Friday, March 15, 2013

"In another lifetime": Dylan named an honorary member of American Academy of Arts & Letters

" Twas in another lifetime ... one of toil and blood."  The eternally prodigal son of Hibbing, Minnesota who stares at the camera from a Manhattan stoop in 1962 still refuses to be a pawn in their game at the age of 71: in a move one writer commented must leave the American Academy of Arts and Letters "charmed and flummoxed," this week it announced Dylan an honorary member -- the first "rock musician"  to be named. Even though it's impossible to tell at times how his music changed America, the country is indefinably a better place for it.

How different the world was in 1962. Mr. Dylan did not invent rock'n'roll hipness from talking too much, but from saying so little in explaining himself, and this impressionistic memoir is proof he's still not intent on revealing too much. Clearly he means his lyrics to be his best explanation.

Bobby Vee, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Tiny Tim are not necessarily the first characters Mr. Dylan's audience associate with the legend, which leads many disappointed readers to assume that Chronicles, Volume One obscures rather than clarifies. But so what? At this late date, a straightforward memoir would cover some very well-known facts. Mr. Dylan has his biographers to set the story straight -- let's assume his own words still mean just what they say and that the created legend was a confusing mix of false starts and stops, confidence and insecurities, and extemporized recording sessions.

Why not? No one creates their own legend out of whole cloth -- it depends on the willing suspension of disbelief in his audience, some calculated myth-making, and help by a publicity department that values Mr. Dylan's own unwillingness to open his mouth about what the words mean. That's what the lyrics are for in the first place. It's American to take control of one's own fate, especially one that involves growing up in public; if the audience isn't in on the joke, the artist can provide a punchline. In some songs, like Positively 4th Street, the lyric seems made up completely of punchlines, like a Vegas comic at full throttle:

You see me on the street / You always act surprised / You say, "How are you?" "Good luck"/ But you don't mean it / When you know as well as me / You'd rather see me paralyzed / Why don't you just come out once / And scream it
No, I do not feel that good / When I see the heartbreaks you embrace / If I was a master thief / Perhaps I'd rob them /And now I know you're dissatisfied / With your position and your place / Don't you understand / It's not my problem

Still, that doesn't mean that Chronicles Volume One isn't a put-on, a put-down or intentionally arcane. "Bob Dylan" is still his own best character. The book succeeds best in conveying the singer's own doubts about himself. Mr. Dylan's selective memory is certainly not a generation's collective one, and why should it be? The book reads like an overheard monologue, a man on the porch remembering bits and pieces of the past: this happened, oh yes,and then this. Mr. Dylan can be a sly dissembler, but there is truth in the telling.

What really set me apart in these days was my repertoire. It was more formidable than the rest of the coffeehouse players, my template being hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming. I'd either drive people away or they'd come in closer to see what it was all about. 
There was no in-between. There were a lot of better singers and better musicians around these places but there wasn't anybody close in nature to what I was doing. Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I could say.
I knew the inner substance of the thing. I could easily connect the pieces. It meant nothing for me to rattle off things like "Columbus Stockade," "Pastures of Plenty," "Brother in Korea" and "If I Lose, Let Me Lose" all back-to-back just like it was one long song. 
Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn't care about doing that. With me, it was about putting the song across.

To this day his performances are still about the song and not the singer, though many of his fans would disagree with him on that count; they analyze his current performances as they once parsed his lyrics. (He famously called himself a "song and dance man" early in his career --as if he was only Mr. Bojangles for the nuclear age.) 

Are there great stories waiting in a presumed volume two? Probably not the ones his fans remember. Reading Chronicles Volume One is akin to discovering one's hero still puts his pants on one leg at a time -- disappointing, but what does one expect? Ambrose Bierce defines the imagination as "a warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership." I'll bet Mr. Bierce never had anyone yell out "Judas!" after him, though.

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