Bob Dylan: Chronicles Volume 1

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I just picked up a memoir by Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1, 10 years after it was published. I’d recently heard about it, but not seen it before.
I was a Bob Dylan fan in the middle 1960s, but stopped listening to his newer music long ago. What he has to say is interesting, though.
He begins with arriving in New York City, finding places to work and stay, and how he saw things at that time. He was meeting lots of people and getting exposed to lots of things. The period he’s writing about is before he got a recording contract or began writing any songs, though he’d begun to vaguely think about the latter. He was working in folk clubs, sometimes singing or playing with other musicians, and staying with various people, as he couldn’t yet afford his own place. In the places he stayed he found people he could learn from, and he also found lots of books.
He began reading both widely and deeply, somewhat, but not entirely at random. For instance, he delved into the microfilmed newspapers of the 1850s and 1860s to understand the atmosphere of the times. He read books about the Civil War and its personalities. He also dug deeper, and perhaps more randomly, into the past: authors like Milton, von Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Lord Byron. A lot more deeply and widely than I’ve ever read.
He felt things moving, felt he was going somewhere, but didn’t know where yet. He only mentions one of his original songs in this section of the book, and it’s one he hasn’t yet written. He’s getting an idea of who he is, and looking forward to the future.
I became aware of him a little later, when he had a recording contract, had begun to write songs, and have them recorded by others. Blowing in the Wind was probably the first I heard, and I didn’t care that much for it. But when I heard Mr. Tambourine Man, as done by the Byrds, I was definitely intrigued. I bought his album, Highway 61 Revisited, and was amazed, though I didn’t understand the lyrics to any great extent. What he was doing lyrically was different from any other music I’d heard, and still pretty much is, though some have imitated or emulated him. I bought several of his albums leading up to that one, and Blonde on Blonde, his next, and another great one. But after that things changed.
The next period he writes about is later. He’s written ground-breaking songs, gotten rich and famous, toured the world. But in 1967 he had a motorcycle accident, broke a bone in his neck (if I remember correctly), and decided to rest. During the preceding period he’d also gotten married, and while he was resting he and his wife started having children. At that point he mainly wanted to be with his family, but people kept intruding on his privacy, breaking into his property, and increasingly demanding he lead them somewhere. He didn’t want to lead them. He had written songs that many people took personally, and a lot of them felt he owed them something, or had responsibility for them. He didn’t think so, and tried to deflect their attention.
His next albums didn’t sound at all the same. They sounded like he didn’t want to be popular anymore, or at least was deeply conflicted about it, and indeed, that’s pretty much what he says about this period. He figured he had to change people’s perception of him to get the attention away from him, and deliberately made albums much different than before, albums he wasn’t very invested in, maybe even deliberately bad albums. I bought almost everything he put out for several years, but by the mid-1970s I had almost entirely lost interest. There was one song he put out then that I really liked, Tangled up in Blue, but I hardly even listened to the rest of the album. And what came later I liked even less.
The next period he writes about is much later, and he begins at a time when he’s almost completely lost the thread of what he’d been doing, feels that he hasn’t done work that’s been very good for a long time, and is considering retirement. But just at this time he begins getting some new ideas bout how to play guitar and how to perform. And virtually out of nowhere, he begins writing songs again, not particularly because he wants to; they just come to him, and he writes them down.
Elsewhere he is quoted as saying that in the 1970s he had lost the ability to write songs almost automatically, as he had in the 60s. Maybe that was because he hadn’t really cared about songwriting for awhile. It had become a struggle. By the late 1980s it seems to have been even more so. He felt that he’d written enough, toured enough, and had gotten tired of it all.
That’s when he starts getting the new ideas, without having particularly been seeking them. How to play guitar, how to perform, and then songs start spontaneously coming to him. He seems to be writing about a sort of rebirth, but it’s unclear how deep it went.
