Sunday, July 10, 2005

Chronicles Volume One by Bob Dylan

I think the person in my life who has gotten the most irritated with my long term obsession with Bob Dylan must have been our old landlady, Victoria. “Can’t we listen to something else, just for a few minutes, please,” complaining one time. Needless to say, she didn’t ever become anyone important in the pantheon. I’ve told people that the first cassette tape I ever owned was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. That wasn’t entirely true, as I believe that my father may have given me a Simon & Garfunkel tape a few months earlier. But I vividly recall a Friday night after dinner where Vic handed B & I a tape of Highway 61 Revisited, and we listened to it many times over the course of the weekend. I remember that we were also playing The Bard’s Tale 3 at the same time. I’ve heard a lot of Dylan since then, but Desolation Row is still my favorite. There were times back there at theWARWICK (& Placid Place too) where Dylan still set the beat for most of the weekend’s soundtracks. I remember too when B began an even more serious study of folk music, ranging pretty deeply into Guthrie, Phil Ochs & Leadbelly.

Just before leaving Austin I remember thumbing through a copy of Chronicle that B had received for Christmas as a gift, likely from one of his brothers. The observant Professor noticed my interest I suppose, and picked up a copy for my birthday a few months ago. I finished it late last night in bed, here in Vancouver, smelling the night air coming in from a window, with a cat curled up between the two of us.

Dylan’s autobiography is fast, fun and rambling. It restricts itself to a few non-chronological segments of Dylan’s life, and steers clear of most of the most personal events. (Weddings, kids, divorces, motorcycle accident, money, etc.) Instead, it concerns itself mostly with Dylan’s early years before he signed with Columbia Records, with a brief period in which he recorded a forgettable early nineties album in New Orleans, and the early years of his life between adolescence and his move to New York.

I suspect that Dylan’s editors (I don’t think the book was ghost written, a concern I had at first glance) had a helluva time determining how to cobble these diverse memoirs into a coherent narrative. The book is a bit of a disappointment as a stand alone work, because it skips over those times in his career in which most Dylan fans are likely to be the most interested. Specifically, there’s no discussion here of the time between his first record and the mid seventies. This is a decade when Dylan was at the top of his game; prolific and powerful. There’s no mention of the time period involving Woodstock, his notorious Albert Hall show, or any of his protest period. Presumably that’s all being held back for a sequel, though the only suggestion of this is the inconspicuous “Volume One” subtitle.

By way of style:

“The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds – the cemeteries – and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sheep. Greek, Roman, sepulchers – palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, sign and symbols of hidden decay—ghosts of women and men who have died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing—spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands. A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it, but you know it’s here. Somebody is always sinking.

He goes on this way for quite some time, and the entire passage, too long to quote here, evokes perfectly what I remember feeling on a warm summer day in this city of tombs, with good friends and a hangover, many years ago…

The bio really picks up a lot of steam and fuerte in the last fifty pages, where Dylan returns to a discussion of his inspirations:

“Folk music was really more of a brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding, and if it called to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each ragged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom. Each demanding a degree of respect. I could believe in the full spectrum of it and sing about it. It was so real, so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified. Folk music was all I needed to exist.”

And of course, Dylan’s biggest hero, Woody Guthrie, he saves for near the very end, saying:

“I felt connected to [Guthrie’s] songs on every level. They were cosmic. One thing for sure. Woody Guthrie had never seen or heard of me, but it felt like he was saying, ‘I’ll be going away but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.’”

This one comes at the end of a long section on Guthrie, and a lot of other interesting people besides. (Like Richard Farina, who I spent some time researching, and whom I determined I think was sort of a jerk.) The section mentions several other bios, Positively 4th Street, for one which deals with a lot of these people, and Guthrie’s Bound For Glory, for another, both of which I’d like to take a look at. But I think somehow that Dylan’s poem, Last Thoughts On Woodie Guthrie, somehow would close out this entry best of all. I remember how much this fascinated B & I the first time we heard it. Here it is for the non-existant reader now:

There's this book comin' out, an' they asked me to write something about Woody...
Sort of like "What does Woody Guthrie mean to you?" in twenty-five words...

And I couldn't do it -- I wrote out five pages and... I have it here, it's...
Have it here by accident, actually... but I'd like to say this out loud...
So... if you can sort of roll along with this thing here, this is called
"Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie."

When your head gets twisted and your mind grows numb
When you think you're too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When you're laggin' behind an' losin' your pace
In the slow-motion crawl or life's busy race
No matter whatcha doin' if you start givin' up
If the wine don't come to the top of your cup
If the wind got you sideways it's one hand holdin' on
And the other starts slippin' and the feelin' is gone
And your train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood's easy findin' but you're lazy to fetch it
And your sidewalk starts curlin' and the street gets too long
And you start walkin' backwards though you know that it's wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow's mornin' seems so far away
And you feel the reins from your pony are slippin'
And your rope is a-slidin' 'cause your hands are a-drippin'
And your sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And your sky cries water and your drain pipe's a-pourin'
And the lightnin's a-flashin' and the thunder's a-crashin'
The windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops are shakin'
And your whole world's a-slammin' and bangin'
And your minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
An' to yourself you sometimes say
"I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn't they tell me the day I was born?"

