Oh Mercy: Bob Dylan, Chronicles, and the Mysterious Hand Injury

“I’ll take some of the stuff that people think is true and I’ll build a story around that.” ~ Bob Dylan to TIME magazine in 2001.

From Louie Kemp’s Dylan & Me — Undated photo of Dylan with Rabbi Moshe Ben Tov in Pacific Palisades, CA

“It was 1987 and my hand, which had been ungodly injured in a freak accident was in a state of regeneration. It had been ripped and mangled to the bone and was still in the acute stage — it didn’t even feel like it was mine…

With a hundred show dates scheduled for me starting in the spring it was uncertain that I would be able to perform. This was a sobering experience. It was now only January but my hand was going to need plenty of time to heal and be rehabilitated.” ~ Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

With any other celebrity, even one whose living depended on some use of his hands, a severe injury first disclosed in his memoir decades after the accident might evoke a “Huh” or even “I didn’t know that” from the average reader. Dylan fans, being who we are, freaked out in our own geeky way. “What hand injury?” How come no one has mentioned it before?” “How bad was it really?” “Did it even happen?” “It’s metaphorical!”

Unlike other Dylanesque stories in Chronicles, the hand injury appears to have actually happened, although exactly when it happened and the level of its severity is open to debate. There’s even a question about whether the injury happened to Bob Dylan or to someone else.

A photograph of Dylan with Rabbi Moshe Ben Tov, taken by Dylan’s friend Louie Kemp and published in Kemp’s memoir “Dylan & Me”, shows Dylan with what appears to be a bandage or cast on his left hand. Unfortunately, the photo isn’t dated and Kemp has nothing more to say about it. Given that Dylan is wearing a white t-shirt under his hoodie, it’s possible that all the photo shows is a stretched sleeve. But, as Mo Ostin notes in “The History of the Traveling Wilburys,” Dylan had missed a get-together at his home because “… Bob [had] just injured his hand… a year or so before ‘Handle With Care.”

“A year or so before “Handle with Care’s” release in 1988 could be either 1986 or 1987, fitting in with Dylan’s implication that the accident occurred in either late 1986 or January 1987.

While Dylan specifically opens with “It was 1987” and later says the month was January, he leaves it unclear about whether the injury had happened that month or earlier. In the same passage, Dylan says he had “… a hundred show dates scheduled… starting in the spring.” After his “True Confessions” tour with Tom Petty that ran from February to August 1986, Dylan’s 1987 tour with the Grateful Dead began in July, and only consisted of six concerts. He’d later tour again with Petty from September through October, 1987 for another 30 shows.

The first leg of the so-called “Never-Ending Tour” (known among fans as “the NET”) started in June 1988 and would consist of 135 shows, making it a better candidate for Dylan’s reference to a “spring tour and a hundred show dates.” That would mean the “January” he refers to is actually January of 1988 rather than January, 1987.

George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan et al. live at the RnR Hall of Fame 1988

If you buy into the NET reference, the date of the accident might be narrowed down even further to the last 10 days of January 1988. On January 20 Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and jammed with George Harrison and Mick Jagger live on stage. No cast or hand injury is to be seen in the video.

The “Water Pearl” in happier times, leaving St Bart’s in 1985. It would sink off the coast of Panama in 1988.

Some of Dylan’s other recollections in Chronicles also lend credence to sometime in 1988 as the date for the injury. He spends part of the “Oh Mercy” chapter talking about his need to reboot his stagnant Muse during the 1987 Dead rehearsals and tour, but never mentions being hampered by a “ripped and mangled” hand.

In the same chapter Dylan refers to the loss of his schooner, the “Water Pearl,” off the coast of Panama, and the death of basketball player, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, both of which occurred in 1988. On the other hand, Dylan also refers to seeing soul singer Joe Tex on the “Tonight Show,” without explaining that the latest he could have seen Joe Tex anywhere was the year of Tex’s death, 1982, nor that Tex’s last appearance on the “Tonight Show” was in 1970. Nor, for that matter, does Dylan acknowledge that, according to researcher Scott Warmuth, he lifted elements for his Joe Tex anecdote from Gerri Hirshey’s “Nowhere to Run.”

But, back to the hand injury. Whether in 1987 or 1988 or even 1982, the five or six months (or even years) Dylan had to heal was apparently enough time, as he started both the July 1987 Grateful Dead gigs and June 1988 NET tours on schedule and without comment from observers about anything being wrong with either of his hands.

