Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

How I Changed My Mind About Bob Dylan

Illustration by Jim Cooke
Illustration by Jim Cooke
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in Seattle, 16 years old and riding in the passenger seat as my dad drove down Roosevelt on the way home from Scarecrow Video. We were listening to an oldies station, which had recently shifted from the ‘50s and ‘60s to the ‘60s and ‘70s. At the time, my taste in music was somewhere in the Venn overlap of Billie Holiday and Pulp. My dad had taught me about energetic musicians, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, but my heart was still most accessible to somebody moody singing about a grudge.

Outside the car there was city darkness: neon signs and bright purple sky. “Lay Lady Lay” came on the radio and it felt like a searchlight had been switched on shining directly into my eyes, an almost unbearable sense of significance. I think I said something like “What’s this?” to my dad—I meant “WHAT IS THIS”—and he said, “It’s Bob Dylan but it’s not his best album.” Less than 24 hours later, I had my own Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan CD. That’s how I became the last person on the planet to discover that Bob Dylan is really, really, really good.

The mystery I’ve wondered about ever since: what’s so good about him? Because of my dad, I’d heard The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” about 50,000 times by the time I heard Dylan’s. The Animals’ version should feel more exciting—it has a bounding and rolling melody, Eric Burdon’s voice is stronger and clearer. He lets the song build; he works up to a big roar of sincere misery, vigor and regret. The Dylan version, on the other hand, is snarled virtually at a monotone. The chain that hobbles him is not his own hedonism but the hopelessness and despair he can’t escape. And yet one track feels like a beloved teddy bear and the other like the touch of living skin. There’s more person in Dylan’s voice than anyone else’s; his voice transmutes the unnerving sensation of being wholly, troublingly alive.

The difference between Dylan at his fullest and slightest is not incremental: one recording of “Girl from the North Country” will sound like something I’d put on while making dinner, while another will require my undivided attention. He seems to be able to give or withdraw that ultra-presence at will—he changes the depth of presence line by line in “Time Passes Slowly” from 1970, while changing the meaning of the title phrase in each of five repetitions—then in the same album he sings “If Not for You” just like a plain old song. At some point Dylan stopped singing in that ultra-present way almost entirely—the last song I know that I’d describe that way is “Blind Willie McTell” from 1983, but even from the late sixties they’re rarer. I don’t know what changed.

Being a Dylan fan out of time, I was stuck trying to figure out this mystery alone. My high school and college friends didn’t care much one way or another. I tried reading a few books and didn’t feel like they were getting me closer to understanding anything, and I found no help in anything he’d ever said in interviews. Expecting leadership or clarity from Dylan himself or any of his songs seemed like a misunderstanding of the gift, a form of eating the goose with the golden eggs.

My dad has said that Dylan taught a generation of white boys with terse WWII-vet fathers how to connect to their own emotions. He offered leadership to a group of kids who needed a deep-feeling version of masculinity—and I think the same people needed a route toward empathy with Civil Rights struggles and the suffering of Black America. I’m skeptical that the people doing the actual work of the Civil Rights Movement got fired up listening to “Blowin’ In The Wind” but I understand why it might have felt like vital spiritual leadership to people—especially young white men—who needed a phrase book for empathy and expression.

That’s the kernel of the difference between my fandom and the fandom of many of the authors I’ve read—I didn’t want any of Dylan’s leadership. As a young woman, I already spent too much of my mind on empathy, and his version of anti-racism seemed antique and underclaiming to me. He didn’t teach me to connect with my feelings or be myself. If anything, he was slightly hostile to “myself,” and I lingered in his music at a cost. Dylan-world was a place I could visit, not a representation of my reality. It is a place that is beautiful to me, but it’s also a place where women are only welcome if they’re super-hot. (One example among many: the opening lines of “I Shall Be Free” used to torment my teenage self.)

But I’m not careful enough with my wellbeing to stay away for long. The spell eventually influences me. One time when I was 18 and driving around Seattle with my dad, I said, listening to Blonde on Blonde: “Sometimes I think I want to be a great writer, and sometimes I think I’d rather be a great writer’s girlfriend? Like that might also be a good way of being close to something really important and amazing.”

My dad fielded this one pretty well, I think. He said “No.”