And you start gettin' chills and you're jumpin' from sweat
And you're lookin' for somethin' you ain't quite found yet
And you're knee-deep in dark water with your hands in the air
And the whole world's watchin' with a window peek stare
And your good gal leaves and she's long gone a-flyin'
And your heart feels sick like fish when they're fryin'
And your jackhammer falls from your hands to your feet
But you need it badly an' it lays on the street
And your bell's bangin' loudly but you can't hear its beat
And you think your ears mighta been hurt
Your eyes've turned filthy from the sight-blindin' dirt
And you figured you failed in yesterday's rush
When you were faked out an' fooled while facin' a four flush
And all the time you were holdin' three queens
It's makin you mad, it's makin' you mean
Like in the middle of Life magazine
Bouncin' around a pinball machine
And there's something on your mind that you wanna be sayin'
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin'
But it's trapped on your tongue, sealed in your head
And it bothers you badly when your layin' in bed
And no matter how you try you just can't say it
And you're scared to your soul you just might forget it
And your eyes get swimmy from the tears in your head
An' your pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
And the lion's mouth opens and you're starin' at his teeth
And his jaws start closin' with you underneath
And you're flat on your belly with your hands tied behind
And you wish you'd never taken that last detour sign
You say to yourself just what am I doin'
On this road I'm walkin', on this trail I'm turnin'
On this curve I'm hangin'
On this pathway I'm strollin', this space I'm taking
And this air I'm inhaling?
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I'm playing, on this banjo I'm frailing
On this mandolin I'm strumming, in the song I'm singing,
In the tune I'm humming, in the words that I'm thinking
In the words I'm writing
In this ocean of hours I'm all the time drinking
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking?
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make your heart pound
But then again you know when they're around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
'Cause sometimes you hear 'em when the night time come creeping
And you fear they might catch you sleeping
And you jump from your bed, from the last chapter of dreamin'
And you can't remember for the best of your thinkin'
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
And you know that's somethin' special you're needin'
And you know there's no drug that'll do for the healing
And no liquor in the land to stop your brain from bleeding

You need somethin' special
You need somethin' special, all right
You need a fast flyin' train on a tornado track
To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
That's been banging and booming and blowing forever
That knows your troubles a hundred times over
You need a Greyhound bus that don't bar no race
That won't laugh at your looks
Your voice or your face
And by any number of bets in the book
Will be rolling long after the bubblegum craze
You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it's you and no one else that owns
That spot that you're standing, that space that you're sitting
That the world ain't got you beat
That it ain't got you licked
It can't get you crazy no matter how many times you might get kicked
You need something special, all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope's just a word
That maybe you said, maybe you heard
On some windy corner 'round a wide-angled curve

But that's what you need man, and you need it bad
And your trouble is you know it too good
'Cause you look an' you start gettin' the chills
'Cause you can't find it on a dollar bill
And it ain't on Macy's window sill
And it ain't on no rich kid's road map
And it ain't in no fat kid's fraternity house
And it ain't made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain't on that dim-lit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Rantin' and ravin' and takin' your money
And you thinks it's funny
No, you can't find it neither in no night club, no yacht club
And it ain't in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you're bound to tell
No matter how hard you rub
You just ain't a-gonna find it on your ticket stub
No, it ain't in the rumors people're tellin' you
And it ain't in the pimple-lotion people are sellin' you
And it ain't in a cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star's blouse
And you can't find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can't tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain't in the cream puff hairdo or cotton candy clothes
Ain't in the dime store dummies an' bubblegum goons
And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knocking and tapping in Christmas wrapping
Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute, look at my skin,
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow,
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry,
When you can't even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
No, you'll not now or no other day
Find it on the doorsteps made of paper maché
And inside of the people made of molasses
That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
And it ain't in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
Who'd turn you in for a tenth of a penny
Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
And before you can count from one to ten
Do it all over again but this time behind your back, my friend,
The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
And play games with each other in their sand-box world
And you can't find it either in the no-talent fools
That run around gallant
And make all the rules for the ones that got talent
And it ain't in the ones that ain't got any talent but think they do
And think they're fooling you
The ones that jump on the wagon
Just for a while 'cause they know it's in style
To get their kicks, get out of it quick
And make all kinds of rnoney and chicks
And you yell to yourself and you throw down your hat
Saying, "Christ, do I gotta be like that?
Ain't there no one here that knows where I'm at
Ain't there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty, that stuff ain't real":

No, but that ain't your game, it ain't your race
You can't hear your name, you can't see your face
You gotta look some other place
And where do you look for this hope that you're seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you go to Brooklyn State Hospital

You find God in the church of your choice
You find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In Grand Canyon

Or this one: Song for Woody, written by Dylan “in Mills Bar on Bleeker [sic] Street in New York City on the 14th day of February.”

I'm out here a thousand miles from my home,
Walkin' a road other men gone down,
Seein' your world of places and things,
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

Hey, hey, Woody, I wrote you a song
'Bout a funny ol' world that's comin' along,
Sick an' it's hungry, it's tired an' it's torn,
It looks like it's a-dyin' an' never been born.

Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things I'm a-sayin' an' a-many a times more.
I'm a-singin' you this song, but I can't sing enough,
'Cause there's not many men who done the things that you done.

Here's to Cisco an' Sonny an' Leadbelly too,
An' to all good people that traveled with you.
Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

I'm leavin' tomorrow, but I could leave today,
Somewhere down the road someday.
The very last thing that I'd want to do
Is to say I been hittin' some hard travelin' too.

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