Exhuming Bob: IX Chronicles I: Pensees

April 25, 2008


Exhuming Bob

Part IX

Chronicles I: Pensees


R.E. Prindle

     It has been four years since Chronicles appeared.  Plenty of time to think about it.  I reread it recently and may read it again while I’m writing this.

     If you listen to the bitter denunciatory songs and read the various biographers of Bob’s life as it appeared from the outside one is astonished at the Happy Talk quality of the auto.  We don’t even have an auto-biography here or even a memoir actually: what we have is a series of autobiographical essays that are more or less centered on the theme of how Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.

     Bobby Zimmerman is telling the story but he’s not really mentioned by name.  Bob was impressed by Rimbaud’s ‘Je suis an autre’ which translates I am someone else.  In that sense it seems as if the ‘autre’ is talking about Bob.  So the ‘autre’ is sort of an unnamed narrator.   Bob carefully details the experiences that led to the transition from Bobby to Bob.

     The key points are not those of either the songs or the biography.  For instance no biography has mentioned Bobby Zimmerman’s close encounter with Gorgeous George.  The experience seems to have centered Bobby’s life.  I’m sure most people are too young to have even heard of Gorgeous George.  Gorgeous flamed across the skies during the fifties.

      Bob may have seen him on TV as early as 1951 when his family got their TV.  Only ten at the time it would have been a major experience.  According to Steve Slagle writing at:


     In a very real sense, Gorgeous George single handedly established the unproven new technology of television as a viable entertaining new medium that could reach literally millions (of) homes all across the country.  Pro wrestling was TV;s fisrt real “hit” with the public- the first programs that ever drew any real numbers for the new technology, and Gorgeous George was directly responsible for all the commotion.  It was a turning point for Wagner (Gorgeous George Wagner), wrestling, and the country itself.  Gorgeous George was probably responsible for selling more television sets in the early days of TV than any other factor.


     He influenced…even Muhammed Ali, Little Richard, Liberace, and numerous other figures in both sports and entertainment.


     He grew his hair out so it was long, could be curled and pinned back with gold plated bobby pins, and dyed it platinum blond.  He wore elegant robes, dubbed himself “The Human Orchid” and was always escorted by one of his male ring valets (Geoffrey or Thomas Ross) who would spray his corner of the ring, as well as George’s opponents, with disinfectant and perfume.

      No kidding, George was something else.  That spraying bit brought a vocal response from the couches of America.  He didn’t necessarily make you want to be like him but what he’d done was so phenomenal you wanted to do something to get that effect.  Other phenoms like Mickey Mantle, Liberace and Little Richard captured that supernatural something, that aura, that charisma without being much themselves as was the case with Gorgeous George.

     So you can imagine the effect on Bobby Zimmerman when George entered the arena as Bobby was playing and virtually acknowledged the kid’s existence.  I mean, you could live a lifetime and never have that happen to you.  And out of a lifetime of happenings the event was so fixating Bob chose to give it a central part in his essay.

     The book begins and ends with Lou Levy, a song plugger, appropriately enough.  Bob had been sent to Levy by John Hammond, his record producer, to be signed and sent to Lou Levy again by Albert Grossman, his manager to be unsigned.  So the story Bob tells in his novel  fits into a space between his signing and unsigning.  By novel’s end, did I say novel, Bob Dylan is poised to step onto the world stage, Folk Music’s version of Gorgeous George.

     In between he gives the details of the formation of Bob Dylan the songwriter.  But it’s all Happy Talk; nothing bad happening .  In contrast to Ballad In Plain D lamenting his breakup with Suze Rotolo which is almost too bitter why, all that happened was they came to an intersection, Suze turned left and Bob kept on going.  That’s all there was to it, the inevitable going of different ways.  Well, OK.  Maybe at this stage in his life Bob wants to do the gallant thing.  So, if these are just a series of impressionistic essays no problem.  I thought Barefoot In The Park was good movie too.  Bob’s got an OK story.  Nice novelistic touch, but if this is supposed to be a memoir or autobiography the rendering is fully inadequate.  Given the songs and the versions of the biographers I can’t believe it.  The tale is woefully inadequate.  Bob does call these chronicles although they aren’t that either.  I thought I was buying an auto-biography; I really wanted more.  Where’s the beef? as the saying went.

     However Suze did have an infuence on Our Man.  Bob doesn’t mention the political influence apparent in the songs and dwelt on by the biographers though.  Suze introuduced him to the art world, the avant garde theatre.  One of what he considers his major influences, Brecht-Weil, came through her.  Bob makes it sound like this was an exotic world and one to which he didn’t return when he and Suze, not so much as broke up but, went their separate ways.  He gives the impression that he was an outsider looking in to Suze’s world.  Nice, but not that nice.  Maybe his lack of appreciation had something to do with the drawing apart.

     But, hey, life was blissful.  He moved in on Fred Neil at the Cafe Wha; much as he tells it in Talking New York, who was useful but Bob had eyes on the Gaslight and Dave Van Ronk.  He met Van Ronk, the story is worth dwelling on, moved in on him, gained access to the Gaslight through Van Ronk and never entered the Cafe Wha’ or one assumes spoke to Fred Neil, again.  Bob doesn’t look back.

     Bob also moved in with Van Ronk and his wife Terri.  He moved in with several people but first he made sure they had large record collections and libraries.  Bob made good use of both so that he became conversant with books and authors, recording artists.  Happy talk, life was good.  So, one has to ask, where does Positively Fourth Street and its bitter taunting tone enter in?  Not in this novel.

     His apartment  on Fourth Street where he lived with Suze was blissful too. It was all great, except for maybe Suze’s mother.  Then John Hammond discovered him, signed him to Lou Levy.  That brought the attention of Albert Grossman, exit Lou Levy, end of story.

     But by then Bobby Zimmerman was the eseential Bob Dylan and the great adventure was about to begin.

      I enjoyed the book.  It was a good novel.  I even learned some things about Bob Dylan.  Bob clarified the provenance of his born again last name.  Came from Dylan Thomas just like we knew all along.  There was an awful lot of stuff left out and a lot just skimmed over.  For instance it seems that Bob left high school in early Spring which would mean that he didn’t graduate.  He talks of playing with Bobby Vee in the Summer of ’59 yet he also says that he went down to Minneapolis in early June and hung around Dinkytown and U. Minnesota for the whole Summer.  So, there is some mixed up confusion from, say, April to August that is very vague.

     These were medium good essays but far short of having any real auto-biographical substance.  Didn’t really tell us too much of nothin’.

     I will certainly buy Vol II when it comes out but I suspect it will be about 300 pages of Happy Talk about his most productive period possible edging into his ‘Middle Period’ and the Rolling Thunder Revue.  Or perhaps it will mainly concentrate on his ‘protest’ years with forays elsewhere.  If the volume is as superficial as this one however I’ll not only abandon the happy talk but be a little disgruntled.

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