Chronicles: Volume One
By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $24
Bob Dylan has written some of the most important songs of the 20th century. For one sequence of albums alone, produced over a mere three-year span (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding), he deserves a place at the top of any list of pop-music composers. And for this work for his songs! he has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.
But in the world of books, Dylan has made little impact, producing only one eccentric, impressionistic "novel," Tarantula, in 1967. Until now. With the publication of this, the first volume of his autobiography, Dylan has presented a whole new side of himself: eloquent, candid (in his own fashion), and touchingly personal. It is Dylan emerging from the myth. It is the voice of the man, rather than the voice of the singer.
Much may be written about what Chronicles: Volume One doesn't do. In this narrative, Dylan jumps from the folk scene in the early 1960s to the New Morning album in 1970. Nowhere does he touch on the years when he was the voice of his generation (a tag he refutes here). Perhaps he is saving those surely rich tales for a later volume. Even if he is not, one must celebrate what he is willing to tell. He has opened up his heart and given us a man who values family over fame, people over money. And his prose here is clean, sharp, humble, and poetic.
When he isn't discussing his boyhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, or his feelings about being a husband and father, he is heaping praise on his early supporters and friends. About John Hammond, who signed him to Columbia records: "I would have gladly signed whatever form he put in front of me." About singer Ricky Nelson: "I had been a big fan and still liked him." About singer Dave Van Ronk: "He was passionate and stinging I loved his style." And so on. His assessments about these early influences and compatriots sound, well, sweet. Overall, the man who surfaces here is smart, inquisitive, sensitive, bookish, and charming.
"I really was never any more than what I was a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze. Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn't a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad." This is Dylan on Dylan, or perhaps Robert Zimmerman on the mythic Bob Dylan.
The middle sections of Chronicles are much darker and desolate. After early fame, we are witness to Dylan in the throes of despair. Yet he never sounds bitter, small, or whiny. Instead, he sounds like a man who takes responsibility for his own life, and in the end, that's the most engaging message of this first volume.
Now there are two voices, two authoritative voices, Dylan has mastered. There is the singer, who can break your heart or kick you awake with songs like "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" or "Visions of Johanna" or "On the Road Again" or "Clothesline Saga" or "Watching the River Flow" or "Tangled Up in Blue" or "Dark Eyes. And there is the chronicler who has penned a frank autobiography.
In these disjunctive times, a vision this sincere and singular can offer hope, if only in the form of an artist's cri de coeur. Bob Dylan's story in Bob Dylan's voice is, finally, inspiring. As Dylan sang, "People disagreeing everywhere you look/makes you wanna stop and read a book." n