Thursday, February 24, 2005

"Prophet, Messiah, Saviour"

As someone unfamiliar with Bob Dylan's life as well as with much of his musical output, the first hurdle I had to clear in reading 'Chronicles: Volume One' was to forget about any residual expectations of it being a standard autobiography.

The book is divided into five chapters each of which presents a vivid series of snapshots or scenes from a particular moment in Dylan's life. These chapters are arranged in chronological order, aside from the fifth which returns to the 1950s, a similar time period to that from which the first two are taken.

There is no attempt to construct a watertight linear narrative, and the chapters themselves whirl you around as Dylan goes off on tangents and asides that last for paragraphs or even pages at a time. Potentially confusing and frustrating for someone not already acquainted with his story, but it's actually this quality that lends the book so much of its appeal. Events are recounted just as they are remembered without a whiff of artifice, Dylan appearing scrupulously faithful to his memories which are naturally inconsistent and sketchy at times, extraordinarily sharp and intricately preserved at others.

The first, second and fifth chapters deal with the young man's experiences of finding his feet musically, immersing himself in the folk sub-culture of New York and taking the opportunities presented to him. There are, it has to be said, so many musicians' names that it all starts to blur, but then that just adds to the impression of Greenwich Village as a busy thriving hub of creativity and of Dylan's influences as innumerable and varied. He writes about, amongst others, Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, whom he later met: "Woody's songs were having that big an effect on me, an influence on every move I made, what I ate and how I dressed, who I wanted to know, who I didn't".

For someone who was to become phenomenally successful in the 1960s, popular acclaim seemed a long way off: "I had no song in my repertoire for commercial radio anyway. Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the botom of rivers weren't for radiophiles". Even then, though, there is still a powerful sense of the tantalising possibilities that lay ahead: "The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close".

Though the fourth chapter, detailing his creative rebirth in the late 1980s with the Daniel Lanois produced Oh Mercy, is superb, perhaps most gripping is the third chapter, in which Dylan recalls the bitter experience of the 1960s: "The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave, like Adam had to leave the garden. It was just too perfect. In a few years' time a shit storm would be unleashed. Things would begin to burn". As it turned out, the future WAS something to worry about.

Appointed a public spokesman for the burgeoning countercultural movement, Dylan found his life was made a misery: "Demonstrators found our house and paraded up and down in front of it chanting and shouting, demanding for me to come out and lead them somewhere - stop shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation". His home was constantly besieged by "gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues", and the sheer force of his disgust and revulsion at being backed into a corner is staggering - he even confesses to being tempted to start shooting at them.

At his wits' end, he pondered leaving his music behind altogether. "Whatever the counterculture was, I'd seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese".

What happened to Dylan was to happen to Kurt Cobain, albeit on a lesser scale, thirty years later. Unable to shoulder the burden, Cobain shot himself, but for Dylan things gradually quietened down until they were once again bearable: "Eventually different anachronisms were thrust upon me - anachronisms of lesser dilemma - though they might seem bigger. Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favourite) - stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Saviour - those are tough ones".

'Chronicles: Volume One' is a marvellous book, passionate and lyrical - in other words, well worth a read. One thing, though, Bob - what's all this about, eh? "Bono's got the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him. He can roar 'til the earth shakes. He's also a closet philosopher". That night you had him round at your place, you really HAD been at the Guinness, hadn't you?

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