Bob Dylan and the Landscape

‘Train Tracks’ Bob Dylan 2007 Gouache and watercolour

I’m always looking for books written in english living in Stockholm and I managed a few months ago to pick up a cheap copy of Bob Dylan’s autobiography ‘Chronicles: Volume 1’. It came out in 2004 so clearly I’m not that big a fan but I’ve always liked him here and there to listen to. (‘Desire’ in the 1970’s I listened to a lot. And recently I’d also loved his Tex Mex sounding album ‘Together Through Life’ (2009) which I find joyful and funny- if you like a grim kind of humour that is. He’s lost his singing voice for sure- it’s really a rasping kind of vague half speaking now. But it conjures up the landscape of his lyrics like nothing else- the barrenness, the isolation, the passion, the simplicity, the loneliness, the earth.)

‘Thunder on The Mountain’ from the album ‘Modern Times’ (2006) The journey through the landscape seems to be a major theme in his painting and lyrics.

Thunder on the mountain, and there’s fires on the moon
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go

I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you’re trying to run me away
The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

Thunder on the mountain, rollin’ like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music coming from
I don’t need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day

The pistols are poppin’ and the power is down
I’d like to try somethin’ but I’m so far from town
The sun keeps shinin’ and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need

I’ve been sittin’ down studyin’ the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today

Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman’s church, said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain’t no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

Everybody going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer’s on the table, the pitchfork’s on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

Music and words by Bob Dylan
Copyright 2006 Special Rider Music

Video of Bob singing ‘It’s all Good’ from the album ‘Together Through Life’

Anyway I found ‘Chronicles’ Vol 1 to be an absolutely magical book. Basically it’s a portrait of the artist as a young man. The writing seems so simple but it manages to conjure up the landscape of America and the landscape of his mind in such a sensitive, rhythmic way. And it’s full of rich characters and situations that are so truthful, poetic, moving and funny. It’s like hanging out with the coolest cat in town for a few hours. And if you have any kind of interest in how music comes into being and what goes into creating it, you’ll love it.

Excerpt from ‘Chronicles’ Volume 1, Chapter 1

Billy dressed Ivy League like he could have come out of Yale — medium height, crisp black hair. He looked like he’d never been stoned a day in his life, never been in any kind of trouble. I strolled into his office, sat down opposite his desk, and he tried to get me to cough up some facts, like I was supposed to give them to him straight and square. He took out a notepad and pencil and asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Illinois and he wrote it down. He asked me if I ever did any other work and I told him that I had a dozen jobs, drove a bakery truck once. He wrote that down and asked me if there was anything else. I said I’d worked construction and he asked me where.

“Detroit.”

“You traveled around?”

“Yep.”

He asked me about my family, where they were. I told him I had no idea, that they were long gone.

“What was your home life like?”

I told him I’d been kicked out.

“What did your father do?”

“‘lectrician.”

“And your mother, what about her?”

“Housewife.”

“What kind of music do you play?”

“Folk music.”

“What kind of music is folk music?”

I told him it was handed down songs. I hated these kind of questions. Felt I could ignore them. Billy seemed unsure of me and that was just fine. I didn’t feel like answering his questions anyway, didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anybody.

“How did you get here?” he asked me.

“I rode a freight train.”

“You mean a passenger train?”

“No, a freight train.”

“You mean, like a boxcar?”

“Yeah, like a boxcar. Like a freight train.”

“Okay, a freight train.”

I gazed past Billy, past his chair through his window across the street to an office building where I could see a blazing secretary soaked up in the spirit of something — she was scribbling busy, occupied at a desk in a meditative manner. There was nothing funny about her. I wished I had a telescope. Billy asked me who I saw myself like in today’s music scene. I told him, nobody. That part of things was true, I really didn’t see myself like anybody. The rest of it, though, was pure hokum — hophead talk.

I hadn’t come in on a freight train at all. What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, ’57 Impala — straight out of Chicago, clearing the hell out of there — racing all the way through the smoky towns, winding roads, green fields covered with snow, onward, eastbound through the state lines, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, a twenty-four-hour ride, dozing most of the way in the backseat, making small talk. My mind fixed on hidden interests…eventually riding over the George Washington Bridge.

The big car came to a full stop on the other side and let me out. I slammed the door shut behind me, waved good-bye, stepped out onto the hard snow. The biting wind hit me in the face. At last I was here, in New York City, a city like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn’t going to try.

I was there to find singers, the ones I’d heard on record — Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, Ed McCurdy, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Josh White, The New Lost City Ramblers, Reverend Gary Davis and a bunch of others — most of all to find Woody Guthrie. New York City, the city that would come to shape my destiny. Modern Gomorrah. I was at the initiation point of square one but in no sense a neophyte.

 ‘Chronicles’ Volume 1

Bob Dylan’s website

‘Bob Dylan paints some masterpieces’

‘In writing songs I’ve learned as much from Cezanne as I have from Woody Guthrie.
Bob Dylan

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