Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski has written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times. His books include And the War Came, about America’s six-month-long descent into war after Lincoln’s election, and the newly released Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Malanowski's reply:
I am reading Chronicles, Volume One, the memoir Bob Dylan published in 2004.

What does it say about me, and about the book, that it stood on my shelf for a decade before I cracked its cover? Maybe it has something with Dylan's monumentality, the hugeness of his presence. Like the New Yorkers who see the Empire State Building every day, who walk past it every day, without ever going in, let alone going to the top, I have taken Dylan for granted, probably been less curious about someone who seems so obvious. No doubt I made the lazy assumption that I knew the man through his songs--his anger, his sarcasm, his wit, his longing have helped me express the same feelings. But of course, there is much more.

From this memoir, which I am now about halfway through, it's clear that there is a more ordinary man behind the songs. Ordinary, but not boring. He doesn't mythologize himself. Dylan's reminiscences of his scuffling days in Greenwich Village are often charming (how could the image of Dylan and Tiny Tim, two broke entertainer-wannabes, eating free peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen of the Bitter End folk club, not be charming?) Beyond charm, though, he remembers being hungry, not for food, particularly, but for knowledge; in scene after scene, Dylan remembers devouring books and music, and to a certain extent people. All those thoughts and ideas and personalities would later explode in his songs.

He also shows us a man who is perplexed by the adulation he received, who was angry by the invasions of his privacy, and frustrated by the expectations that he was in control of his brilliance. He talks about how he hated being called the voice of a generation; when you think about it, what was offered as praise had to have been a burden, for the ideas that exploded from his unconscious were being treated as inscription-ready. Nothing kills brilliance faster than self-consciousness.

In one of the more interesting passages, Dylan explains that after a period when he performed the same twenty songs in concert after concert, he seredipitously fell into an approach to singing that allowed him to rediscover the other songs in his enormous catalog. Evidently even he had begun to take himself for granted, something he happily rectified. I'm looking forward to finishing the book.
Visit Jamie Malanowski's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue