And yet another side of Bob Dylan

Since he was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature last week, the things being written about Bob Dylan have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. The Editorial Board of the New York Times, in a piece they titled How Dylan Became Dylan, wrote, “Dylan becoming Dylan wasn’t going to happen in small-town Minnesota. It was on the narrow streets of Greenwich Village that he got his early gigs and press attention (a 1961 review by a Times music critic, Robert Shelton, was an important career boost).” So there you have it. The Empire State, with a lion’s share of the credit going to the New York Times and its agent, stakes its claim to the Laureate. Dylan showed his gratitude early on for members of the board by writing a song about them entitled Ballad of a Thin Man.

It might be an educational project to research how many favorable reviews music critic Robert Shelton gave in the early 60’s so that it could then be ascertained how many other musicians became as accomplished as the guy from Minnesota. But that kind of work won’t be attempted by this freelancer. And before we get to the interesting stuff, it might be worthwhile to note here that the odds of Dylan accepting the award are 50/50 at best and dropping daily. According to CNN, the Swedish Academy has given up trying to receive confirmation of the prize from Dylan. A detail which may or may not be relevant to this case is that the Academy’s administrative director has the given name Odd.

Never mind the backwards looking praises being penned for Dylan these days. By far the most interesting looks at the man and his work are being done by Scott Warmuth on his site called Goon Talk. The latest one, dated Oct. 16, might be his best. It concerns the tangled web of another, different Robert Zimmerman, Edgar Allen Poe, Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles: Volume One (2004), and something called secret writing. If that post doesn’t interest you, probably nothing else Warmuth wrote about Dylan will.

I haven’t read everything on Goon Talk. But one piece in particular really got me thinking. The possibility it raises is a fascinating one: Does Bob Dylan engage in a kind of literary game in his “memoir” Chronicles? The name of the game is Connect The Dots. And the point of it is to create a portrait of the artist. By connecting the dots, we will get the real Bob Dylan. Warmuth has convinced me that Chronicles: Volume One is basically a literary jigsaw puzzle, a fine example of the secret writing Poe had in mind in his essay “A Few Words on Secret Writing”: “As we can scarcely imagine a time when there did not exist a necessity, or at least a desire, of transmitting information from one individual to another, in such manner as to elude general comprehension; so we may well suppose the practice of writing in cipher to be of great antiquity.”

What are the dots to connect in this case? To get the full treatment, visit Goon Talk here. This is my version of the quick and dirty. Dot number one: jazz giant Charles Mingus and his autobiography Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus (1971). Dylan called the book “riveting reading” and read the opening passage from it on his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour. In that book Mingus describes the multiplicity of personality, the complexity of identity, “In other words, I am three.” For the sake of clarity, I’ll quote it here:

‘In other words I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t – he goes back inside himself.’
‘Which one is real?’
‘They’re all real.’
”The man who watches and waits, the man who attacks because he’s afraid, and the man who wants to trust and love but retreats each time he finds himself betrayed. Mingus One, Two and Three. Which is the image you want the world to see?’

Ok, so Dylan admired the book and drew attention to its opening passage on his radio show. What’s the big deal in that? As Warmuth shows, in Chronicles: Volume One, even in its very beginning, Dylan is coming at us as Dylan One, Two and Three. In the opening passage he is simultaneously saluting Mingus, stealing his ideas about identity, and giving us a portrait of the artist as a young man in New York. The real Dylan is an assemblage.

By an attentive bit of textual analysis, Warmuth goes on to show how Dylan lifted phrases from the Mingus book in order to draw attention to the sophisticated game being played. This “phrase lifting” is not about plagiarism. Dylan isn’t using Mingus’s ideas or turns of phrase out of laziness. The words themselves are rather commonplace: “pocket-sized”, “leather upholstery”, “too light for a heavyweight.” No, their real usage is as sign posts telling us we are still on the secret path.

Here is another one of the dots in our game. As Warmuth has it, “In his book Mingus writes about how when he was a young boy he would bring pieces of broken pottery to Simon Rodia, who was building the Watts Towers at the time, essentially casting Rodia as a mirror image of himself. As I mentioned above, Mingus’ book famously begins with the sentence, “In other words, I am three.” The portion of the book regarding Rodia and the Watts Towers begins with, “At that time in Watts there was an Italian man, named Simon Rodia – though some people said his name was Sabatino Rodella, and his neighbors called him Sam.” Three names – in other words, Rodia is three as well.”

So the architect Rodia was important to Mingus. What does he have to do with Dylan? The answer is hiding in plain sight, on one of the most famous album covers in history, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Dylan and Rodia. Side by side, indeed. And center right, looming in the back row, is Edgar Allen Poe. It certainly feels like a game. Warmuth deserves a lot of credit for sniffing out the trail of bread crumbs leading out from Dylan’s book. If puzzles are your thing, this one looks inviting.

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One Comment

  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted October 20, 2016 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Pretty interesting stuff here, thanks Nick. In some ways I wonder about the enterprise itself. Dylan of course began inventing himself anew at a young age (even choosing another name) and never seems to have stopped. He also seems to have established a view of himself from early on that afforded great importance to his person and it could be that by using secret writing, if he did, to share what he sees as himself with others in the know or willing to do the work he is continuing in sending out the message of self. My guess is that Dylan has much more to say, or perhaps that by doing so he is attempting to turn the mirror on us, his readers/listeners. Maybe we should all start looking for our own selves (“real” selves) and worry a lot less about celebrities.

    It does all make for great reading though, there’s no doubt about that.

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