We should probably fill our readers in on the epic Dylan road trip the two Alexes undertook in the summer of 1998. We shaved 3,000 miles off the life of a white Sebring convertible in pursuit of the author of "Handy Dandy" and several hundred other classics of American song. I was working on a New Yorker piece about Dylan; you were along for the ride. I hadn't asked for an interview, but at one point the Columbia PR man offered to introduce us to the Meister before one of his California shows. Alas, we got lost on the way from Berkeley to Mountain View and missed the appointed meeting. We hung around backstage after the show—Kirk from Metallica was hoping for a handshake, too—but the Bob was gone. I'm glad in retrospect it didn't work out because it probably would have ruined the piece—turned it into yet another inconclusive Chat with the Sphinx. Instead, I wrote purely from a fan's point of view. (The end result can be found on my blog, Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise, and in Ben Hedin's anthology Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader.)
It's reassuring to see that Dylan has once again triumphantly frustrated expectations with his new memoir. People have been asking: Why didn't he write about hanging with the Beatles? Plugging in at Newport? Falling off his motorcycle? Converting to Christianity? In other words, they not only expected but even wanted him to knock out a crappy confessional showbiz memoir—a "written with" book arranged around fake landmarks and faux epiphanies that fans perceived on the singer's behalf. How excruciating would that have been? The mind reels:
I was racing round the bend when this patch of wet leaves came up straight in my face. It was crazy, man. My whole life flashed before my eyes: the Girl from the North Country, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, smoking pot with the Beatles, Kennedy getting shot on that dark day in Dallas, kids starting to die in Vietnam, a generation tuning in and turning on. I was dancing beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, but this time the Grim Reaper was right behind me, and he almost grabbed that waving hand and danced me straight into the hereafter. Next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital in Woodstock. I started to question everything about my life. Where was I? Who was I? Why was I here?
Instead, we have this circuitous, digressive, brilliant monologue, which is written "with" nobody but the man himself. I was scared to read it, because although I knew Dylan would never produce a Kathie Lee Gifford "I Can't Believe I Said That"-type affair, I did fear getting something along the lines of the grotesque Klaus Kinski memoir, which I gleefully skewered for Slate years ago. Instead, as you say, this book is blazingly intelligent and blazingly honest, saturated on every page by one of the most powerful personalities America has left. It may skip over most major events in Dylan's life, but it reveals where the songs came from, what he was listening to and reading and hearing and thinking as he wrote them—and that's the book I dreamed of reading. I can get the facts about the Beatles and the motorcycle from one of several gossipy biographies.
Which isn't to say that the book doesn't raise more questions than it answers. Dylanologists are already mulling over the teasing suggestion that Dylan modeled an unnamed album on Chekhov stories—a half-fact perfectly designed to cause paroxysms of speculation on the Internet. (Blood on the Tracks is the leading contender. Do you have thoughts?) I'm stumped by some weird science that Dylan drops in the chapter devoted to Oh Mercy, which was a turning point in his return to form. He purports to be expounding a musical system that has governed his recent work: "If you're using the [diatonic] scale, and you hit 2, 5 and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms." This would seem to mean that if you were in C major, and started repeating notes of the G-major triad, you'd have a melody. I'm tempted to think, as with the Chekhov memorandum, that he's putting us on, or at least putting up a smokescreen.
For every misterioso interlude, though, there are two or three passages that made me put down the book in wonder. For example, there is the explanation of how Brecht and Weill's "Song of Pirate Jenny," from The Threepenny Opera, influenced Dylan's songwriting from the early '60s on. Clinton Heylin's biography already pointed out the resemblance between this song and Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In," but Dylan reveals a much deeper link. Lotte Lenya's minatory repetition of the chorus—"And a ship with eight sails and fifty cannon ... "—reminded him, he says, of the foghorns on Lake Superior in the Duluth of his childhood:
Even though you couldn't see the ships through the fog, you knew they were there by the heavy outbursts of thunder that blasted like Beethoven's Fifth—two low notes, the first one long and deep like a bassoon. Foghorns sounded like great announcements. The big boats came and went, like monsters from the deep—ships to wipe out all spectacles. As a child, slight, introverted, and asthma stricken, the sound was so loud, so enveloping, I could feel it in my whole body and it made me feel hollow.
Something out there could swallow me up.
Interesting how Brecht's feminist revenge scenario—a barmaid fancies herself a pirate reigning terror on the "gentlemen" she works for—becomes a picture of masculine vulnerability. I'd better stop before I start psychobabbling.