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Bob Dylan’s movable feast
His Chronicles delivers the word

In 1992, Bob Dylan’s Good As I Been to You was as shocking as anything he’d done. The album was a collection of other people’s songs — ancient blues and folk songs, including the children’s ditty "Froggy Went a Courtin’," sung solo by Dylan, who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Dylan had recently been on TV, at the Grammys, accepting a special Lifetime Achievement Award — the artistic equivalent of over-and-out, so long, don’t let the door hit your ass. Gulf War I was in progress, and Dylan and his band played a number whose lyrics were unintelligible. Dylan then accepted his award from Jack Nicholson and made an enigmatic short speech about his daddy’s simple ways and the dangers of defilement in a corrupt world. The song, it turned out, had been "Masters of War."

The shows around that time were just as confusing. I saw him and his band play at Northeastern University and couldn’t pick out a single word, much as I strained to guess via snatches of melody and chord progressions. Dylan played keyboards. It all fed into the ongoing enigma of Dylan: what’s he doing? What does he think he’s doing? Was he becoming the Howard Hughes of rock and roll — albeit a very public one? There were occasional dispatches from the front lines. Dylan would deign to speak to an old hand from the rock press like the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn, and he’d make some sense.

Then came Good As I Been to You: intimate, fierce, words and images pouring out of Dylan’s mouth, clearly enunciated (no lyrics were provided in the CD booklet), strange stories that kept you on the edge of your seat — "Frankie & Albert," "Black Jack Davey," "Arthur McBride," "Diamond Joe." The guitar playing was just as fiery, not simple chording but the rushing single-note lines of the flat-picked variety. You couldn’t play like this — solo, on the notoriously resistant acoustic guitar, so much more difficult to manipulate than the electric — without focus and dedication.

It wasn’t until later, after cycling through some other music on my desk, including the latest Loudon Wainwright III CD, that I realized, hmmm, this guitar playing is a bit rough. He’s missing chords all over the place — but he obviously doesn’t give a damn. He’s plowing ahead, hell-for-leather, trying to catch that song under his fingers while it’s still there. A jazz-guitarist friend of mine, one who would know chords, later reassured me: "It doesn’t matter — the groove is incredible."

Later, of course, would come the real Grammy wins, the cluster of awards for 1997’s Time Out of Mind (and a more conventional acceptance speech). The concerts, too, began to hit a groove. There was no telling what songs Dylan would pull out of his vast repertoire, old or new, and most of the time, though his voice had been reduced to a nicotine-tar-encrusted reed, the words were intelligible, delivered with conviction.

Dylan’s new memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, is like Good As I Been to You: there are dropped notes and blown chord changes, but it carries one along on a tidal surge of storytelling, of memory and scenic detail. Dylan has never been a purist in any sense (not even when he identified himself explicitly and unambiguously as a "folk singer"). And this book will confound purists of all stripes. Although it begins and ends not long after Dylan’s arrival in New York City from Minnesota, the narrative weaves back and forth in time, mostly disembodied from specific dates. In various anecdotes, "my wife" is a recurring character, but it’s only late in the game that you might realize that Dylan is now talking about a different wife, and you might recall that, oh, yeah, years after Woodstock and Sara and the kids, wasn’t there some other, "secret" wife that no one — or at least not the general public — even knew about?

As my guitarist friend said, it doesn’t matter. Chronicles plunges us, in medias res, into the world of early-’60s Greenwich Village and never lets up. Dylan recovers his memories as in a dream and renders them with novelistic detail. "Lou Levy, top man of Leeds Music Publishing company, took me up in a taxi to the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street to show me the pocket sized recording studio where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’ — then down to Jack Dempsey’s restaurant on 58th and Broadway, where we sat down in a red leather upholstered booth facing the front window." At first, it seems Chronicles could be some bizarre hybrid of the Bob Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture and Bob Hope’s autobiography — all celebrity golf tournaments and playing hooky by the Beverly Hills Hotel pool.

But Dylan slips into that all-compassing groove fast. He recalls every detail of the junk-strewn apartments of friends where he crashed, famous folk singers (Dave Van Ronk) and people you never heard of (Greenwich Village bohemians Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel). His range of reference extends from Gorgeous George to Robert Graves. Dylan’s five senses are continuously firing on all cylinders, and he appears to know something about furniture as well as prose writing. "Above the fireplace, a framed portrait of a wigged colonial was staring back at me — near the sofa, a wooden cabinet supported by fluted columns, near that, an oval table with rounded drawers, a chair like a wheelbarrow, small desk of violet wood veneer with flip-down drawers — a couch that was a padded back car seat with spring upholstery, a low chair with rounded back and scroll armrests — a thick French rug on the floor, silver light gleaming through the blinds, painted planks accenting the rooflines."

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Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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