“… it didn’t even feel like it was mine.”

That is, if there was a hand injury, and if it was as severe as Dylan makes it out to be. In his memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, Wilson says he met Dylan by chance circa 1987 in a Malibu hospital emergency room where Dylan was being treated for a broken thumb.

“Are you Brian Wilson?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Bob Dylan.”

The interchange doesn’t sound like Dylan was suffering from an “ungodly injury,” and not one that seemed to slow him much either, as he went to Wilson’s house for lunch and to discuss music the next day.

And then there’s the strange coincidence of Tom Petty’s hand injury of 1984, when Petty smashed his left hand by punching a wall in a fit of temper. Petty needed a four-hour operation, during which doctors put two metal pins directly into the hand and there were doubts whether he’d ever play guitar again.

According to the “Tom Petty Archives,” “Doctors from all around the hospital were coming in to see [Petty’s] x-rays because they couldn’t believe how he had powdered the bones. During the surgery, they completely rebuilt his hand with metal. When he stretches out his first finger, it pulls the little pinky with it.”

Now that sounds like a “ripped and mangled hand,” by God. Did the Master Appropriater appropriate his friend’s injury to improve the narrative of the trials and tribulations Dylan faced while trying to recapture his Muse? Did a broken thumb in 1987 worsen into a full-scale hand injury in 1988 during the telling of the story?

Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant. By Malco23 — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27420596

“ Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.”
Bob Dylan, 1985

“Ninety eighty-seven or ’88, or even 1982?” you ask. “Mangled hand or broken thumb? Does any of it really matter?” And you’re right, and that’s probably what Bob Dylan would want you to say, too. Expecting Chronicles to pinpoint an exact place or time for anything or anywhere is a mug’s game. In fact, Dylan not-so-subtly warns the reader in the very first paragraph of his book not to rely too heavily on his memory of time or space.

By Americasroof at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14910075

In that paragraph, Dylan writes that he and Lou Levy visited Jack Dempsey’s restaurant at “58th and Broadway.” Columbus Circle (the point which all official distances from New York City are measured) is located at 58th and Broadway. Dempsey’s was, and had been since 1947, situated between 49th and 50th Streets — in the Brill Building, which had its entrance at 1619 Broadway and 49th Street.

The center of the Tin Pan Alley music industry into the early 1960s, the address of the Brill Building isn’t likely to have been forgotten by the man who once claimed to have put a stake through Tin Pan Alley’s heart.

You might even say that Lou Levy and the young Dylan take something of a spiritual journey from the Pythian Temple at West 70th Street, where Bill Haley and His Comets fired the first shot of the pop music wars with “Rock Around the Clock” to arrive at the ramparts of the Brill Building where Dylan is advised by boxing world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey that he’s going to need to punch above his weight if he’s to succeed.

Of course, saying that outright might be a little too specific for the man who likes to keep things vague.

“You have to lie very often in a war and when you have to lie you should do it quickly and as well as you can.”
~Ernest Hemingway, “The Denunciation“

“If you have to lie, you should do it quickly and as well as you can.”
~ Bob Dylan, Chronicles

“Truth was the last thing on my mind, and even if there was such a thing, I didn’t want it in my house.” ~ Bob Dylan, Chronicles

There are at least three ways of reading Chronicles— there’s probably a thousand ways, but I know of at least three for sure.

1) Just read it, which is what I’d advise everyone to do at least once.

That much of the content of Chronicles is mostly a pack of lies, misdirections and appropriations doesn’t detract from its enormous entertainment value. Think of it like “Huckleberry Finn,” a book which Chronicles shares much in common. Take to heart that the admonition opening “Huckleberry Finn” should also be applied to Chronicles: “Persons attempting to find a motive in the book’s narrative should be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it should be banished; and persons attempting to find a plot in it should be shot.”

You’ll enjoy Chronicles much more following that dictum and you won’t wake up in the middle of the night wondering whether the year of Dylan’s hand injury was 1987, 1988, or even 1982.

2) Read it recognizing that much of the content of Chronicles is mostly a pack of lies, misdirections and appropriations, and appreciate the fact.

Dig that there are lifts from everyone from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Jack London to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Charlie Mingus and to a pantheon of other writers, artists, and musicians, even from the inventor of Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer. In fact, Dylan takes part of the description of his hand injury in the “Oh Mercy” chapter from Rohmer’s “The Hand of Fu Manchu” and later provides a tear-jerking scene featuring a spaniel and her master taken word-for-word from Rohmer’s “Dope.”

