Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan. Simon & Schuster. 293 pp. $16.00
I’ve been fascinated by the reactions to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, which was announced as I was heading to Pittsburgh for my 50th high school reunion. A number of Baby Boomers seemed to regard it as a validation of their whole lives, as if the Nobel Prize committee just said we were right to protest war and injustice, sleep around, experiment with drugs, and drone along in a pale imitation of singing. Other people—perhaps with more conventional tastes—were furious, reduced to sputtering, as if the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Captain Kangaroo. My brother sent me an e-mail asking what I thought, and when I said it was the most interesting choice of our lifetime, he reacted furiously. “It’s not poetry,” he said. “The language is flat and banal. No phrase ever startles. The rhythm is a sort of shuffle along thing.”
It’s funny how two people can read the same words and have entirely different reactions. “He built a fire on Main Street and shot it full of holes,” is a startling phrase to me, and it’s far from the only one. The language is that of everyday speech, but it’s no more flat and banal than Whitman’s. The rhythm varies all over the place. Arguing about such things is useless. You like the man’s work or you don’t.
I think Dylan’s lyrics are poetry, though I don’t think they’re great poetry. I believe the Nobel Committee was saying first of all that the popular song is a literary form, worthy of recognition and praise. In the realm of the popular song, Bob Dylan is Shakespeare. He took “Who put the ram in the ram a lamma ding dong?” and made it into art, poetry, social protest. He singlehandedly took songwriting to a different level. And he’s continued to practice that art through what now seems a surprisingly long life of adulation, adoration, worship, also blame, revilement, and periods of obscurity. He faced all the pitfalls of a modern entertainer and kept going, using his art to express his ever-changing vision. The arc of his career is amazing.
I don’t think the Nobel Prize Committee is trying to recognize the single best writer alive. I think that—particularly lately—they’ve looked at the literary landscape and tried to make a statement, shake things up a little. That’s why I thought the selection three years ago of a Canadian female short story writer was so brilliant. (And if you want a marvelous reading experience, go back and read the late books of Alice Munro. There are five or six of them. Every story is stunning.) The selection of Bob Dylan is too. The popular song! We’ve overlooked it all these years! It’s an art form!
I have a habit of trying to read something by every recent Nobel Prize winner (though I skip a year now and then). The appropriate thing would be to listen to Dylan’s more recent music, which I’m utterly ignorant of (I’d love some recommendations). I began instead with his memoir.
It’s an utter surprise. Of all the memoirs I’ve ever read, especially celebrity memoirs, it’s the least self-conscious, the least introspective; he’s the least full-of-himself celebrity I’ve ever encountered. It’s not a conventional memoir by any means, jumps around in time, begins the first chapter at roughly the same place it ends the last, leaves out whole long parts of his life. It’s as if he takes up periods of his life at random.
He has an incredible visual memory; he remembers whole rooms, including the furniture in them, from thirty and forty years before. He remembers the feeling of things, and what he was thinking. Most of all he comes across as a man who, all his life, has been absolutely in love with music, slavishly in love with music, especially the folk music he discovered as a young man. He seems more a fan than an artist. I could quote almost at random from anywhere in the book. Here, for instance, he’s talking about pop music.
“I loved songs like ‘Without a Song,’ ‘Old Man River,’ ‘Stardust’ and hundreds of others. My favorite of all the new ones was ‘Moon River.’ I could sing that in my sleep. . . . I used to play the phenomenal ‘Ebb Tide’ by Frank Sinatra a lot and it had never failed to fill me with awe. The lyrics were so mystifying and stupendous. When Frank sang that song, I could hear everything in his voice—death, God and the universe, everything.”
He sounds like a kid, a teenage kid, not a sixty year old man writing a memoir.
He talks about his musical and intellectual influences, has a long chapter about the books and poetry he was reading as a young man. He has an eighty-page chapter about recording an album—“Oh Mercy”—that he made in the late eighties and that I’ve never heard (though I’ve ordered it), revealing how hit-or-miss thing the whole project was. In the middle of it he takes off on a long motorcycle trip with his second wife, and goes on and on about a souvenir shop run by a guy named Sun Pie.
He hated being regarded as a prophet or a spokesman for his generation, couldn’t get away from dopey people who kept showing up at his house wanting him to make pronouncements. That’s the only place in the book where he mentions being famous. For most of this memoir, you’d have no idea of his celebrity.
What I can’t get over is the freshness of the prose, and his deep love of all kinds of music. Here he talks about his first encounter with a record by blues singer Robert Johnson, whom he regards as a major influence.
“Over the next few weeks I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition. The songs were layered with a startling economy of lines. Johnson masked the presence of more than twenty men. . . . Songwriting for him was some highly sophisticated business. . [His] words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence. Johnson bypasses tedious descriptions that other blues writers would have written whole songs about. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined.”
All this about a man from the Mississippi Delta who died at 27.
I’ve never read such writing about music in my life. The whole book is similarly entrancing. Does this man deserve the Nobel Prize? Who knows? Who cares? He’s written a marvelous and unique memoir. And though there’s been a twelve-year hiatus so far, he calls it Volume One.
I’ll be waiting.
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