Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
—w. b. yeats, “the circus animals’ desertion”
“I have here something that’ll solve all our problems.”
“Well, go on, what is it?”
“Oh great. That’s all we need is another bootleg. What’s this one? Copenhagen, April 30, 1966, reel two, second half missing? We’ve got eight thousand bootleg tapes, man; we’re never going to find enough time to listen to them all in our lifetime.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Oh, then what is it?”
[Looks around apprehensively] “Bob’s brain.”
“It’s one of only three bootlegs of Bob’s brain—off a cat scan from when he was, you know, in the hospital in 1997 with, uh, histoplasmowhatever… .”
“Sounds a little gruesome.”
“But do you realize what this means?”
“Listen … man … you okay?”
Such tapes would be useful, no question about it, because it’s pretty much what we want to know: What goes on in Dylan’s brain? How does he think, what does he meeeaaan, what are the “keys to the rain,” and such? But, hey, what happens in the neocortex stays in the neocortex, so we’ll have to pursue other means to winkle out the elusive Bob. And this is only fitting since Dylan is essentially a Beat novelist in the manner of Jack Kerouac. The phantasmagoria of his great mid-’60s albums is an expression of his inner turmoil and mirrors the shattering of the culture. The songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde are seismic recordings of the conflicts in the streets and in his head, hallucinated autobiographies of himself and his times—the confused signals and psychic static of the ’60s.
Dylan emerged just at the moment the counterculture was hatching, his life inextricably connected to the rise of mass bohemia. Dylan’s own inner demons meshed seamlessly with its antiestablishment rhetoric, drugs, radical politics, mysticism, and amplified free-floating unrest. Dylan’s personal story—whether he likes it or not—is entwined with the ’60s and their aftermath.
An agile, subtle, polytropic mind, he registered America’s 19th nervous breakdown with hallucinatory precision. Fragmented images and cubist songs replaced the storytelling and ballad tableaux of folk songs and transformed the agitprop of protest songs into a roiling, nightmarish vision in which you couldn’t distinguish the chaos outside from the turmoil within.
However far he fled from the front lines, Dylan could never disconnect from the counterculture; he has an umbilical relationship to his time. It is no coincidence that his creative predicament at the beginning of the ’70s paralleled a crisis in the culture. The public and private Dylans—his music, his times, and our perceptions of him—are inextricably linked, a sort of Zeitgeist Kid.
And this is where his many shape-shifting personas come in: dust bowl singer, street urchin, son of Ramblin’ Jack, Folk Messiah, neon Rimbaud, Old Testament prophet, Amish farmer, howdy-neighbor country boy, whiteface death’s-head mummer, Shropshire lad with flowers in his hat, Christlike Bob, born-again Bob, Hasidic Bob, Late-Elvis Dylan with the big WWF belt, Endless Tour Dylan, Jack Fate, Living National Treasure… .
Dylan is a method actor who sees his life as an emblematic movie. You make a song real by becoming the character—the voice—who’s singing it. Dylan’s shedding and adopting of characters (dramatized in the 2007 film I’m Not There) is a form of authentic counterfeit—the minstrel as Hamlet. Dylan sees the entertainer as an American hero. His idols are all entertainers (and writers, a subcategory): Blind Willie McTell, Hank Williams, Dock Boggs, Marlon Brando, Elvis, James Dean, Kerouac. They—along with outlaws, drifters, hustlers, and poets—are the American figures Dylan most often invokes. In a country without a past, without a history, entertainers are our psychic guides through the wilderness. Songs are part of the American DNA.
Dylan came out of the wildest, woolliest, rowdiest talking tales of all time. When rock ’n’ roll erupted in the mid-’50s it was first seen as a novelty. The early singers, including Elvis, were a mythical parade of fantastic and freakish types. Legendary characters roamed the land: the outrageous Little Richard; Fats Domino, the living embodiment of Mardi Gras; Jerry Lee Lewis, the human threshing machine; the shape-shifting Bo Diddley; and Chuck Berry, the raunchy Uncle Remus of rock. And behind them—further back in time and remote from contemporary America—were an even more improbable cast of characters: Appalachian skillet lickers, jug band musicians, and apocalyptic Delta bluesmen like Son House and Skip James.
Dylan’s as slippery as Br’er Rabbit but my quest hasn’t been to flush him out of his make-believe briar patch. Instead it’s to look for Dylan’s poetic intention, to read Dylan’s biography by the flickering light of songs. I’ve tried to follow Bob’s footprints in the quicksand and have often felt like a fumbling musician trying to keep up with Dylan at a recording session.
When Chronicles was published, the complaints about the unreliability of his autobiography as fact seemed farcical. Grumbling that even when he writes his memoirs he’s still making stuff up! The outrage! He’s toying with us! Ping-ponging between fact and fiction—but we expect nothing less of him. After all, who are we dealing with? The mercurial, maddeningly evasive Bob. Smoke and mirrors is Dylan doing what Dylan does best.
His fabrications are the most profound, interesting, and authentic part of his personality. Like Don Quixote, he seems to have walked out of his own fable. And the stuff he makes up about himself is more truthful than any factual account could ever be. However petty, avaricious, cruel, callous, or shrivelingly cynical he may be, the oracular poet who wrote “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna” isn’t the same person as the fallible human in divorce proceedings, the sullen, devious interviewee, or the usurper of copyrights. His willful perversity is itself a form of impish magic, a way of keeping his carefully hooded persona animated and untraceable.
Dylan sees America as an endless, unfinishable song, which people add to and change as we go along, altering the rhythm, cutting up the lyrics and patching them back in a different order. He’s the classic American type, the confidence man who tells the truth by dissembling and whose presence questions whether there is such a thing as a fixed personality. He is a startlingly unique character who is in fact a composite of American types: the song and dance man, the joker and thief.
His quest has been to cannibalize the great scrap heap of American history—its ballads, tunes, and nursery rhyme fables—and condense the multiplicity of its characters and their stories into a song. The purloining, pilfering, lifting, and outright larceny of songs, books, and images are all part of his magpie nature. He’s in the mad American tradition of trying to stuff the Mississippi, the Rockies, Johnny Appleseed, Christopher Columbus, and Orphan Annie all into one whopping tall tale.
I’ve passed over some periods while slowing others down—suspending time the way Dylan does—so I could see the pictures more clearly and try to keep up with the chameleon as he slithers from one rock to another.
No one has more ingeniously tested the porous border between autobiography and fiction than Dylan; mixing reality and fantasy has always been his witchy brew.
He’s the most cunning of self-mythologizers, and he’s managed to entangle us in his allegorical character—his persona is so infested with the types he’s collected along the way that often he doesn’t seem to know where he ends and they begin—which creates an eerie sense of channeling on his Theme Time Radio Hour where he’ll inhabit George Jones, Skip James, or a refrigerator repairman.
But even if Dylan has frequently gotten lost inside his own labyrinth of prevarications it has made him all the more mesmerizing. There are thousands of possessed fans out there with flashlights searching through his murky skull looking for clues.
Almost everything in Dylan is a re-creation of himself in folklore. America is a novel that we make up as we go along. Like Dylan, we are genuine fakes. Genuine like the people who came here, but larger than life, too big—fake. So we need stories, the taller the better: Our songs, movies, advertising, pop culture—these are the invented life that binds us together. Dylan’s great insight was to see the mythic skin that the great snake America had shed—and put it on himself.
Even the way he came into the world is straight out of a tall tale.