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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Wide open. That’s how Times Square looks in the 1960 photo on the cover of the first volume of Bob Dylan’s memoirs, “Chronicles.” The neon is there — at that time, for the Automat, BOAC airlines, Canadian Club, Admiral appliances. But unlike every other Times Square photo you’ve ever seen, this one shows a vast street, a large swatch of sky; there’s room to breathe and space to claim. It looks like the main street in an old western as seen by the stranger in town. Only in this case the stranger isn’t a gunslinger but a folk singer.
Wide open. That’s how Dylan describes the world in front of him as a young singer about to make his name in the last paragraph of the book. And it was the phrase he used to describe America itself when he praised the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biography, “Last Train to Memphis”: “Elvis as he walks the path between heaven and nature in an America that was wide open.”
Wide open. It’s not a phrase anyone would think of to describe Bob Dylan — at least the Dylan of legend. The Dylan whose public image was set long ago: Dylan the “protest singer,” Dylan the messiah, Dylan the prophet, Dylan the recluse, the cagey, obscure Dylan, the born-again Dylan, all of the images of Dylan thrown up by obsessive fans, English majors, and rock critics of the sort played by Jeff Bridges in the Dylan movie “Masked and Anonymous”; a pompous, pontificating ass who winds up impaled on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guitar. Whether or not the images were true, whether Dylan ever tried to be a messiah or a prophet, whether or not, despite his reputation for obscurity, there was an apparent emotional sense to be found in his riddles and metaphors, was beside the point. To think that the popular picture of Dylan might not be true would screw up a perfectly good ready-made image, would mess with the sound bites and the editorial I.D.’s (“Dylan, whose songs of social injustice made him the voice of the ’60s…”).
Wide open. That’s exactly what we are not to any celebrity who publishes a biography. We know what to think of celebrities. They’re all egomaniacs and publicity whores — doesn’t matter if they’re Paris Hilton or Bob Dylan. That’s how all the pomo Hedda Hoppers have told us to think about celebrity. Forget about the work; it’s the image that matters. Irony is the new Jesus. Crucified on Sept. 11, it rose again to sit at the right hand of … well, maybe not God, but at least Maureen Dowd.
Dylan’s work and utterances, even the garbage outside his New York apartment in the ’60s, have been given a ruthless and shallow parsing. There are plenty of people who expect everything that comes out of Dylan’s mouth to be either revelatory or nonsensical. Last year brought an example of the latter expectation when critics who had grown up with the oblique humor and elliptical imagery of Dylan songs reacted, when confronted with the same qualities in “Masked and Anonymous,” as if they were seeing a self-indulgent travesty for which there was no precedent. They killed the movie (one of the most potent and challenging American movies in recent memory) almost out of sheer laziness. Seizing on holes in the narrative or the oddball scenes, the reviews complained in the manner of high school kids assigned poetry who whine about how hard it is to understand.
What may throw some readers about “Chronicles” is how modest and straightforward it is. Neither a hallucination, like Dylan’s “Tarantula,” nor a coffee-table fan’s scrapbook (there are no photos), “Chronicles” starts in without any preamble, any fuss. The opening and closing sections recount Dylan’s memories of being a young singer in Greenwich Village, just signed to Columbia by the legendary John Hammond (who would count Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday and Bruce Springsteen among the talent he got for the label). In between there are sections on his domestic life as a young husband and father in 1960s Woodstock following his near-fatal motorcycle accident, and a long section on the recording of his 1989 album “Oh Mercy.”
Does he tell all? No. First, because it’s none of our damn business. A man who has been scrutinized the way Dylan has, who has had people literally crawling through his windows and pontificating on what his role should be, knows something about the necessity of keeping at least part of it all to himself. Second, because he realizes nothing is more boring and less revealing than the sort of memoir that would’ve included lines like: “And then I met a young Canadian guitarist named Robbie Robertson.”
Dylan holds things in reserve. The motorcycle accident gets one line. He summons the ardor of youth to write of his famous love affair with Suze Rotolo, the young beauty walking through Village slush with him on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (“She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen”), and treats their breakup with the discretion of a true gentleman (“She took one turn in the road and I took another. We just passed out of each other’s lives”).
