Chronicles: Volume One
Back in the mid-1950s, when Bob Dylan was an aspiring teen rocker, his combo secured a gig performing in the lobby of his hometown’s National Guard Armory, as incidental entertainment for a pro wrestling card. As they raved it up in the foyer, the grappler Gorgeous George made his entrance “with all the lightning and vitality you’d expect,” Dylan writes in his memoir. George’s eyes locked with young Bob, and the celeb appeared to mouth to his admirer: You’re making it come alive.
“Whether he really said it or not, it didn’t matter,” Dylan reflects. “It’s what I thought I heard him say that mattered, and I never forgot it.”
Anyone even blinkingly acquainted with the Dylan mythos will be compelled to head-scratch. The artist has spent much of his career (and spends parts of this tome) asserting that he’s just an average guy, that all those admirers searching for a generational spokesman (“gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues,” he calls them) should keep looking. Bob’s not your boy. He’s just a songwriter who speaks for himself. He doesn’t want your attention or need your validation.
And yet, when it comes to meeting one of his own idols, he suggests what matters is how he internalizes the hero, not the hero’s intent. Is he oblivious to this paradox, or is he confessing to ambivalence about celebrity? After almost 300 pages of the first volume of his proposed autobiographical triptych, we are not really any closer to an answer. In an age of reality TV and tell-all memoirs, Bob Dylan remains — oh mercy! — an enigma.
Much of the early attention Chronicles has received has been about what it doesn’t say. Britain’s Mojo magazine published an advance top five list of topics about which Bob would, they hoped, finally come clean: the rumored “secret wives”; his Born Again interlude; drugs; his 1966 motorcycle “accident” and subsequent withdrawal to Woodstock; and the truth about his pre-fame years.
By my count, Dylan has covered just one of those topics. Chronicles does give some insight into his childhood in ice-bound Minnesota; previous assertions of a hobo’s adolescence were mischief-making with publicists and journalists, he concedes. He makes references to a wife, but doesn’t elaborate enough to point out whether (depending on the timing) this divorcee is talking about more than one woman. No druggy tell-alls, no toe-dipping in organized religion. There’s an aside about his motorcycle accident, but he doesn’t take on the rumors that it was faked.
There’s also nary a word about his combatively received decision to “go electric,” zilch about the making of The Basement Tapes, and nada about his glorious amphetamine music march to Blonde On Blonde. And yet it seems hardly surprising and somehow appropriate that Dylan has frustrated expectations and opted to tell us not what folks might want to know, but what we need to know about what it was like to be(come) Bob Dylan.
For example, from his catalogue of triumphs, Dylan discounts two negligible records: New Morning (1970) and Oh Mercy (1989). The former is portrayed as a listless exercise that critics foolishly characterize as a comeback. The latter is a meticulously documented battle of wills with and against producer Daniel Lanois, which he suggests resulted in mediocre compromise. It is the antithesis of VH1’s Classic Albums and deflates the myth of the artist committing a singular vision to audiotape. It also suggests that, when Dylan is firing on all cylinders, he’s disinclined to question where it comes from. When he hits the artistic wall, he starts taking notes.
The book has a hopscotch chronology. We start when he’s in New York signing his publishing deal, then loop back to Hibbing for childhood details, then zoom ahead to chase a related anecdote. Heroes discovered in books and on the radio and in person are heaped with reflection. Everyone from Dostoyevsky to Thucydides, Al Capone to Pretty Boy Floyd, Harry Belafonte to Ricky Nelson, is picked up, examined and either returned to the cultural shelf or stuffed into Dylan’s gunny sack of influences.
Perhaps the biggest shock of all is something that really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The guy can write. Check out this riff on the passage into the 1960s: “Practically speaking, the ’50s culture was like a judge in his last days on the bench. It was about to go. Within ten years’ time, it would struggle to rise and then come crashing to the floor.” Whether sketching the counterculture hotbed that was Greenwich Village in the ’60s, recalling a motorcycle ride through rural Louisiana in the ’80s, explaining the power of “Strange Fruit”, or describing the sound of a Telecaster, Dylan forges potent, vivid observations.
Still, there’s evidence that more energy in the rewrite phase could have been beneficial. Remembering the weather in Hibbing, he writes: “Summers were filled with mosquitoes that could bite through your boots — winters with blizzards that could freeze a man dead.” The former is inspired. The latter is a cliche. I have faith that he knows the difference. I just hope that for subsequent volumes, he proves it more consistently.
So Chronicles is no tell-all. But then, so many writers have taken on his story, and some of those bios have their strengths. Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home (1986) contains peerless work on Bob’s pre-fame years, and his reportage of the ’66 electric tour is unrivaled. Bob Spitz’s Dylan: A Biography (1989) does an intermittently nice job of providing social context. And if it’s salacious tales of marital discord you’re after, Clinton Heylin is your man and Bob Dylan Behind The Shades (1991) is your book.
Those efforts provide a wider perspective on Dylan’s times. Bob may take up some of those topics in subsequent volumes of Chronicles, but for now, this installment gives us something no biographer can truly relate: What it felt like to be Bob. For anyone who ever wondered what that must have been like, I’ll paraphrase Gorgeous George: Dylan makes it come alive.