Bob Dylan: The Truth Is, There Is No Truth

How Dylan seized control of his own story and made things more complicated than ever

Joe Levy
Joe Levy
Dec 29, 2014 · 12 min read

By Joe Levy

It’s 2004, but Bob Dylan wants to tell you about a day some 42 years earlier. It’s an ice cold afternoon in New York City. Dylan is 20 years old. He has just signed his first publishing deal with Leeds Music, and the company’s owner, Lou Levy, takes him out to celebrate. Dylan remembers “snow whirling in the red lanterned streets,” and though he doesn’t specify the day, it is January 5, 1962.

This is how Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, begins. Levy takes him in a taxi uptown to Broadway and 70th, to have a look at the Decca recording studio where Bill Haley recorded “Rock Around the Clock” eight years earlier. Then they travel back down Broadway to a restaurant owned by Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion of the world from 1919 to 1926.

A 20-year-old unknown is greeted by a man who was once the most famous in all the land. The kid will soon put a face to currents of 1960s upheaval both political and personal, currents he seems to control for a moment both strangely brief and unending. He is shaking hands with someone born in 1895.

Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), guitar in hand and harmonica around his neck, on a rooftop in New York City, 1962

In Chronicles, Dylan gets the address of Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant wrong—he puts it on Broadway and 58th Street, but in fact it was between 49th and 50th. Specifically at 1619 Broadway, the Brill Building, the locus of the factory songwriting that then still powered popular music. Music publishers and songwriters had offices there, or close by. A little more than a year before Dylan signs his deal with Leeds, Gerry Goffin and Carole King compose “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” working out of 1650 Broadway, up the block from the Brill Building, and cut it with the Shirelles four blocks away, at the Scepter Records studio at 254 West 54th Street (a storied address: the Velvet Underground will record their first album there in 1966; eleven years after that the place will be known as Studio 54). “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” went No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on February 4, 1961, just around the time Dylan first arrived in New York City.

Dylan is supposed to have swept this old world away. His prolific songwriting did much to create to the expectation that artists should write their own songs, not the norm to that point (the Beatles cover the b-side of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Boys,” for their first album in 1963; covers continued to appear on their albums until 1965’s Rubber Soul). You can read the opening of Chronicles this way: Times Square, the crossroads of the world, the 19th century shaking hands with the 20th, one fading, the other rising.

Bob Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman confer backstage at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965 in Newport, Rhode Island

But there’s another reason that Chronicles begins where it does: publishing will bring Dylan his first fortune. According to Dylan, manager Albert Grossman buys him out of his deal with Leeds Music; Grossman begins the process of Dylan’s songs moving up the charts when he passes “Blowin’ in the Wind” to another management client, Peter, Paul and Mary. They take it to No. 2 in 1963, as it marches forward to becoming a standard; a year later it’s racking up royalties as an instrumental b-side to the Stan Getz version of “Girl From Ipanema,” a Grammy winning record of the year; two years after that Stevie Wonder takes it top 10.

Lou Levy doesn’t know what to do with Dylan’s work. (“There’s something unique about your songs,” he tells Dylan, “but I can’t put my finger on it.”) But he’s running the tape machine that captures Dylan’s first originals. That first publishing deal and those demos are where it all begins.

Or it’s as good a place to begin as any. The other key moment in those first few pages of Chronicles comes when Dylan is sent to see Billy James, the head of publicity at Columbia Records. Billy has questions. Dylan doesn’t like questions. It doesn’t help that Billy is dressed like an Ivy League square. “He looked like he’d never been stoned a day in his life, never been in any kind of trouble,” Dylan writes. “He took out a notepad and pencil and asked where I was from. I told him I was from Illinois and he wrote that down.”

Dylan, of course, is from Minnesota, not Illinois. More tall tales follow: He drove a bakery truck. Worked construction in Detroit. His family had kicked him out. He’d come to New York on a freight train. And thus does Dylan establish himself as an unreliable narrator of his own story. He’ll tell you truly that he sometimes lies. “If you told the truth, that was all well and good,” he says later. “And if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good.”

Chronicles is where Dylan seizes control of his own story, assembling an official narrative—a chronicle — in public. From an artist who never liked questions, it’s the answers. Except that as it assembles, it dissembles. He’s an unreliable narrator. The truth is, there’s no truth.

