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Bob Dylan’s Chronicles

Bob Dylan’s ChroniclesVolume One

a review by Jim Kunstler


     I had a dream about meeting Bob Dylan about six months before the only time I actually met him. It was toward the end of my stint working for a daily newspaper in Albany, New York, in 1974. In the dream, I met Bob on the Central Park side of Fifth Avenue. I remembered the setting vividly: the low masonry wall with trees and shrubs behind it, the octogonal paving stones of the sidewalk, the benches, the sycamore trees, and the yellow cabs gliding down the avenue in the background. I’d spent half my childhood in and around Central Park and knew its details well. Bob was friendly in the dream, like an old school chum or an older brother. He was guiding me somewhere.
     A few months after that dream, I got a job working for Rolling Stone Magazine in San Francisco, which was then its headquarters. I was one of three guys who put together the “front-of-the-book,” the music section of the twice-monthly magazine. One Saturday in March, Jann Wenner, the Editor, asked me to cover a big benefit concert at Kezar Stadium. I had a backstage pass. Before the show, I hung around interviewing Jerry Garcia and some other members of the Grateful Dead. My main duty at the magazine was to write the gossip column, Random Notes. I wasn’t very good at it because I didn’t like sucking up to celebrities, and Wenner was always having to prod me to get out and shmooze up the news.
      There was a rumor that Dylan would appear. He had only recently broken a long spell of seclusion with a big tour, along with his old cohorts, the Band, to support his forgettablePlanet Waves album of 1974. There was no sign of him as the concert got underway. As it did, I watched from the wings of the huge temporary stage down on in the end zone of the ballfield. After a while, and rather to my amazement, Dylan materialized and passed within a few inches of me on his way onstage, along with Band members Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. (Neither Richard Manuel or Robbie Robertson where there). Dylan seemed physically rather stiff, uncomfortable, as if the vertebrae in his neck were stuck and, of course, I’d heard about his motorcycle accident in Woodstock back in 1966, about which little more was publically known. His wife, Sara, stood next to me offstage through the set, dark-haired and self-possessed, dressed conspicuously in suburban casuals rather than the hippie garb that was the uniform of all the other musicians’ wives and girlfriends. She was already the mother of several children.
     After the concert, I was hanging out in the green room (actually the Forty-Niners’ locker room) with Levon Helm and Rick Danko. Dylan was not there and nobody discussed him or his whereabouts. Levon, a gregarious fellow, invited me back to the Fairmont hotel for drinks and offered a ride over in the Band’s limo, which turned out to be a plain old hired station wagon, the old kind with fake wooden door panels. Once over to the Fairmont, a group from the concert reconvened in the bar. This included the Band members, Neil Young and his manager Elliot Roberts, and Joan Baez, who lived within driving distance south of San Francisco somewhere. I was yakking with Danko, another voluble fellow, when Dylan slipped into the bar sat down across from me. It was eerie, like confronting a record album cover photograph. His hair was both matted and sticking out in a few places, as if he had rolled out of bed, and he was going through a bearded phase, which gave him the look of a young talmudic scholar. I think he had a tan denim jacket on. There was nothing physically prepossessing about him in the ordinary sense. 
     I am not without social skills, but it was hard to carry on a normal conversation with him. I had met a lot of rock stars on my job, but Dylan’s iconic aura was especially forbidding. What really froze me, though, was the 
sickening realization that although I had been listening intensely to Bob’s records for more than a decade, and had been profoundly, intimately affected by them, and assumed that I had a relationship with his persona, if not his person — I didn’t actually know him, nor did we know each other. We were unacquainted! It came as a peculiar shock to me. All of this ought to have been self-evident, but the rush of emotion confused things.
Sara, was not with him. He didn’t say much more to anybody else at the table than he did to me. He was attempting, apparently, to do little more than hang out quietly with some old friends in a relatively secure, tranquil public setting where he wouldn’t be bothered by strangers. You couldn’t help feeling sorry for the difficulty he must have encountered with the normal routines of living. You couldn’t blame him for constructing a protective shell of personality around himself. I made it a point not to pester him or interrogate him for myRandom Notes column — something that Wenner would later chew me out for. His new record, Blood on the Tracks, had a song on it, “Idiot Wind,” that expressed (among other things) disgust for the press and their intrusions into one’s life. One refrain goes:

People see me all the time
They just can’t remember how to act

     And here I was now, just another idiot who didn’t know how to act around Bob. Anyway, Bob seemed very distracted, his eyes darting this way and that way as if scanning the room for somebody else. Danko was still blabbing away. Bob didn’t stay long, either. Someone later said that he was supposed to be meeting a girl there, presumably not his wife. I never saw him again. He was divorced two years later. Now he is a grandfather several times over and has come out with a surprising book of memoirs.


