You Can't Write On An Empty Stomach
Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One
Book Review by Ray D'Ariano
"Well the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount, but nothing matters much, its doom alone that counts."
Hey, these are the things, ya know?
In the early 70's I was in my early 20's. The last thing in the world I ever wanted was for Bob Dylan to sue me.
I don't know whose idea that was.
What I do recall is this, Bob Gruen took my photograph hanging out, surrounded by all kinds of clutter; beer cans, a small stash, a kitsch pillow from Niagara Falls, Sarah Lee chocolate cake, a slinky, transistor radio, all kinds of clutter.
It was supposed to be some kind of visual interpretation of what was going on in my head, a what makes this guy tick kind of thing. I mean, that was the concept. No one was thinking Dylan parody, not that night anyway.
"Are you on something?" was a question frequently asked by my mother during my adolescence. We decided to go with this as the title of my comedy album.
Now this guy in the photo, he's got the babe in the red sweater and short white skirt looking up adoringly at him, the great crib, or pad as it was called back then in the Stone Age, and all this going on, right? But what's his story? He's not a hippie, not Wavy Gravy or Country Joe, looks kind of clean cut in a pre-yuppie way, but when you see his smirk and attitude, the question "Are you on something?" makes sense. That's what my manager and the art director told me anyway.
I didn't plan the session. I just showed up and tried to cooperate. As a matter of fact I think the attitude I project on the cover says, "Hey, I'm here on this album. I don't know how it happened, but what the hell, you know?" And that's how I really felt.
Anyway, while we were in the process of selecting the cover shot somebody said the photos reminded them of the cover of Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home." Somebody else said why don't we do a takeoff of that cover? And then another voice offered Dylan or Columbia will sue us! And somebody said, "Great!" Think of the publicity, Bob Dylan sues an unknown comic who ripped off his album cover. You'll be a household name in a flash!"
I sat there and watched 3 record business guys who were thrilled with this concept, and when they asked me, the 21 year old kid, what I thought about it I said, "Yeah, I guess." What did I know?
Glenn Christensen, the art director, did a superb job of duplicating the Dylan graphics. To make it look more authentic Gruen took more photo's for the back cover and the record was released.
Dylan didn't sue me, nor did he mention the situation in "Chronicles Volume One." It's ok though; he also doesn't talk about going electric and being booed at Newport, no mention of turning The Beatles on to grass, or a thousand other episodes we'd love to hear his version of.
If it's Dylan's career you want you don't have to read the book 'cause he ain't giving you his career here. What you do is listen to the stage intro he's been using for the last few years. "Ladies and gentlemen please welcome the poet laureate of rock and roll, the voice and the promise of the sixties counter culture, who went from folk to rock and back, moved on to make it in the seventies and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jesus, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80's, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late 90's. Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan."
The book is a straight forward collection of personal recollections, in a non-chronological narrative. Do we believe him or do we dismiss these revelations as current musings of our great eccentric trickster? That's something each reader must decide.
Although his language is a bit more moving and at times more poetic than the memoirs of an undercover cop who infiltrated the Russian mob, he still just comes off like a cool old guy shooting the breeze over a few beers.
He starts off with his arrival in New York City in '62. Then there are three sections on some of his activities later in life, and finally back to home base in the Village in the 6o's. I think one of his quotes sums it up, "Nice to be here. One of my girlfriends was from Milwaukee. She was an artist. She gave me the brush off."
No! Wait a second, that's not it! That's a line he's said in concert from time to time. Just though I'd throw that in. Hope you enjoyed it.
Here's the real one from the book, "America was changing. I had a feeling of destiny and I was riding the changes."
Ok, so you understand you won't get the whole story here. So what is in this book?
Can you picture a young Dylan, in 1948 at a political rally for Harry Truman in Duluth? That's in there.
So's his revelation on Frank Sinatra and how his version of "Ebb Tide, "never failed to fill me with awe." There's this amazing bit about Bob watching Joe Tex with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, an interesting section about playwright Archibald Mac Leish, a classmate of Douglas Mac Arther, who wanted Dylan to write songs for a play called Scratch about The Devil, and many other fascinating passages.
We join our hero in Greenwich Village where he earned his living by passing the basket for donations after doing a few tunes. He worked the day shift for tourists at The Café Wha with a fellow he befriended called Tiny Tim.
When he was a teenager, back in Minnesota, he played piano Little Richard style in several rock groups, Elston Gunn and his Rock Boppers, The Jokers, The Shadow Blasters, and The Golden Chords. None of this is in Chronicles, but trust me, I've looked into it. Point is, when young Bob arrived in the village he was a former rocker, read 'electric', who decided to "go acoustic."
In his quest to become a musicologist (this is in the book), he devoured information and recordings at The New York Public Library and second hand record stores. He added obscure ballads like, "If I Lose, Let Me Lose" or "Brother In Korea' to his deep repertoire. Through his research he learned the history of the music he decided to embrace.
Flash forward to the program for his latest tour. He writes, "I know there are groups at the top of the charts that are hailed as the saviors of rock n' roll and all that, but they are amateurs. They don't know where the music comes from."
According to Chronicles he acquired all kinds of knowledge while crashing at friends apartments and inhaling the books he found there. He was a 20-year-old kid reading newspapers from the Civil War, Tolstoy, Milton, Dostoyevsky. "A narrative that would give you chills" is how he described Thucydides' "The Athenian General."
So&do we believe him or do we dismiss these revelations as the current musings of our great eccentric trickster? That's up to you the reader, but this is a fascinating section that reveals the young man as an artist soaking it all up and expanding his vocabulary and intellect.
