Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Untimely Reviews: Bob Dylan's "Chronicles, Volume One"

I took a part-time job a number of months ago. It’s a job in which I clock in at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and then punch out around 3 a.m. I sometimes stand, but mostly sit just inside the entrance of a bar. You could call the position bouncing, but that doesn’t really fit my stature or the ambience of the joint. Door guy is more fitting. I card everyone coming in, and at the end of the shift I empty some trash cans and flip some stools upside down atop tables. In the interim, it’s my job to make sure people don’t get out of line, but the clientele doesn’t typically involve any scenarios in which I’d have to escort someone out of the building. This is a good thing because of said stature, but also because it has afforded me the opportunity to do something I almost never get to do: read books.

In the early summer months, I hammered out a little Bob Dylan project, and it would’ve been awesome if I’d had this door-guy job while that was in-progress, but the positive side is that it gave me some distance from Dylan and his body of work. But we start with Chronicles, Volume One.

This book was a Christmas gift five or six years ago, and like so many in my library it sat there. I’d like to say that I thought it would be boring, that I was avoiding it because I knew that Dylan tunes weren’t going to come piping out of the pages as I turned them. That’s only partially true; the larger aspect is that I just don’t make enough time to read. I could not have been more wrong.

Had I made the connection that a great song writer could easily translate to a great book writer, I would’ve broadcasted its awesomeness much sooner. What I’m saying is that if you have not read this book, you must. It’s smooth and insightful and I can only hope that the sequel(s) that were rumored to be following this first volume is just as good, if not better.

I found it bizarre that Dylan chose to focus on only a few portions of his career as a musician, but it also left me hopeful that other sections would get some attention in future volumes. Regarding the portions that did get notoriety, it came as little surprise that they are some of the less-famous slices of his timeline. What Dylan and his family endured throughout his rise to fame and afterwards left me speechless and spooked.

But most of all, I was impressed by his diction, vocabulary, and honesty. Let’s look at a few key passages.

“Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain. It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It’s not that easy. You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.”

“You have to show people a side of themselves that they don’t know is there.”

“It seemed like I’d been pulling an empty wagon for a long time and now I was beginning to fill it up and would have to pull harder. I felt like I was coming out of the back pasture. I was changing in other ways, too. Things that used to affect me, didn’t affect me anymore. I wasn’t too concerned about people, their motives. I didn’t feel the need to examine every stranger that approached.”

“The term “protest singer” didn’t exist any more than the term ‘singer-songwriter.’ You were a performer or you weren’t, that was about it -– a folksinger or not one.”

These lines come from the second chapter which spans roughly one-third of the book, and tracks Dylan’s efforts to find his way into the New York scene and how he developed his songwriting styles and inspirations.

Once Dylan had recorded upwards of a dozen albums, tasted success, and been inundated with notoriety, things changed.

“Early on, Woodstock had been very hospitable to us…At one time the place had been a quiet refuge, but now, no more. 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…but then rogue radicals…began to arrive…creeps thumping their boots across our roof…gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues were all disrupting my home life…”

Chapter four is the second marathon of the book, and it spans one of my favorite segments of Dylan’s career: his first of two recording projects with Daniel Lanois.

“I showed up in New Orleans in early spring, moved into a large rented house near Audubon Park, a comfortable place…You could work slow here. They were waiting at the studio, but I didn’t feel like jumping into anything…I brought a lot of the songs with me, I was pretty sure they would hold up well.

The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds…a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here…ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now ling in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time…Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going…You can’t see it, but you know it’s here.

There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment…No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem…

Everything in New Orleans is a good idea…In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There’s only one day at a time here, then it’s tonight and then tomorrow will be today again. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees. You never get tired of it. After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs, like you’re in a wax museum below crimson clouds…

Somebody puts something in front of you here and you might as well drink it. Great place to be intimate or do nothing. A place to come and hope you’ll get smart…A great place to record…”

When working on the Dylan project, I was blown away by Oh Mercy, that first record Lanois produced with Dylan, and the track that stuck out the most was “Man in the Long Black Coat.” Its power and movement jarred the headphones off of my head, and the strength of it grew with each listen. Therefore, I was pleased to read the following:

“I wasn’t sure that we had recorded any historical tunes like what he had wanted, but I was thinking that we might have gotten close with these last two. ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ was the real facts. In some kind of weird way, I thought of it as my ‘I Walk the Line,’ a song I’d always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master.”

And at the end of the marathon, we get another fantastic bit:

“Danny asked me who I’d been listening to recently, and I told him Ice-T. He was surprised, but he shouldn’t have been. A few years earlier, Kurtis Blow, a rapper from Brooklyn who had a hit out called “The Breaks,” had asked me to be on one of his records and he familiarized me with that stuff, Ice-T, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Run-D.M.C. These guys definitely weren’t standing around bullshitting. They were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs. They were all poets and knew what was going on.”

A personal favorite of mine that came as a surprise:

“Mostly what I did growing up was bide my time. I always knew there was a bigger world out there but the one I was in at the time was all right, too. With not much media to speak of, it was basically life as you saw it. The things I did growing up were the things I thought everybody did -– march in parades, have bike races, play ice hockey. (Not everyone was expected to play football or basketball or even baseball, but you had to know how to skate and play ice hockey.)”

Dylan cites important musicians throughout his book, none bigger than Woody Guthrie, and near the end of Guthrie’s life, Dylan teaches himself the Guthrie catalog, inspired by some sort of mystic transcendentalism.

“One thing for sure, Woody Guthrie had never seen nor heard of me, but it felt like he was saying, ‘I’ll be going away, but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.’”

They do of course meet up and have a seemingly instant connection, a bond forged out of mutual respect, and in fact, a hospitalized Guthrie offers Dylan boxes of unpublished songs, but when Dylan makes the distant, frozen trek to the Guthrie abode, he is unable to obtain them from the family. They later fall into the hands of Billy Bragg and Wilco.

Anyway, fantastic book. If you’re a giant Dylan fan –- and let’s face it, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be -– then you should get after Chronicles. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Get your copy here.