      I caught an excerpt from the book in Newsweek while traveling between airports last fall and was disappointed by it. The excerpt concerned his years at the pinnacle of the rock music world around 1969-70, after his motorcycle accident (to which one sentence is devoted in Chronicles). At the time,
 Dylan was extremely demoralized about being a celebrity and tried unsuccessfully to hide out from the world in Woodstock, New York. The excerpt came off oddly inarticulate, lacking in detail, out-of-focus, and portrayed someone strikingly peevish, given the fantastic advantages and emoluments of his position in life.
     But the book as a whole is a different matter. Though Chronicles is very uneven, it has many passages that are revealing, poignant, and winning. Dylan is at his best when describing aspects of his childhood in the “North Country,” the Iron Range of upper Minnesota, a settting now as culturally remote as the ante-bellum Missouri of Mark Twain. Dylan was born, after all, in 1941, and his childhood memories go back as far as attending a political rally for Harry Truman in Duluth during the 1948 election. 
      The book is organized strangely. One can detect the hands of an editor cutting and pasting the episodes in an attempt to give Dylan’s memories a dramatic structure that the author himself did not supply. We know from the old road tour movie, Don’t Look Back (1966) that Dylan was comfortable banging out songs on a typewriter. I believe I read somewhere that he doesn’t use a computer, so presumably Chronicles was also banged out on an old typewriter, or perhaps hand-written. In any case, I don’t think organizing his memories was foremost in Dylan’s mind, so much as just rushing to get things down on paper.
     The book
 starts with his career just underway, perhaps early 1962 — It’s not clear. An old music business character named Lou Levy, a relic of Tin Pan Alley, had just signed Dylan to a song publishing contract and taken him to Jack Dempsey’s restaurant on Times Square for dinner to celebrate. There, the young Bob meets the old boxing champeen of the 1920s, instantly placing Dylan’s life in a context that extends surprisingly deep into America’s past. (Dempsey lived a long life, 1895 – 1983 and still had a ways to go when he met the kid folk singer.) Not surprisingly, Bob and Jack did little more than exchange pleasantries.
      Dylan then scrolls back a bit to the months just after he first arrived in New York City. Again it’s not spelled out, but I believe it was the winter of 1959 – 60. Eisenhower was still president. The larval Dylan grubbed around the Greenwich Village “basket houses” (cafes where the entertainer’s passed around a basket for money) and joined the day shift at Cafe Wha?, where an odd assortment of freaks and misfits (including Tiny Tim) performed for gawking tourists. He crashed in the apartments of new acquaintences, rotating among them so as not to wear out his welcome. Actually, Bob Dylan as a professional persona was rather substantially formed when he’d just got to New York, and it isn’t until the final portion of the book that he actually goes even further back in surprising detail to its formation in Minneapolis, of which, more below.
      In Chronicles, the now 63-year-old Dylan 
displays an impressive memory for the textures and details of his life during those early years in New York City. For instance, an apartment belonging to a bohemian couple named Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel where Dylan flopped on the sofa many a night.

     “Above the fireplace, a framed portrait of a wigged colonial. . . 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. . . . The place was a top floor walk-up in a Federal style building near Vestry Street below Canal and near the Hudson River. On the same block was the Bull’s Head, a cellar tavern where John Wilkes Booth used to drink. . . . I liked it at Ray and Chloe’s. I felt comfortable there.”

