The Age of Bob
BY DICK HOLLAND
Chronicles, Volume 1 by Bob Dylan Simon & Schuster 293 pages, $24 Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks Ecco 517 pages, $26.95 t last count there were over ninety books published about Bob Dylan and thousands of web-site pages that examine everything from the nuances of his set list the last time he played Dublin to deconstructions of his current pencil-thin mustache and fine-tailored cowboy jackets. Chat rooms are devoted to the controversy over his recent television ad for Victoria’s Secret; on-line archivists have gathered together scores of what look like family snapshots of Bob, including late ’60s takes of him hid out in Woodstock, surrounded by babies and little children. Dylan the songwriter drew attention to himself immediately in the early sixties—no popular musician or group, including Elvis or the Beatles, has inspired so much smart, insightful, speculative, and silly writing. A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone named his “Like a Rolling Stone” the greatest song of the rock era. A few years back he stood between Lauren Bacall and President Clinton at the Kennedy Center and sang “Forever Young” to the Pope in Italy. In 2000 he won an Academy Award for best song (“Things Have Changed”). But Bob himself, what of him? He is on constant tour, has nothing much left of his voice (not robust to start with), yet he keeps writing and recording notable songs, some recent ones are some of his best. Although he is a public man, Dylan has always chosen to be cryptic about his private life and thoughts, choosing to hide in plain sight. Now the Sphinx has chosen to speak in the first of three projected autobiographical volumes, and the result is bracing. As Bob says about reading Balzac in his early folk days in Greenwich Village: the guy is hilarious. In Chronicles Vol. 1, Dylan just jumps right in with a story about his first New York song publisher, Lou Levy, taking him out to a busy sports bar to celebrate their contract. This would have been in late 1961. Lou introduced me to Jack Dempsey, the great boxer. Jack shook his fist at me. “You look too light for a heavyweight kid, you’ll have to put on a few pounds. You’re gonna have to dress a little finer, look a little sharper—not that you’ll need much in the way of clothes when you’re in the ring—don’t be afraid of hitting somebody too hard.” “He’s not a boxer, Jack, he’s a songwriter and we’ll be publishing his songs.” “Oh, yeah, well I hope to hear ‘em some of these days. Good luck to you, kid.” These good wishes from the old champion to the newly signed musical aspirant mark the beginning of the book, but the end of his formative period in New York, where he fled from his native Minnesota at the age of 19. About half the book is a vivid recreation of his days before he signed up with Columbia Records and with Lou Levy. The Gaslight Club in the Village is where beginning folkies congregated, singing 20-minute sets all through the night. Upstairs there was a floating poker game where Bobby (still Zimmerman then) played with the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Paul Stookey (later of Peter, Paul, and Mary) and Len Chandler. Dylan expands on the scene: I’d either be up in the card room or at the Kettle of Fish Tavern next door. That place was usually packed too, on any given night of the week. A frantic atmosphere—all kinds of characters talking fast, moving fast—some debonair, some rakish. Literary types with black beards, grim-faced intellectuals—eclectic girls, non-homemaker types. The kind of people who come from out of nowhere and go right back into it—a pistol-packing rabbi, a snaggle-toothed girl with a big crucifix between her breasts— all kinds of characters looking for the inner heat. I felt like I was seeing it all sitting on the crest of a cliff. Some people even had titles—“The Man Who Made History,” “The Link Between the Races”—that’s how they’d want to be referred to. Folk music based on the old English ballads and their American variants was everywhere, but Bobby also picked up music from the jukebox at the Kettle of Fish. The jukebox in the place showed mostly jazz records. Zoot Sims, Hampton Hawes, Stan Getz, and some rhythm-and-blues records—Bumble Bee Slim, Slim Gaillard, Percy Mayfield. The Beats tolerated folk music, but they really didn’t like it. They listened exclusively to modern jazz, bebop. A couple of times I dropped a coin right into the slot [nice Chuck Berry reference!] and played “The Man That Got Away” by Judy Garland. The song always did something to me, not in any stupefying, tremendous kind of way. . . It was just nice to hear. Judy Garland was from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a town about twenty miles away from where I came from. Listening to Judy was like listening to the girl next door. A non-doctrinaire list of Bob’s likes in both music and life is one of the attractions of this book, which after all, is a celebrity memoir. Bobby Zimmerman