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The Answer, My Friend?

A Generation Mined Bob Dylan's Lyrics For Meaning. Now There's a Memoir to Dig.

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2004; Page C01

So you see that Bob Dylan has written a memoir -- there he is, flacking "Chronicles" from the cover of Newsweek with one of those exclusive interview-and-excerpt deals -- and you think: This is what it has come to. He's just another celeb now, with his too-tall hat and his too-thin mustache, out there pushing his brand. Might as well be Madonna, or Neil Sedaka, or J.Lo.

The hype seems enough to turn the most faithful acolytes into unbelievers. How can it possibly be true, as the magazine claims, that this week's celebrity memoirist is "the most influential cultural figure now alive"?

An early but undated publicity photo of Bob Dylan in New York City from his autobiography, "Chronicles Volume One." (AP Photo/Simon & Schuster) (Simon and Schuster)

Oh, you thought he was once, back in the '60s. The image of that faraway decade has now been so magnified by myth and distorted by culture-war invective that you have to strain to recall what it felt like to be alive then, but you do remember this: Half the people you knew believed that if only they could figure out what Bob Dylan was saying, the secrets of the universe would be revealed.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.

-- "Mr. Tambourine Man," 1964

The voice put you off at first, but no matter; you could always tune in the Judy Collins version. At least you could until you met the Guitar Player, the skinny guy in your freshman dorm who parked himself in the hallway with his Martin six-string and poured forth a nasal homage to the real thing. Which, in the end, he persuaded you to venerate as well.

So you phone him up and ask him: Was that Dylan thing

really real, or is it just celebrity-culture Memorex?

The Guitar Player has taken up the violin of late, and he gave up venerating Dylan long ago. Still, he thinks there's way more to the man than mere fame. Listen to the songs, he says. Remember the upside-down times when they were sung. One mark of a genius is that "he's attuned with what's going on, what needs to be named or said." But it's more than that. Your true genius "doesn't just name a reality -- he creates one, too." Through his own outsize ego and talent, he pulls the culture along.

This is the kind of cosmic influence Dylan explicitly disclaims in his book. "I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation I was supposed to be the voice of," he writes. Sure, he'd somehow gotten himself pegged as "the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent," but all he really wanted, he says, was to be left alone with his wife and kids. Just another unfortunate celebrity oppressed by fame and riches, you think when you read this. Lord knows we've heard

that song a few times.

You're not buying it. You were there. You know he meant more than that.

Well, Shakespeare, he's in the alley

With his pointed shoes and his bells

Speaking to some French girl

Who says she knows me well.

-- "Stuck Inside of Mobile with

the Memphis Blues Again," 1966

Google "Dylan" and you get 3,670,000 hits. Google "Shakespeare" and you get 6,520,000. It seems absurd to put them in the same paragraph, even after you've picked up a copy of a 517-page tome called "Dylan's Visions of Sin" by the distinguished literary scholar Christopher Ricks, who's also published books on Milton, Keats, Beckett and T.S. Eliot.

Still, for a critic of Ricks's stature to be taking Dylan lyrics this seriously -- the Guitar Player, who knows about such things, says his book on Milton is great -- well, you can bet it wouldn't have happened in 1965. Even Ricks wasn't taking them seriously then, he tells you when you ring his office at Boston University. "I heard them without listening to them," he says. It was a while before he could prevail over his "suspicions and slight snobbery." Ricks now thinks that Dylan is a genius and that we should all feel "extremely lucky to be alive" while he's out there doing his creative thing.

You flash back to your friend the Smart Romantic, who said precisely the same thing three decades ago.

The Smart Romantic was a charter member of the Understand Bob and You Can Understand the Universe Club. "He was just like the oracle. He was just like going to Delphi," she says now, laughing. "But just as you never

could understand the universe, you could never understand Bob Dylan."

This hasn't stopped her from trying, or from breaking into snatches of memorized songs as you talk: "It ain't me, babe . . . How does it

feeeel . . . When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Eastertime too . . ." She says she still knows the lyrics on every album from Dylan's eponymous 1962 debut up through 1975's "Blood on the Tracks" and 1976's "Desire."