      The note about Booth is indicative of a keen interest in history that recurs throughout Chronicles.
      At this time, Dylan consciously went about laying the groundwork for a kind of career that had barely been invented yet: professional folksinger. The Kingston Trio, whom he admired, were getting air play on the radio. They were, in fact, staking the first claims in a territory in that would become commercial folk-pop. Off i
n a realm apart were the cafe folksingers like Dave Van Ronk and Fred Neill who were beginning to record long-playing records on small labels, but did not get radio air play and had a much smaller audience. They were commercial, of course, insofar as they hoped to sell their recordings and get paid for their gigs, but the scale was different. It’s important to remember that the long playing record itself was a fairly new thing then, and that Dylan would be among those who developed it into an new art form that had to be taken seriously — but this hadn’t quite happened yet. 
      In those early days, Dylan was an assiduous musicologist. He beetled away for days in libraries and second-hand record stores rooting out obscure and forgotten ballads, and he developed a great instinct for interesting, high quality material, as other people develop an instinct for finding valuable antiques in the attics of widows. “The chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing,” he observes. The result paid off in a deep repertoire that set him apart from the other young basket house guitar pluckers. He says in Chronicles, without bragging really, “There were a lot of better singers and better musicians around these places, but there wasn’t anybody close in nature to what I was doing. . . .I knew the inner substance of the thing. . . . It meant nothing to me to rattle off things like ‘Columbus Stockade,’ ‘Pastures of Plenty,’ ‘Brother in Korea.’ and ‘If I Lose, Let Me Lose.'”
       He did know that he wouldn’t be cutting 45’s for the Dick Clark Show. “I had no songs in my repertoire for commercial radio anyway. Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers who drowned their children. Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon. . . .”
       The apartments he crashed in happened to be full of books, and Dylan rattles off titles — and summaries of their content — as though he had read them, and for all we know he did: The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus’ Lectures and Letters to Brutus; Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General (“. . . a narrative that would give you chills,” Dylan says), Machiavelli’s The Prince, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, William Faulkner, Albertus Magnus, Byron, Shelley, Longfellow, and Poe, Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Robert E. Lee’s biography, Milton, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Jules Verne and HG Wells.  It sounds like a heavy course load for a graduate student let alone a twenty-year-old college drop-out. But Dylan rattles through these things without pretension, and like his folksong scholarship, which prepared him to understand the array of song forms at his disposal, 
this broad reading would soon pay off in a breathtaking ability to compose arrestingly complex lyrics.
Indeed what Dylan was putting together was a comprehensive knowledge of folk song structures, idioms, and melodic schemes with a precociously powerful ability to generate language that seemed to be poetry and sometimes was. British rock music writer Clive James argues that Dylan’s lyrics, especially in his best period, 1963 – 68, were often half-fraudulant, overcooked flights of semi-digested imagery, but they were mixed in with so much good material that that the total impression — say, in an epic like “Visions of Johanna” — was just overwhelmingly resonant. It was especially resonant to the adolescent sensibilities who would compose Dylan’s audience in his best period of the mid to late sixties (including the reviewer). So many of the songs just killed. And there were so many great ones.
     As his development occurred during these years, he cultivated a broad range of expression, from the deeply tender songs like “One Too Many Mornings” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” to his songs of social commentary, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” songs of political prophecy, “When the Ship Comes In,” songs of personal reflection, “My Back Pages,” “I Don’t Believe You.” Within a remarkably short time, a few years, he was recording panoramic masterpieces such as “Desolation Row,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, and others. Even the lines that only marginally made sense were memorable, and quotable forty years later.

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial 
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while 
But Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues 
You can tell by the way she smiles 
See the primitive wallflower freeze 
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze 
Hear the one with the mustache say, 
“Jeeze I can’t find my knees” 
Oh, jewels and binoculars 
hang from the head of the mule 
But these visions of Johanna, 
they make it all seem so cruel