“Not since Rimbaud said ‘I is another’ has an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity,” wrote Ellen Willis of Dylan in 1967. “Dylan’s refusal to be known is not simply a celebrity’s ploy, but a passion that has shaped his work.” What’s fascinating is not just how this refusal extends to his own autobiography, but how it’s now begun to unshape his work, to dismantle it.

Chronicles turns the refusal on its head—it’s an unmasking that creates another mask, a mask that hides itself by posing as the truth. In fact, Dylan has been flooding the market with truth, with narratives and counternarratives, for years.

No Direction Home, the Dylan-sanctioned documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, arrived in 2005, nine months after the publication of Chronicles. It tells the story of Dylan’s career up until the 1966 motorcycle accident that pulled him off the road for eight years. The same period is covered by 2010’s Mono Box, which stakes its own claim to a piece of the truth: “Dylan’s first eight 12-inch LPs, from Bob Dylan in 1962 to John Wesley Harding in 1968, as most people heard them, as they were expected to be heard, and as most often they were meant to be heard: in mono,” writes Greil Marcus in the liner notes.

As they were meant to be heard. This is a powerful notion. If you grew up with this music in stereo, that was all well and good. But if you wanted to hear it as it was intended, well, listen up.

But maybe you wanted to hear it as it wasn’t meant to be, or might have been. No problem. Dylan’s got you covered.

The counternarratives began in 1991 with The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1–3, a three-CD official compilation of oft-bootlegged material that countered the then prevalent narrative: Dylan was washed up, lost after years of half-dead albums and stumbly-mumbly shows. Here was proof of genius.

And something else, too: a new way of experiencing already familiar works of genius. Maybe you grew up knowing the aching ballad “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, as a woozy lamentation about the difficulties of holding on (to a girl, to happiness, to an upright position as you try to tell your story). Maybe you spent a decade or two taking occasional comfort and enjoyment from it. Maybe the shifts in the song, the way the music and lyrics slip-slide between sorrow and joy, helped you form an understanding of just how close those things can be, depending on which way someone is facing. That’s all well and good. Here’s a pumped-up version hooked to garage-band organ that proposes the sorrow can be blown away by an endless spool of barbed-wire guitar.

You can always go back to the other version, the one you thought of as true. It might not ever feel exactly the same, though. And no matter. There’s another take out there, with even raunchier guitar, waiting for you a few years down the line on Vol. 7 of the Bootleg Series, the soundtrack to No Direction Home.

There are other counternarratives. The most pointed is Another Self Portrait, Vol. 10 of the Bootleg Series, which seeks to refashion Self Portrait—perhaps Dylan’s most despised album—by stripping away overdubs. (Google Self Portrait and you’re sure to brush up against fulsome praise for the Bootleg Series rethink—a rewriting of history all the more impressive because Another Self Portrait isn’t that much more than a curio.) And the counternarrative of the Bootleg Series produced a fan-generated counternarrative of its own, The Genuine Bootleg Series, full of connoisseur’s picks. The first volume has an early draft of “It Takes A Lot to Laugh” from 1962 called “Rocks and Gravel.”

“What I do in the studio doesn’t define me as a person,” Dylan says in Chronicles. All those alternate takes are way of assuring this. As they pile up, the notion of a definitive version recedes—maybe slightly, maybe substantially. This seems exactly the point. The volume of recordings—stereo and mono, alternate takes with different lyrics or tempos—now recreate the experience of seeing Dylan live, where familiar lyrics shift and expected arrangements disappear. The idea is that the songs are living things, even when they’ve captured and imprisoned on an album.

In Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography Shakey, Young explains how he learned to deal with his worries over the permanence of recording: “For years I wouldn’t play unless the tape was running. I just recorded everything—all the tours, everything. Make it so there’s no difference between playing and recording—it’s all one thing. Then you forget you’re recording, ‘cause ultimately the music gets in your face, you forget what you’re doing and all of sudden you realize, ‘Jesus, we recorded that.’ ”

Make it so there’s no difference between playing and recording—it’s all one thing. That’s what you hear on the latest—and most overwhelming and satisfying—release in the Bootleg Series, The Complete Basement Tapes. Six CDs, 140 tracks, recorded by Dylan and The Band over six months from March to September of 1967, some of it his living room, some of it in their basement. Covers of folk songs, obscure rock & roll cuts, originals, reworkings of Dylan’s back catalogue, it’s all one thing—it blends together until the old songs and the ones being invented on the spot occupy the same space, stylistically and emotionally.