He’s concerned first about how he’s performing, and having had ideas about how to sing differently, in a way that won’t take as much energy, and how to play guitar differently, that’s where he starts. Sometime in that period Bono, the singer and songwriter of U2 visits and suggests that if he wants to make an album, Daniel Lanois is the producer to work with. They call Lanois, who is in New Orleans, and he suggests Dylan come by if he’s in the area. They can decide if they want to work together.
They do decide to work together, and at first it doesn’t go smoothly. Lanois has assembled some good musicians, but the songs don’t come together. The first one that does is Dylan playing with only two other people. He’s tempted to leave it at that, but Lanois wants to work on it more.
Eventually he manages to record an album, and thinks it’s a pretty good one. Perhaps it could have been better. Lanois would have liked songs like he wrote in the sixties, but circumstances are different, and those kinds of songs aren’t coming to him.
He credits Lanois for assembling good musicians, for wanting the best possible take of each song, and for creating an atmosphere good to work in, but he doesn’t go overboard with praise, or overestimate the quality of the album.
The final period he writes about in the book begins with his childhood, his trip to Minneapolis from his home town in northern Minnesota, his pursuit of folk music (hardly popular at all then), and especially Woody Guthrie, when he finds out about him. He learns as much as he thinks he can in Minneapolis, and heads for New York.
In New York he fast-forwards through most of the things he’s already written about, tells about getting a recording contract, and some of the things going on in his private life.
He felt that folk music was the most profound kind of music he knew, though he listened to and liked virtually any form of music. He talks about liking Ricky Nelson, as many people in the 1950s did, but feeling there was no future for that kind of music. Things were changing, but at the same time there was a lot of meaning in the songs of the past, many of whose authors were unknown.
He went with his girlfriend to art museums and plays, as well as concerts. He started drawing around that time too. He saw Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and was impressed with its ideas, and the ideas it stimulated in him. After he got his recording contract, John Hammond, the famous record producer, gave him the recordings of Robert Johnson, about whom almost no one knew then. They inspired him too.
By now he had some inkling of where he was going, though the details remained obscure. He was going into a brand new world, not knowing what he would find there, but with some idea what he would be creating.
It’s fascinating to hear how great artists began, sometimes especially in their own words. Some particular form of some particular art fascinates them, and they follow that fascination. Dylan’s original ambition was to be a musician; he didn’t originally know just what kind, and began finding that out as he went along. He had played rock & roll, but others stole his bands, so he decided to play alone until he was in a position to have a band and keep them. Folk music was a perfect kind of music to play solo, and it helped that many of the songs, as well as the history, fascinated him. He was feeling his way.
The middle part of the book seems to be about doing the same again. The early part of the book is about being born. The next part is about why he turned away from what he’d been doing, how he’s been kind of doing things at random to see what will happen. A couple of years after the time he writes about he released the last song of his I really liked, which seems to be looking at his past and starting over again. The later segment of the book suggests that he didn’t find a “right” way to start over again until the late 80s. Deliberately leaving the path he’d been on, he’d gotten lost.
He’s done a lot of recording since then, written this book, hosted a radio program (which I didn’t hear about until it was long over), all of which suggests that album from the late 80s was a sort of rebirth. That’s certainly suggested by the structure of the book, but his comments about that time leave it indefinite.
It seems pretty clear that the sixties were the most exciting time of his life, when he was going somewhere unknown, but beckoning to him, and was wealthy in the people he met, as well as the books, art, and music he was discovering. He almost suggests that his life has become poorer after making a lot of money and having a family. That it’s more difficult to find something new in his career to keep him interested and creative.
But he was rarely a person to insist on one interpretation of things, and doesn’t in this book. Still, his writing about his younger self is exciting, maybe partly because I remember those days too. If his life is still exciting, meaningful and rewarding, it’s hard to tell from how he writes about it here, but I hope it is. If nothing else, he was a great inspiration to a lot of people 50 or so years ago, and not just musicians. I hope he’s been happy with the rest of his life.

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