"Hey Mr. Zimmerman"

"Hey Mr. Zimmerman"

essay by John Risk


Chronicles, Volume One

by Bob Dylan

Simon and Schuster

293 pages





Bob Dylan needs me to be writing about his book like he needs an armadillo in his cornfield: he doesn't, and would hardly notice it only by chance, by looking at one specific spot at a chance time, anyway. Probably wouldn't even know about it. But that's what so much of life comes down to anyway, if you're going to see it, it's because you're really just really looking at what you can see when you can see it, if you've got a smart eye for looking anyway, and so a friend asked me to write about this book that Bob Dylan wrote about himself, and the book, Chronicles, Volume One, is itself what people call a non-linear narrative relating primarily the circumstances of three transitional periods in the artist's vocation. Since Bob Dylan is such an honest writer and I am too, I said that I would write about his book, even if my words about his words don't matter to anyone.


That's the thing that's different about Bob Dylan's book: he knows that every word that he writes is going to matter like the end of the world to some people, that some people will read it for entertainment and because it's a cool book, and that some people won't read it because that's what makes it a cool book anyway, but he still wrote the book that he wanted to write, and not the book that people who get obsessed about the lives of other people probably would've wanted him to write. That's why it's such a good book, and that's part of why so many people like it.


The book is about a lot of things, which is to say, that Bob Dylan tells a lot of stories about a lot of things in this book, from Minnesota to New Orleans and points east and west, and from Guitar Slim to counting out rhythms in three's instead of two's. One of the things that Bob Dylan spends a lot of space writing about in this book is the time when he first got to New York and was working at making it in folk music. There's lots of good stories about the people he knew, how he met them, and what they represented to him. The book gives the direct impression that Bob Dylan saw people as people and also as archetypes, which he describes as being a big part of folk music. Casey Jones being more real than Davy Jones the singer, and Davey Jones the man with the underwater locker also being more real than Davy Jones the singer, in other words. It seems that one of Bob Dylan's strongest personal strengths is and was his ability to see people as they see themselves and to therefore become a seamless part of their environment or their scene, and his appreciation of their roles as archetypes and of the way that they related to the big American picture was a serious help, I'm sure. Of course, eventually he got so big that he became his own scene and he writes, as the book's second big theme, that that was when things started to get tough on him, as a person.


That's when people starting sticking labels to him, he says, but I doubt it. Anyone who comes to the head of a scene or an industry the way he did with his music has obviously had labels attached to him all along the way, and they are what help someone become the celebrity and success, the personality, that he ends up as. When Bob Dylan got so big as a persona, it's just that the labels got real big, too. Voice of a Generation, all of that stuff that is now being used so effectively in marketing campaigns for Bob Dylan album reissues, would have been real tough for a guy who wanted to write his songs and sing them to deal with and get his head around when he was just a kid. Some people, his contemporaries and rivals then and his emulators now, might think that sounds great, an honor and a prideful coronation of self-fulfilling conceit, that they could be the ones to handle it, but not a lot of people really know what that is like. Bob Dylan is one of the few people who does know what that kind of attention is like, and he is one of the few people who have been able to survive it and tell people what it feels like to have people crawling on your rooftop asking you for a miracle. Jack Kerouac didn't make it, John Lennon almost did, and the verdict is still out on the biggest hero of them all, Jesus Christ. We'll see if he feels like coming back around.


The third big theme of the book is about that: the way that Bob Dylan figured out how to move out of the creeping death shadow of his past, reinvigorate his music, and share it into perpetuity with succeeding generations of kingmakers. The way he tells it, it involved the making of an album, a new way of counting rhythm in music performance, a Mickey Rourke movie, and a motorcycle trip around the aroundings of New Orleans that included a stopoff at a place called King Tut's Museum. Then came more concerts, the music getting better, and more albums, the music getting better, and now we have today a whole new version of the same old Bob Dylan, saying exactly the things that people want to hear in such a way that it makes them feel as though they've been thinking them all along, since before they were born, when they were just an idea, waiting for just this moment for the thought to manifest. That's what they say, anyway.


This book has a "volume one" in its title, so we can assume that maybe there will be more books to come. I hope so. This was a really good book, and woven all through those three big themes are all kinds of descriptions of books and writers and musicians and music that were important to Bob Dylan at the time that he heard them, some of them that I had heard about or heard before, and some that I hadn't. Like a lot of other folks, Robert Johnson's music amazed me when I first heard it, too, some thirty years after Bob Dylan heard a first pressing test copy. There are also a lot of really good descriptions of places and the times that he spent in them. The parts about New York are like postcards of a dynamic city that people are still just discovering every day, and the parts about Minnesota shoot straight to the heart of America that I'm thankful still exists, even if a lot of people in New York don't know about it. Bob Dylan writes about all of things really well and in a way that is really true, and on the first page of the book he meets Jack Dempsey. That's really funny.