Chronicles by Bob Dylan
Chronicles, Volume I
by Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $24.00
“This ain’t no protest song,” a very young aspiring poet said to an audience at a New York City nightclub specializing in folk music circa 1961, “’cause I don’t write no protest songs.”
Protest songs were all the rage then, and Robert Zimmerman, already billing himself as Bob Dylan, did not like to be thought fashionable. Born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, he had come to New York with a strong sense that the popular-music scene was “wide open.” He was right about that, and his own songs, which in fact often decried social injustice, caught the attention of John Hammond, Columbia Records’ legendary talent scout. Significantly enough, it is this event that frames Dylan’s recent memoir, Chronicles, an account of his career until the end of the 1980’s. (The book’s subtitle, “Volume One,” suggests that there may be further installments.)
Sketchy and elliptical, Chronicles is more interesting for its insights into Dylan’s several mentors and friends than into Dylan and his music. As he has done in the past, he insists here on the influence of the mysterious and legendary Mississippi blues singer Robert Johnson, as well as on the help he received from the jazz guitarist Lonnie Johnson (no relation to Robert). But his main point concerns not so much the music or the songs but the fact that, while changing and adapting over the years, he has stayed true to himself. That is why the judgment of John Hammond, who found Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker and many others, matters far more to him than stories about his personal life, about which this book, despite some amusing and telling anecdotes, offers few details.
John Hammond liked Dylan’s sound; he said it was sincere. It is unlikely that anyone today would question this judgment, but at the time, certain audiences and critics called Dylan opportunistic—that is to say, insincere. Specifically, he was accused of subverting folk music (of which “protest songs” are or were a sub-genre) by introducing elements more akin to rock ‘n’ roll.
This was nonsense, in terms both of his biography and of his music. Dylan grew up in the northern Middle West; the main road out of his part of the country was Highway 61, which ran south to New Orleans. His father and uncles were lower-and middle-class Jews whom he admired for their work ethic and their stoic patriotism (which included military service in World War II and Korea). But he entered his teens in the expansive mid-1950’s, and the music he liked was the wildly exuberant sound that, with a few adjustments in lyrics, had come almost straight out of the Pentecostal churches. In high school, when he was not thinking of a military career, he wanted to be a rocker.
Dylan went into folk music (“Americana music” as he called it) only because it was a way to get on stage in the late 1950’s. Thus, the fans who famously accused him of opportunism at the Newport Folk Festival of 1963, when he scandalized the crowd by coming on stage with electric guitars, had it backward; if he was being opportunistic, it was in turning to folk, not in returning to rock.
But the whole controversy was beside the point, and it was John Hammond who had things right. In any case, there was a perfectly good reason for Dylan’s turn to folk music: he liked it. He had, and has retained, an abiding admiration for Woody Guthrie, who had combined folk music and politics, lending his voice to labor unions and a variety of radical causes. (Guthrie was a Communist, though not a member of the party.)
The “folk-rock” that emerged from Dylan’s twin passions had an impact on American music comparable to that wrought by the late Ray Charles, who a few years earlier combined gospel and blues to create the sound that would be called soul music, in the process offending audiences no less than Dylan would. The latter’s innovations can be traced in the albums he turned out in the intensely creative years between 1961 and 1965. Two “folk” albums (Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin‘) moved within the ambit of the civil-rights movement at its high-water mark, and three “folk-rock” records put him over the top as a star: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.
Critics debate whether Dylan’s creative juices ran dry after Blonde on Blonde. In 1966, he was injured in a motorcycle accident and spent two years convalescing; when he returned to touring and writing, his fans detected a deep change. But this was again off-point. After some experimenting with country music in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (as in Nashville Skyline), he made a brilliantly original roots-of-rock album in 1989, Oh Mercy, the result of a collaboration with the producer and arranger Daniel Lanois, himself one of the most creative forces in American music. Beyond that date Chronicles does not take us, but it is safe to say that in later years as in earlier ones, there have been albums of uneven quality, more and less productive collaborations, loyal and disappointed fans. As a songwriter, he has remained himself while forever innovating—again, much like Ray Charles.
Dylan is usually credited with giving rock ‘n’ roll a second, stronger wind after its initial burst of adolescent energy had run out. At this remove, one can question whether the lyrics he wrote were in fact as strong as his admirers believed. It was no doubt enchanting to hear sentiments more interesting than the ooh-babyooh of early rock, and in Dylan’s hands, lines like “The motorcycle black Madonna/Two-wheeled gypsy queen . . .” (from “Gates of Eden,” 1965), accompanied by electrified guitar and organ, could be quite striking; nevertheless, they do not hold up very well either on the page or in repeated hearings. Too often the tropes are facile or, worse, absurd, the rhymes forced, the allusions pretentious or downright embarrassing.
Oddly enough, the best elements of his work are the recurring themes, banal as they sound when listed: laments against a cold world or against a lover’s cold heart, songs of nostalgia and melancholy. In the 60’s, when he won his reputation, whining and alienation were the rage, and his particular entries in the woe-is-me sweepstakes of that complaining generation were exemplary. Still, he was strongest when he let go, moving from longing and self-pity into frank desire, carnal or spiritual. Singing of faith (“Gotta Serve Somebody,” 1979), or of hope (“Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” 1973), or of social injustice (“Chimes of Freedom,” 1964), he could be as haunting as when he sang of love fulfilled (“Lay Lady Lay,” 1969) or (in too many songs to count) love disappointed.
In Chronicles, the well-known sardonic voice is to be found alongside the petulant voice of the jilted or jilting romantic; but so is a softer, kinder voice that takes people as they are and worries that they have been misunderstood or mistreated. That, too, was there from the beginning. In his running commentary on American society, Dylan was political without being ideological. The “system” that would soon be assaulted wholesale by 60’s and 70’s radicals was not what he seemed to have in mind when he sang about injustice, and though his songs were well-liked in “the movement,” he is quite right to remind readers of this memoir that he himself never served, or wanted to serve, as anyone’s spokesman:
[A]ll the cultural mumbo jumbo [was] imprisoning my soul—nauseating me—civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions . . . the lying, noisy voices, the free love, the anti-money system movement—the whole shebang. . . . I was a family man now, didn’t want to be in that group portrait.
If he did not like people who claimed to have God on their side, he also saw no point in accusing anyone, let alone a whole nation, of running with the devil.
Dylan still sings, as he did many years ago in his “Song to Woody,” of “a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along/Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn,/It looks like it’s adyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.” He seeks answers in religion, documents the ones he finds, moves on when they fall short. In the end, his canon is drawn from the canon of American history, which is why Chronicles refers not only to such powerful musical influences as Guthrie and Robert Johnson but to the likes of Robert E. Lee, Thaddeus Stevens, Theodore Roosevelt, and Joe Hill, among others.
The times, as he famously stated, were a-changin’. But though, at the time he announced this, he did so with a certain air of arrogance, he reveals himself here to have been rather less confident of what it all meant. That he already sensed this uncertainty more than four decades ago is no doubt what lay behind his insistence in 1961 that he sang no protest songs, recommended no program, spoke for no party. That may be the key to what enabled him to revitalize American folk music, invent folk-rock, and transform the face, and the sound, of rock ‘n’ roll.