“… the elusive timber wolf not so far off, calm summer evenings listening to the call of the loon.” ~ found in both Chronicles: Volume One and Minnesota: Off the Beaten Path (photo courtesy Scott Warmuth)

Do the research and you’ll have a reading list that will keep you occupied for years — all recommended, if somewhat vaguely, by Mr. D. himself. You’ll even get recommendations for travel guides to New Orleans and Minnesota!

That most of the stories in Chronicles are just that, fictional stories, occasionally based on a minuscule grain of truth, may be a little more difficult to swallow, but hey, between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the Shadow.

Does it matter if Ray Gooch, Chloe Kiel, or Sun Pie were real or not, or that Dylan totally made up what happened during his visit(s) to Archibald MacLeish?

Ol’ Scratch

The alternate universe version of Dylan’s MacLeish story is detailed in Scott Ostrow’s Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain.” Ostrow, who had produced the hit musical 1776, writes that he recruited Dylan and MacLeish in 1970 to collaborate on a musical adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” MacLeish biographer Scott Donaldson corroborates the story, although noting that MacLeish thought the idea “preposterous.” But, somehow Ostrow convinced both MacLeish and Dylan to give the collaboration a shot, with Dylan working from Ostrow’s Westchester County studio and MacLeish from his Conway, Massachusetts home.

According to Chronicles, the story begins two years earlier with Dylan returning from his father’s funeral to find a letter from “Archie” inviting him to discuss having Dylan compose some songs for a play MacLeish was writing.

“It was fitting I go see him,” Dylan writes, and goes on in the “New Morning” chapter to relate a late afternoon one-on-one conversation over tea where Dylan and MacLeish discuss subjects ranging from Ezra Pound to Robin Hood. By the end of day Dylan had decided “the dark apocalyptic” script MacLeish had shared with him ”wasn’t for me,” a strange judgement coming from the author of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” but rather than saying so, Dylan tells MacLeish he’ll think about it.

Total b.s., according to Ostrow. His version has it that after several months of unproductive work, Dylan finally produced drafts of “Father of Night” and “New Morning” for the musical — now titled Scratch — and agreed to meet with Ostrow, MacLeish, and the show’s director at MacLeish’s home to see if it would further charge up his creative juices and help him finish the overdue score. Dylan brought along Al Kooper, who was introduced as Dylan’s “musical director.”

Rather than engaging Archibald MacLeish in literary conversation or discussing how his music could be used in Scratch, Dylan promptly fell asleep after drinking several snifters of MacLeish’s brandy, staying insensate until the group woke him when it was time to leave. Dylan mysteriously recovered his sobriety on the trip back to New York, inviting himself to dinner at Ostrow’s house, playing his classics to the family, and later singing a duet with Ostrow’s daughter, to the eleven-year-old’s delight.

In Chronicles, Dylan claims to have sent the completed acetates of “New Morning” to MacLeish, who replied with another invitation to visit him in Conway. On Dylan’s arrival, MacLeish questioned why the songs “weren’t darker” and offered advice to better connect the songs to Scratch’s characters.

Deep down, I knew I couldn’t have anything to add to the message of his play,” Dylan writes. “He didn’t need my help anyway. He wanted only to talk about the play and that’s why I was here, but there was no hope and nothing to be done and soon that became obvious.”

According to Scott Ostrow, none of that is true — except perhaps Dylan’s “no hope, nothing to be done” inner monologue.

MacLeish wasn’t at his home in Conway, he was in Antigua, putting the final touches on Scratch; the sets were in design; the theatre was booked… all they were missing was Dylan’s score, and Dylan himself, who hadn’t been seen since his one and only visit to Conway. Ostrow decided on a desperate Plan B of using Dylan’s older songs, but still needed Dylan’s agreement. Instead, what Ostrow got was a call from Clive Davis, congratulating him on his role in Bob Dylan’s album, “New Morning,” which was to be released the next day.

Ostrow never heard from Dylan again. Against his better judgement, he produced Scratch as a non-musical play. It closed two days after opening.

“Now as to Bob Dylan. He proved to be simply incapable of producing new songs… Dylan has now entered advanced middle age, being almost thirty and no longer fiery: for another, [his old songs] are far better than anything he is now doing.” ~Archibald MacLeish

Archibald MacLeish was 79 years old at the time of that writing, and still fiery. Advanced middle age apparently takes some of us later rather than sooner.

