"Chronicles Volume One" by Bob Dylan
A Review: Part Three
Recording, Performing and Writing
|New Morning Album Cover|
After Bob Dylan's long absence from the music scene while living in the Hamptons, his Columbia Records producer lured him back to New York for a recording session. By the end of the third chapter, titled "A New Morning," an album by the same name has been produced. It was released in October, 1970. Some critics described it as too sentimental and soft while others declared Dylan was back. He notes that the album had no "specific resonance to the shackles and bolts that were strapping the country down, nothing to threaten the status quo." Dylan agreed with the critics who called it his comeback album, and he said there'd be much more to come.
Bob Dylan may have written poetry and songs before he left Minnesota, but in this quote he refers to songwriting after he's made his mark as a folk singer: "I can't say when it occurred to me to write my own songs...I guess it happens to you by degrees...It's not like you see the songs approaching and invite them in. It's not that easy. You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen."
He recalls learning about a Columbia Records musician whose work he admired, particularly the writing. It was after Bob Hammond signed him to Columbia in 1961 that he was introduced to Robert Johnson's songs. They were being re-released after his death. Enchanted with Johnson's singer-songwriter style, Dylan said: "When he sings about icicles hanging on a tree it gives me the chills, or about milk turning blue...it made me nauseous and I wondered how he did that."
It would be a few years before he'd start to write songs like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Eventually, he'd pen songs influenced by Johnson and would record "Highway 61 Revisited," also influenced by Johnson.
Dylan's thirst for art, whether in the form of music or literature, was profound. Years of reading great literature and experiencing iconic art and music surely influenced the Midwest kid who pictured himself in the context of great artists. He was never satisfied to just write a song. He wanted much more from writing. "Picasso had fractured the art world and cracked it wide open. He was revolutionary. I wanted to be like that."
A student of poetry, he stretched his mind to embrace more complex approaches to songwriting. "I began cramming my brain with all kinds of deep poems. It seemed like I'd been pulling an empty wagon for a long time and now I was beginning to fill it up and would have to pull harder. I felt like I was coming out of the back pasture."
The fourth chapter, "Oh Mercy," is the title of a second, lesser-known album. Dylan takes another giant leap forward in time, to January 1987, completely ignoring nearly two decades of highly productive work since 1970. He's mangled his hand, ripped it from the bone, but doesn't explain how. It's in a cast up to his elbow and he's booked for a solo tour in the spring with one hundred dates scheduled.
The timing couldn't have been worse. He'd just won a painful battle fought for much of the preceding decade when he was unable to connect with himself or his audience. The metaphors he conjures up to describe the period are revealing: "...whiskey gone out of the bottle...a missing person inside of myself...a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn't wait to retire and fold the tent."
While on a long tour with Tom Petty, Dylan suffered through lackluster performances before the tour took a break. He'd committed to perform several shows with The Grateful Dead during the hiatus. At the time he agreed to the gig, he thought it would be "as easy as jumping rope." But the Dead musicians now requested older, more obscure songs he hadn't performed in a long time, some only when they were recorded. He feared he couldn't connect emotionally to the material, and might even get the words mixed up between songs. Distraught, it felt like he'd "have to go someplace for the mentally ill and think about it." He made up a quick excuse to leave and walked in the drizzling rain with no intention of returning.
After several blocks, he heard a jazz group playing in the back of a joint. He went inside, ordered a gin and tonic, and studied the relaxed style of the singer on jazz ballads like "Time On My Hands" and "Gloomy Sunday:" "He wasn't very forceful, but he didn't have to be; he was relaxed, but he sang with natural power. Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul."
It's moments like this one that are so riveting throughout the book. Dylan writes about them as epiphanies. Something dormant comes to life, knocks him over the head, and he sees the light. They bring him back from the brink or open a new door for him to enter.
Dylan remembered he'd done the very same thing as the old jazz singer a long time ago. He returned to the Dead's rehearsal hall ready to "come unhinged." After a few takes, he was relieved. He'd found his groove just in time for the Dead concerts and rest of the Petty tour, thanks to the old jazz singer.
In addition to the vocal technique he's incorporated, Dylan describes a technical style of playing the guitar that an old blues artist had shown him in the '60's. The complicated description, based on cyclical numerical arrangements and a strict mathematical approach, was hard for this reader to follow. Dylan devotes several pages to a convoluted description, which shows something about his brain -- highly analytical, academic in scope. He was convinced this approach made the music more alive and he was excited to use it. But he needed two hands to pull it off.
The recuperation lingered. Dylan struggled to keep his creative soul alive. He hadn't composed songs for years and didn't want to. But one night when his wife had gone to bed, he picked up a pen in the kitchen and wrote about twenty verses for a new song, "Political World." It was the first of twenty he'd write in the next month or so and stash in a desk drawer.
"They came from out of the blue...seemed to float downstream with the current... right there in my face, but if you'd look too steady at them, they'd be gone."
Current events, a homeless person, and random injustices seemed to inspire his songwriting at the time. When nerve sensations returned to his hand, he played the guitar and the songwriting sailed out to sea. Around this same time, Bono showed up with a case of Guinness they nearly finished off in one night. He liked Dylan's new songs and put him on the phone with a music producer U2 had worked with in New Orleans.
Dylan is off and rolling again. He devotes nearly forty pages to working with the producer, experiencing New Orleans, and recording the new album. Said he likes a lot of places, but he likes New Orleans better. Again, he takes us into his inner thoughts during the difficult days when repeated recording sessions failed to produce songs for the album.
The grueling process of recording is reminiscent of sessions described in Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis. Getting all the musicians on the same page, with the same goal in mind, with top-notch performances, can be difficult, especially if the ensemble hasn't worked together before. Through it all, Dylan had to maintain the inspiration and solitude to keep the creative juices flowing. In the wee hours, he listened to his favorite disc jockey, Brown Sugar, while everyone else slept. She kept him company and helped him to relax. During the day, he and his wife cruised on a motorcycle and talked to locals in out-of-the-way places. It was his way of staying loose and open to life before he returned to the nightly recording sessions.
The first song to fall into place, from out of nowhere, was "Where Teardrops Fall:" "It's like someone had pulled the cord and stopped the train. The song was beautiful and magical, upbeat, and it was complete."
It took two long months in New Orleans' heat and humidity to create the album, "Oh Mercy." Some of Dylan's new material worked and some didn't. When they finished, Dylan said "it felt like the studio could have gone up in a sheet of flames...so intense...We went by circuitous ways but we got there."
The same might be said about much of Dylan's life, of his Nobel Prize, and even of "Chronicles Volume One." Dylan went by circuitous ways but he got there. Every time. The awards and accolades attest to a singular career, punctuated by a never-ending tour and accomplishments that continue to fracture the music world.
Published in October 2004, "Chronicles Volume One" was a finalist for the National Book Award. Music and literary critics were pleasantly surprised by the scope and depth. It was listed as One of the Best Books of the year by at least fifteen major print publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, Newsday, People, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly and The Guardian.
At the time, no one could have predicted Dylan would become the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature twelve years later. He famously said after the announcement that he thought he'd had about the same chance of winning the Nobel Prize as he had for landing on the moon. As a Nobel Laureate, he's taken one giant step for "new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" (Nobel Prize Committee).
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