Bob Dylan, “Chronicles”

“When (Robert) Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.”

“(Dave) Van Ronk’s voice was like rusted shrapnel and he could get a lot of subtle ramifications out of it—delicate, gentle, rough, explosive, sometimes all within the same song.”

When Joan Baez sang, “she made your teeth drop … She might bury her fangs in the back of my neck.”

More on Joan: “The singer has to make you believe what you are hearing and Joan did that … You have to believe. Folk music, if nothing else, makes a believer out of you.”

Chronicles is packed with blunt takes. An artist in search. A man on a mission. A man processing the world. A man paying attention to other forms of art. A man listening to other musicians, taking it all in. He thinks about history. He ponders the mathematics behind song structure. He observes the hell out of everything around him. But it all comes down to music. Songs.

“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries you have to enter. You can write a song anywhere, in a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback—it helps to be moving. Sometimes people who have the greatest talent for writing songs never write any because they are not moving. I wasn’t moving in any of these songs, not externally anyway. Still, I got them all down as if I was. Sometimes things you see and hear outside of yourself can influence a song. The song ‘Political World’ could have been triggered by current events. There was a heated presidential race underway, you couldn’t avoid hearing about it. But I had no interest in politics as an art form, so I don’t think that was all there was to it. This song is too broad. The political world in the song is more of an underworld, not the world where men live, toil and die like men. With the song, I thought I might have broken through to something. It was like you wake up from a deep and drugged slumber and somebody strikes a little silver gang and you come to your senses.”

Here are a few of Dylan’s references: Eugene O’Neill. Jimmy Swaggart. U2’s Bono. Jack Kerouac. Andy Warhol. Mose Allison. Ice-T. Kurtis Blow. Public Enemy. Frank Sinatra Jr. Archibald MacLeish. William Faulkner. Byron. Woody Guthrie, of course. On and on. Painters, poets. Ginsberg. Ferlinghetti. And not all well-known names. Little moments here, scraps of time there. Chronicles leaps around; it’s non-linear and choppy yet flows well with Dylan’s constant processing.

A big chunk of Chronicles involves recording the album that would become “Oh Mercy.” Much of that recording process had to do with Dylan’s tangles with producer Daniel Lanois. Tension and release. “Lanois was a walking concept. He slept music. He ate it. He lived it. A lot of what he did was pure genius. He steered the record with deft turns and jerks, but he did it. He stood in the bell tower, scanning the alleys and rooftops. My limited vision didn’t permit me to see all around the thing … The songs were written in the glory of man and not in his defeat, but all of these songs added together doesn’t even come close to my whole vision of life. Sometimes the things that you liked the best and that have meant the most to you are the things that meant nothing at all to you when you first heard or saw them. Some of these songs fit into that category. I suppose all these things are simple, matter of fact enough.”

Dylan is restless. A searcher. Never satisfied. There’s precious little about how he’s viewed or whether he cares. We go from New York to New Orleans to Duluth to Dinkytown. Dylan paints the scene wherever he goes. But it all comes back to the music. And the headwaters. Dylan ends Chronicles as a youth, absorbing Baez and Robert Johnson and Guthrie.

“Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto.” Guthrie’s songs, said Dylan, “had the infinite sweep of humanity.”

Chronicles is a self-portrait of an artist in training. A man watching, taking in life, and turning it into art. When Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song comes out in November, I’ll be right there. Same thing for Chronicles II, or whatever he decides to call it.

One response to “Bob Dylan, “Chronicles”

  1. Pingback: 2022: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

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