Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner Part Three

"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).

More on Bob Dylan:

Monday, April 10, 2017

Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner Part Two

"Chronicles Volume One" by Bob Dylan
A Review: Part Two

The Early Days in New York

Fresh off the coffeehouse gigs in Minneapolis, Dylan was on a mission when he landed in New York in 1961."It wasn't money or love that I was looking for...I was there to find singers, the ones I'd heard on records...most of all, to find Woody Guthrie...I was at the initiation point of square one but in no sense a neophyte."

He delves into colorful descriptions of the joints, streets, people, and places where he connects with other performers, sleeps on couches, and soaks up everything within his reach. The prose is poetic and the metaphors uncanny, with explicit details to capture the mood of the city and its characters in the early 60s.

Freddy Neil, who ran The Cafe Wha?, could "whomp the audience into a frenzy" with his guitar. Freddy reminded Dylan of himself, "polite but not overly friendly." Norbert, the cook, "...wore a tomato-stained apron, had a fleshy, hard-bitten face, bulging cheeks, scars on his face like the marks of claws -- thought of himself as a lady's man -- saving his money so he could go to Verona in Italy and visit the tomb of Romeo and Juliet. The kitchen was like a cave bored into the side of a cliff."

Unlike the performer Dylan who maintains a distance with his audience, the youthful Dylan connected with people, learned from them, and even stayed with them. He didn't rent an apartment for months because people like Dave Van Ronk, one of the folk singers he wanted to meet, invited Dylan to perform during his gig, and later, to stay at his place. One couple provided Dylan with a particularly comfortable home where he could hear trains and church bells, symbols of comfort and security from his childhood in Minnesota. Drawn to the books in their floor-to-ceiling library, Dylan read and dissected classics and authors for hours at a time.

Like a good storyteller, he keeps us wondering throughout the book how he got his big break. Only at the end does he finally pick up from where he left off in the second chapter to describe another artist's recording session in New York that opened the door to his future.

Other Artists

One day, Dylan heard a familiar voice coming through the speaker as he stood in the kitchen at Cafe Wha? It was Ricky Nelson, singing his new song, "Travelin' Man." He and Nelson grew up during the same era so he felt they probably had a lot in common. It was Nelson's smooth touch, fast rhythm, and tone of voice that Dylan liked, because it was different from other teen singers. "He sang his songs calm and steady, like he was in the middle of a storm, men hurling past him."

He praised Harry Belafonte, a man with strong convictions who could relate to poor folk, seasoned politicians, upper crust audiences, and youth. "To Harry, it didn't make any difference. People were people."

Roy Orbison "sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountain top and meant business...made you want to drive over a cliff...Orbison was deadly serious -- no pollywog and no fledgling juvenile."

Dylan credited Sun Records and Sam Phillips with creating some of the "most crucial, uplifting and powerful records ever made...Johnny Cash's records were no exception...ten thousand years of culture fell from him."

Before Dylan jumped on the Woody Guthrie bandwagon, Hank Williams was his favorite songwriter, but he notes that Williams was a singer first. Hank Snow was a close second to Williams and Harold Arlen was a strong favorite, as well.

Folk Music

Hard-core folk songs with loud strumming were Dylan's style in the early days in New York, but he wasn't sure there was an audience for this type of music. It wasn't from a lack of confidence, but more from what was trending in music, that caused Dylan to reach this conclusion.

A devout folk disciple, he said folk songs were the underground story about what was really going on with people. Always playing in his head, they helped him "explore the universe."  They were "worth more than anything I could say." While he observed that other performers appealed to the audience, he was completely committed to the song, which might suggest one reason why he avoids talking to the audience even today. 

Songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were pumping out number one hits (see Beautiful Review), but Dylan's style didn't lend itself to the type of songs being played on the radio. "There was nothing easygoing about the folk songs I sang. They weren't friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn't come gently to the shore...[they] were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality."

He spent a lot of time at the Folklore Center, "the citadel of American folk music" in New York, and befriended its owner, Izzy Young, who educated Dylan about the blues artists he liked. Dylan spent hours listening to folk and blues records in the back room. Similar to Elvis, who played the radio day and night and listened to records nonstop in the small apartment where he lived with his parents in Memphis (Elvis Presley: A Complicated King), Dylan was obsessed with listening to other artists.

Celebrity Life 

Elvis and Dylan had little in common when it came to celebrity life. Elvis thrived on attention from fans and played to his audience while Dylan kept a safe distance with little need for adoration. Elvis hired his relatives to man the gate where fans gathered at Graceland. Dylan avoided fans who chased after him out and refused to leave him alone.