That’s where I left my investigation for many years. Dylan was my favorite-favorite, but I never figured out what drew me to him. Whatever he was doing seemed well beyond being the voice of his generation—if such a thing were possible—and also somehow less than that. It had nothing to do with what kind of guitar he played. I never read his memoir; I assumed he was as mysterious to himself as he was to other people. I thought his greatness was one of the happy coincidences of the world, just a grace that descended on him inexplicably and then slowly left him.

So that’s why Chronicles Vol. 1 has been out 12 years and I only picked it up now, as part of another project—and that’s when I realized I was wrong.

Chronicles is an unusual artifact—for one thing, a lot of it’s plagiarized, and not just a paragraph here and there, but the entire book. It’s more of a patchwork of jokes and tall tales told using other writers’ words than a direct account of things that happened. On the one hand it feels like it’s full of gossip and on the other, anything you actually try to examine turns out to be half fictional. (From spending hours trying to incorporate Blonde on Blonde into every cell of my body, that’s a familiar feeling.) The book approaches literature like the folk song approaches music—it picks up bits and pieces from various sources to create something true without being exactly truthful.

Bob Dylan at New York’s Madison Square Garden Jan. 30, 1974. Image via AP.
Bob Dylan at New York’s Madison Square Garden Jan. 30, 1974. Image via AP.

Another odd thing—the central conceit of the book turns the memoir inside out. Usually memoir writers cast themselves as almost neutral observers of unusual events. The memoir writer often can’t or doesn’t want to make himself seem like an unreliable narrator, a person who would cook up drama rather than endure it. The story of a memoir is only as believable as the author’s voice.

Dylan’s book takes the opposite approach—he tells us very few of the wildest things that happened to him. Instead of presenting himself as a person like anyone else who happened to live through extraordinary events, he tells us about some of the least interesting things that happened to him, in the most idiosyncratic way.

The first chapter is from the early days of his life in New York, when he’s a very young man, sleeping on the couches of friends and trying to establish himself in folk cafes where he passes around a basket for tips. If it’s about anything, it’s about the way it feels to have a pressure of phrases, meanings, allusions and stories behind your eyes. The prose has that feeling of restless ultra-presence of his songs from the early sixties.

But this is a new version, unlike the one from the songs. First, he didn’t write this chapter when he was 20; he wrote it recently, about the past. As an author, he brought back the cadence and urgency of that former Dylan, the one I thought had dissolved in the eighties. This time, being a writer and not a musician, I could understand how he did it. As I carried around my book copy, taking photos of pages with my phone so I would never not have them with me, I could see the mechanics behind what I loved.

As a writer, Dylan layers in triplicate: there are the things that happen, the loopy ways he imagines them and the art that informs his imagination all concurrently, which is a literary technique I would love to learn myself. The book Peter Pan does this layering, but it’s sorted out clearly in time: Barrie narrates the event first, then re-situates it in Wendy’s family dynamics, then explores it in Wendy’s mind, through art and imagination (that’s Neverland). Dylan writes all these dimensions at once. The human touch begins in this constant rendering of art and subjectivity behind the words.

This is a passage from when Dylan is gearing up to write “Let Me Die In My Footsteps.”

“Before I had ever gone into any department store, I was already an imaginary consumer. I used Lava Soap, shaved with Gillette Blue Blades, was on Boliva Time, putting Vialis in my hair, used laxatives and pills for acid indigestion.—Feenamint and Dr. Lyon’s tooth powder. I had the Mike Hammer attitude, my own particular brand of justice. The courts were too slow and too complicated, don’t take care of business. My sentiment was that the law is fine but this time, I’m the law—the dead can’t speak for themselves. I’m speaking for’em. Okay? I asked the guy who made the sound effects for the radio shows how he got the sound of the electric chair and he said it was bacon sizzling. What about broken bones? The guy took out a LifeSaver and crushed it between his teeth.”

The texture here is like double-sided tape: he picks up everything, incorporates it all to himself. He doesn’t differentiate between an idea, an advertisement, a story, a phrase, a noise and an action. The illusion and the reality of the radio show effects are both absorbed and kept without rank of importance. The feeling of being a person for him at this age is the layers of art, experience and imagination all churning together.

