The first volume of Bob Dylan’s ornery autobiography is a fascinating, maddening time-travel ride. Though oddly structured and lacking context, the book’s easy, conversational style still makes “Chronicles: Volume One” engaging. In the end, it’s easy enough to forgive its jumpy chronology and to excuse how much Dylan leaves unexplained.
Ambiguity and mystery, so potent here, have long been key to Dylan’s mojo.
“Chronicles” stresses Dylan’s life in New York in the early ’60s and highlights “New Morning,” a 1970 album, and “Oh Mercy,” a 1989 disk that Daniel Lanois produced. It touches winningly, if fleetingly, on Dylan’s early years in Minnesota’s Iron Range and artfully weaves the artistic and the historical.
Explaining “Everything Is Broken,” an “Oh Mercy” tune, Dylan writes, “Danny didn’t have to swamp it up too much, it was already swamped up pretty good when it came to him. Critics usually didn’t like a song like this coming out of me because it didn’t seem to be autobiographical. Maybe not, but the stuff I write does come from an autobiographical place.”
That unamplified statement is nearly as tantalizingly vague as the praise Dylan bestows on his wife as he explores New Orleans during the “Oh Mercy” recording days. He recalls, “The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She’s always had her own happiness.”
But the question is, which wife? Although Dylan, who was divorced from first wife Sara in 1977, never identifies his wife or children here, he gives the impression of being a family man fighting to protect his brood from the slings and arrows of his outrageous celebrity. Dealing with the kind of spin that politicians envy, such “factuality” guards Dylan’s privacy but also whets the appetite for more color and truth.
He is more explicit about the cultural landscape. We learn that for him the Civil War is “the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write,” that mysterious bluesman Robert Johnson is a touchstone, and that roots songwriter Woody Guthrie is a role model.
In “Chronicles,” we follow Dylan through Minneapolis’s cultural hotbed Dinkytown and virtually smell the New York of 1961, when he befriends folksinger Dave Van Ronk and crashes at the pad of a highly literary, opium-smoking couple, where he begins to reconstitute the folk song. We learn of his affair with Suze Rotolo, the girl walking with him on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album cover. On the other hand, we learn next to nothing of the mid-’60s records that cemented his artistic reputation, or of the throwaways, like “Self-Portrait” and “Down in the Groove,” that corroded it in the ’70s and ’80s. Perhaps he’ll treat those in later volumes.
“Chronicles” affirms Dylan’s idiosyncrasies and his mastery of the vernacular. As his best songs also show, he’s a great reporter with a talent for vivid detail. Here he recalls Billy the Butcher, an early ’60s Greenwich Village eccentric who sang nothing but “High-Heel Sneakers,” an old Tommy Tucker blues shuffle:
“The Butcher wore an overcoat that was too small for him, buttoned tight across the chest. He was jittery and sometime in the past he’d been in a straitjacket in Bellevue, also burned a mattress in a jail cell. All kinds of bad things had happened to Billy. There was a fire between him and everybody else. He sang that one song pretty good, though.”
Through the book, Dylan skillfully ducks and sways his adoring, pressuring public. He discusses his attitude toward celebrity and its connection to his drop-off in creativity, if not output, for more than two checkered decades. And there are insights into the wellspring of his motivations.
Weavers singer Ronnie Gilbert once introduced Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival by saying, “And here he is . . . take him, you know him, he’s yours.”
“What a crazy thing to say! Screw that,” Dylan writes, still smarting after all these years. “As far as I know, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now. I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. . . . My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilization. Being true to yourself, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.”
Constantly calibrating his music and image, Dylan is a self-absorbed professional who can nonetheless be self-critical. His complexity comes through in the first part of an autobiography originally scheduled for publication two years ago. With this book, Dylan finally has begun to write his own story. “Chronicles” is packed with ruminations on musical theory, sharp and humorous commentary, flashes of poetry — and facts filtered and colored to flummox, entertain, and illuminate.