So vividly written and deeply engaging is Bob Dylan’s memoir that it would be memorable and valuable even if it were by someone less famous and fascinating. Chronicles: Volume One says, shows, and reveals much about the elusive, mysterious author. Any curious reader will find this a distinct, compelling, and sometimes surprising book.
The first surprise is Dylan’s persistently clear communication. He tells his story and presents himself “in plain talk,” without artifice or evasion. Richly written, often beautifully realized, the prose lucidly conveys Dylan’s abiding attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. The organizing principle of the book, and the essential identity of the subject, is music: Chronicles testifies to the passion and purpose of creative expression.
Whoever Dylan may really be or have been, the Bob Dylan of Chronicles is an enthusiastic, dedicated, and haunted folk musician, properly regarded as “someone in the long line of a tradition, the tradition of blues...and folk, and not as some newfangled wunderkind on the cutting edge.”
Dylan deplores his image, fostered by legend, as a guru, prophet, and “conscience of his generation.” Still, his vehement rejection of “the image of me” as poet-prophet isn’t simple or straightforward: though he always only wanted to play, he eagerly, emphatically wanted to mean something. His dark sensibility, brooding introspection, and imaginative powers destined him, it seems, to become not “jes’ an ole guitar picker” but a reluctant visionary.
Ambivalence about his manifest destiny is evident even while he is repudiating his anointment as guru and claiming that he is “more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.” He makes it clear that he “had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.” Yet he protests too much, methinks, in declaring that, “All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities.” When Dylan characterizes himself as “someone who could see into things, the truth of things-not metaphorically, either-but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what it was with hard words and vicious insight,” he sounds less like a cowpuncher than like Blake or Whitman.
The Bob Dylan we meet is thus paradoxical: single-minded yet many-minded, both familiar and surprising. He is much more bookish, more self-consciously “literary” than one might have expected. He talks in animated detail about books read long ago. His reading is extremely wide-ranging, thoughtful, and zestful. In New York, he reads “stuff that could make you bugged-eyed”: Tacitus, Fox, Thucydides, Gogol, Balzac, Faulk-ner, Freud, Byron’s Don Juan, and Milton: “I read a lot of the pages aloud and liked the sound of the words, the language.” Fascinated by the Civil War, he reads century-old newspapers at the New York Public Library, especially “intrigued by the language and the rhetoric of the times” when everybody “quotes the same Bible and law and literature.”
His love of music is wonderfully catholic and generously enthusiastic. He praises and characterizes many singers-above all, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Dave von Ronk, Odetta, and Robert Johnson, the great voices of folk and blues he emulated; but also more popular folk performers such as the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte; Top 40 rockers like Johnny Rivers, Ricky Nelson, and Roy Orbison; and jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. Dylan’s passions are delightfully promiscuous: “Polka dances always got my blood thumping.”
Exuberance is frequent and contagious. With gusto and precision Dylan dramatizes his responses to, and defines the particular qualities of, songs and performers. Here, as a teenager, he drops the needle on a Woody Guthrie record: “I was stunned-didn’t know if I was stoned or straight. What I heard was Woody singing a whole lot of his own compositions all by himself,” songs that “made my head spin. It made me want to gasp.” Guthrie’s strange, powerful voice was “so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto.” Dylan concludes, “it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor plunged into the waters of the harbor.”
Dylan’s fundamental values include several traditional, often conventional virtues. While acknowledging his stubborn strangeness, he seeks and celebrates family, privacy, hard work, independence; he is never too far from that Midwestern, all-American boy who wanted to go to West Point. We hear little about politics beyond general sympathy for black, poor, oppressed, and estranged people, the kind of characters who populate folk songs. Except for crystalline first impressions of his wife Sara and of Joan Baez, there is hardly any mention of romance, sex, love, or marriage. Drugs are incidental. Also conspicuously absent is religion: no mention of his tumultuous conversion to Christianity, or his apparent return to his Jewish roots and upbringing.
Some of these omissions are by design, and may be addressed in future installments. Chronicles: Volume One is designated the first part of a memoir, not an autobiography with a coherent, inclusive account of the author’s development. This book focuses on four periods: 1961-62, at age twenty, arriving and aspiring in New York; 1970, making the album New Morning; 1987, painfully declining then strongly reviving, especially in composing and recording Oh Mercy; and, cycling back, revisiting his youth and adolescence in Minnesota. Though separate chapters focus on periods of development, time is rendered fluidly, with many interwoven recollections and reflections.
What makes the book work as a narrative is Dylan’s resonant, evocative language. The prose is frequently metaphoric: “She’d usually be with the type of guys that looked like private detectives.” Metaphors beget metaphors. Only occasionally does this tendency backfire: “the fire in my mind was never out, like a wind vane that was constantly spinning.”
As a piece of writing, Chronicles is often novelistic, vibrantly recounting the early days in New York City. Dylan tells a classic coming-of-age story, dramatizing his young self, bursting with vitality and awesomely determined, discovering his vocation by experiencing life in all its poignancy and possibility. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man, a musician who lived for and through his art, told by an older, wiser narrator. Dylan’s world abounds in sights, sounds, and smells; we see what people wore, smell what they cooked, and hear the noises on the street or songs on the radio, “the soundtrack of my life.”
Like a novelist he depicts characters, vivid individuals in their strange and amazing otherness, “all kinds of people looking for the inner heat.”
Dylan characterizes people attentively, generously. Given his complicated history with Joan Baez, for instance, it is telling that he characterizes his first impressions of her with such magnanimous verve: “she was wicked looking-shiny black hair that hung down over the curve of slender hips, drooping lashes, partly raised, no Raggedy Ann doll...and then there was her voice. A voice that drove out bad spirits. It was like she’d come down from another planet,” like somebody “you’d sacrifice yourself for and she sang in a voice straight to God.”
If Dylan’s own voice isn’t quite straight to God, it is potent and persuasive. Free of self-aggrandizement and self-defense, Chronicles conveys a measure of wisdom, without sacrificing critical vigor. He can be especially rigorous regarding himself, mercilessly delineating his artistic deterioration in the 1980s, for example, when “my own songs had become strangers to me....It was like carrying a package of heavy rotten meat.” Other regrets are indicated tersely. Asked what he prays for, he replies, “that I can be a kinder person.”