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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Chronicles: Volume One

Bob Dylan, New York: Simon and Shuster, 2004

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan 
Martin Scorsese, American Masters, 2005

Those of us who were mugged by the sixties now have a better chance to understand who the mugger was. The Baby Boomers haven’t worried about this very much; they just went with the flow from the beginning. But there was a generation that has never sought a name. It took on the burdens passed along by the Greatest Generation and rarely complained, although complaints became necessary once the spoiled kids born after 1945 started messing up the house.

Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, was one of the no-name generation. Among other things, this meant that he could read and write. He wasn’t shaped by the Depression (born 1941) or by World War II, and he was too young for Korea and, strangely enough, just a bit too old for Vietnam—unless he had wanted to volunteer, which no sane person did. He grew up in the Heartland, dropped out of college, and migrated to New York to meet Woody Guthrie. Hibbing, Minnesota to Greenwich Village. He made it Big, as we know. Now, in his sixties, he tells us more about the sixties than he probably means to reveal.

Chronicles is an astonishing book. It’s about a man of the people who wants nothing to do with the people; it’s about a search for art by a man who really doesn’t believe in art; it’s about the interior life of a man who doesn’t want you to think he has an interior life. One page will be ungrammatical, and the next will explode with images and tropes that none of our Baby Boomer novelists have in their arsenal. “Arsenal” is the right word: Dylan shoots the hell out of almost everyone who has tried to capture him.

His book also avoids the therapeutic temptation that the generation which made him famous embraced. There is no angst. There is no cry for understanding. There are no endless counseling sessions. “Wherever I am,” he says, “I’m a ‘60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows. I’m in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion. You name it. I can’t shake it. Stepping out of the woods, people see me coming. I knew what they were thinking. I have to take things for what they were worth.” In 293 pages he doesn’t apologize for one damn thing.

So what about the sixties? There are moves to make it cool. Others of us in the no name generation beg to disagree. The no-namers deserve some identification. A good friend of mine was born on June 29, 1933, the month and maybe the day that population regeneration in the United States bottomed out. From that day until March 19, 1944, when my next younger brother was born, Americans were not particularly optimistic. We kind of dug in and hunkered down and a lot of us were raised by our mothers because Dad either didn’t have work or was off to the war. We got to participate in the great prosperity after World War II but only after we had learned to do without. It’s a funny thing, getting to have a lot after expecting to have very little. We were also a part of the education explosion. Young enough to have had actually to learn stuff in school, we had endless possibilities for subsidized mis-education later on. None of us were allowed to make excuses.

These disconnections—a small generation that sired a big one, trained to expect little but given the opportunity to get a lot, given the old morality but fated to become adults in a culture that did not value it, trained to work in an age that would have increasing contempt for work, we weren’t ready for the sixties. Bob Dylan, God bless him, was.

Chronicles takes us from Lou Levy to John Hammond—that is, from Dylan’s arrival in New York in 1961 to his deal with Columbia records (also in 1961) that made him a star. In between we find him struggling to hear his voice—he really had no bearings other than something he identified as “folk” music, which was apparently (and I understand this) something other than rock ‘n roll—then having a bad time trying NOT to be Bob Dylan the cultural icon of revolution, then making a comeback record in New Orleans.

The astonishing thing is his determination to sing. The sad thing is that he never quite tells us what he wanted to sing. That part of him is missing. He gives us names of singers who knocked his socks off—Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Joan Baez (“A voice that drove out bad spirits.”), Robert Johnson, and a lot of others even more obscure—but there is no common ground, no content that tells us why they moved him to his own understanding of truth. This is as close as he gets: “That day I listened all afternoon to Guthrie as if in a trance and I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before.” Well, was he listening to “This Land Is My Land,” or Woody’s song about killing a million fascists?

The chapter that is left out, of course, is the one where he became the leader of the sixties, where he showed up at all the revolutionary showplaces, when he sang with and bedded down Joanie and posed on all the revolutionary bandstands, and did Newport when people cared about Newport. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” of course is not about anything serious, like the USA becoming an empire. The songs are all misinterpreted, given meanings that were not intended. “I’d left my hometown only ten years earlier, wasn’t vociferating the opinions of anybody. My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilization. Being true to your self, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.” Yeah, and I have bridges to sell you.

He found that he was an icon. But the cutflower generation was dying fast, and wherever he lived the “rogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest began to arrive—unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry.” Son of a gun, the singers of disintegration find that the disintegrators seek them out. He should have read Augustine. Woody Guthrie really did want to kill a million fascists. Bobby did not know that until they tried to gut his house and make his family life a living purgatory.

