In March 2005, I took a class on digital photography at the Makor Center, which is a branch of the 92nd St Y, and is located on West 67th St in Manhattan. The camera and the class were both expensive indulgences for me, at a time when I really had nothing but time and money on my hands. The Makor Center is located in a lovely old brownstone with pretty staircases and a comfortable library and nice little classrooms, so it invites a pleasant feeling of self-indulgent self-improvement, and it is just up the block from Central Park, so it puts one in a relaxed and idyllic state of mind, and it is just round the corner from New York City’s Mormon headquarters, so it puts one in an iconoclastic and liberal state of mind. I like to think all these states of mind were lazily at work in my head when I noticed flyers posted around Makor advertising an upcoming talk with Greil Marcus about his new book.
Greil Marcus! Well, my gosh, he is the famous rock critic from my youth. I hadn’t read a thing he’d written in over 25 years, but here was the chance to hear someone famous speak in close quarters–the talk would be in the middle of the day, in a small room. And what is his new book? Something about Bob Dylan. Something about a song or a record that Bob Dylan made some time ago. The flyer showed a photograph of a rather elegant and handsome slight young man with a lot of dark hair, I did not recognize this person as Bob Dylan, whom I could only visualize from caricatures I suppose I had seen when he was much in the news for becoming a born-again Christian. “Like A Rolling Stone” was the topic of the book and the talk. I’m not sure I know this song, I am thinking to myself–even the better! This would be the chance to hear a famous person teach me about something important it would be good for me to know about. I know Bob Dylan is considered an important cultural figure. It would be like any lecture I would have attended in graduate school, in which a famous scholar provides expert knowledge on a valuable topic. Except that Makor wanted $15 for this. Fifteen dollars! I don’t think so.
But the flyers stayed up, and I still had all this time and money on hand, and Greil Marcus was famous. Oh all right, here’s your fifteen dollars.
The day of the talk rolled round, and since old habits die hard, I got to the room early and took a seat right up front. There was a handful of people in the room, most of whom looked like Jerry Garcia–the women and the men. Oh of course, I thought, the 60s and all that. These people seemed alert and eager. Music played on a loudspeaker, over and over I heard “How does it feel?” and I realized it was that song.
Enter Greil Marcus and the fellow who was to interview him. Marcus wore the costume of the Upper West Side Still-Cool Intellectual: black everything, but expensive and well-cut. Precisely thus, although if I remember, his glasses had more of the Le Corbusier look to them.
The fellow interviewing him was informed, articulate, and respectful. Marcus answered his questions animatedly and volubly. He did not act as though speaking to about 13 people in middle of the day was just one thing to get done before going to the dry cleaners, and I appreciated that. He spoke about the music that was popular in 1965, when the song at hand was released, and I didn’t recognize much he mentioned besides the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When he got onto the topic of Bob Dylan’s career, I could not follow dates or titles. Even though rock music was everything to me it was to most middle class white teenagers in the 70s, I never listened to Bob Dylan’s music, he just wasn’t in my time when I was in high school and college. I bought Slow Train Coming when it came out, only because I was a big Dire Straits fan. The severe and artful cover intimidated me, and I never opened the record. So when Marcus started talking about all these records and musicians, there just wasn’t much for me to hold on to, and I faded in and out comfortably, listening but not paying attention. At one point, the interviewer asked Marcus to read from the book. Marcus removed his Le Corbu specs, obviously to put on reading glasses, which proved to be identical in design to his non-reading glasses. I thought this was affected. You can get reading glasses at Duane Reade for $9.99.
At one point, Marcus started talking about how, when he was in the middle of writing this book, someone told him that Bob Dylan himself was writing his memoirs, and they were likely to be published at just the same time as Marcus’s book. I think I had seen this book in stores, it had a very classy black and white cover. Marcus said something to this effect: “At first I thought, oh great, his book is going to contradict what I’m writing, he’s going to give information that’ll trump my research. And then I thought–nah. Bob Dylan’s autobiography is going to be a big coffee table book, you know, with facsimiles of cocktail napkins with lyrics on them.”
Something woke me up from my little fog, some voice somewhere in my head spoke up: “I don’t know anything at all about Bob Dylan. Nothing. But I know that he would not write a trashy coffee table book. I just know he would not.” And this ridiculous *insight* was accompanied by an equally ridiculous gut feeling of defensiveness. My heart hardened against Greil Marcus and softened towards Bob Dylan. For no real reason at all. I registered this little blip of weirdness, and then lost interest again.
During the Q&A period, someone asked Marcus if he’d ever met Bob Dylan. It seemed clear from his slightly stammered answer that his status as Bob Dylan Expert was a little compromised by the very limited access he had to the man himself. Marcus joked that he got himself a ticket to a certain award ceremony when he learned that Dylan would be receiving many thousands of dollars along with the honor of this award. “I knew for that kind of money, he’d show up himself.” In Marcus’s voice was a kind of condescension or flippancy, and I woke up again. Again that feeling–a hardening and softening of some tendon of feeling: how dare you speak in those condescending terms of this man who has been so important to your career.
End of talk, the meager crowd left. Still vaguely provoked by the only two moments of alertness I’d felt for my fifteen dollars, I walked uptown, and by the time I’d reached 82nd street, I decided to buy Dylan’s memoirs. .
I am trying to do some kind of rational justice to what was an unusual event in my life, I do not believe in anything that can’t be traced back to the concrete, and my little moments of hardening/softening during Marcus’s talk could be explained by my low-range distaste for his affectation, or envy that he could afford an apartment in Manhattan, and the fact that I had so much idleness in my life at the moment that I had plenty of space in my inner world for absurd, unbidden emotions.
