Who is Bob Dylan?
A twentieth century legend, a giant of contemporary American music (and letters), with an unmistakable, inimitable ever-changing drawl? Or a humble folk musician – forever imitating his own idols, expressing himself through music, lyric and hard work, who happened to be in the right place (or the wrong place, perhaps) in the early 1960’s? Let’s dig into Chronicles Volume One to try and find out.
A Folk Musician
Bob Dylan, in Chronicles, tries hard to convince the reader that he’s only the hard-working folk musician. That the right place was New York. That all those people in the sixties got it wrong. Or that they hung on to something that didn’t exist and never could have. Or as he put it:
I really was never any more that what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.Bob Dylan – Chronicles Volume One
He goes on to say that he wasn’t a preacher performing miracles, but that the attention and adoration and harrasment that he received was of that level and that it would drive anyone mad. That while he was attempting to raise children and start a family people were calling for him to lead the people. To bring down the Roman Empire (as in America, and what it had become).
Thankfully Bob doesn’t dwell too much on this part of his life, and chooses to explore his feelings and experiences before the amazing fame took hold. Also he goes into some depth about after his status had subsided (from ‘Prophet, Messiah, Saviour’ down to ‘Legend, Icon, Enigma’, ‘anachronisms’ which are, according to Bob, easier to get around with…).
Bob recalls working on later albums in some of the middle chapters and dives deep into the writing and recording process for his 1989 album Oh Mercy. The work involved sounds draining, the effort intense. His relationships, with his wife, the musicians and his producer, are tested by the experience but remain strong. Some of the insecurities which, one imagines, all aging/changing artists must deal with are written about head on. His experience with fellow aging rockers The Grateful Dead sounds like it would make an interesting book in itself.
Where the Book Really Shines
The first and last of the chapters – in which Bob recalls leaving his hometown, living in New York, mainly on other people’s sofas, performing anywhere he could with his ‘harp‘ and his ‘double-0 Martin acoustic‘, really standout though. They’re fantastic to read. His rambling style in these sections is great. It’s nostalgic, indulgent, and passionate – these are some of his fondest memories. They are the creation myth of this towering figure.
The details, in the odd way memories have, are at times vague and murky. At other times they are bright and clear. The specifics of place and weather and timings and all kinds of interesting minutiae bundled in with vagaries and generalisation.
And the people. The names are eclectic. People you’ve heard of, many you’ve not, people you’re supposed to know and those you aren’t. Those that shine in Bob’s memory, and a few who don’t.
His memories of listening to records over and over, and of trying his hardest to find different records by the artists he admired, of encountering others greatly inspired by those artists – his awe at discovering Woody Guthrie’s music, and how Robert Johnson’s music, lyrics and image had him ‘possessed’ on the very same day that he signed to Columbia records, and many more gems are found in these chapters.
Legend, Humble Musician, or Both?
As mentioned Bob tries hard to convince you he’s simply a folk singer and nothing more, however, with these memories and anecdotes he manages only to confirm his legendary status…