Chronicles: Volume One
by Bob Dylan
Published by Simon & Schuster
293 pages, 2004
Portrait of the Artist as A Pioneer
Reviewed by John Keenan
Dylanologists, lay down your weary pens. Christopher Ricks, cease your toils in the overgrown fields of biblical allusion; Michael Gray, abandon the exhausting pursuit of the song and dance man. In the first of three volumes, Bob Dylan lays out the facts plain and simple. Not that they weren't already there in the recordings for anyone to hear -- anyone, it seems, except the cloth-eared inhabitants of academia.
What Dylan has fashioned in Chronicles is the ontogeny of a 20th-century musical soul, a portrait of the artist as an American pioneer. Structured around three crises in Dylan's life -- his arrival on the New York folk scene in the early 1960s, semiretirement in Woodstock at the height of his fame, and the low spiritual and professional ebb during the recording of Oh Mercy in New Orleans -- the book digs deep to uncover the sources from which this protean talent sprang. The tone of voice is unmistakable; it is the voice that mourned the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll and honored the life of Blind Willie McTell.
"Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled out with natural knowing and inner wisdom."
To be sure, those seeking the spurious revelations with which supermarket magazines are filled will be disappointed; but the book is rich with anecdotes and keen observations of the people Dylan has known. He recounts with rueful humor the time he trudged through bog lands to Woody Guthrie's house in a fruitless search for the great man's unrecorded songs. ("Forty years later, these lyrics would fall in to the hands of Billy Bragg and the group Wilco and they would put melodies to them, bring them to full life and record them. ... These performers probably weren't even born when I had made that trip out to Brooklyn.) Elsewhere he tells of getting smashed over a crate of Guinness with Bono and dining with musical aristocracy -- Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson et al -- at the home of Johnny Cash. Dylan pays generous tribute to a woman he calls only "my wife" ("one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women") and renders affectionate portrayals of folk superstar Joan Baez and Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend in the freezing winter and stifling summer before his first taste of fame.
How galling that taste was to become is made explicit in a section describing his abortive retreat to the bucolic environ of Woodstock in 1968, while the rest of the world was getting high.
Once in midsummer madness I was riding in a car with Robbie Robertson, the guitar player in what later was to be called The Band. I felt like I might as well have been living in another part of the solar system. He says to me, 'Where do you think you're gonna take it?'
Dylan offers many such insights in this book but what he does not provide is some kind of key that will unlock the supposed secrets of his lyrics. The hapless target of "Positively 4th Street" remains unidentified, the symbolism of "Desolation Row" is unexplored and if any personal trauma inspired "Idiot Wind," it is not detailed here. It doesn't matter. Dylan's claim to greatness lies not in baffling acrostics and crossword-clues set to music; it resides in the creation of three distinct, unique and hugely influential musical sounds -- the raw authenticity of the folk period, the exhilarating mercurial recordings captured on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde and the sonic cloudburst of the Rolling Thunder tour. Little wonder that his audience came to expect the tectonic plates of popular music to shift with each new album. It was an expectation that came close to extinguishing Dylan's talent.
He writes: "Wherever I am, I'm a '60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows. I'm in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion."
Oblivion? Not a chance. All the evidence of Chronicles points in the direction of the survival -- against the odds, at times, and as often as not in the face of indifference or incomprehension -- of an unquenchable creative spirit. | October 2004
John Keenan is a journalist, living in Brighton, England. He is editor of the business travel magazine Meetings and Incentive Travel. His work has been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, and other publications.