Last year Louis Menand of the New Yorker wrote “nothing having to do with Dylan can be alien to me”. I guess that’s an odd way of putting it, but I knew what he meant.
When Chronicles was published in 2004 I avoided it, fearing disappointment. However, a couple of weeks ago I was in Kyoto having a pretty crappy time and I pulled it out on a late night subway train. Now when I think of Bob’s reminiscing I associate it with that train and cracking up over passages like this.
France had just been booted out on North Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh after one hundred years of colonial rule. He had seen enough of the French. They had turned Hanoi, the capital city, into the “brothel-studded Paris of the orient.” He kicked them out and would now be getting his supplies from Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. The French had been plundering the country for years. The press reported that Hanoi was grubby and cheerless, that the Chinese dressed in shapeless jackets and you couldn’t tell the difference between the men and the women—everybody rode a bicycle and did calisthenics in public three times a day. The newspapers made it sound as if it were a weird place. The Vietnamese might have to be straightened out—might have to send some Americans over there.
What comes out so strongly from Chronicles (and from “Theme Time Radio”, of which more another time) is Dylan’s passion for the work of other musicians. In fact he talks a lot more about other artists than about his own work. Here he is on another of my heroes, Hank Williams.
They called him a “hillbilly singer” but I didn’t know what that was. … Hank was no burr head. There was nothing clownish about him. Even at a young age, I identified fully with him. I didn’t have to experience anything that Hank did to know what he was singing about. I’d never seen a robin weep, but could imagine it and it made me sad. … I’d learn later that Hank had died in the backseat of a car on the New Year’s day, kept my fingers crossed, hoped it wasn’t true. But it was true. It was like a great tree had fallen. Hearing about Hank’s death caught me squarely on the shoulder. The silence of outer space never seemed so loud.
Dylan also talks knowledgeably and interesting about the recording process (“Johnston’s thinking that everything I’m recording is fantastic, he always does”), the perils of being a “spokesman for a generation”, and a whole lot of other stuff from the good old days. It’s at a bookstore near you, as they say – and there is nothing in it that can be alien to me, as Louis Menand and I would say.