In the section titled New Morning we get the entire story of the 1966 Motorcycle accident. "I had been in a motorcycle accident and I'd been hurt, but I recovered. Truth is I wanted to get out of the rat race." That's it! That's all he had to say about it. Yeah, there really was an accident. Yes, Bobby was banged up, but he recovered.
Seems he used the incident as an excuse to lay low for awhile. So the accident takes up two sentences, but he writes here extensively about why he needed the break.
"I had bought one (a country house in Woodstock) later on, and it was the same house that intruders started to break in day and night. Tensions mounted almost immediately and peace was hard to come by. At one time the place had been a quiet refuge, but now, no more. Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs and druggies. Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night. At first, it was merely the nomadic homeless making illegal entry - seemed harmless enough, but then rogue radicals looking for the Prince Of Protest began to arrive - unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry. Peter LaFarge, a folksinger friend of mine, had given me a couple of Colt single-shot peater pistols, and I also had a clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle around, but it was awful to think about what could be done with those things. The authorities, the chief of police (Woodstock had about three cops) had told me that if anyone was shot accidentally or even shot at as a warning, it would be me that was going to the lockup. Not only that, but creeps thumping their boots across our roof could even take me to court if any of them fell off. This was so unsettling. I wanted to set fire to these people."
One just has to reflect on December 8, 1980 to understand there's no dripping sarcasm here.
There's a long section on the LP, Oh Mercy, describing the creative process that resulted in this atmospheric album about life in a political world where everything is broken including the artists heart.
Most fans and critics agree that the studio albums released before it were two of the weakest efforts of his career.
"Knocked Out Loaded" did include the epic "Brownsville Girl" co written by Sam Shepard, a song that contained the line, "Well, there was this movie I seen one time, About a man riding 'cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself."
So now it was like the end of 1997 and Bob, along with Charlton Heston and Lauren Bacall was sitting in a booth at a theater in Washington D.C. with the President of the United States, and down on the stage was Peck. He was making a speech about Bob who had received a Kennedy Centers Honor for his contribution to the arts.
He was talking about the line that mentions his name in "Brownsville Girl," and how thrilled he was to hear it.
Then there was a shot of Bob just kinda doing that combo grinning frown that he does and I couldn't help wondering if Dylan actually wrote that line. Maybe Sam Shepard came up with that one. Maybe not.
Anyway 'Brownsville Girl" was the standout cut on an LP that also featured the inclusion of a children's choir singing over a Kris Kristofferson tune and a pop song by Carol Bayer Sager.
Next he seemed to be sleepwalking through 'Down In The Groove,' his most careless collection, made up of mostly covers including 'When Did You Leave Heaven', an old Guy Lombardo hit.
After those two LP's he went on the road with Tom Petty, and in a separate tour, The Grateful Dead. The LP from the latter tour, 'Dylan and The Dead,' wasn't a home run either, but playing with Weir and Garcia in front of thousands of adoring Deadheads may have set off a spark in Dylan's creativity.
Certainly, hanging out and creating the first Traveling Willburys collection with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynn helped to shake off more creative cobwebs. For example on "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" it sure sounded like he was having some fun again, like back in the "Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35" days.
He writes he was excited to be heading out on a spring tour, but then he had a freak accident and couldn't play guitar because his hand was in a cast. "It had been ripped, and mangled to the bone&"
He found himself alone one night sitting at his kitchen table and began to write. "I wrote about 20 verses for a song called Political World." Turned out that was the first of 20 songs he'd write in the next month.
He goes on to write about the night U2's Bono dropped by with a case of Guinness. As the boys drank Bono asked if he had any new tunes. Dylan showed him the one's he'd been working on and the Irishman encouraged him to record them and even suggested U2's producer, Daniel Lanois.
We learn how Lanois and Dylan teamed up in New Orleans and about the entire creative saga of the LP. And a saga it is with many twists and shouts, such as the story that occurred somewhere in the middle of the recording sessions.
Bob got frustrated and took off on an easy rider journey through the swamp lands. This trip is worthy of an independent film, especially the conversation he had with an old local character, known as Sun Pie. Dylan met him at a roadside shack called King Tut's Museum. The place sold trinkets, voodoo beads, figurines, and stuff like that and before he left, Dylan bought a "Worlds Greatest Grandpa" bumper sticker.
The actual conversation with Sun Pie, as well as those with Bono, and Lanios are all great fly on the wall experiences. Only, of course, if you subscribe to the concept that a fly would have the intellect, curiosity, and interest to listen and digest such chats.
The result of the recording sessions is an amazing work. It kicks off with the hallow reverberation of a haunting guitar on the first cut "Political World" where a world-weary troubadour pours out his feelings about a world where love doesn't have any place, and courage is a thing of the past, all to a humid muggy fast paced bayou beat.
Another standout track has a simple blues riff that oozes through the thick fog of a twanging guitar where we have no choice but to agree that strings, springs, heads, hearts, laws, bones, 'Everything Is Broken.'
"Man In The Long Black Coat" sounds like the theme from an imaginary spaghetti western written by Stephen King. It's the epic darker sequel to "Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts."
Just when you think people would have had enough of eerie dobro love songs, we get the heartfelt "Most Of The Time.' Once in concert Dylan joked, "They're all love songs. The band loves to play them."
The entire collection is a lost gem and Dylan has decided to remind the fans of its existence. One critic wrote, "Stands arguably as Dylan's best album since Blood On The Tracks."
Last year in Atlanta Dylan talked about offering a band mate some advice. "Larry was writing his girlfriend in the hotel the other night. I said, Larry, you can't write on an empty stomach, you gotta use paper." Bob did a pretty great job using up the 293 pages of Chronicles Volume One.
For what it's worth, The New York Times Book Review has ranked Chronicles Volume One the second best book of the year. Why only number two?
Maybe because there are no photos.