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Jim O’Donoghue reviews

Chronicles, Volume One
by Bob Dylan
293 pp. Simon and Schuster. GBP £16.99. 0743230760 hardback

Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, 517 pp. Penguin. GBP £9.99. 0140073361 paper

This review is 2,200 words
or about 5 printed pages long

Talking around Dylan

Driving west last autumn, from middle England to mid-Wales, I asked my friend behind the steering wheel to imagine what On the Road might have been like if Kerouac had set out travelling with real purpose.

‘It would have been a different book,’ my friend said.

And here it is, that different book, in the form of Dylan’s Chronicles, which movingly extends Kerouac’s franchise into the 21st century.

Dylan, we learn from the opening 100 or so pages that track the year from his arrival in New York before he had made a record, was always full of purpose. Unlike that of Sal Paradise, his journey is one of learning — learning his craft and his trade — and much of the captivating first third of his book tells of that learning process, through meeting those he learned from.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Dylan characterises the now obscure figures of the folk underworld with much of the warm dry wit that Kerouac brought to his depictions of Remi Boncoeur and the rest of them. He has the ability, which Kerouac never lost even when he wrote badly, of recreating the moment in its moment of happening, so that such encounters seem fresh and spontaneous and not just remembered. For this reason, Chronicles does not come across as a book written by an old man. Far from it, Dylan is right there with his 20-year-old self, shivering in the New York winter, just as he is right there with the later selves he describes, in Woodstock at the end of the 1960s and New Orleans at the end of the 1980s.

I remember hearing a radio interview with Dylan where he said of his new album — Shot of Love — that you couldn’t talk about it, you could only talk around it. That is his method in his memoirs, too, and those who approach them hoping for any kind of personal exposé will quickly put the book down. It is not so much that he avoids his interior but that he creates a language of detail resting on the furniture in the room, the temperature and the light, to give us a picture of himself as a walking sensibility, travelling through cities and eras. His interest is in everything around him — which is why, at least in the world of this book, he remembers what everything and everyone was like, but not himself. And he does this in a simple style, in sentences so rhythmical and driving that they sound — well — like poetry, in a sense, in the same sense that Kerouac’s famous descriptions of driving west sound like poetry. But Dylan is rarely carried away by his own lyricism; most of the effects are surprisingly controlled. Surprisingly, in that he has often made a virtue of verbal excess over the years.

It is a shame, perhaps, that after the opening New York city chapters, pre-Blowing in the Wind, Dylan breaks off and talks about the circumstances around the album New Morning. A chapter on the making of Oh Mercy follows. These chapters are interesting enough in their own right, but lack the integrity and concentration of the book’s beginning. Nevertheless, he is very good in describing inspiration, creative malaise, and points in between — and both of the later albums represent such mid-points. In the case of Oh Mercy at least, what he says about the album in Chronicles is more compelling than the record itself. But Chronicles, which is subtitled Volume One, had better be followed by volumes two and three, or the apparently chance leaps in time will make this volume seem something of a fragmentary fragment.

In his otherwise bitter and raging 1970 Rolling Stone interview, John Lennon mildly observed that what Dylan said was not as interesting as the way he said it, a remark which is as true of Chronicles as it is of the songs. It is not a remark that Christopher Ricks picks up on in his first book about Dylan — he has written essays and articles, but this we take it is the great Dylan tome he was waiting to write. Ricks does not refer to Lennon at all in his 500 pages, nor to the Beatles, nor for that matter to Jack Kerouac. His frames of reference for Dylan’s oeuvre are those he has spent a lifetime making his bread from, in the employ of Bristol and Cambridge — and now, as Professor of Poetry, Oxford. There are egregious references, therefore, to Philip Larkin and Milton, Shakespeare and Beckett, Geoffrey Hill and A.E. Housman. The book has the air of an undergraduate essay gone mad in fulfilling that typical undergraduate brief — to make connections — though in fairness it would be the work of a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic undergraduate.

Ricks has his project, which is first to establish to his satisfaction that Dylan is a cultural artefact worthy of academic scrutiny and then to analyse that artefact. The first part of the project occupies a few pages at the start of Visions of Sin, and is quite baffling in its procedure and conclusions. Suffice to say, he discovers — or rather, he quotes the discovery of the Dylan fanzine Telegraph — a reference to Journey of the Magi in a Dylan song called Maybe Someday. There is undeniably a borrowing or a theft — that nobody can deny. But I would recommend to anyone who is having a bad day that they read the Eliot poem then listen to the song — in the unlikely event that they own a copy of the deservedly unpopular Knocked Out Loaded. The effect is what Lou Reed would call ‘beyond hilarious’ — it certainly had me rolling around on the carpet in glee! Maybe Someday is a bad milestone along Dylan’s most arid stretch, and in stealing from TSE he is a bit like a man walking past an open window on a dark night and lifting whatever is on the windowsill.

