By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster. 2004. $24.
Iexpected to hate Bob Dylan's book. Why, I wondered, would the man who gave us "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "Like a Rolling Stone" demean himself by churning out what looked to be just another celebrity memoir?
I shouldn't have doubted.
Sure, "Chronicles: Volume One" (Simon & Schuster, 2004, $24) has flaws, which we'll get to. But at its best, the book is a revelation: a free-form case study in how raw creativity and drive get transformed into art. It's about the young Dylan's insatiable hunger -- for new sounds, images, ideas, people and, ultimately, techniques to weld these things together into a vision of his own.
Here he is in Manhattan in 1961, newly arrived from the hinterlands of Minnesota, latching on to folk music and musicians ("Folk songs were the way I explored the universe") but also to the hundreds of books on a friend's shelves. He soaked up Byron, Coleridge, Poe and Thucydides along with Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk.
"It seemed like I'd been pulling an empty wagon for a long time and now I was beginning to fill it up," he writes.
The book starts and ends with those hungry, pre-fame years, and you can see the light bulbs flash like fireworks over Dylan's head. Introduced to the paintings of Red Grooms, for example, he enthuses about the "rickety clusters of parts all packed together" -- the cops, bums and historical figures, the "lunatic bustle" and "carnie vitality" of Grooms's work -- then observes that by stepping back, "you could see the complex whole of it all."
You can almost hear "Desolation Row" taking shape in his brain.
In the middle chapters of "Chronicles," which is episodic and not chronological, Dylan presents himself as a family man fleeing the wildly excessive expectations of his public, then as an aging songwriter struggling to get his groove back. This material is much less compelling, though there's a poignantly honest moment in which he admits that he'll never again approach the transcendent creative state his younger self achieved.
"To do it, you've got to have power and dominion over the spirits," he explains. "I had done it once, and once was enough."
-- Bob Thompson, arts writer