Getty Images
Titled "New Morning," the third chapter in the hopscotch memoir suddenly jumps ahead in time, skipping Dylan's early years of development as an artist who rose from the fok scene in New York to produce landmark albums ("Bob Dylan," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and "Highway 61 Revisited."), to 1966 when he's a well-established performer.  We find him disgusted by the deaths of civil rights leaders, clashes of student demonstrators and cops, and streets exploding with angry people. He said events of the day were "imprisoning" his soul. He'd also been booed a year before at the Newport Folk Festival for going electric. The celebrity life was taking its toll on him.

At the age of twenty-five, he suffered a motorcycle crash  (July 29, 1966) and took time off to recover from his injuries ( 50 Years Later Dylan's Motorcycle Crash Remains Mysterious). He was so exhausted from touring that he decided to extend the recuperation and take a respite from his career.

Married with children, he wanted to enjoy his family and provide some space for artistic development. It seems the traditional upbringing in Minnesota kicked in. His parents provided a stable, secure life for his brother and him, and he wanted the same for his own children. He believed whole-heartedly in American freedom and liberty and wanted to make sure he passed these values on to his kids.

Stepping out of the public eye when you're branded the "voice of a generation" is a difficult task. So many people expect so much from you. Dylan said he didn't belong to anybody. He ran from fans and moved multiple times to escape the crazies who disturbed his property and family because he was their savior or scapegoat.

"I really never was any more than what I was -- a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze. Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me."

The family first moved to Woodstock, New York where he played with musicians who would become known as The Band. Songs from that period were released years later in an album titled "The Basement Tapes." When fans found him, he rejected claims that he could predict the future and lead the way. At times, he said he "felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs." His self-proclaimed fantasy was to live on a tree-lined street, work nine to five, and grow pink rosebushes in the back yard.

A distraught Dylan concluded that "privacy is something you can sell, but you can't buy it back." The difficult withdrawal from public life undoubtedly influenced future attitudes toward the press and fans. Already a private person, this seemed to dig him in deeper. After several moves to escape fans,  he set out to manufacture a new image. He was photographed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (he was called a Zionist); he recorded a country-western record in a new voice (the music press scratched their heads); and he started a rumor he was quitting music and going to the Rhode Island School of Design (on a search to find himself). All of that was fine with him. He recorded a bunch of songs and filled an album with whatever stuck, then went back, and filled another album with everything else. He didn't care what people thought because he was the father whose "family was my light and I was going to protect that light at all cost."

In a final effort to secure privacy, he moved the family to East Hampton, New York. The Dylans rented a house in his mother's maiden name. Hedges protected them from onlookers and their backyard led to a sand dune on the Atlantic. It was an idyllic life doing all the things that normal families do, like soccer games, bicycling, and boating. Still in his twenties, Dylan painted landscapes and concluded this was a place where a person could find his balance.  

But the fangs of fame were never far away. When he accepted an honorary degree at Princeton University, he was introduced as someone who doesn't like public events, is very private. He cringed, but in the end, decided it was worth the effort because it gave him legitimacy, something he sorely needed in the late sixties after a long break from recording.
To be continued...

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner Part One

"Chronicles Volume One" by Bob Dylan
A Review: Part One 

Last weekend, Bob Dylan performed at the Stockholm Waterfront in Sweden and accepted his 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature in a private ceremony with members of the Swedish Academy (Bob Dylan Receives His Nobel Prize).  The news was especially timely since I wrote about Dylan's performance last summer at the Berkeley Greek Theater (The Sounds of Summer: The Dylan Concert) and was finishing the review of his 2004 memoir, Chronicles Volume One.

Before I began reading, I had plenty of questions about the Nobel Laureate. Where did this enigmatic guy come from? How did he evolve into such a singular personality who refrains from speaking to the audience? And what inspired him to write some of the most profound songs of his era, spanning decades of a never-ending career?

From page one, Dylan shares amazing, almost unbelievable, details about his life, including the home and childhood he left behind in Minnesota when he moved to New York City, the people and places he encountered in the Big Apple, his compelling artistic process, and the challenges that threw him off course. While the book is hard to put down, there are gaping omissions, too. Like how he met his wife, who's mentioned several times (not by name), his use of drugs, the conversion to Christianity, and the stories behind some of the most famous songs and albums he wrote. 

Known for his privacy and independent style, Dylan gives very few interviews and has never followed a traditional path. Volume One is no exception. It jumps around a good deal from place to place and also in time. In the end, it left me wanting more, so I'm hoping for Volume Two, which may be in the works, according to online sources. Dylan turns seventy-six in May, with plenty of material to fill another 293 paperback pages. If it's as entertaining as the first installment, it will be a blazing success.

