"Lou Levy, top man of Leeds Music Publishing company, took me up in
a taxi to the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street to show me the
pocket sized recording studio where Bill Haley and His Comets had
recorded 'Rock Around the Clock.'"
Now I ask you: Of all the ways you might have imagined that Bob
Dylan would begin his memoirs, would you have
If you're like me, you'd expect something more cryptic ("The ragman
draws circles") or political ("How many years can some people exist
before they're allowed to be free?") or lyrical ("Lay, lady, lay,
lay across my big brass bed"). But the lead of a magazine profile?
And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the
surprises that Dylan delivers in what's billed as the first in a
series of memoirs. But "surprises" may not be the right word ---
"put-ons" may be more like it.
In the beginning of his career, when Bob Zimmerman, son of a
Minnesota storeowner, morphed into a Woody Guthrie clone, he was
the very embodiment of passionate liberalism and poetic truth ---
Tom Paine meets Rimbaud. Well-respected books testify to his
ambition, his cruelty to friends and colleagues, his contempt for
You'll find none of that here.
This Dylan is a guy who had "come from a long ways off and had
started from a long ways down." He had thought for a time of going
to West Point. He had no great commitment to social justice or
nuclear disarmament. Later, he would dream of a house with a white
Maybe Dylan really believed this stuff way back then. Or, more
possibly, believes it now and has simply backdated his opinions.
This reader's not buying it. Artists who spend a lifetime covering
their tracks tend to continue to obscure them. And artists who
don't have a compelling reason to tell all rarely do.
So Dylan meanders through his early days in New York, presenting
charming but unrevealing portraits of the people he meets along the
way, the books he reads, the music business circa 1962. "I had no
ambitions to stir things up." Right. Snore.
But this writing has a purpose --- it loosens Dylan up. Unlike a
Real Writer, who writes and cuts and rewrites and cuts, Dylan
writes and writes, saving every precious word. And, slowly, he
writes himself into the book's true subject, which is music: how
you make it, where it comes from, what you do when the magic's not
in your fingertips anymore.
"A song is like a dream," he writes, "and you try and make it come
true." Now he's getting somewhere, you think, and then, suddenly,
you hit a rich vein --- the 60-page story of making a record in New
Orleans with Daniel Lanois as the producer. Bono had recommended
Lanois, and Dylan finds him a good collaborator ("He wanted to dive
in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid") but their work
together doesn't get off to a great start ("The tune was gaining
weight by the minute and none of its clothes were fitting").
The process of creation --- that's a safe place for Dylan, and
suddenly he's free to write. And joke. Other people enter, and they
have their say. The book breathes. And the reader leans in,
enchanted by the tale.
Books need editors as surely as musicians need producers. But who
would dare to edit Bob Dylan? Who would tell the boss, "We're going
to delay this baby yet another year because I want Bob to rewrite"?
No, that doesn't happen. It's a good thing that Dylan is so
magnificently gifted that the last half of his book makes us forget
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on December 27, 2010