Bob wanted to be a ramblin’, gamblin’ man. Or so he said. The chapter on making a record reveals a hard working serious guy, a man who wanted to make something that might stand even though he understood that the best you can do at any given moment isn’t necessarily all that good. He says that his favorite politician is Barry Goldwater; he never acknowledges that most of the people he hung out with were commies. He knew that bomb shelters were as dumb as nuclear treaties. He shows all the political savvy of Barbie.

Bob Dylan’s book, however, is a serious book. He has gravitas. He created the sixties, probably without knowing that he did it. As Machiavelli created modernity, trying only to get a job in Florence, Bob Dylan named himself, and named a decade.

One of the remarkable qualities of his book and his life as he describes it is Dylan’s utter self-absorption. He talks a bit about his father and mother and his wife and his friends, but it is clear that they are peripheral. They really are on the sidelines. He seems to like them, and even to like his children, but they are not the story. Sun Pie, a cool guy from somewhere in Louisiana, jumps out on the pages, and a couple of his buddies like Dave Van Ronk have some personality, but the main thing is Bob.

This gets us back to the no-name generation. Bob Dylan was ready to invent the sixties because he was so ready to invent himself. Most of us no-namers were not willing to do that. I did not like his music; I did not like the music that he inspired, or the culture he seemed to endorse. I spent some of the sixties trying to figure out why I was so out of sync with rock ‘n roll and the Beatles and the history that was being written by contemporaries of mine who favored almost everything the commies did. Dylan, he now claims, was oblivious to most of the crap that troubled the rest of us. He accepted an honorary Ph.D. from Princeton and was happy to do it. He asked his friend David Crosby to go with him—Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—and found himself jacked up on the “authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America.” “Oh Sweet Jesus!” he writes. “It was like a jolt. I shuddered and trembled.” Well, whether he did or not tells us about that era because the (mostly young) people he spoke to were all so confused about finding their interior selves that most of them forgot about the families they belonged to.

Chronicles: Volume II may tell us how he resolved the end of volume I. He says, “Many got it wrong and never did get it right. I went straight into it. It was wide open. One thing for sure, not only was it not run by God, but it wasn’t run by the devil either.” Yes, it was. Bob tells us that he never made it to Woodstock, “I just wasn’t there,” he says. We cop out by saying that we just weren’t there. If he had addressed the question of why we shouldn’t have been there, then the no-name generation would begin to fess up to why we have let the Baby Boomers and Generation Jones and Gen X and Gen Y set the deconstruction agenda we all live under.

bob dylan

Bob Dylan

Martin Scorsese fills in some of the gaps Chronicles left. No Direction Home is quality film; sound, interviews, pace, honesty (especially the footage of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger), editing, add up to a picture of the muggers that leaves you as ready for Woodstock as you are ever likely to get, particularly if you are a no-namer or what the culture pundits are now calling “Generation Jones.”

This is what we are being fed now: There was Baby Boom (ca. 1944-55). Generation Jones (1954-65), Generation X (1966-80), Generation Y (1981-95). Before the Baby Boom there was a series of “mature generations” only one of which merits a name, and that was given by a light-weight news reader.

There’s a lot of overlapping, of course, so that a Dylan or Joan Baez fit more with the Boomers than with those of us without a name. Then there is Pete Seeger, sui generis, who was put on a left-leaning roller-coaster at birth (1919) and has kept on riding, always to the left, always with joy, ever since. He gets into the Dylan story in a big way thanks to director Scorsese. This is fitting, because Seeger has been the elf in the commie clover from his party-line songs of the 1930s to his party-line songs of the 1960s. The columnist Meg Greenfield once lamented that the one constant political presence in her generation was the evil Nixon (she was my age and so a no-namer); on the folkie left Pete has been present longer and happier.

Scorsese gives us about half of the sixties, a lot of Dylan, and quite a bit of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Allen Ginsberg, Liam Clancy, Dave Van Ronk, Maria Muldauer, Suze Rotolo. Peter Yarrow, and a bunch of others. Somebody in the background says at one point, “He [Dylan] has his finger on the pulse of our generation.” Van Ronk, not always happy with Bobby (who plagiarized his “House of the Rising Sun”) but clearly proud to have some of his reflected light, says that Bob “tapped in” to the “collective consciousness” of America. A sound guy claims that everybody knew that “He’s got the Holy Spirit about him;” God didn’t touch Bob on the shoulder, “He kicked him in the ass.”

Dylan says about himself that between 1961 and 1964 he was convinced that he had found a “new place, where nobody had ever been before.” This connects with his self-absorption in Chronicles. He had no past. There was no Hibbing. He invented himself in Greenwich Village in 1961, and after that there was less Woody and Pete and Dave, as eventually there would be no more Joan. Despite his sing for King in 1963, an almost obligatory pilgrimage to Cuba, the Tom Paine award from the ACLU’s left fringe (!), he was insisting by 1964 that “I was never a topical songwriter.” He could also say at a London press conference in 1966, “All my songs are protest songs. All I do is protest.” A little later, when one hopeful character said to Joanie, “I heard Bob is going to show up [at a Vietnam protest],” she threw up her arms: “He never comes, you moron!”

