On the Tracks: Reflections on Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles Volume 1”
By Stephen K. Peeples,
Signal Staff Writer
Published Jan. 21, 2005
A recent Signal “Escape” assignment and reunion with longtime friends put me on the road to Las Vegas in November. Flying to Vegas being more hassle than it’s worth, I rented a new car. And to make the roadtrip more of an adventure with the thrill of discovery, I picked up a copy of Bob Dylan’s six-CD audiobiography, “Chronicles Volume 1,” read by Sean Penn, to wrap my ears around during the drive — three CDs up and three back.
In the days before leaving, my anticipation grew. The book’s main attraction for me was hearing Bob personally debunk large chunks of the mythology that’s grown around him. Dylan was actually doing interviews with major press. In his NPR interview, he sounded relaxed, candid, at times eloquently poetic, always incisive. Few, including this observer, had ever heard him like that in an interview. The excerpts of Penn’s read posted on the NPR website sounded remarkably similar in cadence and intonation. I hoped the entire book-on-CD would flow the same.
After listening to all six CDs, I thought Penn was a little stiff at the outset, but by about the middle of the second disc, he’d found the tone, the pace, the vibe. He was really on by discs 5 and 6, which I thought content-wise were also Dylan’s best and most revealing.
That Dylan is as forthright as he is in “Chronicles” is significant, because for years, Dylan fans have had a tough time deciphering what was truth and what was fiction. His constant shape-shifting and reclusive behavior drove the dumpster-diving Dylan obsessives crazy. The rest of us just threw up our hands and tried to appreciate the music and wordplay on their own merit.
And that’s all been fine with Dylan. In fact, among other things, “Chronicles” reveals the lengths to which he encouraged obfuscation of his private life, starting with the name change from Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan and sponging up rock, blues, country and folk influences at every turn, way before he left his native Minnesota in search of an ailing Woody Guthrie on the East Coast.
With vivid imagery and remarkable detail, Dylan describes his early years, from childhood and family in Hibbing, Minnesota through the months of scuffling in Greenwich Village dives like Café Wha? and The Gaslight. He leads up to his signing a 10-year deal with visionary Columbia Records A&R/producer John Hammond, who had earlier inked Billie Holliday and would later sign Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
From the dead-of-winter moment in January 1961 when Dylan the aspiring folk singer got dropped off in Manhattan, arriving via Chicago in the backseat of someone else’s ’57 Chevy, he knew something was happening here, and he knew just what it was.
“I’d come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down,” he writes. “But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt it was looking right at me and nobody else…It wasn’t money or love that I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and visionary to boot.”
Dylan goes on to describe how he continued to reinvent his background as he scuffled during those several months in Greenwich Village. Especially revealing and hilarious is Dylan’s recollection of his first meeting with Columbia Records public relations writer Billy James in fall 1961, just after Bob had been signed to the label by A&R/producer legend John Hammond. It was James’ job to get some factoids from the label’s newest artist and whip up some biographical press material for public consumption.
“He looked like he’d never been stoned a day in his life,” Dylan writes, describing James’ Ivy League look. He told James he was from Illinois, had arrived riding a freight train, driven a bakery truck, worked construction in Detroit; that his dad was an electrician and his mom a housewife who’d kicked him out of their home. Otherwise, Daylan told James, had no family. “I hated these kinds of questions, felt I could ignore them…Billy asked me who I saw myself like in today’s music scene. I told him, nobody. That part of things was true, I really didn’t see myself like anybody. The rest of it, though, was pure hokum – hophead talk.”
Dylan mentions numerous early heroes and mentors, and what he learned from each: Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Hammond, Lou Levy, Fred Neil, Dave van Ronk, Roy Orbison, Robert Johnson, Edgar Allen Poe, Red Grooms. They all had enormous impact on young Bob. But the biggest heroes in spring, summer and fall ’61 were the New York Public Library, where Dylan holed up for hours and days researching literature, poetry and American folklore; and 17-year old-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, pictured with him on the cover of 1962’s “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” his second album and the first to include all original songs. Rotolo exposed him to highbrow culture — museums, art and literature — which he soaked up with a thirst even he never knew he had before she came along.