Those are good years to pick. We're talking about an astonishing 14-year burst of creativity and a breathtakingly rapid evolution in musical style that -- combined with a parallel creative flowering by the Beatles -- reshaped the lyrical landscape of the popular song.

And I was standin' on the side of the road

Rain fallin' on my shoes

Heading out for the East Coast

Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through . . .

-- "Tangled Up in Blue," 1974

His self-creation is a familiar tale, at least if you're a person of a certain age: How Robert Allen Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., turned himself into Bob Dylan, folk singer, who became Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter, who became Bob Dylan, electrified rock poet, and plugged himself in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. This last move -- a Molotov cocktail tossed at the folkier-than-thou crowd -- was once summed up in song by Loudon Wainwright III: "The real world is crazy / You were deranged /And when you went electric, Bob / Everything changed."

What never changed was Dylan's elusiveness.

"Deranged" may be a bit strong. But if you sat through the classic D.A. Pennebaker documentary "Don't Look Back" -- shot as Dylan's early fame was peaking -- you could scarcely fail to notice the way he was constantly masking himself, rejecting all attempts to simplify and classify his work, honing his persona as a hypercombative sphinx. Elusiveness permeated his lyrics. Irony bled into social conscience and vice versa. The songs often worked on the personal, political, social, religious and moral levels all at once.

No wonder you could see yourself, or just about anyone else, reflected in the word-mirrors Bob Dylan was holding up.

It didn't hurt that he wrote more about love than anything else. "Everyone talked about their relationships in terms of Dylan songs," the Smart Romantic recalls.

Even in the ones with the most convoluted lyrics, it seemed -- perhaps because the lyrics were so convoluted -- the emotion would find a straight path.

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind

Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves

The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach

Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.

-- "Mr. Tambourine Man," 1964

Ask those people of a certain age to name the Dylan compositions they're most attached to and you get plenty of different responses, but there's one that makes almost everybody's list.

The Smart Romantic recalls a euphoric group of college friends singing it on the Oregon coast, "silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves." The song still haunts the Guitar Player, who sees it as a plea to be transported out of your prosaic, earthbound self. He remembers his daughter, 13 and feeling stressed, saying, "Dad, could you just come into my room and play 'Mr. Tambourine Man' on the guitar?"

The songwriter got so sick he almost died in 1997. A Boston critic was asked to prepare an obituary. "Bob Dylan provided the soundtrack for the times he lived in," it began.

You think what your own favorite cut on that soundtrack might be. This takes you back to the fall of 1975, when Dylan led a hastily assembled band of musical guerrillas known as the Rolling Thunder Revue on a no-advance-warning New England tour. You made two shows. Close your eyes and you can see and hear them still.

Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez were opening acts. They were great. Dylan was greater. It was as if the others were there to get his competitive juices flowing, and when he came out after the intermission -- in whiteface, mocking his own predilection for masks -- he gave a performance so mesmerizing that you felt you were

finally in possession of the universe's secrets.

Never mind that you couldn't put them in words.

Life is sad

Life is a bust

All ya can do is do what you must.

You do what you must do and ya do it well.

I'll do it for you, honey baby,

Can't you tell?

-- "Buckets of Rain," 1974

You lost him after that, or he lost you. He put out albums that you heard without listening to. You're not proud of this; you know that he's done good work since Rolling Thunder and you admire him for keeping on. He's still touring. Some younger folks seem to like him. Good for him, and for them.

Meanwhile, well -- the times have changed. It's all celebrities all the time now. We build them up and tear them down so fast, as the obit-writing critic explains to you, that "it's hard for anybody to be in charge of the zeitgeist the way Dylan was."

Still, you go to the bookstore and you thumb through "Chronicles." It looks better than the Newsweek excerpt, but it feels almost too straightforward for the Dylan you think you know. Maybe it won't be elusive enough to be intriguing. Maybe you can save yourself 24 bucks.

Then you think: Hey, he doesn't owe you -- you owe him.

You pay your money and you bring it all back home.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company