Dylan is revealing about the things that matter. As a writer he makes the distinction between fond reminiscence and false nostalgia. Without offering any cheap psychological explanation, he gives a pretty good idea of where the sideshow quality of his ’60s songs came from. On the first page, Dylan is introduced to Jack Dempsey in the boxer’s restaurant on 58th Street. Old blues legends and new folk singers, like Dave Van Ronk and Fred Neil, populate the Village. Dylan crashes with the likes of the wandering descendant of Southern generals and his woman, a hatcheck girl and model for Cavalier. And all the time young Dylan is imbibing the mixture of books on the shelves of the apartments where he stayed and the music coming out of the clubs and jukeboxes. It’s “Desolation Row” as a boulevard of promise. You understand why T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound occupied the same song as fishermen, Einstein, Robin Hood, fortune tellers, tightrope walkers — they all shared space in Dylan’s head.
There’s a similar catholicity in his musical taste. Dylan talks about his love for the “old-timey” ballads he was discovering as he scouted out rare folk and blues sides or learned songs from other singers, talks about how he felt divorced from the culture’s preoccupation with the here and now (a preoccupation that’s infinitely worse today). “What was not a mistake,” he writes, “was the ghost of Billy Lyons, rootin’ the mountain down, standing ’round in East Cairo, Black Betty bam de lam. That’s the stuff that was happening. That’s the stuff that could make you question what you’d always accepted, could litter the landscape with broken hearts, had power of spirit.” The old newspapers (from about 1855-1865) on microfilm at the New York Public Library began feeding his ambitions as a composer. “It wasn’t like it was another world,” he writes, “but the same one only with more urgency … The age that I was living in didn’t resemble this age, but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way.”
But Dylan was no purist. When he is writing about the variety of music he heard as a kid, on the radio and at fairs, and later in New York clubs and coffeehouses and lofts, he calls up the variety of influences on the young Elvis Presley that Guralnick wrote of in “Last Train to Memphis.” Reading “Chronicles,” you also know why Dylan would be reviled in the folk community a few years down the road.
It may not have been hip to say so in the Village in the early ’60s, but hearing “Travelin’ Man” coming out of a jukebox reminds the young Dylan of why he loves Ricky Nelson. It’s the most perceptive tribute that the still-underrated singer could have hoped for: “Nelson had never been a bold innovator like the early singers who sang like they were navigating burning ships. He didn’t sing desperately, do a lot of damage, and you’d never mistake him for a shaman. It didn’t feel like his endurance was ever being tested to the utmost, but it didn’t matter. He sang his songs calm and steady like he was in the middle of a storm, men hurtling past him.”
Elsewhere, he talks about listening to Judy Garland, taking the D train to the Brooklyn Paramount to see his old Minnesota friend Bobby Vee, how Frank Sinatra’s “Ebb Tide” killed him whenever he heard it. Years later, recording an album in New Orleans, he takes notice of a Paula Abdul song blasting out of a passing car. In the same period, he ventures into a strange little Louisiana roadside shop and hears the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret” coming over a scratchy radio and captures in simple lines the euphoric community that group offered: “I remembered when they first came out. They offered intimacy and companionship like no other group. Their songs would create an empire.”
There was an underside to that community that Dylan has already spoken of. “Then,” he said, meaning the ’60s, “you didn’t know which end the trouble was coming from. And it could come at any time.” As “Chronicles” is read and reviewed, we can probably expect to hear that Dylan turns out to have hated the ’60s, in the same manner that some reviews of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” have said of Roth, “Whaddya know? He’s a Jew after all!” “There has been so much talk about ‘The Good War,’ the Justified War, the Necessary War, and the like, that the young and the innocent could get the impression that it was really not such a bad thing after all,” wrote Paul Fussell about World War II. And for all the undeniable sense of possibilities, it is still easy to get the impression that the ’60s were all the Youngbloods singing “Get Together” and none of the Stones singing “Gimme Shelter.”
There’s no romanticism about the ’60s in Dylan’s writing, just an honest reckoning of things as they were. He doesn’t treat his generation as angels who were somehow exempt from promulgating the violence that was in the air. Dylan implicitly addresses the irony that the era preaching individuality had its own version of the stifling conformity it decried. In 1964 Irwin Silber, the editor of the folk magazine Sing Out, published an open letter, Dylan recalls, accusing him of “shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation.” Dylan adds: “I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.”
