February 15, 2005

by Reb Yudel
Dylan on the distance-difference difference

I've been very slowly reading Dylan's Chronicles memoir. Slowly because it's so delicious. I've read a good number of the biographies, but this is an encounter with the interesting Dylan, the one who famously had an open Bible on a shtender in his Woodstock house and, according to Chronicles, spent days at the New York Public Library reading old newspapers from the Civil War.

Here's a worthwhile review from PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly by a senior editor for the Religion News Service:

CHRONICLES is also instructive for critics and theologians like Ricks and Gilmour, whose interpretations of Dylan's work, while often fascinating, informative, and suggestive, are sometimes overdetermined. Dylan writes, for example, of trying to "fix" the last line of "Ring Them Bells" -- "breaking down the distance between right and wrong." Ricks stresses Dylan's use of the word "distance" rather than "difference" between right and wrong. "This makes all the difference in the world and in the other world," he writes.

But Dylan writes that "while the line fit, it didn't verify what I felt. Right or wrong, like it fits in the Wanda Jackson song, or right from wrong, like the Billy Tate song, that makes sense, but not right and wrong. The concept didn't exist in my subconscious mind. I'd always been confused about that kind of stuff, didn't see any moral ideal played out there. The concept of being morally right or morally wrong seems to be wired to the wrong frequency."

Reading CHRONICLES is a little bit like listening to a Dylan album. There are always stunning moments, puzzling moments, and some clinkers. The book is studded with wonderful lines that defy easy explication. Of Roy Orbison he writes: "He sang like a professional criminal." You know it's a compliment, but what exactly does it mean?

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