3) Back to how to read Chronicles: Read it for the subtext.

That leaves the question of why Bob Dylan would devote a half-dozen or so pages in Chronicles to encounters with Archibald MacLeish that never happened.

Dylan opens the “New Morning” chapter in Chronicles by writing that he had just returned from his father’s funeral, which took place in the spring of 1968. Based on Ostrow’s and MacLeish’s accounts, whoever contacted him about Scratch didn’t do so until 1970, but Dylan wants to connect his visit to MacLeish as taking place immediately after his father’s death.

As with almost all of us who have lost a parent, Dylan expresses regret in the “New Morning” chapter about missed opportunities to bond with his father. “There was a lot I wanted to share,” he writes in the paragraph directly before the section that begins his first visit with MacLeish.

The encounter with “Archie” seems to be Dylan’s substitute for the conversations he wished he had had with his father. MacLeish and Dylan discuss poets and poetry. Stephen Crane and Homer. Art and propaganda. Verse from blank to limericks. Robin Hood and Saint George.

MacLeish praises “Desolation Row” and “John Brown,” and tells Dylan that he considered him a “serious poet” whose “work would be a touch-stone for generations.” In contrast, writing about Abram Zimmerman earlier in the chapter, Dylan relates an anecdote that when told his son had the nature of an artist, his father replied, “Isn’t an artist a fellow who paints?”

Dylan and the imaginary MacLeish make an immediate and close connection, to the point of MacLeish saying that Dylan didn’t care for things the same way MacLeish didn’t. On the other hand, Dylan’s father “… didn’t understand me,” Dylan writes. “The town he lived in and the town I lived in were not the same.”

As with much of Chronicles, Dylan’s observations of and conversations with MacLeish are largely constructs assembled from other materials, notably the Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, which has an introduction by MacLeish and a preface by Sandburg himself. Either accidentally or deliberately, Dylan conflates material from both introduction and preface in Chronicles, including having MacLeish claim that he attended West Point and was a classmate of General MacArthur. In fact, that was Sandburg, as he notes in his preface to the Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg.

Such are the perils of the cut-and-paste method of writing. Reader, take heed! Keep accurate accounts of the snippets you use.

Eventually, Dylan returns to MacLeish for one last imaginary visit, listens to MacLeish critique the songs Dylan had written for Scratch, knows he’s a disappointment to MacLeish, and wishes he could tell him about the insanity he feels his life has become.

“I wanted to thank him but found it difficult,” Dylan writes as he leaves MacLeish for the last time. “We waved at each other from the roadway and I knew I’d never see him again.”

In his Biograph liner notes Dylan writes that he would eventually depart the Scratch project because he and MacLeish “didn’t see eye to eye” on one of the songs whose title MacLeish had suggested — Dylan’s “Father of Night.”

The elusive timber wolf and call of the loon

Chronicles: Volume One, page 147

In the “Oh Mercy” chapter of Chronicles, Dylan calls himself “an empty burned-out wreck,” noting his failed attempts to find himself by reconnecting to nature while traveling on a houseboat. Much of the detail in that passage comes from the “Minnesota: Off the Beaten Path” travel guide, which describes rental houseboats as “floating mobile homes,” as does Chronicles. More tellingly, both books have the same lines about, “the elusive timber wolf,” “calm summer evenings,” and “the call of the loon.”

From Minnesota: Off the Beaten Path,” echos of things past

“Why would Dylan use this material when describing his search for himself during a low point in his life?” Scott Warmuth asks.

The word “Echo” caught Warmuth’s eye, appearing four times in the second paragraph. Possibly it originally caught Bob Dylan’s eye as well, being the first name of Echo Helstrom, the woman he describes in Chronicles as, “My old hometown girlfriend, my Becky Thatcher…” while never mentioning her by name.

Echo only appears in Chronicles as an echo from the past.

Warmuth makes other convincing arguments that Bob Dylan is doing much more than simple appropriation in Chronicles, but is instead creating a dialogue between himself, the reader and various other artists whose work he uses throughout the book, such as Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Why Dylan is doing so or who the dialogues are ultimately directed to are open questions, given that 99 percent of Chronicles’ readers are probably missing the connections. But Bob Dylan doesn’t seem to be concerned… and I guess neither should we.

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store