Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chronicles: Volume One, by Bob Dylan

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Every serious artist, as far as I can tell, perceives a need to conquer the elements of the craft from the masters who came before. I think that, on some level, most of these same artists hope to create some element that is entirely new to the craft, or to extend an already existing element beyond any previously known bounds, or to combine two elements which were prior strangers.

Like him or not, you'd be hard pressed to claim that Bob Dylan didn't accomplish any one of these feats as a songwriter; hell, you'd be hard pressed to prove that he didn't accomplish all of them. He's been part of the western social conscience for so many decades now that up-and-coming artists in any field might feel daunted looking at his accomplishments and thinking, That guy has done so much, and I could never hope to match him for creativity, production, innovation, or fame.

Which is why my favorite part of Chronicles was when Dylan waxed prosaic (the guy's a pretty great prose writer, too) on starting to write songs. (All quotes from page 51.)

He starts off with curiosity, the siren which I would argue sings to all folks crazy enough to be artists: "Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain." But even Bob Dylan's muse doesn't simply transmit music through him like a radio antenna: "It's not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It's not that easy."

He's driven in his craft both by ambition and by his singular experiences: "You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen." But he realizes that all the drive and desire and curiosity in the world isn't enough, for then comes the careful practice and application of the art: "You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular. The chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing."

While I noodle about on the guitar, I'm no songwriter. But as an author, I take both great solace and deep inspiration from knowing that one of the greatest songwriters of the last hundred years went through -- and possibly still goes through -- the same challenges that my peers and I face. Dylan's hurdles take him off a pedestal and place him in a very human sphere. He may be more talented than I am, and he's certainly more accomplished, but ultimately he's just another human with a desire to create Something Beautiful. Just like me, and maybe just like you, too.

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