and sandals
And the penitents dressed in white shirts, a-holding the yellow candles
One, he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with handles,
And the Duke’s guard brings up the rear, for the better prevention of scandals.7
Dylan himself, in the Songwriters interview, cites a Byron couplet that is equally convincing: “What is it you buy so dear/With your pain and with your fear?” But then, as he told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times,
It’s like a ghost is writing [the] song…. It gives you the song and it goes away…. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.8
Dylan is a mystery, as he has been since his first record, made when he was twenty, established his eerie prerogative to inhabit songs written long before his birth by people with lifetimes of bitter experience. The mystery has endured ever since, through fallow as well as fecund periods, through miscellaneous errors and embarrassments and other demonstrations of common humanity as well as unbelievable runs of consecutive masterpieces. It has survived through candid and guarded and put-on interviews, various appearances on film, and the roughly two hundred concert appearances he has put in every year for the last couple of decades. The mystery is, if anything, enhanced by Dylan’s most astute critics (Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, Christopher Ricks, Michael Gray)9 and untouched by the legions of nit-collectors and communicants in the church of whangdoodle who unstoppably issue treatises and skeleton keys. It will survive his disarmingly unaffected memoir, too. The playwright Sam Shepard noted after observing Dylan for months during the 1974 Rolling Thunder tour that
if a mystery is solved, the case is dropped. In this case, in the case of Dylan, the mystery is never solved, so the case keeps on. It keeps coming up again. Over and over the years. Who is this character anyway?10
Dylan is a complex, mercurial human being of astounding gifts, whose purposes are usually ambiguous, frequently elusive, and sometimes downright unguessable. At the same time he is a sort of communicating vessel, open to currents that run up and down the ages quite outside the confines of the popular culture of any given period. That he is able to tune his radio to those long waves in a time of increasingly short memories and ever more rapid fashion cycles is not the least of his achievements.
Chronicles, which would appear to have been printed without editorial intervention,11 is so fluid in its prose and alive in its observations that Dylan looks like a natural at the book game, although his previous experience was not so happy. Tarantula was the result of a much-trumpeted contract for a novel that Dylan signed with Macmillan in 1966. The book was not published until 1970, having in the meantime been bootlegged in several different versions. Nearly everyone was disappointed in the final product, which arrived behind the prow of a carefully hedged and rather condescending preface by its editor, Bob Markel. Ever since, the phrase “famously unreadable” has been attached to it, and persons who have wished to demonstrate that Dylan’s vaunted verbal mastery was just so much hype have used it as a handy chair leg with which to beat its author.
It is, in fact, a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess—it’s what Dylan’s automatic writing looks like when it doesn’t have formal containers to shape it. The population of Dylan’s world (Homer the Slut, Popeye Squirm, “Phil, who has now turned into an inexpensive Protestant ambassador from Nebraska & who speaks with a marvelous accent,” etc.) hurtles hectically through a landscape of tanktowns and drunk tanks, all of the action telegraphically alluded to, at best, as if the book were a compilation of gossip columns from whatever newspaper Smokey Stover subscribed to. Although it is easily more entertaining than any of the automatic productions of the Parisian Surrealist crowd, it only clicks at odd intervals, when Dylan briefly finds a model for parody, such as the interspersed letters, which have something of Ring Lardner about them:
cant you figure out all this commie business for yourself? you know, like how long can car thieves terrify the nation? gotta go. there’s a fire engine chasing me. see you when i get my degree. i’m going crazy without you. cant see enough movies
your crippled lover,
Its one moment of transcendence is the only thing in the book that could have been a song, an ode to Aretha Franklin:
aretha—known in gallup as number 69—in wheeling as the cat’s in heat—in pittsburgh as number 5—in brownsville as the left road, the lonesome sound—in atlanta as dont dance, listen—in bowling green as oh no, no, not again—she’s known as horse chick up in cheyenne—in new york city she’s known as just plain aretha…i shall play her as my trump card
Here he’s hit on a pair of riffs—the urban-hotspot shout-out of Sixties soul anthems such as Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” and the shifting-name trope familiar from both cowboy movies and doo-wop (e.g., the Cadillacs’ “All the fellas call me Speedo but my real name is Mister Earl”)—that he can set to play off each other, arriving at a litany that, like his best songs, sounds both new and inevitable.
Chronicles works so well in part because in writing it Dylan apparently found a formal model to adhere to or violate at will, and if he did not have in mind any specific nineteenth-century account of callowness and ambition, maybe he conjured up a cumulative memory of dusty volumes found on friends’ bookshelves in Greenwich Village or in the basement of the bookshop in Dinkytown he worked in as a student. He also found an outlet for his inclination to counter his audience’s expectations. Readers, guessing on the basis of interviews and movies as well as the hydra-headed mythic image that has grown around Dylan over the decades, might have expected his memoir to be variously inscrutable, gnomic, bilious, confused, preening, recriminatory, impersonal, defensive, perfunctory, smug, or even ghost-written. Instead Dylan had to outflank them by exercising candor, warmth, diligence, humor, and vulnerability. If there is ever a second volume, he may have to contradict himself yet again.
March 10, 2005
Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography, revised edition (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), p. 130. ↩
“Dylan’s Garbage’s Greatest Hits,” in Twenty Minute Fandangos and Forever Changes, edited by Jonathan Eisen (Random House, 1971), p. 179. ↩
Newsweek, October 4, 2004, p. 51. ↩
Quoted by Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (Henry Holt, 1997; reprinted as The Old, Weird America, Picador, 2001), p. 195. ↩
The song is available on several bootleg collections, notably The Genuine Bootleg Series Take 2 and the splendid A Tree with Roots: The Genuine Basement Tape Remasters. ↩
It is possible that the disguised quote, coming right after “was a friend to the poor,” combines with it to form a subliminal image of popular insurgency. The album came out early in 1968, after all, and the most memorable and hotly debated critical line concerning it has always been Jon Landau’s contention that, although it takes place entirely within the folk-lyric universe, it “manifests a profound awareness of the war and how it is affecting all of us.” (Crawdaddy! No. 15, May 1968, p. 16.) ↩
Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan (Continuum, 2000), p. 64. ↩
“Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004. ↩
For Sean Wilentz’s essays, see www .bobdylan.com; Christopher Ricks’s extraordinary Dylan’s Visions of Sin was published last June by Ecco. ↩
The Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977; Da Capo, 2004), p. 71. ↩
This guess is based primarily on the fact that it doesn’t seem to have been proofread, to judge by misspellings and inconsistencies in proper nouns, which cannot be corrected by spell-check. ↩