      Also pretty obviously, Dylan’s high tide of expressive command occurred when his developing skills with language and musical schema ran into the drug fiesta of the mid-sixties. I mean, who wasn’t stoned? And from the sounds of his voice, especially on the Blonde on Blonde extravaganza, he must have been very stoned. Who knows on what. Pot would have been enough to push his lyrics into the fantastically rich surrealistic terrain they entered. But he could as easily have been tripping or dabbling with with heroin. He doesn’t say.
     More to the point where Chronicles is concerned, Dylan mysteriously (and disappointingly) leaves this crucial period of the mid-sixties entirely out of the book. Maybe he is saving it for Volume II. Maybe it was so frantic and fraught with distressing emotion that he backed off from trying to recount it. Maybe he was so stoned he couldn’t remember any of it. (Unlikely, since he was using drugs and drinking to some extent both before and after, and he remembered plenty from those other periods.) 
       Dylan does recount in some detail, a set of meetings he had in the late sixities with the then-venerable poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish recently had had a solid success on Broadway with his drama JB and was looking now for someone to contribute songs for a new play about the Devil, Scratch. Odd perhaps that he should solicit Dylan, who was as alien to the world of Broadway as from the world of Dick Clark’s TV Houseparty, but MacLeish was apparently among those in the older literary generation who could not fail to notice Dylan’s sheer compositional, thematic, and emotional scope. So, Dylan tells us, he drove from Woodstock to MacLeish’s house in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to hear the old fellow out. “It seemed like a civilized thing to do,” he says. “Archie” was very flattering to young Bob. He discussed lines from Dylan’s songs that impressed him (“goodness hides behind its gates”), even told him that Dylan’s work would be “a touchstone for generations after me.” Dylan’s response was solemn and respectful. MacLeish talked to Dylan about his classmate at West Point, Douglas MacArthur, and about J.P. Morgan, and other figures from a world that even then was long bygone. In the end, Dylan “intuitively realized” that a collaboration was just not for him.
      The other things Dylan left out from his account of those years, though, represents the story that many of us most wanted to hear about: how he viewed his own rather astonishing rise from a kid folksinger to a dazzling virtuoso, and how he took the popular song from simple teenage tripe to a kind of genuine art. You would like to hear about the contemporaries he met, including the Beatles and other young rising celebrity musicians of the day, how they got along, and what he thought of them. You would like to know, for instance, what it was like living in the Chelsea Hotel in 1965, how it felt to get booed at the Newport Folk Festival when he came onstange with an electric band, exactly how he met Sara Lownds and what their courtship was like under the rather strange circumstances of his gathering fame, what it was like making the scene around characters like Alan Ginsburg and Andy Warhol who are now part of a fading 20th century cultural history of America. I don’t think all this is the prurient interest of sordid fandom; it’s just the meat of autobiography, and it’s missing.     
      Part of the answer, I suppose, is that Dylan always seemed uncomfortable with superlative labels being hung around his neck. The more striking his song-writing abilities became, the more people noticed his talent, and the remarkable conviction he evinced in his own evolving performance manner, the more Dylan denied that it made him special or important, and he particularly bridled at being called a leader in anything: the “counter-culture,” the social justice movement, anti-war politics, art-rock. (“The big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, even conscience of a generation. . . . I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation I was supposed to be the voice of.”) He insisted on retaining his individuality, even his normality, and the more he backed off from his own hype, and the media machine that magnified and distorted it, the more potent his totemic persona became in the eyes of the public who consumed it. 
      It must have been torture. I imagine that he was even frightened by the products of his own imagination, that the songs were so astonishing even to him that they blew his own mind, and not in a pleasant way. Like, where the fuck did that come from? I suspect that he reached a point where it scared him to death — perhaps along with the drugs — and that he dared go no further with it. And by that, I include the possibility that he saw the danger of becoming a fraud, of slipping across a frontier into self-parody and baroque pretentiousness, which was almost the case with his 1966 magnum opus Blonde on Blonde. And after that Bob Dylan kind of flamed out.


