Friday, September 12, 2014

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan

More about what he likes than what he’s like
Bob Dylan has been the subject of many biographies, but not until the publication of his first memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, in 2004, did curious fans receive any autobiographical disclosure from the bard himself. Rather than using the book as an opportunity to set the record straight, however, the most curious thing about Chronicles is how Dylan goes out of his way to write about everything but himself. Nevertheless, it’s a lively and literate book that does, however indirectly, provide much-longed-for insight into the thought process of this great musician and songwriter.

Chronicles is not a typical autobiography, but rather an examination of five different points in Dylan’s life. These stages do not appear in chronological order, and in the telling of them Dylan often flashes backward and forward to other scenes that happen to pop into his head. Three of the chapters focus on his early career, up to the point where he signed with Columbia Records. Too often the text reads like a catalog of influences, with Dylan listing off the acts he admired, the records he listened to, the books he read, and the movies he saw. In these early scenes, however, he does a great job of authentically recreating the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s. He purposely avoids making himself the star of these vignettes but rather functions literally as a chronicler, capturing in eloquent and vivid prose the sights and sounds of afternoons in smoky coffee shops and nights on borrowed couches. The reader at times feels as if he were young Dylan, just arrived from Minnesota and hunting for a gig.

When he’s writing about the actual making of music, however, he’s far less successful. In the chapter entitled “Oh Mercy,” about the recording of the album of the same name in 1989, he talks in-depth about a new vocal technique that revolutionized his performances and a mathematical method of guitar playing that likewise transformed his music, but what he has to say about these topics is largely unintelligible. As to the album itself, he really gets into the nuts and bolts about how each song was written and recorded, but once again he’s virtually incomprehensible because he strings together more strange, folksy metaphors than a parody of Dan Rather. One would expect such a brilliant poet to be more articulate when talking about his craft. In this respect, Dylan could learn a thing or two from Neil Young. In his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, Young jumps all over the map topically and chronologically, but you never have trouble understanding what he’s saying. With Dylan it seems like deliberate obfuscation, either because he’s too shy for self-revelation, or he simply wants to preserve some of his rock-star mystique.

In the most candid portion of the book, which revolves around the recording of the 1970 album New Morning, Dylan expresses his reluctance to adopt the mantle of “voice of a generation” that was so often thrust upon his shoulders. All he wanted was to make music and be a family man. Another highlight of the book is the final chapter, in which he details his youth in Minnesota and explains how he went from a Woody Guthrie tribute act to a songwriter in his own right.

Though Chronicles may not be the perfect autobiography Dylan aficionados have long waited for, there’s plenty of nourishment here to at least temporarily satiate hungry fans. Perhaps the most gratifying thing about Chronicles is its subtitle, Volume One, indicating there’s more to come.

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