November 28, 2004

Chronicles, Volume One

Author: Bob Dylan | First published 2004 | Amazon

This was also a birthday present, from my brother Andrew. We saw a Dylan concert in Elmira together two years ago, and I think we both saw him at Canandaigua in 1989. I think he's fonder of the current Dylan, and I tend to be one of those horribly nostalgic people who wishes he'd seen him in '67 or '77. (The Elmira show was pretty amazing.)

After reading Tarantula a few years ago, I wasn't sure I'd want to read anything more that Dylan wrote except for lyrics. While Chronicles isn't too particular about telling things in the order they happened, it's structurally a much easier book to read. It's not a straightforward "this happened then this happened" autobiography, and sometimes he shoots forward or backward. Most of it is about his time starting out, but then suddenly the third and fourth chapters are about making the albums the chapters are named after - New Morning and Oh Mercy.

Dylan's style is distinctive, lots of long flowing thoughts often forced into short sentences. I'm not sure why they chose a font that feels all bold all the time, but maybe it's appropriate to the stories. He's pretty blunt about his opinions throughout, and every now and then I had to shake my head. Some of the people, especially the people I've never heard of before, are memorable. Sun Pie, who expects the Chinese to take over America as they've been planning since the Bering land bridge was open; Jon Pankake, who seems to tell him not to be one kind of folksinger without quite giving him a direction; and Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel, who give him a place to stay and all kinds of conversation.

The message I get most strongly from the book is that Dylan wants to be Dylan, and he's intensely frustrated when other people tell him what that should be or not be. He's exasperated by people who wanted him to lead a revolution, by people who think folk should just be one kind of music, and (reasonably) by people who invade his property and walk all over his roof. Reading this, I get the sense that he's still Bob Dylan and he's not done changing yet.

Posted by simonstl at 07:37 PM

November 27, 2004

Lost in the Woods

Author: Julian Palacios | First published 1998 | Amazon

Tracey got me this biography of Syd Barrett for my birthday, and it's amazing, if dense. Syd Barrett was the original lead singer and guitarist for Pink Floyd, the genius behind Piper at the Gates of Dawn, who then vanished as the band took off.

Apart from the general psychedelic atmosphere Syd was instrumental in creating, the nursery-rhyme like lyrics are amazing, though there aren't very many of them. It seems to be an open question whether LSD masked his growing schizophrenia or led to it, but in either case Syd threw off sparks briefly but couldn't sustain the burden.

The book is a difficult read at times because of the way Palacios wrote it, often assembling large chunks of direct quotes from people who were there and leaving the reader to sort it out. While that's occasionally a challenge, as there's some repetition and keeping track of everyone is difficult, the result of reading through it is pretty amazing.

The portrait Palacios creates is sympathetic but simultaneously acknowledges the difficulty of being near Syd, especially as his problems shifted from catatonia to occasional violence, and a general withdrawal from the world. It's also interesting to read with an eye to what became of Pink Floyd, with their later successes and breakups. Roger Water appears early as a difficult character, but one who seems to find his way early, and David Gilmour comes in first as a childhood friend of Syd and Roger's and later as the guitarist who replaces the increasingly incoherent Syd.

Gilmour seems to have had plenty of patience for dealing with Syd (whose solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, he produced) and with Waters, whose notoriously prickly nature produced some powerful music. If only the Gilmour-era Pink Floyd music was any good...

Oh well. Palacios does a great job of exploring the intersection between genius and madness, valuing the sparks this 'crazy diamond' threw off while recognizing the problems he created as well.

I've got a bike
You can ride it if you like
It's got a basket, a bell that rings and
Things to make it look good.
I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.
- "Bike", from Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Posted by simonstl at 05:04 PM