Bob Dylan Sang What Many Felt

by Joe Auciello / December 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

Review of: Bob Dylan, “Chronicles Volume I” (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 304pp., $14.

Early one morning the Socialist Action editors asked me to write a review of “Chronicles”; later that afternoon the lawyer who was making out my will, with no prompting from me, began discussing the musical and social significance of Bob Dylan. (“Dylan can be
credited for the invention of rap, you know. Just think about the rhythm of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.”)

It’s the kind of situation that recalls nothing so much as, well, a Dylan song. To paraphrase “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “With socialists and lawyers you have discussed Bob Dylan’s works / You’re very well read, it’s well known….“

When people from these different layers of society speak about a musician whose presence on the record charts peaked 30 or 40 years ago, when Rolling Stone magazine cites him as the most important individual artist with the most important single (“Like a Rolling Stone,” of course), then we are clearly talking about something more than your typical pop star.

And, when you consider that in the last few years, in addition to a slew of Dylan biographies, entire books have been written about a single album (1975‘s “Blood on the Tracks”) and a single song (1965‘s “Like a Rolling Stone” again), that his collected interviews, as well as lyrics, have been published, that Martin Scorcese recently directed a documentary film about
him that aired this fall on PBS, then the musical and cultural impact of Bob Dylan is more than well confirmed.

For the first 10 years of his career, Bob Dylan was the catalyst who transformed the nature of popular music in America and the artist whose songs can serve as the soundtrack for the history of the Sixties. With strong record sales and artistic success, Bob Dylan consistently enlarged the scope of popular music. His entire career could be summed up as a continual
redefining of the boundaries of the possible.

Other artists before him were creative, and other artists were commercial; Bob Dylan’s achievement was to make creativity commercial. After Dylan, the boundaries of song, which had seemed so solid, melted into air.

Bob Dylan did not invent folk music, but he lifted it out of its niche and placed it in the pop mainstream. He put protest songs on the pop charts. Later, in a shift both controversial and famous, he “went electric” and brought the folk audience into rock.

His legendary performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, his electric declaration of independence, turns out, in retrospect, to be the moment when the weighty sensibility of folk merged with and transformed rock ’n’ roll. It was the moment when rock ’n’ roll became rock and when rock became—the clichés are unavoidable—the personal and social voice of the
generation that changed America. To die-hard folkies, it was an epic betrayal.

“As for me,” Dylan recollects in “Chronicles,” “what I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, use catchphrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not
been heard before. … I knew what I was doing, though, and I wasn’t going to take a step back or retreat for anybody.

As an explanation of those great albums from 1965-1966—“Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde on Blonde”—Dylan’s comments seem to say everything and nothing. It all makes sense in a general way until one tries to understand the specifics of a particular song, and then the explanatory lens blurs and darkens.

This, in short, is how “Chronicles Volume 1” affects a reader. Page after page, it is interesting, insightful, and revealing until the end when, finally, nothing is revealed. The book, in other words, is classic Dylan.

In “Chronicles,” Dylan presents himself as a regular, aw-shucks kind of fella—an innocent—ambitious, yes, but surprised and disturbed by the fame that resulted from his ambition. What’s more, he denies any political or even any socially critical role for himself—he was, he says, just a folksinger following his songs into whatever place they may have happened to lead him.

“Whatever the case, it wasn’t that I was anti-popular culture or anything and I had no ambitions to stir things up. I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick.”

But the second sentence contradicts the first. So, then, what is his real opinion, if there is such a thing? Well, you don’t need a weatherman, my friend, to know that the answer is blowin’ in the wind. When Bob Dylan describes the events of 1968, the height of the youth rebellion throughout the world, he does so dispassionately. These years held no meaning
for him, other than as a personal nuisance. He was not interested in radicalization; he was interested in relaxing:

“What I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream.”

But Dylan was well aware of his audience, of course. He just didn’t like that his audience looked to him for guidance and inspiration:

“For sure my lyrics had struck nerves that had never been struck before … [but] 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 the Big Bubba of Rebellion….”

This sentiment seems less surprising when Dylan claims, “My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the ’new breed’ right-wing politician….”

Yet, whatever he may say now, Dylan’s political songs are too important and too numerous to wish away. He sang powerful songs about civil rights and accusatory songs about injustice (“William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll / With a cane that he twirled around his diamond-ringed finger”).

He sang against war and damned the warmakers (“And I hope that you die / And your death will come soon”). He sang about poverty, despair, and alienation.

Before the terms were invented, he sang about youth rebellion and the rift between generations. (“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”).

He wrote what many thousands thought and felt. Marchers at Iraq War protests nowadays hold signs with words of Bob Dylan and pictures of George Bush: “How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?”

Thus, the return of “Blowin’ in the Wind,“ perhaps Dylan’s greatest political song. Has the meaning of the words been subverted into polemics, or is it that the meaning of the words is polemical and subversive? Whatever the answer, these words continue to strike nerves; they still capture the reality of our time.

The labels that Dylan dislikes so intensely can be put aside. He would rather recreate himself than analyze himself, and perhaps he needs that ambiguity to breathe as a writer and artist. Even 40 years ago, in the documentary film, “Don’t Look Back,” Dylan remarked, “I just go out there and sing ‘em. … I got nothing to say about these things I write.” No matter. The songs speak for themselves. They endure.

Throughout his career Bob Dylan has adopted personas, disguises, and masks. It started from the very beginning. As a newly signed, unknown folk singer, meeting for the first time with a Columbia Records publicist assigned to prepare a press release, Dylan spun a tale of what he here calls “pure hokum.” That pattern continues with this book.

This, after all, is the man who took the name “Alias” in his first movie role, the man who was “so good with words / And at keeping things vague,” as Joan Baez described him in her song, “Diamonds and Rust.” In what may have been a genuine moment of candor, Dylan once told an interviewer for TV Guide, “I can’t understand the values of definition and confinement.
Definition destroys. Besides, there’s nothing definite in this world.”

Readers who approach “Chronicles Volume 1” with the expectation of encountering the “real” Bob Dylan—the definitive edition, without the hokum and masks—will probably be disappointed. Behind one disguise lies another, each one inviting, intriguing, illusory. It just may be that the truth is plain: The real Bob Dylan is a great artist who wears many masks. That realization alone makes the book worthwhile, as it defines, insofar as any definition is possible, the musician whose songs expressed and shaped the sensibility of the radical generation of the 1960s.