Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Dylan on the Brain

I'm barely in Chronicles Volume One and the writing is so marvelous I keep re-reading it, partly out of admiration, mostly out of jealousy.

With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business...He sang like a professional criminal. Typically, he'd start out in some low, barely audible range, stay there a while and then astonishingly slip into histrionics. His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, "Man, I don't believe it." His songs had songs within songs. The shifted from major to minor key without any logic. Orbison was deadly serious--no pollywog and no fledgling juvenile. There wasn't anything else on the radio like him. I'd listen and wait for another song, but next to Roy the playlist was strictly dullsville...gutless and flabby. It all came at you like you didn't have a brain.

This is a memoir in a class with Casanova's, a memoir for the ages.

Whatever the case, it wasn't that I was anti-popular culture or anything and I had no ambitions to stir things up. I just thought mainstream culture was lame as hell and a trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost outside the window and you had to have awkward footgear to walk on it. I didn't know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was...As for what time it was, it was always just beginning to be daylight and I knew a little bit about history, too--the history of a few nation states--and it was always the same pattern. Some early archaic period where society grows and develops and thrives, then some classical period where the society reaches its maturation point and then a slacking off period where decadence makes things fall apart. I had no idea which one of these stages America was in. There was nobody to check with. A certain rude rhythm was making it all sway, though. It was pointless to think about it. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.

There's a passage about Dylan's discovery of a library in a flat where he's crashing that I've read five times consecutively. I can't bear it!

Thucydides' The Athenian General--a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It's like nothing has changed from his time to mine...There was a book there on Joseph Smith, the authentic American prophet who identifies himself with Enoch in the Bible and says that Adam was the first man-god. This stuff pales in comparison to Thucydides. The books make the room vibrate in a nauseating and forceful way. The words of "La Vita Solitaria" by Leopardi seemed to come out of the trunk of a tree, hopeless, uncrushable sentiments.
[p. 36-37]

Before starting this, I'd had a fear that Chronicles made so many "Best Book of the Year" Lists last year because newsrooms are staffed by creaky old hippies pining for their idealized college days, when they had a tab of Goofy on the tongue and were mystified for days on end by Blood on the Tracks. It never occured to me that Dylan had written something appealing to those outside his fan base--had, in fact, written a damned interesting and damnably good book. Who else could sum up Balzac so simply?

Balzac was pretty funny. His philosophy is plain and simple, says bascially that pure materialism is a recipe for madness. The only true knowledge for Balzac seems to be in superstition. Everything is subject to analysis. Horde your energy. That's the secret of life. You can learn a lot from Mr. B. It's funny to have him as a companion. He wears a monk's robe and drinks endless cups of coffee. Too much sleep clogs his mind. One of his teeth falls out, and he says, "What does this mean?" He questions everything. His clothes catch fire on a candle. He wonders if fire is a good sign. Balzac is hilarious.