As I noted yesterday, I first really became a serious appreciator of Bob Dylan about ten years ago, when I first picked up a cutout copy of Good As I Been to You, the first of two stripped down, scratchy-voice-and-guitar records of mostly old-time songs. The other record, World Gone Wrong, is entirely comparable.
The records were the occasion of much headscratching in the press at the time they were released, 1992 and 1993. For me, they arrived well after their initial release date and just as I had nearly worn out my copy of the great CD re-release of the legendary Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of Folk Music, which I picked up on release in 1997. Whoops, that makes it under ten years ago. Whatever.
On vinyl, I think I had The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, and one other record, possibly Highway 61 Revisited. Of these, Freewheelin‘ was my clear favorite, as I largely eschewed the shaggy-dog compositional techniques seen on the other records.
However, Good As I Been To You‘s spare, affectionate, and utilitarian renditions of old songs both familiar and new to me struck my ears with the weight of an archetype. It was a record I had been wanting to hear since my enthusiasm for Billy Bragg first prompted me to look into Dylan’s early work. The record remains my favorite recording by Dylan. Curious where the old man had gone since recording these songs, I picked up Time out of Mind, and loved it. I also really like Love and Theft, but Time out of Mind is something different, like listening to someone’s dreams after a night of listening to really old folksongs. Amused by the shambolic bounce of the record, I started looking back at the earlier works, including the late-sixties period so beloved by so many. To my surprise, I found I now understood some of the enthusiasm, as I wrote here a while ago.
This past spring, Greg and Stacey gave me a copy of Chronicles, Dylan’s autobio, and to my surprise, devoured it, chuckling. The first section, a generous memoir of Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village in the early sixties, seemed to me to be based directly on Desolation Row. I recall thinking that he had reused sections of the lyric throughout; I don’t recall if I was ever able to establish this as a fact or not. Even if he did not, he engaged with his recollections to tie his experience of the Village to the deep past. When the below-grade Villlage clubs are described as firelit rooms from another era, Dylan deliberately riffs on Martin Scorsese’s vision of Old Five Points in Gangs of New York. Dylan recalls the clubs as a kind of magic cave whereupon entering he gained access to the America of all past times and was granted the mystical power to return from that time to our own bearing visions and dreams of souls long gone.
Whether or not Dylan actually believes this is simply not germane. He wants the reader to believe he does, I think, the better to fulfill his role as a performer. In “Masters of War,” he wrote ” I want you to know that I can see through your masks.” As Scorsese seems to be helping his old friend to say in the film I’m watching tonight, for Dylan, there may only be the masks.