Bob on Bob: The Bard's confession, mostly true

Bob Dylan, after some spooky middle years, is back with a book that The New York Times calls "flabbergasting."

Do you remember where you first heard him howl?

"TURN IT OFF!" I yelled at Heywood. "You've got this one wrong."

Next day came the humming: "Wil-liam Zan-zinger killed poor Hat-tie Car-roll, With a cane that he twirled around his die-mond ring finger."

Our teacher said we could write papers on Die lan, as she called him, because Peter, Paul and Mary vouched him a genius in Time magazine.

Joan Baez brought him to the Seattle Arena like a pet. She tongue-lashed a photographer. He stole the show.

We studied each just-released Dylan album like a campfire. Where did this guy come from? How did he pull off this magic? Many answers are in this little white book, called "Chronicles." It's like being inside his head.

He grows up on the shores of Great Lake Gitche Gumee in Northern Minnesota.

His grandmother, from Odessa, tells him, "Happiness isn't on the road to anything. Happiness is the road." And she tells him "to be kind because everyone you'll ever meet is fighting a hard battle."

He claims to be not a bright student; had to study hard. But don't believe everything you read. Check out his lyrics at EMP. Perfect penmanship. He reads Clausewitz and Coleridge, Tolstoy and Thucydides. He says all those French writers, like Rousseau and Balzac, lived in his backyard.

He grows up looking at the same stars we did.

"One afternoon I was pouring Coke from a milk pitcher when I heard a voice. Ricky Nelson was singing 'Travelin' Man.' His voice made you fall into a certain mood. I liked him, but that type of music was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything.

"I always felt kin to Ricky. It was like he'd been born and raised on Walden Pond where everything was hunky-dory and I'd come out of the dark demonic woods, same forest, just a different way of looking at things."

Dylan says he needed to play for people all the time. "My whole life was becoming what I practiced."

In the mid-'50s he's performing at the National Guard Armory when in roars Gorgeous George the wrestler, "eyes flashing with moonshine." He winks at Robert Zimmerman and mouths: "You're making it come alive."

"It was all the encouragement I would need for years to come."

Dylan left his Brigitte Bardot-lookalike girlfriend and headed for New York in the back of a '57 Impala on a 24-hour ride, "to find the singers I'd heard on records and, most of all, to find Woody Guthrie."

He enters New York's early-'60s club scene by playing short sets and passing the basket. He scarfs burgers in the kitchen; plays poker upstairs with the other performers. Never bets unless he has at least a pair. They tell him he has to learn to bluff.

He meets people "who didn't use dope just to get normal" and a guy "who could talk until all your intelligence was gone - who had talent but no ambition."

Jack Dempsey tells him, "You look too light for a heavyweight, kid - you'll have to put on a few pounds."

Dylan allows as how "there were a lot of better singers and better musicians around, but there wasn't anybody close in nature to what I was doing. Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures worth more than anything I could say."

John Hammond, who'd discovered Billie Holiday, signs him to Columbia Records. "I understand sincerity," Hammond tells him. And if he can "focus and control" his talent, he'll be fine.

Dylan went outside where it was about 10 below, but he didn't feel the cold. "I was heading for the fantastic lights.... I felt it [destiny] was looking right at me."

And that's just the beginning of this book. It bounces around his life like Floyd Patterson doing the peekaboo.

He writes about John Lennon, Robert Graves and riding Tolstoy's bike.

He says he put on a skull cap and went to the Wailing Wall to throw people off his scent. Fame was such a burden. He'd lost the ability to observe. Every time he sat down, people reached for phones.

He takes us inside the making of music. "A song is like a dream and you try to make it come true." To write one, he says, it helps to be moving.

In one dreamy sequence he escapes his music block by taking off early one morning with his wife on his Harley. His New Orleans producer has been trying to make him do another "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall."

"I had done it once and that was enough. I couldn't get to those songs for him or anybody else." Someone will come along to do those again, he thinks, "probably a rapper working an 18-hour day."

He and his wife reach a shrimp shack with a crazy cook you wouldn't want to get in front of. Dylan admires his wife, especially because she "realizes you can't rely on anybody else to get your kicks for you."

I used to love Dylan, and then one day he invited my fiancee up to his room. Ever since, my negativity has been reinforced by stinking biographies and television appearances where he reminded me of rain-drenched mushrooms.

It's so good to have him back as dazzling as ever.

Bob Dylan's "Chronicles," 304 pages, $24, is available at Bailey-Coy Books, 414 Broadway, and other bookstores.

Also, "Bob Dylan's American Journey," an exhibit of more than 150 Dylan artifacts, opens at EMP/Experience Music Project on Nov. 20 and runs through Sept. 5, 2005.[[In-content Ad]]