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Like a Rolling Stone

Simon & Schuster has also published Lyrics: 1962-2001, the Dylan song compendium originally published in 1973 and first revised in 1985. Think of it as companion autobiography, as well as an essential poetry anthology. Certainly no other songwriter's work has ever been so analyzed, parsed and interpreted, with seemingly every other couplet a slogan or epiphany. Unlike most rock lyrics, Dylan's can stand alone without music. They shouldn't, but they can.

Chronicles, which is as densely populated with intriguing characters as Dylan's songbook, begins with Dylan's December 1960 arrival in New York after hitchhiking from Minnesota in search of his idol, Woody Guthrie, who was in a New Jersey hospital dying of Huntington's chorea. Guthrie, Dylan writes, was "the man who'd pointed out the starting place for my identity and destiny." But Dylan, who'd made small ripples in the Minneapolis/St. Paul folk community, was also looking to craft a recording career in Greenwich Village, a stateside equivalent of La Boheme -- a bustling community of artists, musicians, dancers, intellectuals and activists. It was hobo impulse meeting boho lifestyle, and the bustling energies that fueled that scene set the stage for the most important transformation in American popular music since Elvis Presley, a decade before.


Bob Dylan at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, 2001 (Ap)

According to Dylan, the popular music of the '50s and early '60s "was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything." Starting in folk (and elevating it to new ambitions), Dylan eventually returned to rock where, as culture critic Ellen Willis noted, he imposed literacy on illiterate music, showed that rock could reflect adult concerns and complexities with the same power and immediacy as novels, plays and films. Dylan would add depth, dimension, detail -- and meaning -- to popular music. After Dylan, you could write about anything.

In the "New Morning" chapter, Dylan addresses his late '60s retreat from the media spotlight, when he sought refuge in Woodstock in order to raise a family, only to find "goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night. At first, it was merely the nomadic homeless making illegal entry -- seemed harmless enough, but then rogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest began to arrive -- unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry." But, Dylan writes, "I owed nobody nothing. I wasn't going to go deeper into the darkness for anybody. I was already living in the darkness. My family was my light and I was going to protect that light at all cost. That was where my dedication was, first, last and everything in-between. What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The press? I figured you lie to it. For the public eye, I went into the bucolic and mundane as far as possible. In my real life I got to do the things that I loved the best and that was all that mattered -- the Little League games, birthday parties, taking my kids to school, camping trips, boating, rafting, canoeing, fishing." As for being called the Voice of a Generation? "That was funny. All I'd ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of."

And, he admits, "I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese. What the hell are we talking about? Horrible titles any way you want to look at it. All code words for Outlaw."

Soon enough, indifferent albums and inconsistent tours faded Dylan's reputation to gray and "eventually, different anachronisms were thrust upon me -- anachronisms of lesser dilemma -- though they might seem bigger. Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favorite) -- stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Savior -- those are tough ones."

And they were no more real than the masks and myths he has now shed. •

Richard Harrington writes about music for The Washington Post.


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