Bob Dylan sings for Pope John Paul II in Bologna Saturday, September 27, 1997. Image via AP.
Bob Dylan sings for Pope John Paul II in Bologna Saturday, September 27, 1997. Image via AP.

Then he gets older, and it all changes. This is how Chronicles began to astonish me—not that he can make a book of the feeling of being himself, but that he can make five different prints of his own mind in five chapters, and all the prints are as true as the next. In the second chapter, while he’s writing New Morning, his thoughts have a different texture:

“I gazed around the room, got up and nervously paced around a few times, watched the clock on the wall—it seemed to be running backwards. I sat back down feeling lines blowing into my face and the whites of my eyes turning yellow. Al Kooper was clowning around, telling shaggy dog stories. I was listening to Daniels practicing scales on the fiddle, thumbing through some magazines that were left on the table, Colliers, Billboard, Look magazine. Running across an article in Male magazine about a guy, James Lally, a radio man in World War II who had crashed with his pilot in the Philippines, I got sidetracked for a second.”

This Dylan is bored and trying to behave. The style and intent here are totally different: the sentences are longer, and he’s setting a specific scene. And still, it’s no less him.

If there’s a form of suspense that draws the reader through the book to get to the end, it’s to find out how the internal feeling of his mind: the drama of the book comes from the texture of his thoughts as he moves through time—this is Proust’s job, and very few other authors even try a technique like describing the same kind of event through five different versions of his own mind. I was literally flabbergasted, as the Times blurb says.

I spent years looking at anything Dylan said about himself askance, the way many people do. Either we believe him and he’s tricking us, or it’s something true and nearly impossible to decode, in which case we’re fools again. Before reading Chronicles, I thought any attitude of certainty toward a book that’s mostly plagiarized or invented would make me either a dupe or a fool. But in his writing I could finally see that Dylan’s mental fingerprints couldn’t possibly be a code or a trick. Even if it turns out that there’s some puzzle in it, if the first initial of all the sentences spell out “Ha ha ha you bought my book fuck you,” it’s still part of the thing Dylan is showing us, unguarded: how it feels to be himself, and by extension, how it feels to be alive.

Bob Dylan performsat the London Feis Festival, in Finsbury Park, Saturday, June 18, 2011.
Bob Dylan performsat the London Feis Festival, in Finsbury Park, Saturday, June 18, 2011.

That’s not to say the book never annoys me. At first, every description of a woman starts with how attractive she is. Camilla is “an exotic dark haired lady, a full-bodied woman” and Chloe has “red gold hair, hazel eyes, an illegible smile, face like a doll and an even better figure, fingernails painted black.” The women are always very attractive; he wouldn’t waste his time, or ours, on a woman who was not extremely hot. Also annoying is that even as an adult, I am completely persuaded by this. Reading the first chapter gives me a two-hour hangover of adolescent conviction that I need to put down my books and start working on being much better-looking if I want an interesting life.

But then, as I kept reading, and the descriptions started to be less boobs-first. Dylan, I realized, was writing faithfully. The tone of his worldview changed as he got older; as that older self writing his younger self, he didn’t make any corrections. He writes each version of himself with equal weight, without condescending to the young self from the perspective of someone who has learned to see things differently.

If I were to write my younger self with equivalent honesty, I’d include the ridiculous songs that I loved at 16 that didn’t turn into lifelong passions. It’s an unfamiliar discipline to put my own former hopes and beliefs in the correct proportion, neither more nor less important than my current ones—the enthusiasms I grew out of were as real as the ones I grew into. It’s a reversal of the way my memory instinctively works, to think about my previous and current self as patterns of improvement or decay.

I had always assumed that Bob Dylan didn’t have any instructions for me. I’m not a musician, I’m skeptical about how much his times really were a’changin’ and his Dylan-world is a place I’d only be welcome on a chick’s visa, as long as I’m cute. But I was wrong. The mystery of ultra-presence isn’t something he left on a few records 50 years ago, it’s something he knows right now, and he can write it in book form. Each of these three literary achievements is startlingly rare and possibly more original than his songwriting: Dylan writing the feeling of his thoughts, differentiating the feeling of his thoughts at different parts of his life all in retrospect, and writing them without judgment. The literary gauntlet is thrown. At this late date, I am finally looking to his work to tell me how to write and how to live.

Catherine Nichols is on Twitter.