It’s all one thing in another sense as well — it’s the sound of everything. Taken in a big gulp, hours at a time, The Complete Basement Tapes blur, the massive slurry of songs erasing any distinction between what works and what doesn’t. A meditative steadiness emerges. The tapes begin to sound like a Brian Eno project—the same sense of ideas developing, of illumination unfolding through accident as much as genius; the same devotion to trial and error as a working method or artistic strategy; the same diminution of the space between failure and success. Time is erased. The music just goes on and on. There is no clock. There is no world outside this room; the whole world is in this room.

Most of this music has been available in muddier quality for many years, though 33 tracks have never been heard before. They are presented on the Bootleg Series in their authentic state—chronologically, as they were recorded, chatter, stops and starts included. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” one of Dylan’s loveliest and most mysterious songs of devotion, begins its life with dummy lyrics about domestic chores: “You’d best feed the cats. The cats need feeding. You’re the one to do it.”

“This the best album of 1975,” Robert Christgau wrote when 24 of these songs saw their first official release as The Basement Tapes. “It would have been the best album of 1967 too. And it’s sure to sound great in 1983.” The Complete Basement Tapes would beg to differ. That 1975 release isn’t the real shit: there were overdubs, and only 16 songs are from the Basement Tapes sessions—eight are 1975 recordings by The Band. In fact, a two-CD sampler of The Complete Basement Tapes makes a show of righting the wrongs of that overdubbing in its title: The Basement Tapes Raw.

As Clinton Heylin explains in his liner notes to The Complete Basement Tapes, overdubbing wasn’t the only change on that 1975 release: the music was compressed into mono. Wait—isn’t mono, you know, the way Dylan’s music was meant to be heard? Not this time. The Basement Tapes had originally been recorded “atmospheric stereo.” Although that’s not quite the way you’ll hear them on The Complete Basement Tapes. The “mile wide stereo” of the source tapes has been toned down “simply to make the listening experience not quite so unnerving for the average listener.” Complete, maybe, but not the way it happened. Just another version of the story.

Bob Dylan with The Band on tour in 1974: (left to right) Rick Danko, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson

“I never really liked The Basement Tapes,” Dylan told Kurt Loder in 1985. “I mean, they were just songs we had done for the publishing company, as I remember. They were used only for other artists to record those songs.”

Dylan had come off the road in 1966, had a motorcycle accident, and cancelled his upcoming tour dates. The Band was still on retainer as his backing group. They got together for kicks, and to write songs. This is how the Basement Tapes came to be.

Dylan would not return to the road until he toured arenas with The Band in 1974. During those eight years when home life replaced touring his principle source of income would have been songs—on his own albums, or covered by others. Just two months after Dylan and The Band stopped the basement sessions, Peter, Paul and Mary released one of the songs worked on there, “Too Much of Nothing,” and took it to No. 35. They learned the song from acetates of Dylan and The Band’s performance circulated by Dylan’s publishing company.

This is how bootlegs of the Basement Tapes came to be, and this is where the counternarratives begin. Dylan, legend holds, was the first artist ever bootlegged. In June of 1969, an unauthorized two album set called The Great White Wonder appeared. It collected a hodgepodge of live cuts, outtakes, and seven tracks from the basement sessions.

The Great White Wonder was a fan-generated counternarrative. Dylan had just released Nashville Skyline, a decidedly professional sounding record cut with Music City pros. But here was the Dylan people missed, the mystic-folkie-rocker, rendered in the grubby sound of the underground. You could find it in some stores, but guys also dealt it on the street to fans in line for concerts, like it was drugs. This was the real shit.

The narratives and counternarratives have been tangled up ever since. The next chapter arrives on February 3, when Dylan releases Shadows in the Night, an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. That’s the old world of professional songwriting that Dylan was supposed to have done away with. Rewrite the history books: Dylan’s diving in.

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Joe Levy is Editor at Large for Billboard and a former Rolling Stone and Maxim editor. Follow him on Twitter @RealJoeLevy

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

Joe Levy

Written by

Joe Levy

Contributing editor at @RollingStone. Also sometimes the guy who said that thing on that show that time.



Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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