In 1965 he was booed at Newport by the former faithful, just about a year before “like a Rolling Stone” made him a Rock Star. He sang “Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More” with his electric guitar, backed up by electric guys. Pete Seeger admits he wanted to find an ax and cut the cables. Even the elves are Stalinists sometimes. Bob had to find his acoustic guitar and play something protesty or he may not have escaped from the land of the Big Houses and the Peoples’ Music. He did get out, insisting as he does today that an “artist” has to “stay constantly in a state of becoming.”

Well, His Bobness still needs to fess up. He isn’t responsible for the idiots who name generations, or who fail to name them. There are few generational changes that mean much; the last one probably being the progressives who threw away their Christian past in favor of the conviction that we can create a heavenly democracy on earth. When Bob came to power in 1961 he sang for the progressives who were in about their third round of optimism, and they hated him for failing to sustain their adolescent dreams of paradise. He really didn’t know how he got to be an icon. He was a kid with some writing talent (unfortunately little singing talent) who found five years of fame for things he really didn’t believe in. I admire him for refusing to ride the tide to Woodstock, and for trying hard to make another life or lives after the first one succeeded and failed. But he and Joan and all the other creators of the sixties still have to apologize to the rest of us, the ones who have had to clean up their messes for a long time.

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7 replies to this post
  1. One thing about the song "A Rolling Stone", it always seemed to me to be a critique of the baby boomers, not anything to spark a movement.

    "Now you don't seem so proud, About having to be scrounging for your next meal."

    Or "Positively 4th Street"

    "You say you lost your faith
    But that's not where it's at
    You had no faith to lose
    And you know it"

    I think he called out the baby boomers, even if he didn't know it. I think Socrates said the poets don't necessarily understand what they convey to us from the muse.

  2. Somehow Dylan always struck me as less than a muse and more akin to the oracle at Delphi, perhaps sitting on a little stool, inhaling the fumes, and spouting words that would be taken as direction…and paid for, of course.

    At least that's been my perspective as one of "the spoiled kids born after 1945."

  3. I struggled through Chronicles about a year ago. I was hoping to figure out what I had been missing since I've never been impressed with either the man or his music (though some I respect are impressed with both).

    After finishing the book I know more, but understand less.

  4. I think it is noteworthy that Dylan went through a Born Again Christian phase, a three album arc during which his “Serve Somebody” got a lot of airplay. Some speculalted this phase was over when his son Jakob was Bar Mitzvah’d.

    Also, the “no name” generation failed to elect a single president, as we went from Bush the Elder (WWII, “Greatest”) directly to Clinton (“Boomer”), with nary a Mondale, Dukakis, or McCain in between.

    Did anybody else ever hear that “Positively Fourth Street” was addressed to Joanie?

  5. Outstanding post! I may have a quibble or two here and there, but they’re minor.

    I’ve been a huge, huge, huge Dylan fan for a long, long time; since about 1976 when I turned 18. I’m a boomer, but I was too young to have experienced the 60s culture firsthand.

    The man is a human sponge. He has soaked up every kind of American musical genre and distills and combines them in his music. I like his singing. He sounded like an ancient bluesman when he was just a kid, and has sort of “grown into” his voice.

    While he first achieved notoriety writing and singing “protest songs”, he quickly grew tired of people who thought he had some sort of insight about political issues. Listen to his interviews with the media around 1965 and 66. He openly mocked reporters who earnestly asked him about the “meaning” or “message” of his songs. He was dubbed “the voice of his generation”, and he wanted NO part of that.

    Like any other artist, he has had his ups and downs during his career. The mid-80s were probably his lowest point. His concerts could be uneven from night to night. But since about 1990 or so, he has been touring almost constantly, and his current band is the best he’s ever had. His last five or so studio albums since 1997’s “Time Out Of Mind” are among the very best of his career. Some of his newer songs seem old somehow. Not 1960s old; more like 1920s or 30s.

    I try to see him whenever he’s in my area. The last time, in the spring of 2013, he played only four songs from before 1980. Fully half of his set list were post-2000 songs, and that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. I’ve heard his old songs a million times. I want to hear his new songs. How many other 72-year-old “sixties legends” can you say that about?

    Bob Dylan is one of the very greatest artistic giants in American history. We shall not see his like again.

  6. Also born in ’41, I find a lot of wrong in this little essay. Some of us got drafted; some even went to Vietnam (including me). Bob is one of our greatest because he refused to be pigeonholed, and he wrote and played and sang great songs. He’s still authentically himself and nobody has had to clean up after him. He takes care of his own business including far flung children.

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