CHRONICLES: Volume One
By Bob Dylan. Simon & Schuster. 293 pp. $24
By Bob Dylan. Simon & Schuster. 610pp. $45
Bob Dylan has spent so much of his life hiding behind masks, throwing up barriers, obfuscating views with his infamous air of mystery, that fans could be excused for questioning any prospect for genuine candor in any autobiographical project he'd be willing to undertake. The notion of Bob Dylan looking back with anything but a dismissive glare was simply unimaginable.
Surprise, surprise: Chronicles: Volume One, a memoir tapped out over three years on a manual typewriter, turns out to be the work of a masterful essayist, a compelling cultural observer and, yes, a poet masquerading as trapeze artist. We knew Dylan could write; we simply didn't know that he could write so well, or that the professional curmudgeon could revisit his back pages with such warmth, compassion and insight.
Now, anyone who has read Dylan's only other book, the bizarre 1966 novella, Tarantula (just republished by Scribner), or been baffled by his sometimes surreal, sometimes laser-sharp lyrics, or confused by his obscurantist speaking manner, might be worried about accessibility. Relax: Chronicles is lucid, cogent, coherent, crystal clear. You hear Dylan's inimitable voice, his cadence, his dry wit, twists of phrase, the rasp, rush and tumble of memories -- all beautifully articulated. Turns out Dylan has a Proustian penchant for remembering things past, conjuring what people looked like, what they wore, what they said.
Better yet, Chronicles delivers what Dylan has so parsimoniously dispensed in selected interviews over the decades: genuine insights into his work. Like James Joyce's largely autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Chronicles offers a way to understand the mind and art of its author at a crucial juncture, when Dylan is finding the voice that speaks to and (despite his protests) for a generation, when he's busily reinvigorating bardic tradition.
The only drawback may be that in finally painting his masterpiece, Dylan has given us not the sprawling, all-encompassing tableau we might have hoped for, but an exquisite series of thumbnails, finely drawn. Much of Chronicles is devoted to explaining how Dylan graduated from his inspirations and influences -- '50s rock-and-roll and traditional folk, blues and country, founding father-poets Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, Beats Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the British visionary William Blake, French Symbolists Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Villon, Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny" and bluesman Robert Johnson -- to emerge as a wholly original wordsmith blessed with the instincts of a populist musician.
Frustratingly, it abandons the artist at a crucial moment, just before Robert Shelton's glowing review in the New York Times gave the 20-year-old his first major break. In "Bob Dylan: A Distinctive Stylist," Shelton wrote that "it matters less where he has been than where he's going." Forty-three years later, Dylan is saying that it mattered a lot where he had been. It's what this book is about.
Some Dylanistas will be dismayed to find that Chronicles doesn't stray much beyond that pre-recording era, though two out of five chapters are built around the making of 1970's "New Morning" (with accompanying meditations on the shelter -- then the storm -- of Woodstock) and 1989's "Oh Mercy," with attendant explication of Dylan's reinvention of his songbook and the origins of the Never Ending Tour at a time when performance and writer's blocks almost forced him into retirement. This section -- occupying 80 of the book's 293 pages -- is everything one could desire from a book meant to explain inspirations and sources and to explore the process of making art.
But there's nothing about the first creative leap to "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." Nothing about "The Times They Are a-Changin'," where it's Dylan who starts a-changin' the times. Nothing about "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde," the trio of mid-'60s albums (recorded in a 14-month period!) that totally changed pop music. Nothing about "The Basement Tapes" recorded during the Woodstock era, as were "John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline," a lodestone for the alternative country movement. Nothing about 1975's "Blood on the Tracks," one of the most profound break-up albums of all times. Skip ahead 20 years: There's nothing about Dylan's most recent "comeback" albums, 1997's "Time Out of Mind" and 2001's "Love and Theft."
That's just albums, of course. Other significant events that go unaddressed: the "Dylan goes electric" scandal; the near-fatal motorcycle accident that kept Dylan off the road for eight years (it gets a single sentence: "I had been in a motorcycle accident and I'd been hurt, but I recovered"); the shambolic Rolling Thunder Revue; the late '70s conversion to Christianity; the miraculous comeback after 1997's near-fatal bout with pericarditis.
You also get nothing about Dylan's romantic entanglements beyond some sweet recollections of his first serious girlfriend, Suze Rotolo. There's nothing about his courtship and 1965 marriage to Sara Lowndes, nothing about the 1977 divorce that spurted "Blood on the Tracks." When Lowndes does appear in Chronicles (mostly in a positive light), she is referred to only as "my wife," which is confusing since the "my wife" referred to in the "Oh Mercy" chapter is Carolyn Dennis, whom Dylan has never publicly acknowledged marrying.
Simon & Schuster has also published Lyrics: 1962-2001, the Dylan song compendium originally published in 1973 and first revised in 1985. Think of it as companion autobiography, as well as an essential poetry anthology. Certainly no other songwriter's work has ever been so analyzed, parsed and interpreted, with seemingly every other couplet a slogan or epiphany. Unlike most rock lyrics, Dylan's can stand alone without music. They shouldn't, but they can.
Chronicles, which is as densely populated with intriguing characters as Dylan's songbook, begins with Dylan's December 1960 arrival in New York after hitchhiking from Minnesota in search of his idol, Woody Guthrie, who was in a New Jersey hospital dying of Huntington's chorea. Guthrie, Dylan writes, was "the man who'd pointed out the starting place for my identity and destiny." But Dylan, who'd made small ripples in the Minneapolis/St. Paul folk community, was also looking to craft a recording career in Greenwich Village, a stateside equivalent of La Boheme -- a bustling community of artists, musicians, dancers, intellectuals and activists. It was hobo impulse meeting boho lifestyle, and the bustling energies that fueled that scene set the stage for the most important transformation in American popular music since Elvis Presley, a decade before.
According to Dylan, the popular music of the '50s and early '60s "was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything." Starting in folk (and elevating it to new ambitions), Dylan eventually returned to rock where, as culture critic Ellen Willis noted, he imposed literacy on illiterate music, showed that rock could reflect adult concerns and complexities with the same power and immediacy as novels, plays and films. Dylan would add depth, dimension, detail -- and meaning -- to popular music. After Dylan, you could write about anything.
In the "New Morning" chapter, Dylan addresses his late '60s retreat from the media spotlight, when he sought refuge in Woodstock in order to raise a family, only to find "goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night. At first, it was merely the nomadic homeless making illegal entry -- seemed harmless enough, but then rogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest began to arrive -- unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry." But, Dylan writes, "I owed nobody nothing. I wasn't going to go deeper into the darkness for anybody. I was already living in the darkness. My family was my light and I was going to protect that light at all cost. That was where my dedication was, first, last and everything in-between. What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The press? I figured you lie to it. For the public eye, I went into the bucolic and mundane as far as possible. In my real life I got to do the things that I loved the best and that was all that mattered -- the Little League games, birthday parties, taking my kids to school, camping trips, boating, rafting, canoeing, fishing." As for being called the Voice of a Generation? "That was funny. All I'd ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of."
And, he admits, "I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese. What the hell are we talking about? Horrible titles any way you want to look at it. All code words for Outlaw."
Soon enough, indifferent albums and inconsistent tours faded Dylan's reputation to gray and "eventually, different anachronisms were thrust upon me -- anachronisms of lesser dilemma -- though they might seem bigger. Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favorite) -- stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Savior -- those are tough ones."
And they were no more real than the masks and myths he has now shed. *
Richard Harrington writes about music for The Washington Post.