was lucky where he first landed in the Village—he crashed in a book-filled apartment that belonged to a bohemian couple, Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel. Ray’s books provided Bob with a self-taught higher education. I switched on the lamps. The place had an overpowering presence of literature and you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness. Up until this time I’d been raised in a cultural spectrum that left my mind black with soot. Brando, James Dean, Milton Berle, Marilyn Monroe, Lucy, Earl Warren and Khrushchev, Castro. Little Rock and Peyton Place. Tennessee Williams and Joe Dimaggio. J. Edgar Hoover and Westinghouse. The Nelsons. Holiday Inns and hot-rod Chevys. Mickey Spillaine and Joe McCarthy. Levittown. Standing in this room you could take it all for a joke. There were all types of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Thuycidides’ The Athenian General—a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. . . It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine. The music scene was similarly rich. Folk gurus like Dave Van Ronk and Mike Seeger led the way, and a party at folklorist Alan Lomax’s apartment introduced young Bob to the full scene. A bit later he played harmonica behind other singers. It was one of these gigs, playing in a recording studio with the Texas folksinger Carolyn Hester, that resulted in his meeting the legendary talent scout John Hammond, who had signed Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and the Count Basie Band, among others. By the time Hammond offered Bob a contract with Columbia Records, he had written hardly anything. During the next four years Dylan changed music permanently, especially with his great string of mid-’60s albums Bringin’ It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Hardin. This heroic creative period is totally skipped over in Chronicles 1, but not the aftermath. Bob does nothing to dispel the rumor that his motorcycle accident in the fall of 1966 (Blonde On Blonde was released in May of that year) was partly an excuse to escape his rock-and-roll fame. This period is presented here as a nightmarish one for Dylan and his wife and little children, who just wanted to be left alone up in the art colony of Woodstock, New York. Being called a spokesman for a generation by the media and even by some of his fellow musicians, such as Joan Baez and Robbie Robertson, only made Dylan more reclusive. Musically, this period was marked by albums such as Nashville Skyline and by the almost universally despised Self-Portrait, on which Bob crooned an imitation of Elvis doing “Blue Moon.” During his 45-year career Dylan has had several comebacks that, in his case, are really reinventions. One part of Chronicles 1 skips to the beginning of his productive late (i.e. current) period. In this chapter of the book we fast-forward to 1987, when Bob really was hurt, recovering from a bad accident to his hand that had almost ended his guitar playing. Musically he presents himself as lost, opening on tours for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, unable to even sing the songs from his great period in the ’60s. In 1987 he had written some new songs and hatched a plan with producer Daniel Lanois, who set him up in a big house in New Orleans’ Garden District, out by Tulane and Audubon Park. Perhaps the best writing in the book is Bob’s evocation of New Orleans and environs, a place that totally spoke to his spirit at this juncture. Lanois’ sound is full of echoes and reverbs partly created by strangely placed microphones and partly by using Louisiana groups such as the zydeco band Rockin’ Dopsie. By the end of the sessions a musical breakthrough has been accomplished, one that seems aided by Dylan’s love of atmospheric New Orleans. Southern Louisiana’s everyday surrealism communicated to Bob, who had been feeling stuck for a long time. His story about taking his wife for a ride on an old powder-blue Harley out to Morgan City where they stumble across a joint called The King Tut Museum is priceless. The fact that he omits information about which wife this is just doesn’t seem important. The last two songs recorded were both fine ones: a bittersweet love song titled “Shooting Star” and a tribute to Johnny Cash titled “Man in the Long Black Coat.” Bob’s high regard for Cash’s artistry evokes this: Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger. “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times. Bob’s séance in New Orleans appears to have set him on track both as a songwriter and a singer. The resulting album, Oh Mercy, was regarded as a new beginning. The decade-and-a-half since then has been a rich period, culminating in Love and Theft in 2001, a playful masterpiece. In recent interviews Bob has alluded to a batch of new songs, so as usual, stay tuned. ylanologists fall into three groups: (1) obsessives who are the equivalent of musical stalkers; (2) domestic high-end music writers such as