Dylan’s back pages

Issue: 105

Pat Stack

A review of Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), £16.99

This is a book many probably thought would never be written. Bob Dylan, the most private of men, telling his own life story?unthinkable. The book is not a standard biography. Divided into four sections, it starts and finishes with his early days in New York. He chooses the second section of the book to explain why he moved away from protest, or rather why he deliberately recorded an album, New Morning, that would drive his ?disciples? away. The third section of the book is rather
curiously about the recording of a much later album, Oh Mercy, against the background of writer?s block and artistic confusion.

Running through the whole book, though, is the story of what inspired him, what music, what art, what literature, what great events.

It is this that makes the whole book so fantastic. Written with the lyricism of his best work, the book is a joy to read. Dylan takes you on an artistic journey with occasional, and at times surprising, personal glimpses thrown in to keep it this side of autobiographical.

The young Dylan that arrived in New York in 1961 was a raw folk singer with great ambitions, an invented name, an invented past, and a lot of dreams and hopes.

The folk scene he walked in on was just beginning to stir politically but was still dominated by purists who believed that most of the great songs had been written, either way back in the mists of time, or by black blues singers in the early years of the century?or at the latest by the Woody Guthrie generation. Dylan lapped all of this up, but began to feel its limitations:

?Folk Music was all I needed to exist. Trouble was, there wasn?t enough of it. It was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time.?

Dylan would be part of the movement to correct this. His songs became topical, his first a tribute to his great inspiration Woody Guthrie.

Dylan was like a sponge, absorbing all around him. He was completely bowled over by an Irish group, the Clancy Brothers, who were in New York at the time, and he became particularly friendly with Liam Clancy. The Clancys had gained some fame singing sea shanties, traditional Irish folk songs, and, most importantly to Dylan, Irish rebel songs:

?The rebellion songs were a really serious thing. The language was flashy and provocative?a lot of action in the words, all sung with great gusto. The singer had a merry light in his eye, had to have it. I loved those songs…?

So Dylan began drawing on these influences and writing. He was by no means the most politically committed or sophisticated on the scene at this time.

His politics were idealistic, borne not out of personal hardship or struggle, but out of the admiration he had for those around him.

Yet when he wrote, his songs carried a sophistication that his contemporaries simply lacked. Writing about the song ?Joe Hill? he says that protest songs are difficult to write without making them come off as preachy and one dimensional.

His understanding of that was to be the benchmark of his music. Where others reacted to events with straightforward black and white responses, Dylan sought the complexity. Where others went for ?straight talking? Dylan would use imagery. Where others flaunted their anger on every verse of every song, Dylan used it sparingly and to devastating effect.

To take just one example: the murder of black civil rights leader Medger Evers produced a large number of folk songs singing praise for Evers and hatred for his killer.

Dylan?s response was a song, ?Only a Pawn in their Game?, which attempted to show how poor whites were the murderous pawns in capitalism?s divide and rule game of racism.

Yet when he simply wanted to roar with anger he did so to devastating effect. In ?Masters of War? he wants to see the arms manufacturer/politician/general dead, and he hopes they?ll die soon. He will follow their casket, and watch them be lowered into the grave, but ?I won?t turn away till I?m sure that you?re dead?.

All of these songs and more made Dylan stand out. His second and third albums became the anthems of the civil rights activists, student radicals and the politically awakening young who, as he says, unlike the beat generation, were rebels with a cause.
Perhaps part of what separated him from the pack, apart from undoubted talent, was the sheer breadth of influences on him.
He says himself that he was writing the odd ?topical song? using Guthrie as a benchmark, but that that all changed when his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo took him to see a presentation of songs written by the German Marxist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht and his collaborator Kurt Weill.

As a result ?my little shack was about to expand into a glorious cathedral at least in song writing terms?. Four pages of the book are given over to the impact of first hearing ?Pirate Jenny?.

The black blues singer Robert Johnson became another major influence on his writing.