But “Chronicles Volume 1” isn’t always linear; it begins and ends in early ’60s New York. In between, Dylan also describes other key periods later in his life, because they relate in some way to finding himself again after losing his vision. There’s attempted seclusion in Woodstock, post-1966 motorcycle accident; his late ’80s malaise; the challenging but regenerative “Oh Mercy” sessions in 1989.
Cover to cover, Dylan’s recurring themes were his horror at being called “the voice and conscience of a generation,” (aka the “Big Bubba of Revolution”) while he saw himself more an entertainer than a savior; his fierce battle to protect his family from the fallout of Dad’s celebrity; and the numerous cycles of personal and creative disillusionment, inspiration and renewal he’s experienced at various times in his 45-year career.
Especially revelatory were the admissions that he made certain albums (like “Nashville Skyline,” “New Morning” and “Self Portrait,” from 1969-1971) lightweight on purpose, throwing out red herrings just to fake out the self-appointed pundits and acolytes who worshiped him like the god he wasn’t. Dylan recounts his trip to Israel in the late ’70s, and having his photo taken at the Wailing Wall wearing a yarmulke, was another attempt to fly against public perception of who he was or was not, and was or was not becoming.
Dylan’s descriptions of his periodic burnouts, and the sparks that helped him get the fire stoked and raging again, are equally fascinating. He tells of splitting tour rehearsals in San Rafael with The Grateful Dead, saying he’d be back in a few minutes but intending never to return. He ducks into a nearby club, where he witnesses a soulful performance by an aging blues artist which inspired Bob to approach his entire act differently. Dylan walked back into the Dead rehearsals as if nothing had happened and got right into playin’ in the band.
I was struck by the irony that 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks” was called Dylan’s big comeback album, though it had been borne of pain from the meltdown of his first marriage, to Sara Lowndes, whom he never mentions neither by name in “Chronicles Volume 1.” Nor does he mention the album.
Also intriguing was the advice Dylan writes that his grandmother imparted him back in Hibbing — to be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone’s carrying some kind of heavy load — and how during the 1965 “Don’t Look Back” period, at least publicly, or at least when documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker’s cameras were rolling, Dylan wasn’t keeping Grandma’s advice in mind. He was obnoxious to everyone. We still don’t know exactly why.
On the bootheels of that, in summer ’65, came Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” With this, my universe shifted. Freshly wounded by a romantic relationship gone wrong, I thought this was the angriest put-down song I’d ever heard. I played my 45 rpm copy 43 times in a row, holding my finger on the disc to stop it on the turntable as I scribbled down all the lyrics. Every time the song came on the radio, I sang it to that girl. Damn, it felt good.
In later years, I grew up, thank God, and to appreciate most of Dylan’s catalog on much more creative terms. But like almost everyone else outside of his immediate family and close-knit crew of collaborators, my perception of Dylan was sketchy at best.
The good news is that many secrets are revealed in “Volume 1”; the even better news is that we’ll just have to wait for subsequent volumes for Dylan to fill in the gaps.
Relative to the NPR interview, the book, and even the “Dylan on Dylan” interview, Dylan’s demeanor with Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes” was cold, and Bob seemed very uncomfortable during the interview.
For example, in his book, Dylan explains just how he got to Bob Dylan from Robert Zimmerman. But when Bradley asks him about it, Dylan remarks that sometimes people are born with the wrong names to the wrong parents.
At the same time, with Bradley, he talked about not taking what he has become for granted, understanding how fleeting fame and fortune can be. He seemed insecure, almost, and Bradley had a hard time getting a handle on Bob’s self-deprecating comments about “Like a Rolling Stone,” that it’ll be something different on the next list next year, or something like that. It’s a pat on the back, Bob. “This week, yeah.”
Jeez, Bob, look at the people who contributed to the list. It’s not a sales chart. There have to be a few people he respects among them
A mystery wrapped in an enigma. A chameleon. Shapeshifter. But that’s just our (mis)perception. It’s part of his defense mechanism, to keep us guessing. He’s probably really relaxed when he’s not in the public eye and doesn’t have to keep his guard up to protect his privacy and that of his family.
The times are still a-changin.’ Where they will lead is anyone’s guess.