Gary Giddins, Greil Marcus, and Sean Wilentz, who place Dylan firmly in a tradition of American songs stretching back to the 19th century; and (3) Christopher Ricks, an English literary chap, who is incomparable. Ricks, who is eight years older than Dylan (Bob was born in May 1941), is the newly elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, and an eminent literary scholar who has published books about and edited the poetry of Milton, Keats, Tennyson, and T.S. Eliot. If the great English poets are his vocation, following Dylan is his passionate avocation, and in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, he has combined the two. Professor Ricks is an old-school poetry teacher working with a new-school text. He begins with an essay on rhyme in Dylan: The beginning of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is superb in what it does with its first three rhyme words, as simple as can be in the mystery of such spells, three by three, with the triple rhymes interlacing assonantally with the triple “like” (eyes like/ like rhymes/ like chimes): With your mercury mouth in the missionary times And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes Oh, who among them do they think could bury you? …With his voicing, Dylan does what the seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley did with different rhythmical weightings for this same triplet of rhymes in his “Ode: Upon Liberty.” “If life should a well-ordered poem be”, then it should avoid monotony: The matter shall be grave, the numbers loose and free. It shall not keep one settled pace of time, In the same tune it shall not always chime, Nor shall each day to his neighbour rhime. The remainder of this engrossing (and heavily footnoted) book elaborates on this lesson in poetics. There are 14 more chapters: one each for the seven deadly sins (envy, covetousness, greed, sloth, lust, anger, and pride); the four virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude); and the three heavenly graces (faith, hope, and charity). It is, of course, in the chapter on lust that Ricks examines Dylan’s highest profile love song, “Lay, Lady, Lay.” From the familiar: Lay, Lady, Lay, lay across my big brass bed Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile Ricks juxtaposes lines from John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, perhaps only familiar to English majors: Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy, Until I labour, I in labour lie Then the professor presents a two-columned word comparison that demonstrates a close tie between the two works. “Donne’s poem might be a source but what matters is that it is an analogue. Great minds feel and think alike.” As to Dylan’s sometimes inexplicable language, Rick’s brings in the big guns: Dylan is a master of living derangements of syntax but even he must sometimes let things slip. Dr. Johnson ventured to characterize as an imperfectionist that Dylanesque writer William Shakespeare. About 50 Dylan lyrics are laid out here for examination, and all are generously thought about. The book ends with a general index, an index of Dylan’s songs, and a useful list titled “Which Album a Song Is On.” This book might appear specialized, but it is rewarding for any lover of language. I’ll close with the lyrics to a good one, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” a song title that Ricks tells us that Bob meant to be a mathematical fraction. It is in the chapter called “Temperance,” a virtue that until now had somewhat eluded me. My love she speaks like silence, Without ideals or violence, She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire. People carry roses, Make promises by the hours, My love she laughs like the flowers, Valentines can’t buy her. In the dime stores and bus stations, People talk of situations, Read books, repeat quotations, Draw conclusions on the wall. Some speak of the future, My love she speaks softly, She knows there’s no success like failure And that failure’s no success at all. The
cloak and dagger dangles, Madams light the candles. In ceremonies of the horsemen, Even the pawn must hold a grudge. Statues made of match sticks, Crumble into one another, My love winks, she does not bother, She knows too much to argue or to judge. The bridge at midnight trembles, The country doctor rambles, Bankers’ nieces seek perfection, Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring. The wind howls like a hammer, The night blows cold and rainy, My love she’s like some raven At my window with a broken wing. For complete lyrics of every song the best source is bobdylan.com, although a huge tome, Lyrics 1962-2001 has just been published. The talk is that this compilation has been forwarded to the Nobel Prize literature committee. Dylanologists are already placing bets on which song Bob will sing in Stockholm. Dick Holland saw Dylan in Austin during the momentous fall 1965 tour, about a month after he was booed off the stage at the Newport Folk Festival.