Blair's Blog

Glimpses Of Genius: Dylan, The Wolf and Marshall

Let’s see…dipping into BJ’s Bookbag, I find three cool books that are about very different kinds of genius: Bob Dylan just put out the first volume of his autobiography, called Chronicles; blues immortal Howlin’ Wolf is captured beautifully in James Segrest’s and Mark Hoffman’s Moanin’ At Midnight; and the great San Francisco photographer Jim Marshall’s latest collection, Proof, shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is one of the great visual artists of our time.

Dylan’s book was definitely the most pleasant surprise of the three—and also the most frustrating. So what else is new? The main reason I had low expectations for the book is that Dylan has been such a poor interview subject through the years. More often than not he’s been cagey and defensive, clearly nervous about revealing much of anything about either his life or his songs in the few interviews he’s granted. Indeed, he always seemed to be running away from his past and the expectations that people have of him because of his brilliant early career. I frankly wondered if he was able to open up enough to write a telling memoir—if he hadn’t moved so far away from his original musical persona, and assumed so many different identities through the years, that he completely lost touch with his many former selves. It has been said often and bears repeating: Bob works in mysterious ways.

But Chronicles (Simon & Schuster) reveals that Dylan has a sharp memory, a good sense of who is and where he came from, and a much deeper understanding of his own flaws and foibles than I ever imagined. He’s also pretty funny (not a surprise) and quite self-deprecating. I came away from the book tremendously impressed with Dylan anew.

Now, the frustrating part of the book is that it is not a standard autobiography—that is to say, it’s not a linear narrative of his life. Rather, it consists of five long vignettes from different parts of his life. The chapters that open and close the book were my favorites: his recollections of life in Greenwich Village in the year after he moved there in the early ’60s. Writing in a breezy, conversational style punctuated with literally hundreds of references to novels, poems, philosophers, films, painters, sports figures and various other things that seemingly popped into his mind as he was writing, he details how a skinny outsider from Hibbing, Minnesota, named Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. He writes in vivid detail about how his obsession with Woody Gurthrie’s music, how hearing a Robert Johnson record for the first time changed his life, how various friends and associates in Minnesota and New York influenced him and set him on the path toward finding his own songwriting voice. His reminiscences of the folk scene are told with obvious affection, and his writing makes the characters and places come alive. As a writer he veers between dashed-off stream of consciousness recollections and more thoughtful novelist prose:

Across the way a guy in a leather jacket scooped frost off the windshield of a Mercury Montclair. Behind him, a priest in a purple cloak was slipping through the courtyard of the church through an opened gate on his way to perform some sacred duty. Nearby, a bareheaded woman in boots tried to manage a laundry bag up the streets. There were a million stories, just everyday New York things if you wanted to focus on them…

Two pages later, he talks about wanting to make an album, rather than have a hit 45, because

LPs were like the force of gravity. They had covers, back and front, that you could stare at for hours. Next to them, 45s were flimsy and uncrystallized. They just stacked up in piles and didn’t seem important. I had no song in my repertoire for commercial radio anyway. Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that got only five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of wells weren’t for radiophiles. There was nothing easygoing about the folk songs I sang. They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They did not come gently to the shore. I guess you could say they weren’t commercial…

In between the bookends of his early New York days (which only go up to him being signed by to Columbia by John Hammond) are chunks about how he fled from his fame in the late ’60s and eventually made New Morning, how he lost his way in the late ’80s, and, of particular interest to recording types, a detailed chronicle about the making of his brilliant 1989 album, Oh Mercy, with Daniel Lanois in New Orleans. He writes in great detail about how he and Lanois shaped the album together and of their occasional battles over arrangements. But beyond that, the chapter is a window into the artistic temperment and into the soul of New Orleans—there’s a long, rich anecdote about Dylan and his (curiously un-named) wife taking off in the middle of the sessions to go traveling through various small bayou towns. He meets some very interesting characters along the way and the experience eventually clears his head enough that he can complete the album that had become stalled.

All of the vignettes are fascinating, well-told and very revealing. He is generous with praise for those who have helped him; indeed, he has nice things to say about nearly everyone who touches his life. But its hard not to come away from this book wondering about the zillions of stories that didn’t make “Volume One.” Imagine what the chapters dealing with his classic albums will be like if he goes into the sort of detail that he did in the Greenwich Village chapters. What will he say about Slow Train Coming and his “Christian” period? How about Blood on the Tracks and the split from his wife Sara? The passages in Chronicles that deal with his disillusionment with fame and his reluctance to be the “spokesman for a generation” and all those labels that were foisted on him through years would be so much more powerful if the book had dealt at all with the years that put him in that elevated position. It requires some pre-knowledge of the contour of his life to get some of what’s here.

In interviews surrounding the publication of the book, Dylan has talked about how difficult it was to write—there was no way he was going to sit down and write the 1,000 pages over several years telling the whole story would require. But here’s one eager reader who can’t wait for him to get off the road again so he can get back to telling this amazing story. What a great read!