Chronicles, which came out a year or so after Dylan’s Visions of Sin, provides fodder for Ricks’s case in referring twice to Eliot, the second time saying that he is ‘worth reading.’ But even with the link to Eliot established, it is not clear where Ricks is taking us, since his interest in making connections between Dylan and his fellow greats — as Ricks sees it — is not in finding influences. If it was, and if he wanted to find an explanation for the undeniably European feel to Dylan’s musical and verbal inspiration, Brecht and Brel would have been a place to start. But he zealously goes on to make connections anyway, with people whose poems Dylan has never quoted in his songs.

Indeed, the connections that Ricks makes often seem quite arbitrary. In discussing the song Boots of Spanish Leather, he rather reluctantly locates the Spanish leather in the folk song Gypsy Davey. For the Spanish boots themselves, he goes to Goethe’s Faust and The Master and Margerita, then searches the OED for the precise meaning of to give someone the boot — although bringing that meaning to the forefront of the song clearly, I should have thought, makes the song ridiculous. The closest we come to understanding Ricks’s motivation for finding affinities between Dylan and the literary canon is when he says that he finds it uplifting to discover that great minds think alike, which is a curious motivation for writing such a long book.

Such arbitrary links and citations inevitably have their comic side. There is a wonderful moment when in discussing Dylan’s On the Road Again, Ricks refers to On the Road — that is, the poem by William Barnes, of course! Many readers would find amusing and exasperating in equal measure the dissections of what are by their own admission pop songs — songs which could have been written by anyone on Tin Pan Alley — such as If Not For You and Lay, Lady, Lay. And before I go any further, let it be said that Dylan’s Visions of Sin is regularly amusing. It has its faults, but it is never dull, it rarely repeats itself, it is more than well written and hardly ever tells us something we already knew. Perhaps this last virtue is double-edged in that, as Raymond Chandler said of Hercule Poirot’s detective methods, only a fool or a genius could come to such conclusions. But it is a book with a certain exhausting charm, for all its flawed premise.

That the premise is flawed is emphasised by a handful of citations that are not so egregious, and which come from poets and novelists rather than academics or literary critics. In a footnote on the book’s penultimate page, Ricks quotes Robert Lowell as saying, in the wake of some very positive remarks about the singer, that Dylan has ‘lines’ but that he doubts whether he has ‘written whole poems.’ A.S. Byatt said something similar during the Dylan versus Keats wars — that she could find many layers in a poem by Keats but that she ‘wouldn’t know where to start’ with a Dylan song. Larkin, cheekily reviewing Highway 61 Revisited in his jazz column, found the words of Desolation Row ‘half-baked,’ which is precisely what you would expect a practising poet to think of Dylan’s lyrics. Ricks tends to react to these objections with resigned amusement, though in a recent interview he suggested that those who wished to deny Dylan his place alongside Shakespeare were elitist.

If there is any elitism here, it seems to me to come from Ricks himself, in his reluctance to allow that a pop singer is just that — a pop singer — and that the medium of popular music has its own strengths and values, which are other than those of poetry. The closest he comes to seeing that point is, oddly enough, at the start of the book, when he quotes Larkin at length on poetry readings. Larkin dislikes readings because they serve poetry badly — poetry is best read, on the page, he says — and observes that the fad for readings derives from a ‘false analogy’ with music. Whatever we think of Larkin’s views, the point can easily be made the other way round, though Ricks drives quite happily by it and misses it altogether. Dylan’s lyrics are meant to be heard, not read. In fact, they read pretty badly on the page, compared with the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira or Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. (Those of us with money in the bank and time to spare will eagerly await Ricks’s great exegesis on the works of Nick Cave!)

The words of popular songs pass you by, as they are supposed to, without leaving us time to dissect or deconstruct. The only way in which to follow Dylan as Ricks does is to sit down with the lyric book — a book which I had previously thought was useful only for checking whether he really did sing that thing about unwrapping a bed roll. Sitting down with a book of lyrics is a tedious and joy-limiting experience with respect to a song. And though Ricks’s book is not tedious, it does limit Dylan in trying to claim for him a place in the pantheon. It limits by misrepresenting what he does, which is to open up vistas — through the sense of hearing, and through the sense of touch if you have the volume turned up loud enough and the bass is coming through the floorboards. Reading Ricks’s books has not, for me at any rate, changed or enlarged upon the songs. Dylan’s songs are adventures, not the price tag on the boots of the man taking his dog for a walk.

Dylan’s Visions of Sin has its virtues — it is not the usual gossip about how many times Dylan might have slept with Gypsy Rose Lee. But while allowing that his book is superior in almost every way to your average music journalism, I wonder whether in choosing such an inapposite subject Ricks is not throwing into question the value of academic scrutiny. Look, the academic says, I can eat anything, even this pop song here. See, I’ve eaten it, it hasn’t done me any harm! A.S. Byatt was right not to know where to start, and right in not trying to find out — because if such a book puts false limitations on Dylan it also makes the academic, in his determination to eat the wrong food, appear foolish and self-indulgent. It reminds me of what my girlfriend’s extremely posh uncle said, on the occasion he dined at McDonalds: ‘Thank you, that wasn’t bad. I shall patronise you again some time.’

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