Five things we learned from Bob Dylan’s book
Bob Dylan once recorded a tune called ”The Man in Me,” but the legendary singer/songwriter has spent 40 years or so doing his best to conceal that human side. So it’s all the more stunning to read his just-released memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, in which the 63-year-old Dylan — in straightforward, occasionally poetic prose — finally reveals some personal truths about his feelings, his creative influences, and his career. Here’s some of what we learned from the tome, which covers selected periods of Dylan’s uncommonly eventful life:
Finding a name was hard. The former Bobby Zimmerman reveals that early on, he performed under the name of Elston Gunn (don’t ask us why), and then planned to go with Robert Allyn, a misspelling of his middle name. But after reading poems by Dylan Thomas, the 18-year-old Zimmerman started to rethink his pseudonym. ”The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities, I instinctively and automatically without thinking simply said, ‘Bob Dylan,”’ he writes. ”Now, I had to get used to people calling me Bob.”
He was ahead of Wilco by four decades. In 1998, British folksinger Billy Bragg and Chicago roots-rock band Wilco released Mermaid Avenue, the first of two acclaimed albums in which they put music to unheard lyrics by folk pioneer Woody Guthrie. But it turns out that Guthrie, who died in 1967, had other plans in mind. When a young Dylan visited the ailing Guthrie in a New Jersey hospital in the early ’60s, Guthrie offered him the very same stash of unused lyrics — but Woody’s then-preteen son, Arlo (later of ”Alice’s Restaurant” fame), was unable to find them when Dylan came calling.
Nashville Skyline was a goof. Dylan’s 1969 country-tinged album was a radical departure, dividing critics with its upbeat songs, simplistic lyrics, and smoothed-out singing style. But in the book, Dylan treats the LP — which is often given credit for the rise of country-rock — as little more than a ploy to destroy his oppressive ’60s image as the ”Big Bubba of Rebellion.” ”I… made sure it sounded pretty bridled and house-broken. I used a different voice, too.” He also explains 1970’s covers-heavy Self Portrait, widely considered his worst album: ”I just threw everything I could think of at the wall.”
He’s down with hip-hop. When producer Daniel Lanois asked Dylan what he was listening to circa 1989, he was surprised to hear the answer: ”Ice-T.” Old-school rapper Kurtis Blow personally turned Dylan on to the genre when he invited him to sing on Blow’s 1986 album, Kingdom Blow. In his book, Dylan raves about Public Enemy, N.W.A, and Run-D.M.C.: ”They were all poets and knew what was going on.” He even confesses that they made him feel that his own music had become ”archaic.”
At times, even HE’S in awe of himself. Ever wonder how a young man could write timeless tunes like ”Masters of War”? It seems their author does, as well. By the ’80s, Dylan knew he could no longer match his ’60s classics, offering a mystical rationale: ”To do it you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits… Someone would come along eventually who would have it again, someone who could see into things, the truth of things.” Let us know when you find that person, Bob.