March 3, 2005
He’s Wandered the Earth an Exiled Man
"Chronicles: Volume One" by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster), $24.
Toward the end of last year's rambling, barely coherent film "Masked and Anonymous," Bob Dylan, its masked and anonymous star, spoke in voice-over one of his most direct and self-revelatory addresses. Fittingly, it was about the limits of what we are allowed to know:
I was always a singer -- maybe no more than that. Sometimes it's not enough to know the meaning of things. Sometimes you have to know what things don't mean as well. Like, what does it mean to know what the person you love is capable of?
Things fall apart, especially all the neat order of rules and laws. The way we look at the world is how we really are: See it from a fair garden, everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you'll see plunder and murder. Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. I stopped trying to figure everything out long ago.
Remember, this is Bob Dylan talking: the prophet of a generation, the bard of the age. Truth is in the eye of the beholder? From the man who wrote "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"? No more than a singer -- the person who sang "Masters of War" and wrote "Desolation Row"? I was reminded, as I sat in the theater, of Dylan's recent Oscar-winning song, "Things Have Changed," from the soundtrack to the 2000 film "Wonder Boys."
He had sung, "I used to care, but things have changed."
The fact is, Dylan never was a prophet, and, in an oft-quoted passage from his new autobiographical book, "Chronicles: Volume One," he says. "I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation I was supposed to be the voice of.... My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilization."
"Chronicles" is an elliptical book -- nonlinear, but also not opaque. It's like a front-porch chat with a 63-year-old man who's young enough to still be making vital music, but old enough to reflect on the long view. Its structure -- episodic, rambling, digressive -- parallels Dylan's consciousness. He might seem adrift, or even lost, but he is always aware.
There's a fascinating juxtaposition in "Chronicles" of roots and rootlessness. Dylan is steeped in the folk songs and traditions of America -- he goes on for pages about wobbly martyr Joe Hill, and about the songs of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. His latest album, "Love and Theft," is an old-time record, either overtly -- as in the song "High Water (for Charley Patton)" -- or subtly paying homage to American popular music of 60 and 70 years ago. And yet, as the time-jumping structure of "Chronicles" evokes, Dylan is a wandering Jew. He leaves Minnesota for New York. He leaves the folk world for rock 'n' roll. He leaves the city for the country. And, for the last 15 years, he's been on tour almost all the time. (It used to be called The Neverending Tour, but, as Dylan wrote in the liner notes to 1993's "World Gone Wrong," the never-ending tour ended in 1991. Since then, he has just been touring.) There's a sense of connection that Dylan has to America -- absent among most of us reared in the anti-culture of Wal-Mart and Blockbuster. And yet, he's always winking, because we all know that it's a bit of a con.
After all, as many readers of this newspaper know, he's really Robert Zimmerman, right? A nice Jewish boy from Minnesota. He can deny it, he can sing songs for Jesus, but he is one of us, right? It's such an interesting phenomenon -- the tenacity of Jewishness, the paradox, embodied by Dylan himself, of diasporism and identity. We wander, we wear masks, we change our names as did Dylan -- but there's always that thrill when we see a landsman.
As to the name itself, Dylan resorts to cryptic parable: "As far as Bobby Zimmerman goes, I'm going to give this to you right straight and you can check it out." (In other words, we know we're about to be conned.) "One of the early presidents of the San Bernardino Angels was Bobby Zimmerman, and he was killed in 1964 on the Bass Lake run. The muffler fell off his bike, he made a U-turn to retrieve it in front of the pack and he was instantly killed. That person is gone. That was the end of him."
A reference to Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash of 1966? An allegory for his having left behind his own identity? Dylan doesn't explain. But, as in the Zohar, or Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, the answer may lie in another passage: "What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just call myself Robert Allen. As far as I was concerned, that was who I was -- that's what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king and I liked it. There was little of my identity that wasn't in it."
So, Jewish identity is left behind -- and yet, it isn't. You won't find much about Dylan's religiosity in "Chronicles: Volume One" -- unless, of course, you're one of those Dylanologists who notices that the title itself may be a biblical reference. If you're one of them -- OK, one of us -- you've been noticing these coincidences for a long time. The biblical allusions in "All Along the Watchtower," on an album named after John Wesley Harding. (JWH? Who knows?) The prophetic voice in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and, of course, "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan's "religious phase" might have taken some people by surprise, just as U2's recent hymn, "Yahweh," has, but anyone who's followed either artist knows that images of God -- whether as "Father of Night" or "Solid Rock" -- always have been at the center of Dylan's work.
Mostly, though, "Chronicles" is indeed about roots and rootlessness, about breaking down and starting over. Its first two chapters, if you can call them that, are about Dylan's beginnings. The next is about the period in 1969-70, after Dylan had deliberately self-imploded the mythic image being built up for him -- to "demolish my identity," in his words, and start over. The fourth chapter is about the making of the 1987 comeback album "Oh Mercy," after years of lousy records. And then we're back to the early 1960s, when Dylan realized that the folk scene, too, had become too constricting for him.
One is struck by the dissonance between Dylan's public persona and his private desires.
"I don't know what everybody else was fantasizing about," he writes of his life in the late '60s, "but 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." And yet he moves around constantly: "Like the Merle Haggard song, 'I'm on the run, the highway is my home.'"
Dylan's efforts at dismantling his image worked. In 1968, he undermined his image as a political radical by, of all things, visiting Israel.
"I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap," he said. "That image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little." (Fifteen years later, Dylan would record the Zionist song "Neighborhood Bully.")
And then he dismantled his music.
"I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record ["Nashville Skyline"] and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and house-broken.... I released one album (a double one) ["Self-Portrait"] where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn't stick and released that, too. I missed out on Woodstock -- just wasn't there. Altamont -- sympathy for the devil -- missed that, too."
And of course, years later, when yet another comeback had put Dylan back in the spotlight, he alienated just about everybody by embracing born-again Christianity, and writing such songs as "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Property of Jesus."
Of course, Dylan is not the first Jewish prophet to deny that he is a prophet. Jeremiah questioned God; Jonah defied him. In fact, one might say, the surest sign that someone is a charlatan is that he pretends to be a prophet. One wonders, then, about Dylan's insistence that he is a "singer, maybe no more than that."
Indeed, if there is any anchor throughout Dylan's wanderings, it is music. "Chronicles" is replete with studio stories, acknowledgement of influences and musical commentary. Dylan complains that his words eclipse his music. And he seems most joyful when he's riffing on, listening to and writing great American music. Perhaps it's the music that is the real "message" of Dylan's work -- and the moment of inspiration itself that is most redemptive. In his words: "I can't say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. You don't just wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs.... Opportunities may come along for you to convert something -- something that exists into something that didn't yet. That might be the beginning of it."
Reprinted courtesy The Forward.
Jay Michaelson is a writer living in upstate New York.