Friday, November 21, 2014

Bob Dylan telling stories . . .

Bob Dylan

Seth Rogovoy, writing in Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (Scribner, 2009), reviews volume one of Dylan's memoires and pegs him as a "storyteller":
The most striking thing about Chronicles is how it introduces an entirely new voice - that of Bob Dylan, the colorful, garrulous storyteller. *More important than how closely he adheres or doesn't adhere to the facts* is the language that he uses to recount his life and times, and the detours and byways down which he leads the reader, through literature, music, philosophy, and life's learned lessons. (Rogovoy, Bob Dylan, 280)
The term "storyteller" here means someone who misleads the reader in entertaining ways, and having read a bit of Dylan's Chronicles myself, I'd say that he 'misleads' with a nod and a wink, signaling to the wary reader that he's not as good as his word, he's better than that. A passage early in volume one makes this clear when Lou Levy, a higher-up in Leeds Music Publishing company, gives Dylan a big break and tells the head of publicity for Leeds, Billy James, to have a talk with Dylan and write promotional material on him for a press release:
Billy dressed Ivy League like he could have come out of Yale - medium height, crisp black hair. He looked like he'd never been stoned a day in his life, never been in any kind of trouble. I strolled into his office, sat down opposite his desk, and he tried to get me to cough up some facts, like I was supposed to give them to him straight and square. He took out a notepad and pencil and asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Illinois and he wrote it down. He asked me if I ever did any other work and I told him that I had a dozen jobs, drove a bakery truck once. He wrote that down and asked me if there was anything else. I said I'd worked construction and he asked me where.


"You traveled around?"


He asked me about my family, where they were. I told him I had no idea, that they were long gone.

"What was your home life like?"

I told him I'd been kicked out.

"What did your father do?"


"And your mother, what about her?"


"What kind of music do you play?"

"Folk music."

"What kind of music is folk music?"

I told him it was handed down songs. I hated these kind of questions. Felt I could ignore them. Billy seemed unsure of me and that was just fine. I didn't feel like answering his questions anyway, didn't feel the need to explain anything to anybody.

"How did you get here?" he asked me.

"I rode a freight train."

"You mean a passenger train?"

"No, a freight train."

"You mean, like a boxcar?"

"Yeah, like a boxcar. Like a freight train."

"Okay, a freight train."

I gazed past Billy, past his chair through his window across the street to an office building where I could see a blazing secretary soaked up in the spirit of something - she was scribbling busy, occupied at a desk in a meditative manner. There was nothing funny about her. I wished I had a telescope. Billy asked me who I saw myself like in today's music scene. I told him, nobody. That part of things was true, I really didn't see myself like anybody. The rest of it, though, was pure hokum - hophead talk. (Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One, Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004, pages 7-8)
In short, Dylan told Billy James a pack of entertaining lies, and he did so because he "didn't feel the need to explain anything to anybody." People want a story anyway, so he gives them one.

But Dylan is primarily a songwriter and performer, and he is better known as a storyteller in his songs. One blog post by Jason Boog, "Best Bob Dylan Songs That Tell a Story" (Galleycat, June 15, 2011) lists 24 of his best storytelling songs.

As regular readers know, I've already blogged on one of these, namely, Isis.

UPDATE: The text had "Less important than how closely he adheres to the facts", but after checking with Mr. Seth Rogovoy, I've edited to reflect what he intended to write: *More important than how closely he adheres or doesn't adhere to the facts* . . .

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