In honour of Bob Dylan's current UK tour, two relevant entries this week. One will appear on Dress Down Sunday, the day after our Guest Blogger Colm Redmond has been to see Dylan's second Blackpool concert. Today - marking the last date of three in Glasgow - a first look at Bob Dylan's only published non-fiction work.
the book: Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
published 2004, section set in 1989
Across a vacant field stood an obscure roadside place, a gaunt shack called King Tut's Museum ... A young girl was on the balcony beating the dust off a rug, dressed in pink gymnastic tights, had long black oiled ringlets and a bath towel around her shoulders. The dust hung like a red cloud in the air...
[The store] was run by an old-timer called Sun Pie, one of the most singular characters you'd ever want to meet. The man was short and wiry like a panther, dark face but with Slavic features, wore a narrow brimmed, flat topped straw hat. On his bones was the raw skin of the earth. The young girl up on the balcony was his wife. She looked like a schoolgirl.
observations: There is no sign whatsoever of Volume Two of Bob Dylan's long-awaited memoir - but it's easy now to forget that no-one ever seriously believed a first volume would appear, even after it was promised. Chronicles is by no means a conventional autobiography. It alights apparently at random upon periods in Dylan's life, generally times in which he made specific albums. The project started when he was asked to write an essay about the making of each of his albums for a re-issue programme - he never got very far with that, but was inadvertently inspired to start writing more about his life.
Like Morrissey, Dylan can at times bring a picture to life despite giving no realistic details. Sun Pie had "on his bones ... the raw skin of the earth" - well, not really; but I certainly know what it means. Dylan also has a novelist's gift for telling you a lot about what someone's like just by describing their look: folk music history expert Izzy Young is "sardonic" which doesn't tell you a lot, but he also "wore heavy horn-rimmed glasses, spoke in a thick Brooklyn dialect, wore wool slacks, skinny belt and work boots, tie at a careless slant," and that kind of makes you feel like you have him pegged.
The book is astonishing for its descriptions of places and people, and exciting in its psychological twists and turns. For all its slangy informality, it's beautifully written, and he gets away with some expansively poetical writing. There are of course passages - juicy insights into the recording process, for example - that are bound to be relatively uninteresting for those who don't like Dylan's music or are unfamiliar with the particular albums we witness being recorded. But then there will always be another fleeting glimpse of a star to make up for that: "Spending time with Bono was like eating dinner on a train - feels like you're moving, going somewhere."
The picture is of Lisa Bonet as Epiphany Proudfoot in the 1987 film Angel Heart, the one that finally got her (allegedly) sacked from the squeaky-clean Cosby empire. Although the towel is not around her shoulders, the outfit's wrong, and she is not "beating the dust off a rug" (which amazingly is not a euphemism), I'm sure Sun Pie's wife looked like this. And here's a bonus pic showing her hair: