It's always winter in Bob Dylan's New York. Cold and snowing and windy, steam rising through the manholes and ice sheeting the sidewalks from the folk clubs and coffeehouses of the Village up to the midtown record company offices; a blast of frost covers Dylan's metropolis at all times. At least it does is his brief, brilliantly written and richly-detailed memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, the first of three planned autobiographical parts by America's great musical poet.
Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffling around, bundled up - salesman in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes.
Why should New York's chill fascinate a 20-year-old from Minnesota inured to cold weather by the eight-month deep freeze winters of the high midwest? The answer, to me, is that it didn't; rather, its memory fascinates a 64-year-old minstrel uncomfortable in the clothing of "the legendary voice of his generation," but genuinely thrilled to remember a time and place when everything he saw and heard became an indelible footprint in the snow. Dylan's book is an incredibly readable and lyrical portrait of several episodes in his long career, but most spectacularly the short period as arriviste New Yorker, a time when he literally soaked up each and every influence like a sponge - and then turned, twisted, and melded those influences into a rich body of work that changed the artistic landscape itself.
As it happens, I arrived in a suburban New York hospital during a snowstorm in the winter of 1962, when young Robert Zimmerman was getting set to release his first album, Bob Dylan, after his discovery by Columbia A&R man John Hammond, making my lifespan roughly the length of Dylan's recording career. I didn't truly discover Dylan myself until around 1973 when I used a gift certificate won in a raffle to buy Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits in a New Rochelle record shop that still had the old-fashioned listening booths where you could preview the vinyl before you paid.
My 11-year-old's musical tastes in those days pretty much began with the Beatles and ended with Elton John. Dylan changed everything. Yeah, it was a typical greatest hits package - but it had a great cover and came with a poster of Dylan's head and puffed-up locks done up in psychedelic rainbow colors. ('Free poster inside' may have been the point-of-sale gimmick that got me to buy it). By the summertime, I had a guitar - a Sears catalogue acoustic ordered by my grandmother, who saw something musical and encouraged it. Dylan and my guitar (well, guitars now - I've got a bunch) have been with me every since. I usually laugh when music mags tap the "best of" list-making mania, but I found myself in total agreement last week when Rolling Stone argued that Like a Rolling Stone was the greatest rock record of all time. No doubt.
Dylan confesses to several lightning bolt musical moments in Chronicles: from Woody Guthrie, from Robert Johnson, and smaller bolts from established folk singers Dave van der Ronk and Joan Baez. As Jason Chervokas well notes, Dylan recognized in Johnson the organic synthesis of a long musical tradition, of many forms coming together in several, clear, mind-blowing performances of part original, part traditional compositions. This synthesis was also clear to Dylan in Woody Guthrie's music - his embrace of traditional stories based on history, and his melding of the form to tell more modern tales of union-busting, the legal system, poverty, venereal disease, and war.
The young Bob Dylan embraces this synthetic musical creation without really knowing that he was doing it. Dylan was the super cultural sponge of his day and because his work became so widely known, his collection of influences and traditions became the basis of so much of 1960s popular music, and what we've come to regard as rock, folk rock, alternative in the 43 years since he hit the scene in New York. He took everything he heard and saw and read and created literature. Rare is that gift, and indeed it was rare in Dylan's own lifetime. In his 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley last Sunday, Dylan admitted that his time of "perfect creation" was limited to his early 20s, and that since then, while he's done work he is proud of, the purity and ease of that early artistic expression has been missing.
In Chronicles, Dylan illustrates that contrast with a long episode set in New Orleans - where it's always humid and raining, another intentional thematic weather consistency - a sometimes frustrating recording session for the album Oh Mercy with producer Daniel Lanois. Tired of the road, tired of being the voice of a graying generation touring with the Grateful Dead and doing his hits, tired of trying to live up to the legend, Dylan finds a new path, and some great songs. (It was a time that produced wonderful songs like Dignity and Jokerman, two of my Dylan favorites). It's a rich and evocative passage about an artist in his late 40s, finding a different voice - but with a struggle - and writing songs:
A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They're like strange countries that you have to enter. You can write a song anywhere, in a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback - it helps to be moving. Sometimes people who have the greatest talent for writing songs never write any because they are not moving. I wasn't moving in any of these songs, not externally, anyway. Still I got them down as if I was.
On 60 Minutes, in an otherwise forgettable interview with obvious "icon of a generation" questions from Bradley, Dylan admits with stunning honesty that his early songwriting days are gone, never to be revisited. Does he ever look back at those songs?
I used to. I don't do that anymore. I don't know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written ... You can't do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can't do that.
What he can do is write autobiographical prose, quite beautifully. (And yes, there's no doubt that this is a poet's prose - license is taken, time out of mind, to create a cohesive tale. This includes the weather). The crying shame of this book is that there is no index; but perhaps this was a requirement of the author. Chronicles is crammed with references to people, to influences - from wrestler Gorgeous George to guitarist Link Wray to poet Archibald McLeish. Dozens of people. Books, songs, TV shows, and poems. Get the book - it's a great tale. As Dylan says:
Sometimes you say things in songs even if there's a small chance of them being true. And sometimes you say things that have nothing to do with the truth of what you want to say and sometimes you say things that everyone knows to be true. Then again, at the same time, you're thinking that the only truth on earth is that there is not truth on it.
UPDATE II: Fred hates Chronicles. "I can’t recommend it really. It seems like he sat down one day and starting writing and when he was done, he published it." I gotta disagree - and so do those posting comments on Fred's post - the book has a structure, an artist's structure, like one of Dylan's long stories.