And on the vague current of these vague feelings, when I was faced with the cover of Chronicles, it was not at all difficult to say Yes: the package of that book was simply stunning. Stark and pure, it certainly had a gravity and a tone that made it stand out on the shelf. You don’t need any context or any magic to be attracted to the cover of that book, it’s absolutely beautiful. Pick it up and turn it over, and there is a photo of a very young man with such an unnervingly arresting face, he seems almost too interesting. I felt lavish and purposeful spending the $20-plus on this hardcover book.
I opened it up right outside the store, and read the first two or three pages as I headed for the subway and by the time I’d swiped my Metrocard, I’d exchanged the Here and Now of being my own self on the 79th street platform, for the There and Then of this narrator’s voice. Like turning a glove inside out: the allure of this voice turned my present into his past, and this feeling continued for all the hours and days I stretched out to finish this book.
I didn’t know a thing he was talking about. I always thought Joan Baez was a kind of hippie folksinger, someone who would have been at Woodstock maybe. I didn’t know she was a contemporary of Bob Dylan’s, nor that they performed together, nor that they were involved. I’m trying to get across the compass of my ignorance. I knew he wrote Blowin in the Wind. If I worked at it, I would have remembered that he wrote Mr Tambourine Man. That’s it, besides those two endless songs that got airplay when I was an addictive radio listener–the one that went on and on and then mentioned Montague Street, of which there is one in Brooklyn Heights where I grew up. And the one that went on and on and was about some boxer in jail. I knew about Hubert’s Flea Circus from having recently read Diane Arbus’s biography. I taught English for 13 years, and have a doctorate in the field, so I knew who Archibald MacLeish is.
I can claim no other distinction as a Bob Dylan fan, none at all–except that I am the only person I have ever met who became one through reading Chronicles. To me, the book was like any book about a topic I had no prior knowledge of at all: it had to hold my interest on its own merits, and not on how well it lived up to expectations I had.
And what did I meet in this book? A voice who could make a window, a person, a feeling so vivid and so alive that my own mind felt like a living instrument for the narrator’s life. I wanted for him what he wanted for himself, I hurt for his hurts, I saw what he saw. Past and present elided in this voice, whatever I was reading was my Now.
There is no magic to this, and I can’t even claim that I was a good reader for this book, the way certain books are just well-suited to certain readers. When traveling in England–in order to attend concert performances by the man who wrote this book–I bought copies of the British paperback. I was so happy to read the blurbs from British reviewers, because they echoed my own response:
- Lucid and engaging, rendered in gorgeous prose
- lucid and witty at first reading, it deepens in the imagination
- Dylan’s thoughtful, beautiful Chronicles has taken everyone by surprise
- Dylan’s writing never loses its richness, it sense of crystalline observation
- If you are not weeping with gratitude by the end, then frankly, the age has passed you by…I cannot remember a book that has made me happier than this one.
Here is a passage, from the chapter titled New Morning. Bob Dylan has been invited to visit the poet Archibald MacLeish at his home in Massachusetts, because MacLeish wants to talk with him about the possibility of Dylan’s composing songs for a play MacLeish was writing. Dylan and his wife sit in MacLeish’s home, and MacLeish talks:
Archie said he liked a song of mine called “John Brown,” a song about a boy that goes off to war. “I don’t find the song to be about this boy at all. It’s really more of a Greek drama, isn’t it? It’s about mothers,” he tells me. ‘The different kinds of mothers–biological, honorary. . .all the mothers wrapped into one.” I’d never thought of that, but it sounded right. He mentioned a line in one of my songs, that says that “goodness hides behind its gates,” and asked if I really saw it that way and I said that sometimes it appears that way. At some point, I was going to ask him what he thought about the hip, cool Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac, but it seemed like it would have been an empty question. He asked me if I had ever read Sappho or Socrates. I said, nope, that I hadn’t, and then he asked me the same thing about Dante and Donne. I said, not much. He said the thing to remember about them was you always came out where you went in.
MacLeish tells me that he considers me a serious poet and that my work would be a touchstone for generations after me, that I was a postwar Iron Age poet but that I had seemingly inherited something metaphysical from a bygone era. He appreciated my songs because they involved themselves with society, that we had many traits and associations in common and that I didn’t care for things the way he didn’t care for them. At one point he had to excuse himself momentarily, left the room. I glanced out the window. The afternoon sun was breaking, throwing a vague radiance to the earth. A jackrabbit scampered past the scattered chips by the woodpile. When he returned things fell back into place.
Dylan makes MacLeish’s presence in that room absolutely palpable: MacLeish is by turns pompous, flattering, provoking, and Dylan makes us feel the insistent density of MacLeish’s voice. He talks and talks, Dylan responds when he’s invited to, there is no free exchange here, and Dylan uses indirect narration to show MacLeish’s voice replacing his own. Without breaking the paragraph, he relates that MacLeish left the room and he looked out the window for a moment. The light and movement he describes in two brief sentences relieves immediately the airless, thick atmosphere created by MacLeish’s voice. You can feel the room become fresh and light because the narrator has shifted his attention, and ours, to the bright living world outside the window.
The reader lives that moment in time, those shifts of felt life, exactly as the narrator does. And this happens on every page.
I finished the book one late afternoon sitting on a thin green chair in this room on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum. I read the last words–“…but it wasn’t run by the devil either,” and I looked up and saw a man in a green maintenance uniform pushing a cart laden with brushes and rags and other cleaning supplies. I’d never been in the museum before when it was actually closing. For one moment the man was part of the world of the book, then he was his own person, and I had to return to the world outside the book.
It was not until I read about 50 pages that I realized something–the author of this book is really most well known for his music. I should really be listening to his music, shouldn’t I. And that’s how it happened.