Told in five chapters, we first meet the fledgling performer in an office at Columbia Records in New York City, playing songs for the guy who will launch his career. He returns to this same scene in chapter five:

"The moon was rising behind the Chrysler Building, it was late in the day, street lighting coming on, the low rumble of heavy cars inching along in the narrow streets below -- sleet tapping against the office window. Lou Levy was starting and stopping his big tape machine -- diamond ring gleaming off his pinky finger -- cigar smoke hanging in the blue air...Besides Lou's metal desk, there were a couple of wood chairs and I sat forward in one of them strumming songs off the guitar."  

A few scenes later, the label's public relations staffer asks Dylan about his family and how he got to New York. Dylan feeds him a wild story, which makes for great fiction, but caused me to wonder how much fiction would be in the memoir. Based on reviews I read, critics mostly agree this is a heartfelt and honest account of Dylan's journey, and if he takes some liberties to embellish the details, he does it brilliantly.

What hit me first, like a familiar Dylan song, is the voice. From the beginning, it's confident, bold, unapologetic, and compelling. So compelling that I didn't stop to highlight the nuggets. The pages flew by too fast.

Minnesota Upbringing

The legend we know as Bob Dylan was called Bobby Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota. He grew up in a traditional Jewish family and home with devoted parents and a large extended family. This is not the saga of someone who rejects his family to find himself and seek his fortune. This kid had a great life and a strong sense of himself -- where he came from and where he was headed -- at a young age. Bobby played ice hockey, saw the circus when it came to town, heard John Kennedy give a speech, formed his own bands in high school, and experienced puppy love, too.

Dylan writes about Minnesota and his childhood with poignancy and pride. The family took weekend trips to visit Dad's friends and relatives in Duluth. His maternal grandmother was someone he always trusted: "She was filled with nobility and goodness, told me once that happiness isn't on the road to anything. That happiness is the road. Had also instructed me to be kind because everyone you'll ever meet is fighting a hard battle."

His father wanted Bobby to be an engineer, not an artist, because one teacher said he had an artistic temperament. As an adult with three children of his own, Dylan returned from his father's funeral to express regrets. He says his dad was "probably worth a hundred of me, but he didn't understand me...there was a lot that I wanted to share, to tell him...now I was in a position to do a lot of things for him." Sadly, it was too late.

The young Dylan struggled at school and the older Dylan recalls he was obsessed with the military as a kid, even thought about going to West Point, but that lost out to music. He had his own rock 'n' roll band, but somewhere along the way, tapped into what would become a lifelong passion for folk songs, his holy grail.

After graduation, he lived in Minneapolis and performed gigs at local coffeehouses. He talks about that period in his life as well as the music scene that dominated in a recent interview posted on his website -- Dylan Q&A March 2017. Another performer introduced Dylan to a collection of Woody Guthrie  records ("This Land Is Your Land") that changed his life. "I put one on the turntable and when the needle dropped, I was stunned...The songs themselves...had the infinite sweep of humanity in them."

The influence of Guthrie's music on Dylan can't be overstated. "His music ruled my universe." Like so much that charted his course, Dylan felt the impact immediately. When he learned Guthrie was in a hospital in New Jersey he declared himself WoodyGuthrie's disciple. He imagined Guthrie speaking to him: "'I'll be going away, but I'm leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.'" Further evidence of Guthrie's influence was reported last year when news media ran stories announcing Bob Dylan's Secret Archive would be housed in Tulsa, Oklahoma next to that of Woody Guthrie's.

Dylan studied other artists, like Jack Elliott, who had an enormous influence on him, as well. Dylan called Elliott the "King of Folksingers" and Joan Baez, who was his age, the "Queen." He said the sight of her on TV made him high. "A voice that drove out bad spirits...she had the fire and I felt I had that same kind of fire." 

Throughout the memoir, Dylan showers performers he likes with compliments, especially those whose work influenced his development as a musician. While he maintains an ever-abiding faith in his destiny, it's balanced by an impressive ability to describe his strengths and weaknesses compared to other musicians. Dylan spent hours analyzing songs and musical styles to educate himself and understand how great artists created their unique material and delivery. He consumed literature with a similar appetite.

He felt a special kinship with people from Minnesota who achieved greatness. Roger Maris, the Yankees baseball player of the early '60's, captured Dylan's attention. He recalled Judy Garland, Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others who hailed from his home state to excel in their respective fields. He pointed out that Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was also from Minnesota.
To be continued...