Reading this autobioography by Bob Dylan was pretty fun. I especially liked his descriptions of living in New York as a young, struggling artist: the dirty apartments, the weird eclectic roommates, the greasy food and the freezing cold weather. There’s a
dizzying list of names and friends and influences and favorite songs and books and politicians and people in this book. It makes me feel the same way I did when I first listened to “Desolation Row“: like, whoa… that’s a lot of names! Or as he sings in the song: All these people that you mention, yes I know them, they’re quite lame. I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name (that used to be my signature quote in my yahoo e-mail back in sixth-grade… ah, youth!). I imagine if you made an effort to look up all the musician names that appear in this book on youtube or wikipedia, by the end of it you’d be a Folk Music Expert.
So needless to say, there’s a lot of good stuff here for the really hardcore Dylan fans that are in the mood to be archaeologists. Just to make things clear, that is not me. I do like Dylan’s music a lot–I listened to him a lot in high school, went through a period of not listening to him at all but have recently gotten really into him again, mostly because of recently seeing the film I’m Not There. I might actually now know more about Dylan and have more of his music than my dad ever did (who introduced me), which is a little disarming.
So in the end I only looked up two Dylan-endorsed artists, Kurt Weil’s “Pirate Jenny” and assorted songs by Robert Johnson (the guy who supposedly sold his devil at the crossroads). They’re both pretty good. According to Bob, they’re what inspired him to start writing his own songs instead of just playing folk covers. Anyway, it’s a pretty neat technique for an autobiography, listing your influences and your interests. What are we if not compilations of the art we seek and crave? (That sounds a little pretentious and perhaps doesn’t quite capture what I mean… I guess sometimes I feel like we are all just crazy kaleidoscopes or collages, cut-and-pasted together like the kids I used to work with would make.)
It was also interesting to read this book for the historical period it captures, that of my parent’s generation. God, it feels so wrong to call it “the historical period,” but that’s what the 50’s and early 60’s are, aren’t they? Bob Dylan is only five years older than my father. I remember a childhood story my dad used to tell us about how he taught Dylan to sing in his warbly voice, after a performance at his high school auditorium. I don’t think I ever thought it was true but I remember begging him to tell it again and again, as though it were a cherished bedtime story. I also remember seeing Dylan on TV once when I was a child and I thought he was handicapped, and that the harmonica thing around his neck was some kind of special brace. Wow, Bob Dylan is so brave for struggling and succeeding despite his handicap! I also went through a period thinking that he was black, and whenever I heard the name “Bob Dylan,” the face that would pop up in my head was that of Bob Marley. Oh, dear.
Anyway, this book does a great job of capturing the feeling of the period, the sense of impending hysteria and craziness that would be the mid-60’s. The fear of the Russians, On the Road, the Holden Caufield-like distaste of the bourgeoise sqaure world that is so horrifying and stultifying in Revolutionary Road, air-raid drills, cowering under desks (which makes me think of grade school, when we had guerrilla attack drills and we all lined up on the football field and boarded orange school buses. It always took at least 40 minutes, if not more, and I remember my second-grade self thinking man, we would have all gotten shot dead. Why didn’t they train us to hide in closets instead? I guess there’s no good answer of how a classroom full of children ought to respond to a guerrilla attack). Communists, freight trains, Woody Guthrie. A world that is beginning to feel increasingly archaic and distant. God knows how the kids at the Boys & Girls Club or of the future cyber generations will view this world. I wonder if my kids (if I have any) will view this period the same way I viewed the era of the Titanic as a girl, or Little House on the Prairie: a lifestyle that is completely remote and alienated from mine, as radically bizarre as though I were reading about people who were living on the moon. I guess every single historical age feels this way, I bet if I did more reading about the Romans or the Greeks I would find similar sentiments expressed among artists and politicians. The only thing that doesn’t change is change.
“I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window and you had to have awkward footgear to walk on it. I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was. Nobody bothered with that. If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that. As for what time it was, it was always just beginning to be daylight and I knew a little bit about history, too–the history of a few nations and states–and it was always the same pattern. Some early archaic period where society grows and develops and thrives, and then some classical period where the society reaches its maturation point and then a slacking off period where decadence makes things fall apart. I had no idea which one of these stages America was in. There was nobody to check with. A certain rude rhythm was making it all sway, though. It was pointless to think about. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (35)
My favorite part was reading about what books Dylan liked as a young man. It reminds me of my sixth-grade self making best-of lists, in the honored Nick Hornby tradition: Best Tori Amos songs live. Best Movies of the 90’s. Etc, etc. In Dylan’s view, Thucydides gets a big thumbs up (“a narrative which would give you chills”), as does Balzac (“hilarious”). Faulkner was “powerful” but difficult to get. James Joyce’s Ulysses gets a thumbs down, as does Freud. He expresses a strong fascination for military history, especially the Civil War (man, I need to read me another Civil War book one of these days!).
I also loved the passage about Dylan reading old newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to 1865 in the New York public library, trying to learn as much as possible about what it was like to live in that period. It sounds exactly like something I would do, if I lived in New York. The overall moral seems to be to stuff your head with as much knowledge as posible, it order to “send a truck back for it later.” (86) I like the idea of absorbing experiences and knowledge like a sponge with the hope/faith that it will pay off later on, and just trying to be as open as possible… even if it doesn’t seem to make too much sense at the time.
“What was the future? The future was a solid wall, not promising, not threatening–all bunk. No guarantees of anything, not even the guarantee that life isn’t one big joke.”
It’s also really interesting to read his passages about song writing and creativity. If I had to pick one theme for this book, it would be about forming a relationship with creativity, how to nurture it and make it work throughout a lifetim (I haven’t even touched on the chapters about making his albums New Morning and Oh Mercy, but they’re fascinating, especially the part where Bono makes a phonecall to producer Daniel Lanois. Who’d have thought?) It makes me think of this wonderful video of a talk by Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, about nurturing creativity. I recently re-read EPL in New Orleans, where Corey’s mom had a copy, and I browsed through Committed in Powell’s the other day. It made me fall in love all over again with ideas like “being kind to yourself” and “nurturing your spirit” and so on. Que concepts, no?
“If I was building any kind of new life to live, it really didn’t seem that way. It’s not as if I had turned in any old one to live it. If anything, I wanted to understand things and then be free of them. I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library–everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph of into one verse of a song if you could get it right.” (61)
Anyway, nine days left in Portland before heading to Colombia and the next/chapter adventure. Hoooo knows how things will go. Here’s to the future, the past and the present, to bike rides and books, to plane tickets and the Internet making the world both a smaller/bigger place all at once. “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.” (104)
Two photos from last year serve as *my* chronicles: one of my working-with-kids job in Portland, one in Mexico…