The Joke was on Me
Reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume 1 is like listening to every Dylan song worth its salt. It is lyrically luminescent with the darkness of midnight as its firmament. Metaphors are real things and circumstances are allegory. Lots of people-Dylan fans and otherwise-might not like it but they’ll read it anyhow. One can’t help it. Even if you’re not a fan of Dylan or his music, once you start reading this work, you’ll find yourself attaching chords and melodies to the paragraphs in front of you. It’s not just sheet music; it’s the whole damn song coming at you from the page. If Homer was a modern man, this is how he might write his greatest tale. Bob Dylan didn’t write this book, he composed it.
From baseball to Rimbaud, and Woody Guthrie to Gorgeous George the 1950s wrestler, Dylan lays out his influences and their meaning. He tells us how a revue of songs by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill opened up his songwriting to where he could create his own version of Picasso’s Guernica. In this light, it’s easy to see that that’s what the album Highway 61 Revisited is. Pirate Jenny moves to Desolation Row.
This book is not chronological, but why should one expect it to be? If any poet ever lived in the fifth-dimension-where past, present and future exist all at once and at the same time-Bob Dylan would be that poet. Add the element of rock and roll and there really is no other dimension where his world could exist. Dylan uses seemingly minor incidents in his life as a gateway to the stories he tells. He’ll begin with a story about one of his friends, say Len Chandler, and go from this tale to a commentary about nuclear weapons and France. Next thing you know, the Cuban revolution and Carryl Chessman are the topic of discussion. Then the whole episode comes back around with a paragraph about Len Chandler and his motorcycle. Dylan’s tale is heading everywhere at the same time it’s heading to its logical conclusion. When Bob writes about the Brecht song Pirate Jenny, he describes it like this: "Everything was fastened to the wall with a heavy bracket, but you couldn’t see what the sum total of all the parts were, not unless you stood way back and waited until the end." This describes Chronicles, too.
What about politics? Are they here? Let’s see, it’s a book about Bob Dylan written by Bob Dylan and you’re wondering if there is any discussion of politics. Of course there is. Just like most of his work, however, they are not the politics of disjunctive discourse; not the politics of left and right. Instead, the politics one finds in this excellent collection of thoughts and the tales they made, are descriptions of power and its excesses in modern times and those of old. There are no idols, either. Dylan’s description of the men who ran the world he was born into in 1941 provides the underlying element in all of Dylan’s politics, even though many writers and politicos have never seen that element. It’s about power and the blinders those who crave it wear.
"Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt-towering figures that the world would never see the likes of again.Coming from a long line of Alexanders and Julius Ceasars, Genghis Khans, Charlemagnes and Napoleons, they carved up the world like a really dainty dinner.they would not be denied and were impossible to reckon with-rude barbarians stampeding across the earth and hammering out their own ideas of geography."
In another segment Dylan writes about his fascination with the civil war in the United States. It is this war and the terrible things men did to each other during it that became his template. The horrors of slavery and fratricide, the self-righteousness of both sides and the manipulation of that righteousness by the men with money-this is the background present in Dylan’s work. It is the earth wherein the seeds of his songs were planted. Of course, it all makes sense. Bob Dylan is truly from the country where he was born. His musical roots are the blues, hillbilly music, rock and roll, and little jazz. He read comics and went to cowboy movies. Kerouac and Ginsberg, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. Baseball, hockey and football.
Little did he know that his name would be added to the pantheon of poets and rockers. Once he was there, however, he began to search for ways out. As the 1960s intensified and the media appointed him the spokesman for discontented youth, his world began to shrink. The fame he had always hoped for was its own prison. He describes the politicos wanting him to lead their revolution and the hippies wanting him to become their Buddha. By this time, he just wanted to hang out with his wife and kids, but found it impossible to do without interruption. Then he wrecked his motorcycle and left the headlines behind. Yet, the headlines kept looking for him. Revolutionaries took a line from his song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and became the Weatherman. Antiwar leaders were calling on him to be like them and join the barricades. They wanted him to lead them according to their wishes. Perhaps they should have listened to another line from that same song: "Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters"
Although these moments in the book could easily come off as just another famous guy whining about his lack of privacy, they don’t. Indeed, while reading these segments, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with rock promoter Bill Graham in front of San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre in 1980. The conversation was about why the Grateful Dead no longer played free concerts like they did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"You gotta’ remember," said Graham. "Back then, the shows really were free. If a band wanted to set up on Haight Street, they just did it. That can’t happen any more. Too many permits and insurance policies. If the Dead did a so-called free show, it would only be free for you. It wouldn’t be free for the band. Not only would it cost them money, but it wouldn’t be free in the real sense of the word. They would still have to schedule things according to the city’s whims and deal with security and all that shit. Plus, it would cost them even more in terms of energy and time-time they could be spending with their kids and friends. They are fuckin’ human, you know." Of course, one could go on about rock promotion and its role in creating this scenario, but the essence of this tale is that Dylan (like the Dead) just wanted to hold on to his humanity, too. Hence, he needed to retreat.
This beginning to Dylan’s multi-volume memoirs is a hit. It’s a collection of stories that seem to be telling the reader one thing, but are really telling them a whole lot more. Just like his songs. Put it on the turntable of your mind.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org