     It was one of the longest swan songs in the history of any art. He continued to produce an impressive stream of recordings for nearly forty years after that. The first of these, John Wesley Harding, was in its own right a perfect statement of Dylan’s predicament and an appropriate announcement of his resignation from the post of generational bard. “Dear Landlord, please don’t put a price on my soul. . . .” It contained one great song (“All Along theWatchtower”), and some pretty good songs (“I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine”), but the mystical language now seemed forced (e.g. “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”). The kernal of Dylan’s genius, his supernatural conviction in his own doings, had cracked for good. Perhaps that conviction had been part of the act, too, but if it was, he had pulled it off masterfully for a decade. 
The many albums that followed were not devoid of interesting and sometimes even moving songs. Here and there the ghost of the old spark flashed. But after 1970, something essential was missing.
      None of this is reported, discussed, or even hinted at in Chronicles. It is certainly understandable that any autobiographer would avoid such a harrowing self-analysis, that anyone who experienced a trip like Dylan’s into the surrealism of 20th century hyper-fame, propelled by such a frightening, genuine talent, would refuse to view his own destiny as any kind of failure or tragedy. Later on in life, after the end of his marriage to Sara (which involved, by then, four children and a step-child), and a weird side-trip into evangelical Christianity (Slow Train), and the sheer putting out of “product” like so much musical bratwurst to pay creditors, Dylan did self-consciously find himself in a slough of artistic despond around the mid 1980s. He tells us very plainly that he had lost confidence in what he was doing and was no longer even able to recognize the value of his old classic songs, which audiences cried out for, and which he painfully resisted performing. Whenever he did submit to play one, it came out almost unrecognizably. In performance, nobody could fuck up a Bob Dylan song like Bob Dylan. I saw him onstage in Albany in the early 1990s and singing Like a Rolling Stone he sounded like Donald Duck reciting a nursery rhyme. It was painful to behold.
     Dylan has been in motion compulsively much of the past decade and a half. His “Neverending Tour” of this late period has been the antithesis of his hermetic seclusion of the late sixties and early seventies. These days, he’s everywhere, playing every venue from modest clubs to war memorial auditoriums. He tells us in Chronicles that he has overcome the despondency and self-doubt of that middle period in his life. That may be so, but he never returned to the full stride of his writing abilities pre-1970, or even came close, despite what the critics have said (I think they just want to buck up the old bard). He has remained admirably active. In the 90s, he put out two consistently excellent CDs of traditional folk and blues songs (Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong) that showcased his high-order skill as a musicologist. But good as they were to his fans, the material was not of his own creation. He even got a “Best Song” Oscar for, what seemed to me, a pretty tedious and lugubrious piece of work (Things Have Changed) — but it was more like a sentimental lifetime achievement award from the Motion Picture Academy voters who had grown up with Dylan in the background of their lives. He’s made a few movies, all of them box office bombs and critical duds. He has remained detatched from the activities of his rock-and-roller son, Jakob, frontman of the band The Wallflowers, perhaps knowing wisely that any way he intruded would be misconstrued or would divert attention onto him. He says next to nothing about his children throughout Chronicles except to say that he loved them dearly and liked to take them camping and fishing years ago when they were young.
       For all this, the book is full of interesting revelations about Dylan’s inner life. For instance, way back in the mid-sixties when the civil rights movement was morphing into the anti-war and hippie movements, Dylan reveals that his favorite politician was Barry Goldwater. (Say what!) He tells us when the time finally came around 1962 that he could afford to rent an apartment for himself, he liked to build his own furniture (one thinks of Bobby Z. in the high school woodshop). He says Ebb Tide sung by Frank Sinatra “never failed to fill me with awe.” He tells us that his grandparents on both sides came from Turkey by way of Armenia, and that they worked in the leathercrafts. He knows about handguns. He was once taken to meet John Wayne on the set of a World War Two movie in Hawaii (In Harm’s Way) and played “The Buffalo Skinners” for him, which “the Duke” apparently enjoyed quite a bit. His celebrated visits to Woody Guthrie in Greystone Hospital in New Jersey were “frightful” and “psychologically draining” because the other patients there were fullblown hopeless psychotics. He identified with and befriended the pop singer Bobby Vee, because Vee was raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and had gotten out of the desolate place, just as Dylan had escaped from Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan was at first going to use the stage name Robert Allen or Allyn. People back home had always called him either Bobby or (his father) Robert. It took him a long time, he says, to recognize himself as “Bob.” “Dylan” was a somewhat flukey inspiration. He had been reading Dylan Thomas on his way to the University of Minnesota, and the first time someone asked him his name in Minneapolis, he said “Bob Dylan.” That was that.
      Mostly, Chronicles is about the voice Dylan employs in the telling. It’s idiosyncratic rather than strictly original. It reveals a highly observant and yet oddly unreflective mind. His recollection of names and personae is consistently impressive, and his ability to describe the details of places he was in nearly half a century ago is rather amazing. One of the best long passages in Chronicles describes a big Greenwich Village party among the “folk community hierarchy” around 1961, when Dylan was still anonymous. He captures the flavor and tone of the period nicely:

“As we came in the door, I could see the rooms were already swarming with people, the bohemian crowd — a lot of old-timers. The air was thick with perfume and cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey, and a lot of people. The apartment was very Victorian, decorated with a lot of lovely things. Beaux Arts lamps, carved boudoir chairs, couches in plush velvet — heavy andirons connected with chains by the fireplace and the fireplace was flaming. . . . I was wearing a thick flannel shirt under a sheepskin jacket, peaked cap, khaki pants and motorcycle boots. Delores [Dylan’s date] was wearing a long beaver coat over a nightgown that looked like a dress.