All of these influences and the ?changing times? made Dylan a spokesman for a generation.

It was a role he did not sit happily with, and quickly sought to move away from. He drifted from overt politics into lyrical imagery that played with alienation and the confusion of modern life.

Furthermore Dylan was about to break free of the constraints of traditional folk music altogether. In 1965 he caused a near riot at the Newport Folk Festival by appearing with a band, electric guitar in hand, and playing what was to become his unique brand of rock and roll.

The audience booed, as they did throughout his tour of Britain the following year, yet he persisted, and in the process recorded three truly awesome albums, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

These albums would change the face of popular music, profoundly impacting on the likes of the Beatles, the Stones and Jimmy Hendrix. He showed that the pop song did not have to be confined to three minutes of trite gooey rubbish or, as he sang, ?It?s Rockaday Johnny singing tell your Ma tell your Pa Our love?s gonna grow ooh aah ooh aah.?

In the process Dylan became a rock star, and moved further and further away from activism?even trying to disown his earlier stuff.

However, the anti Vietnam War generation took the imagery of these songs as the new rebellious anthems. Songs like ?Like a Rolling Stone? and ?Desolation Row? talked every bit as much to rebelling youth as ?Masters of War? had.

Hendrix?s version of his ?All Along the Watchtower?, with its haunting opening line, ?There must be some way out of here?, became the anthem of disaffected GIs in Vietnam.

Dylan was now a superstar whose life was being lived in a goldfish bowl and bore little relation to the lives of those who looked to him.

As he writes himself: ?Creativity has much to do with experience, imagination, and observation…it was impossible for me now to observe anything without being observed.?

To add to his dislike for his ?spokesman? role, some Dylan fanatics were actually organising demonstrations outside his house to demand he become engaged.

Dylan explains that he wrote what he hoped many would see as a trite album, New Morning, just to disappoint and get the ?generation? off his back.

Yet although you could count the number of overtly political songs written by him since that time on the fingers of one hand, and the most recent of those was written in the mid-1970s, he remains the benchmark for political songwriting. Despite the fact that he has sung for the pope and at Clinton?s inauguration he remains an iconic figure.

Artistically, after a considerable period in the creative doldrums, and despite leading a life that looks from the outside to be one of constant touring and living a weird hotel room existence, he has enjoyed a renaissance.

His last two albums were his finest in years; his recent concerts have been electrifying, this book a joy.

It is perhaps fitting that it should appear at a time when popular music is beginning to find its voice of protest against the horrors of Iraq and the madness of Bush.

For so long it seemed that the days of ?protest? music were dead. As the world got bloodier the artists (with one or two honourable exceptions) became more self-absorbed, and appeared to turn their head and pretend that they just hadn?t seen.

Now, however, more and more artists from more and more genres are using their art to howl with anger. Everybody from the Beastie Boys to George Michael, from the raging Eminem to the sweet and tuneful Black Eyed Peas, is hammering against the horrors of Bush and Blair?s follies.

Against this background Dylan has said nothing. True, he has taken to singing his anti-war classic ?Masters of War? at his concerts, and in this book, when writing of the American revolutionary Andrew Jackson, perhaps gives a hint of his view when he writes:

?At least he didn?t drop bombs killing civilians and innocent children for the glory of his nation?s honour. He wouldn?t be going to hell for that.?

It says something of Dylan?s standing that even now people are still looking for a new Dylan.

In a fascinating section of the book Dylan explains how he?d been listening to Ice T, Public Enemy, NWA and Run DMC:

?These guys definitely weren?t standing around bullshitting, they were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs. Somebody different is bound to come round sooner or later that knows that world…someone with a chopped topped head and a power in the community… Unlike Presley he wouldn?t be swinging his hips and staring at the lassies. He?d be doing it with hard words…?

Anyone who listens to something like Eminem?s ?Mosh? will know exactly what he means.

There have been many biographies of Dylan, and many explorations of his work, some of them very good, but the finest has surely come from the horse?s mouth.