Friday, October 14, 2005

"It's Halloween", Robert Zimmerman said, from the stage of Philharmonic Hall on October 31st, 1964. "I've got my Bob Dylan mask on." And four decades on, you might ask, "Which one?" We've seen the self-conscious heir to the legacy of Woody Guthrie (or at least a portion of it), the psychedelic troubador, the evangelical Christian, two stages at least of relative burnout, and lately, the folk revivalist and synthetist who is putting out albums that are certainly written from a different place from his mid-'60s psychedlia, but to me (and Diana Moon to the contrary) are at least the equal of Blonde on Blonde.

His Chronicles, published last year, were hailed by critics as a glimpse behind the mask. (Which one? All of them?) It struck me as revelatory too, but in a different way. "If you told the truth, well that's all well and good", says Dylan, "and if you told the un-truth, well that's still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that." And what you see in the book is a bill of the materials that Dylan has used to build and shape the folk scholar, his latest persona, one that's no less a creation than the rest.

To begin with, Dylan repeatedly acknowledges not being one to let facts get too far in the way of a good story, or even a good line. You can sometimes see it in his character studies, which take wild hairpin, contradictory turns: "blood in his eyes, the face of a man who could do no wrong --- a total lack of viciousness or even sinfulness in his face ... I don't know what kept him out of jail," as if he's trying out different visions of the same character. One of his role models, the "Jesse James" balladeer, did something like when he turned a bloodthirsty crook into a hero because that would make a better song.

Does Dylan treat the characters of his memoirs the same way? Surely, beginning with himself. His accounts of his childhood, and his descriptions of his relatives, go on for pages. Left out, perhaps because it would clash a bit with "American kid from the Iron Range", is any mention that he, or they, were Jewish. At one point, there's a description of the Holocaust, and the trial of Eichmann, with no hint that he might feel any personal connection. He might as well be talking about the Khmer Rouge, or the Trail of Tears. A more debatable case is Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was an enormous influence on Dylan, but the Guthrie of the Chronicles is exclusively a musician. The activist Guthrie, whose guitar was emblazoned "This Machine Kills Fascists", is absent. Here, what's not so clear is what's going on in Dylan's mind --- whether he's consciously cutting the character, again, to fit the story, or whether he never was much aware of the activist side of his work in the first place. Which would certainly explain his professed bafflement at folkies' sense of betrayal when he, as "the new Guthrie", abandoned politics.

So, do you choose to believe that his autobiographical album from the '70s --- a fairly clear reference to Blood on the Tracks --- was entirely based on Chekhov short stories? That the truly dreadful verses that he presents as deletia from "Oh, Mercy", as if to say to collectors of bootleg recordings, "Is this what you want? Take it!", were genuinely from serious drafts? Perhaps they were. But you're making a choice. Dylan is a trickster --- the same one who arrived with his invented name and ludicrously padded travelogue in New York in 1961. You only see what he lets you see. (Do you have a problem with that? The man's entitled to his privacy. He'll tell you that himself, and there, at least, he's clearly dead serious, with reason). But his public life --- this stage of it, anyway --- is once again a performance. And it's worth of applause.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never forget that this is the man who made the "Self-Portrait" (sic) double album, possibly the worst record in any genre in the history of the entertainment industry.

9:28 AM  
Blogger charles said...

"Self portrait" was released at a time when, he now claims in Chronicles, he was sick of the attention he was getting from overzealous fans and determinedly trying to sink his own career to get rid of them. And for what it's worth, if he wanted to release something better, he had plenty of good material from the Basement Tapes sitting in the vaults.

Personally, I'm less annoyed by the crud he's released, sometimes for contractual reasons, than by his habit of letting absolutely brilliant material (Basement Tapes, "Blind Willie McTell", "Carribean Wind") languish in the vaults, sometimes for decades.

(He's still doing it --- last I heard, Daniel Lanois far preferred the long version of "Highlands", but the rest of us don't get to hear it).

10:14 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

When 'Self-Portrait' was released, a free-form cultural affairs show on the local PBS channel the name of which I forget was running.

Someone stomped on a copy of it on camera.

With Dylan, you've got to take the bad with the good.

I love the two acoustic albums he released in 1992 and 1993. They are haunting.

1:36 PM  

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