Dylan had seen the noose that came with his role. He heard the individuality of the voices in the folk and blues he was drawn to, where the folk community heard only “the struggle,” the need for the performer to obliterate himself in the service of the masses. That belief had odious manifestations. In his book on minstrelsy, “Where Dead Voices Gather,” Nick Tosches wrote about the white kids turned on by the blues revival of the ’60s who — to experience “authentic” black culture — wanted rediscovered black musicians to affect the roles of poor, illiterate farmhands. Who, Dylan must have thought, could have heard Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams or Bascom Lamar Lunsford and not heard an individual? For that matter, who could have heard “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and not heard an individual?
“Whatever the counterculture was,” Dylan writes, “I’d seen enough of it.” Dylan is generous in his praise of others in “Chronicles.” But as any good performer should, he has his share of ego. With a touch of humor he notes, of his arrival in New York, “I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot.”
As Dylan sees it, withdrawing as he did to escape the freaks who besieged him and the ridiculous calls for him to be a leader cost him the ability to observe. He is open about the aimless, uninspired spate of work he produced in the late ’60s and, with the exceptions of his reunion with the Band, “Blood on the Tracks,” and the Rolling Thunder Revue, most of the ’70s. But what distinguishes “Chronicles” is what has distinguished — and upset people throughout — most of Dylan’s career: the inconvenience of his genius.
In the middling, muddled ’70s, we knew how to think about “Bob Dylan” — a former genius putting out records that nobody was very eager to hear, even if we halfheartedly listened to the “Dylan Is Back!” hype that preceded each one. We knew we’d be let down. He would turn up at celebrity benefit concerts and be feted now and then, but otherwise everyone could pretty much relegate Dylan to his glory years, agree that “Highway 61 Revisited” was pretty great and think it was just too bad about “Shot of Love” or “Infidels.”
But Dylan, much as he did to the folk community in the ’60s, screwed up the script, tossed in a new act when most of us were expecting the curtain. Starting with 1992′s “Good as I Been to You,” an album whose ugly, thrown-together cover suggested those endless late-Elvis LPs, Dylan began finding his voice again. Except that nobody was ready for a Dylan comeback that ended with “Froggy Went-a Courtin’.” But he did it by going back, as he did scouring the microfilm of old newspapers as a young man, by returning to the strange old blues songs and ballads he had loved, by putting together a hard, tight young band who toured with him endlessly. Dylan had always kept his songs open to interpretation and new ways of playing. The new versions turned out to be too strange even for some older fans. Like the mean version of “Masters of War” he screamed through on the 1991 Grammy Awards during the Gulf War, a version so fast and hard it took nearly half the song to go by before being recognized.
A performance like that can say to people who had long ago decided they knew how to think of Bob Dylan, “Nothing is settled. Everything is up for grabs.” It wasn’t the young beautiful dandy of the ’60s in gabardine print suits before us. This was a man with a jowly, lined face, a sharpie’s mustache, and an almost formal bearing. The suits and cowboy hat he wears throughout “Masked and Anonymous” make him look like a cross between a gentleman rancher and the ghost of Hank Williams.
But what we see isn’t an aged man as much as a man who has slipped the limits of age. Are those suits a hipster’s look or a link to the past? Why not both? In 1960s New York, the young Dylan had felt something contemporary in stories about reform movements, anti-gambling leagues, slave-wage factories. For a while he made his own contribution to the legacy of those news reports and tall tales and rumors and prophecies. He outran the mantle of “conscience of his generation” as hard and fast as he could, only to wind up being slapped with it when the contemporary state of his career seemed an unworthy coda to that work.
Finally, in the last decade, Dylan seems to be opening up the time portal he always envisioned. Put on “Time out of Mind” or “Love and Theft” or the version of “Dixie” he sings in “Masked and Anonymous,” maybe the most profound piece of American popular music since “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and what you hear is ageless.
In “Chronicles” he writes about what he learned from those ancient news clippings:
“There was a broad spectrum and commonwealth that I was living upon, and the basic psychology of life was every bit a part of it. If you turned the light towards it, you could see the full complexity of human nature. Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
As good an explanation of any as to why the work Dylan has been doing for the past 10 years feels like the rock of ages — solid and inexplicable and known to us, even if, as the best music always does, it makes you wonder, what was that?
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)