CHRONICLES: Volume One, by Bob Dylan
Reviewed by Chris Bourke.
When Bob Dylan released a schmaltzy covers album called Self Portrait in 1969, a leading critic famously began his review “What is this shit?” The 60s generation expected a lot more from its reluctant spokesman and conscience (who now mocks his role as the “Big Bubba of Rebellion”). The same accusation could be hurled at Dylan’s “novel” Tarantula, an incoherent collection of amphetamined nonsense written after-hours on the seventh day (he had probably knocked off Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde earlier that week).
Even his classic albums were recorded in a slapdash manner – it aids their authenticity, goes the theory – so expectations were not high for Dylan’s self-portrait in print, the first volume of his autobiography. When it comes to self-invention, Dylan is the master, right from the time Robert Zimmerman blew in from the Midwest claiming to be Woody Guthrie’s natural heir.
Dylan is as wily as an old card shark, his obtuse myth-making an important part of his longevity. So Chronicles comes with the same caveat emptor as his music: enjoy the stories, the one-liners, the phrasing, but don’t treat it as gospel. If this book gotta serve somebody, it’s Dylan himself.
The surprise is that it’s a readable, rollicking memoir: wry, entertaining and (up to a point) revealing. Chronicles isn’t chronological; its five sections concentrate on what at first seem like less important periods of his life. It opens and closes in a song publisher’s office, where a young Dylan records demos of his early songs. In between we get lengthy accounts of his forays into the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1960, his flight from fame circa 1969, and the recording of Oh Mercy in 1989. It’s as if he never said the times were a-changin’, was never the folkies’ “Judas” who went electric and recorded ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, didn’t have a motorbike accident and go into exile in Woodstock, and was certainly not born again with Slow Train Coming.
Chronicles is all the better for ignoring the standard Dylan lore, which can be read in innumerable other books. The episodes he has chosen to unveil are not when significant events have happened, but when they are about to happen. They are periods of re-birth. From being a complete unknown, he will quickly become the dominant figure in folk and rock music; imprisoned by his fame, he will follow the throwaway Self Portrait with the career-reviving New Morning. The same transformation will take place with Oh Mercy, after the desultory 1980s in which even Dylan admits he felt “over the hill”.
His descriptions of these periods are so detailed and evocative, they are almost tactile. He remembers the books he read during his self-education in Greenwich Village, the songs he heard and the parties he went to (they were full of “eclectic girls … non-homemaker types”). Recording Oh Mercy in New Orleans is a struggle, so in a terrific passage he and his wife take off on a Harley-Davidson ride through the Cajun bayous. He reveals little about himself (typically, he doesn’t mention that pillion-passenger was actually his second wife) but he is exceptionally generous to his mentors: Roy Orbison, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez and, especially, Woody Guthrie (hearing him for the first time, “I didn’t know whether I was stoned or straight … it was like the record player had flung me across the room”).
Chronicles has all the attributes of Dylan’s best songs: the humour of WC Fields, the swagger of Huck Finn, the attitude of Holden Caulfield and the noir eye of Raymond Chandler. Its style is impressionistic but compelling; there is an almost psychedelic mix of clarity and romance. The song-title it most recalls is the very early ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’.