There’s a single paragraph early on in the Dylan book that mentions Gogol, Balzac, Maupassant, Hugo, Dickens, Ovid, Machiavelli, Dante, Rousseau, Sophocles, Faulkner, Shelley, Longfellow and Poe. Well, Howlin’ Wolf was illiterate; never read any of those guys. The Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) never could quite get a handle on reading and writing, despite the best efforts of the U.S. military, friends and lovers through the years. But man, he was a genius when it came to singing the blues.

I was lucky enough to see Howlin’ Wolf perform one night at a Northside Chicago club called Alice’s Revisited in the winter of 1972. I was a freshman at Northwestern in the throes of a serious blues obsession that had me scouring record stores for Blind Blake and Muddy Waters records, trying to make out the lyrics on Bukka White tunes and being transported by the eerie wail of Blind Lemon Jefferson. That night at Alice’s I sat right at the lip of the low stage, not six feet from the Wolf himself, and was completely swept away by his power and his incredible presence. I knew this was not the Wolf in his prime—just as I knew that Muddy Waters, who I saw several times in the ’70s, and even interviewed once (what a thrill!)—was not what he once was. But both of these giants still had the passion for the blues that always came through.

Moanin’ At Midnight (Pantheon Books) is the first (and I’d venture to guess, last) authoritative biography of Wolf—the authors interviewed nearly everyone still living who either knew him or played with him. It took many years to reserach and write and a number of the key interview subjects have since died. It’s quite a tale, too, of how young Chester Burnett escaped the misery of his early life—horribly abused and dirt-poor as a child in the Mississippi Delta—by playing music. In his travels he meets and plays with Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson and many others, and develops his own distinctive style of blues along the way. He finds some success in Memphis recording with Sam Phillips and later, like so many other Mississippi musicians, makes his way to Chicago, where he turns out one blues hit after another for Chess Records.

The book does a marvelous job of capturing the feeling of the clubs and juke joints Wolf played coming up, and it goes into exhaustive detail describing just about every band line-up and recording session he was involved in. A mercurial personality, Wolf fought with and fired band members at the drop of hat, but they all seemed to love him and respect him deep down anyway. He was married to the same woman for most of his life—a real rarity in the blues world—and though he certainly enjoyed alcohol, he was very strict about his players not abusing it before they went onstage. (This led to many fights and firings.) His famous rivalry with Muddy Waters is discussed at length, as is his curious relationship with the British musicians who admired him so much in the ’60s and who helped expose him to white rock audiences for the first time. I loved the descriptions of Wolfs European tours—so different than the dives he played in Chicago and the South up until his final days. At the end of his saga—he died in January 1976—Wolf was comfortable financially and beloved by thousands of fans who recognized his raw genius. Yet there is still tragedy at the heart of the story. His blues were deep and real. Indeed, when he becomes sick and senses that his time is short, he goes back to Mississippi and finds his mother, who had rejected him decades earlier for singing “the devil’s music.” He professes his love and still she won’t forgive him for the path he chose. Now that’s the blues.

Even if you don’t know the name Jim Marshall, you’ve probably seen his incredible music photography, mostly in black and white, through the years in countless books and magazines. You also might have heard that he’s a crazy son-of-a-bitch, a (formerly) gun-toting, foul-mouthed lunatic who strikes fear in the hearts of record companies and magazines that want to use his photos. I’ve known Jim for more than 25 years and I can say categorically, all those bad stories, those negative impressions…well, actually they’re all true. But you know what? He’s a sweetheart. Beneath the unending litany of expletives and creative harangues, is a good guy with the soul of a poet: you can see it in his photography, and if you’re lucky enough to be on his good side (as I have been) he is loyal friend and a great person to work with.

I can’t tell you how thrilling it’s been for me, through the years, to have had the opportunity to go to Jim’s house and to pour over his proof sheets with a magnifying loop, choosing photos to publish with articles. Here’s something that hit me long ago: His “classic” shots are unbelievably great—you’ve seen the one of Janis looking forlorn backstage cradling a Southern Comfort bottle, or Johnnny Cash defiantly giving Marshall’s camera the finger as he goes onstage at Folsom Prison. But what I learned is that nearly every shot Marshall takes is perfect. I saw proof sheet after proof sheet that had 36 amazing photos on them—maybe one or two were ever published. His instincts about which shots were best—you can tell by the wax pencil markings on the proof sheets—were infallible, yet I always managed to find one or two fresh views in my search. I always felt quietly victorious when he’d look at a previously neglected shot I’d chosen and say, “That is a really good shot.”

Now, remarkably, others can enjoy that same thrill of discovery that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience through the years. The latest collection of Marshall’s photography, called Proof (Chronicle Books) consists entirely of two-page spreads, where the right page is one of his classic shots, and the left page is the full proof sheet, with all the photos taken before and after it. It makes for a very rich and rewarding experience, as the photos seem to come to life—you can feel the camaraderie between people and even share in Marshall’s own intimacy with his subjects. The book is mainly musicians—everyone from John Coltrane to the Stones to Ray Charles to the young Bob Dylan—but there are also writers, poets, actors and even some plain folks, like garbage collectors in San Francisco and a poor woman in Mississippi. It’s quite a journey through the eyes of one very talented—if irascible—visual artist. Check it out next time you’re in a book store, and take the time to really look at a few of the proof sheets. True genius. At $40, this book is a bargain—and a great holiday gift idea!

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