Oliver Cross: Delving into Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan.
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THIS week, flicking through the books at a charity shop, I came across the first volume of Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography, Chronicles.

I’m not a big fan of Dylan, which is why I failed to notice that, says the back cover, Chronicles was chosen as the 2004 book of the year by no less than 13 famous and established middle-aged brain-boxes, including Griff Rhys Jones, Bonnie Greer, Andrew Motion and Nick Hornby.

The picture on the front of the book, of the young Bob Dylan looking crumpled, bohemian and rebellious with a fag in his hand, indicates a rather disappointing progress towards respectability, although, you find inside, Dylan was never as Freewheelin’ (the title of an early album) as his image.

The opening pages of the book, which made me splash out £1.49 to buy it on the spot, are riveting. Bob has a new contract, with an advance of $100, to sell his songs to a top music publisher, who takes him to the tiny studio where Bill Haley recorded Rock Around The Clock, and then to a restaurant owned by the great boxer Jack Dempsey, who tells him “Good luck to you, kid.”

This is not Dylan the mystic or the rebel; it’s Dylan the young man making a career, still in awe of already-famous musicians and remembering a small, routine good-will message from Jack Dempsey for the rest of his life.

Much of the rest of the book (not that I’ve finished it yet – you get what you pay for, and I’m not paid to be a book critic) would read, if you changed the accents and the cast of characters, like one of those dreadful theatrical memoirs where the main aim is to mention as many famous people as you can then cover them in treacle (“Sir Larry – such a lovely man!”).

Bob Dylan is a lot more critical and perceptive than that, but he’s still aware of having a place in old-fashioned show-business.

He’s touchingly proud of the fact that Judy Garland came from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, about 20 miles away from his home town, and that Mae West recorded a song of his (which one? we’d all like to know), and he’s utterly knocked out by the fact that he made his professional recording debut playing harmonica for the “gigantic” Harry Belafonte – “I felt like I’d been anointed.”

Behind all that, though, is a very self-conscious artist; Bob Dylan the boy creating, from the start, Bob Dylan the superstar.

He meets a wondrously talented folk musician, Mike Seeger, with folk in his bones, and decides he can’t really compete except by writing his own songs.

He also decides that the future of music can’t lie in three-minute bubble-gum pop songs and turns his attention to LPs, training his mind for longer-term creativity by reading Lord Byron’s long poem Don Juan from start to finish and with full concentration.

All of which did nothing to improve his dreary voice so I’m still not a fan, although it would be very mean-minded not to admire him very much.

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