May 24: Bob Dylan turns seventy today. Chronicles, the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs, opens with an account of his first record deal, at age twenty, offered by Columbia’s John Hammond. Dylan recalls sitting in Hammond’s office in wide-eyed, pinch-me wonder; he then recalls being passed on to Hammond’s publicity writer, an Ivy League type who “tried to get me to cough up some facts, like I was supposed to give them to him straight and square”:
“How did you get here?” he asked me.
“I rode a freight train.”
“You mean a passenger train?”
“No, a freight train.”
“You mean, like a boxcar?”
“Yeah, like a boxcar. Like a freight train.”
“Okay, a freight train.”
The exchange can be regarded as the first in a half-century of jokes, masks, and deflections. “I hadn’t come in on a freight train at all,” says Dylan a paragraph later:
What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, a ’57 Impala—straight out of Chicago, clearing the hell out of there—racing all the way through the smoky towns, winding roads, green fields covered with snow, onward, eastbound … a twenty-four-hour ride, dozing most of the way in the backseat, making small talk. My mind fixed on hidden interests….
Within a few years, says Dylan, his songs were “subverted into polemics,” his personality inflated into “the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent,” even those who should have known better hopping aboard the myth-train:
Once in the midsummer madness I was riding in a car with Robbie Robertson, the guitar player in what later was to be called The Band. I felt like I might as well have been living in another part of the solar system. He says to me, “Where do you think you’re gonna take it?”
I said, “Take what?”
“You know the whole music scene.” The whole music scene! The car window was rolled down about an inch. I rolled it down the rest of the way, felt a gust of wind blow into my face and waited for what he said to die away—it was like dealing with a conspiracy. No place was far enough away. 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.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.