A few weeks ago, back when the fall still held a hint of summer, I had a moment of panic. Twenty pages from the end of reading a library copy of Bob Dylan's first volume of autobiography, Chronicles, I lost it. Not the panic. The book. I had the book as I rode the streetcar to do errands and I didn't have it as I rode the streetcar home. I worried about replacing the book, and I worried about how I was going to review it, since all my reading notes were on stickies, poking out from the rough-cut pages. But it all turned out okay in the end: Some kind soul returned the book to the library, on time even. I went back and read the ending, and the feeling of the book came back to me, even if I couldn't reference all the details.
The consequence is that this review is a little less focused than it might otherwise have been. More flow, less detail. It's a more casual thing than my usual reviews. And yet, somehow, that seems kind of right. The anonymous goodwill, the lucky ending to a potential problem, the disorganized process - the whole experience is a little like the book itself and even Dylan's self-described life.
Chronicles reads like a stream of consciousness about the past. Starting with Dylan recounting his introduction to boxer Jack Dempsey and ending with a list of fellow Minnesotans with whom he has felt a kinship, the book jumps back and forth between times, places and themes. Dylan darts between stories highlighting his turning points and his influences, be they musical, personal or otherwise; influence is the zig-zagging thread that links the scenes (in every sense of that word) together. It is dizzying at times, but you want to follow along; I was breathless with the idea that I was getting a glimpse at how the mind of a creative icon works.
There is, in fact, a sense that Dylan is creating his own mythology or, perhaps more accurately, adding to that which already exists. He mentions the apocryphal story about coming into the city in a boxcar, explaining that he told it because he was frustrated with the inane questions of an interviewer. He drops names — John Wayne, Buddy Holly, Spike Lee, Odetta, Woody Guthrie — and you can't help but feel a sense of icon-by-association. Not that Dylan needs the help; he stands as an icon just fine on his own. From anyone else, the references would seem to be a means to puff themselves up; from Dylan, it becomes a metaphor for just how extraordinary his life has been.