I just read a fascinating book – “Chronicles, Volume 1” by Bob Dylan.
There are some real surprises in this book.
Most of us baby boomers thought of Dylan as a man with a political agenda. It turns out Dylan wasn’t trying to lead anyone anywhere. He just wanted to be a singer-songwriter.
It’s quite a revelation, and Dylan has an interesting way of telling the story.
Dylan was a private man who tried to put his family first. He didn’t want to get caught up in the ’60s activism. He was conspicuously absent from Woodstock, Altamont and all the other big festivals and protests of the era.
He writes of an introduction he received at the Newport Folk Festival that made him shudder.
Ronnie Gilbert, one of the Weavers, told the audience: “And here he is … take him, you know him, he’s yours.”
“I had failed to sense the ominous forebodings in that introduction,” writes Dylan.
Elvis had never been introduced like that. “Take him, he’s yours!” What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now. I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as a mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.
Dylan goes on to talk about just how estranged he was from the values of that generation while trying to live a quiet life in Woodstock, N.Y. He sensed people wanted him to lead the charge against the Roman Empire.
“But America wasn’t the Roman Empire and someone else would have to step up and volunteer,” he writes. “I really was never any more than what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze. Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles.”
When Dylan and his family first moved to the quiet, rural town of Woodstock, it offered a sanctuary for them. Later, intruders started breaking in day and night.
“Tensions mounted almost immediately and peace was hard to come by,” he writes.
At one time the place had been a quiet refuge, but now, no more. Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all 50 states for gangs of dropouts and druggies. Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night. At first, it was merely the nomadic homeless making illegal entry – seemed harmless enough, but then rogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest began to arrive – unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry.
Dylan had a few firearms, but the local police cautioned that if he used them to defend his property and family – or even fired warning shots – that it would be he who found himself in jail. He was also worried that “creeps thumping their boots across our roof could even take me to court if any of them fell off. This was so unsettling. I wanted to set fire to these people. These gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues were all disrupting my home life.”
Dylan wanted to get away. And the place he wanted to go might surprise many of his fans.
“I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about, but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard,” he writes. “That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream.”
It wasn’t that Dylan was apolitical. He was just so out of step with those around him that he didn’t feel like he could talk about it.
“I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics,” he writes.
My favorite politician was Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody. I wasn’t comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble. It wasn’t my particular feast of food. Even the current news made me nervous, I liked old news better. All the new news was bad.
It turns out Dylan was more iconoclastic than any of us ever realized.
His book is a great read for anyone who lived through the ’60s. You’ll never look at Dylan or his generation the same way again.