Friday, December 3, 2004

Chronicling a legend

This Notes For You by Keith Waller

Keith Waller

By Keith Waller

From the opening sentence of Bob Dylan's recently published memoirs, "Chronicles, Volume One," he had me. I knew getting to bed early over the next couple of days wasn't going to happen. The book is biographical, but is not a dry and dusty chronological march through the facts. Like an engrossing work of historical fiction, I was sorry to see this one end. Also, I wasn't ready to leave the world Dylan had conjured from his past. Fortunately, as the title suggests, there is a Volume Two on the horizon.

As we have seen him do with long story songs, Dylan describes the people, places, and events of his life in a visually vivid and rhythmic tapestry of images, color and sounds. The style is conversational, as if he were sitting on your living room couch recalling stories and memories from the past.

With a career as long and as varied as Dylan's has been, he wisely chooses not to give us a broad brush stroke that skims the surface of his more than 40 years as one of the most historically significant figures in music and popular culture. Instead he focuses on the early developmental period of his career, long before his unsolicited coronation as the spokesman for his generation.

With the exception of a few short forays forward into the 1970s and 1980s, most of the book takes place in New York City in the early 1960s.

Dylan has arrived in the Big Apple having hitchhiked from Minnesota in the winter of 1961. He is 20 years old, a complete unknown, no direction home, but all that is about to change. He has yet to write his first song, but already senses a destiny awaiting him in these snow-filled canyons of high rises, a destiny he describes as looking directly at him and no one else. This is a world of record executives who work out of drab, closet-sized offices and sign or release artists on the basis of a handshake without the involvement of lawyers. A world where Jack Dempsey greets you at your table in his restaurant and people line up to get into subterranean coffee houses to hear Dave Van Ronk, The New Lost City Ramblers, or Rev. Gary Davis perform on a tiny stage with no amplification.

Into this world teaming with beat poets, street performers, artists and musicians strides Dylan, armed with an acoustic guitar, a keen eye for detail and a mind like a sponge. He carries in his head an already encyclopedic and growing number of folk songs, a genre of music that captures his imagination for its power to communicate historical context as well as the many varied conditions of the human heart. He ponders writing his first song, but has a sense of not being quite ready. His musical style is still developing and he has not yet heard the music of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliot or Robert Johnson, artists who will have a major impact in guiding the trajectory of his own path.

Dylan crashes on the couches of people who will later provide the inspiration for some of the colorful characters in his songs. He reads works of classic literature and Greek philosophers. He pours over microfiche copies of newspapers from the Civil War days, and listens to all the old jazz, blues and folk tunes he can get his hands on. He begins to paint and write poetry, filling his inner reservoir with thoughts and images that will soon pour out of him like a flood.

Some Dylan fans may be disappointed that there is almost nothing in here dealing with his life as an icon. Maybe that's because he never really understood it himself. Instead, we get an intimate look into where he came from, what influenced him and how he thinks. Trying to describe the richness of Dylan's memoirs in this short column is a bit like saying his song "Hurricane" is about a boxer. It doesn't quite do it justice; this is one you need to read for yourself.

For the classic rock fan on your shopping list, this would also be a welcome find under the tree on Christmas morning.

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