Mister Jones’ Diary

Review of Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 293 pages. $24 US ($35 Can). Published in Books in Canada.

I live in Seattle, and the day after the recent November election, whose result winded me without exactly surprising me, I put on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, his still strange and unsettling record from 1965 that is also one of the towering pop artifacts of the last century. Listening, you can channel something else about American life, something mystic that is in the music and also sits a little to the side of it. In every song an assured 24-year-old reinvents popular music with quadruple rhymes and sliding, fragmentary story shapes. Gypsy Davey, Noah’s great rainbow, Miss Lonely, chrome horses, and the mystery tramp all meet and move among Jack Kerouac’s lyric hipsters, Walt Whitman’s cadences, Arthur Rimbaud’s visions. What better tonic is there for a major election that has gone the other way than Dylan’s potent language and swirling music which, together, form something like an incantation against deranging power:

You walk into the room

With your pencil in your hand

You see somebody naked

And you say, “Who is that man?”

You try so hard

But you don’t understand

Just what you’ll say

When you get home.


That’s how “Ballad of a Thin Man” opens, the singer’s voice burrowing among heavy organ chords. The song culminates famously in the chorus, “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” If I had to identify one of the elements of Bob Dylan’s musical genius as its center it would be the understanding he brings to the self and its fractions: listen once and Mister Jones is any oblivious person. Listen again and it’s me: “You try so hard,” he sings, laughing over the lines. “But you don’t understand.” That you points in two directions.

Dylan’s pop genius exploded continuously over eight albums between 1963 and 1968, and they affected everyone from the poets of Greenwich Village to the Beatles, whose writing stepped into adult terrain after they met him. Writers studied his lyrics, filmmakers followed him, weekly magazines tried to draw portraits. From one photo to the next he seemed a different man with a different face. He wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Hard Rain” when he was 23. When he was 24 and 25 so many songs came to him that he had to write everywhere, including in cars and trains, and backstage in rooms full of people. He turned his back on folk music, and then, after that, on electric music. He became a Christian for in the 1980s, and when his new religion seemed to fade he found the producer Daniel Lanois, who helped him make new music greasy with darkness and death, grim and ticklingly humorous. In 40 years he has written over 700 songs, the finest of which seem to most listeners to have come out of the same head waters as Hank Williams’ writing, but with the rapturous lyrics that put you in mind of great poetry. People will point to Emerson, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton. But in fact he sounds like no one.

He was political only until about 1964, when he returned to the roots music on Harry Smith’s six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music, music that constituted a form of politics but more importantly a kind folk eternity, with tales of killing, traveling, running from the law, and the afterlife. The politics, that is, moved indoors and became personal. The lyrics grew gnomic, romantic, trancelike, private, and yet it was this turn that more directly laid out the nation’s interior monologue:

Don’t put on any airs when you’re down

On Rue Morgue Avenue.

  • “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues”


When you asked how I was doing

Was that some kind of joke?

  • “Desolation Row”


And Louise holds a handful of rain

Tempting you to defy it.

  • “Visions of Joanna”


It’s not until late in Chronicles, which is being advertised as Volume One of a three-part autobiography, that the few episodes that Dylan works to describe in the book become clear. He is trying to suggest his whole life by what happened when he first arrived in New York in 1961, at 20, when he met everyone, played at the Gaslight and Café Wha? signed with Columbia Records, and within a year began to write original songs that would take up permanent residence in the culture. Chronicles underscores that Dylan took his deepest inspirations from what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America” – he wanted to take old Appalachian murder ballads and Negro banjo music and use their earthly power to drive a wedge into beautiful and empty songs like Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man.” Dylan met the scholar-singers in New York, too, and he knew early on that he didn’t want their purity. He wanted, rather, to push kinds of music together like furniture: in his songs Woody Guthrie’s social outrage could meet the sexual explosiveness of Little Richard and produce something considerably different -- grown up, cynical, worldly, funny, mean, romantic, empathetic. That was what a traveling man could sing. That was “Like a Rolling Stone.” Weird, old America had to meet weird, new America.

So that’s where it begins. Thereafter Chronicles follows a chronology much the way the Old Testament does. After the initial episode of his signing with Columbia Records, he circles back to his arrival in New York in a freezing January, where we learn that he spent long hours at the Folklore Center listening to the old music on old 78s. We read that he lived by couch-surfing in different apartments in the Village. He read everything then, too. In one four-page burst in the second chapter the list of books he says he read is astonishing: Rousseau and Ovid and Poe; the Greek classics, Lord Byron, Shelley and Balzac; Dostoevsky and Dickens; the Inferno. “The books were something,” Dylan writes. “They were really something.” You begin to imagine how those lyrics, scrounged like meals from borrowed libraries, could come out. The rich catalogues in “Hard Rain” make a magpie weave of Woody Guthrie, the Old Testament and Dante, and perhaps some other books that were at hand.

Dylan’s sense of storytelling in Chronicles is a songwriter’s, which is to say that it’s circular and recursive. Two middle chapters wander into the 1970s and the 1980s before they return to New York in 1961. Wha? The book is, finally, unevenly interesting. The chapter on how he made 1989’s “Oh Mercy” is not memorable. But there are spots in which the writing holds you, where it is clear-eyed and full of memory. Here is one short passage in which he describes his response to reading Vom Kriege, Karl Von Clausewitz’s Romantic-era book of about war. At 63, Dylan captures some of his 20-year-old self: “Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet. Without realizing it, some of the stuff in his book can shape your ideas. If you think you’re a dreamer, you can read this stuff and realize you’re not even capable of dreaming. Dreaming is dangerous. Reading Clauswitz makes you take your own thoughts a little less seriously.”

At 20 he was open to a hard-eyed pragmatic, philosophical book about war that taught him the value of self-doubt and of seeing external events in terms of inner worlds. Chronicles could use more insights like this. But I’ll take the scraps he offers here, and hope that, as he sings in “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” this isn’t really the end.