For years, New Orleanians have speculated about Bob Dylan's relationship to the city, much as the rest of the world has wondered about his faith, his politics and his creative process. One of the many surprises in Chronicles: Volume One is just how many of its pages are devoted to Dylan's activities here.
Dylan's time in New Orleans, it turns out, had its ordinary side. He went to the Prytania Theatre. He ate turtle soup at Antoine's. He wanted to check out the Tennessee Williams Festival but got there late, so instead he walked past the Lafayette Cemetery as rats scurried nearby. He stopped by the Lion's Den, but Irma Thomas wasn't playing. When he needed to clear his head, he road-tripped to Houma and met a shop owner with crazy ideas about the Chinese.
But Dylan also fell hard under the city's romantic spell. "There are a lot of places I like," he writes, "but I like New Orleans better. There are a thousand different angles at any moment." He goes on: "New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don't have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you."
What does touch Dylan is the city's music. Most of the book's New Orleans content is found in the chapter "Oh Mercy," which painstakingly recounts the recording sessions that led to the Daniel Lanois-produced album of the same name. Of Lanois, Dylan writes, "He was noir all the way -- dark sombrero, black britches, high boots, slip-on gloves -- all shadow and silhouette -- dimmed out, a black prince from the black hills. He was scuff proof." Dylan also provides quick sketches of the numerous Louisiana-tied musicians involved in those sessions, including Mason Ruffner and Brian Stoltz. When Dylan first encounters legendary zydeco sax player John Hart, he almost believes he's encountering the reincarnation of Blind Gary Davis: "He peered across the room at me in an odd way, like he had the ability to see beyond the moment, like he'd thrown a rope line out to grip." Dylan also meets Aaron Neville and rhapsodizes over Neville's recordings of his songs "Hollis Brown" and "With God on Our Side."
As Dylan meandered through town, his experiences and observations rubbed off on his songs. "Disease of Conceit," he says, was triggered by the Jimmy Swaggart prostitute scandal: "The Bible is full of these things. A lot of those old kings and leaders had many wives and concubines and Hosea the Prophet was even married to a prostitute, and it didn't stop him from being a holy man. But these were different times and for Swaggart, it was the end of the line." Dylan also reveals that he wrote "Dignity" after hearing that "Pistol" Pete Maravich had collapsed on a basketball court and died of a heart attack. There's much more, including a guitar lesson from Lonnie Johnson and a heartfelt tribute to WWOZ (especially disc jockey Brown Sugar) that the station should use in all future fundraisers. Throughout Chronicles, Dylan remains elusive about much of his storied life. But he talks straight about New Orleans, which for him is clearly a city of music and redemption.