     For someone with such demonstrated observational gifts, though, Dylan the chronicler often falls back lazily on a stock of cliches: “. . . don’t give me any of that jazz. . . let’s get down to brass tacks. . . she always hit the nail on the head. . . I wasn’t going to pin my hopes on that . . . authentic folk records were as scarce as hens’ teeth.” In lazy mode, his prose style is telegraphic, coming out in bursts, more like casual speech than writing. In the more disciplined passages when Dylan makes himself dwell on details of a scene rather than shooting out epigrams, he succeeds in the difficult project of illuminating his own elusive persona. The most sustained of these comes near the end of Chronicles when Dylan returns in memory to the days just after he left home for good and landed in Minneapolis, supposedly to begin college. A relative arranged for him to lodge in a Jewish fraternity house, but Dylan was asked to leave when it was discovered that he wasn’t a matriculated student at the U.

“I played morning, noon and night. That’s all I did, usually fell asleep with the guitar in my hands. I went through the entire summer that way. In the fall, I was sitting at the lunch counter at Gray’s drugstore. Gray’s drugstore was in the heart of Dinkytown [Minneapolis’s bohemian district]. . . . Above Gray’s, the crash pad was no more than an empty storage room with a sink and a window looking into the alley. No closet or anything. Toilet down the hall. I put a mattress on the floor, bought a used dresser, plugged in a hot plate on top of that — used the outside window ledge as a refrigerator when it got cold.”

    Dylan had discovered Woody Guthrie, was singing Guthrie Songs at all his five dollar gigs in the local folk cafes, and encountered a kind of nemesis in the person of one Jon Pankake, “a folk music purist and sometime literary teacher.”

“‘You’re trying hard, but you’ll never turn into Woody Guthrie,’ Pankake says to me as if he’s looking down from some high hill, like something has violated his instincts. It was no fun being around Pankake. He made me nervous. He breathed fire through his nose. ‘You’d better think of something else. You’re doing it for nothing. Jack Elliot’s already been where you are and gone. Ever heard of him?’ No, I’d never heard of Jack Elliot. When Pankake said his name, it was the first time I’d heard it. ‘Never heard of him, no. . . .’ Pankake lived in an apartment over McCosh’s bookstore, a place that specialized in eclectic old books, ancient texts, philosophical political pamphlets from the 1800s on up. It was a neighborhood hangout for intellectuals and Beat types, on the main floor of an old Victorian house only a few blocks away. I went there with Pankake and saw it was true, he had all the incredible records, ones you never saw and wouldn’t know where to get. For someone who didn’t sing and play, it was amazing that he had so many. . . .Pankake was right. Elliot was far beyond me . . . . I sheepishly left the apartment and went back out in the cold street, aimlessly walked around. I felt like I had nowhere to go, felt like one of the dead men walking through the catacombs. It would be hard not to be influenced by the guy. . . .He was overseas in Europe, anyway, in a self-imposed exile. The US hadn’t been ready for him. Good. I was hoping he’d stay gone, and I kept hunting for Guthrie songs.”

    In the final section, Dylan details the somewhat flukey chain of events that landed him a recording contract with Columbia records — the smaller folk labels had all turned him down. As a favor, Dylan had been backing up a beautiful young folksinger named Carolyn Hester, who was preparing to record her first album for Columbia producer John Hammond. The day of the Hester recording session, Dylan himself got a rave review in the New York Times as the warm-up act for the Greenbriar Boys at the Greenwich Village club, Gerde’s Folk City. The Greenbriar Boys were barely mentioned in the review. At the end of the Hester recording session that day, Hammond took Dylan aside in the control booth and said he wanted Dylan to record for Columbia, too. “Hammond, who was a true American aristocrat, didn’t give a damn about record trends or musical currents changing. He could do what he pleased with what he loved and had been doing it for a lifetime.” After that fateful day, Dylan pretty much could do as he pleased, too.
      The book ends at that point of take-off. Since the official title is Chronicles, Volume One I very much hope that a Volume Two eventually follows. Surely the events in Bob Dylan’s life from 1962 to 1970 are rich enough to merit a book on their own. The Bob Dylan of those years is the one that resonates in my life. I still listen to those old albums and play some of those Dylan songs myself, just as Dylan played Woody’s songs. Clive James made the astute observation that Dylan, as an artist, did an astounding job of developing his precocity and not such a good job developing his maturity. While Dylan’s Chronicles doesn’t say much about his personal life, it certainly gives an excellent account of how that encyclopedic precocity came to be developed. The great records of the great years endure. The body of Dylan’s songwriting work is every bit as formidable as the novels of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have no doubt that Dylan will go down as the most important artist of my generation.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

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