Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Vol. 1
When I sat down to read Bob Dylan's new memoir, Chronicles, I couldn't help remembering the guy standing in back of us at a Dylan concert we saw—five or six years ago, now—in Puyallup, Wash. A dead-serious fellow, who at one point turned to his date and explained that "every Dylan song has eight questions." I can imagine how that date ended, but I bet Dylan would have loved the explanation, which reminds me of the cryptic explanations he's tended to provide for himself:
Interviewer: Are you trying to accomplish anything?
Bob Dylan: Am I trying to accomplish anything?
Interviewer: Are you trying to change the world or anything?
Dylan: Am I trying to change the world? Is that your question?
Interviewer: Well, do you have any idealism or anything?
Dylan: Am I trying to change the idealism of the world? Is that it?
Interviewer: Well, are you trying to push over idealism in the people?
Dylan: Well, what do you think my ideas are?
Interviewer: Well, I don't exactly know. But are you singing just to be singing?
Dylan: No, I'm not singing just to be singing. There's a much deeper reason for it than that.
That's from 1965, when Dylan was at the height of his popularity and approaching the height of his powers. The sense of vertigo must have been overwhelming: "Different anachronisms were thrust upon me," he writes in this memoir. "Legend, Icon, Enigma. … These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare. … Prophet, Messiah, Savior—those are tough ones." What could Dylan have told us then that his songs didn't already say? Still, you have to wonder: What were his "deeper reasons"?
Well, in 1966 Dylan published his first book, Tarantula. It begins: "aretha/crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused in drunk transfusion would heed sweet soundwave crippled & cry salute to oh great particular." Needless to say, Tarantula didn't provide the explanations Dylan fans were looking for. And because Tarantula was the last book Dylan wrote, expectations for Chronicles weren't much higher.
How good could it be, really? Like most people I know, I'm a fan of Dylan's recent albums but not the blandly professional band he tours and records with. I like Dylan's new songs, too, but when I play them, I don't hear the runaway brilliance of his best work. Besides, Dylan has failed at more than a few epic experiments; projects like Tarantula, or his never-finished film, Renaldo & Clara. It's not even true that Dylan has a great many advantages over his biographers: In your New Yorker profile, "The Wanderer," you noted that, for Dylan, "public speech is a no-win situation. If he speaks a few words, people will say he hasn't said enough. If he speaks at length, people think he's lost his mind."
So, how did Dylan produce such a mind-bogglingly good book? For one thing, he's jammed the narrative with the kind of characters who inhabit his songs: "The kind of people who come from out of nowhere and go right back into it—a pistol-packing rabbi, a snaggle-toothed girl with a big crucifix between her breasts—all kinds of characters looking for the inner heat." Dylan mentions Montgomery Clift and Clausewitz in a single breath and thinks nothing of comparing Stephen Crane to Robert Johnson. The references, which come in a rush, are varied but never gratuitous, and the range of Dylan's influences brings us nearer to the man than any of the day-by-day biographies have managed to get us. His take on Balzac, which you've quoted on your blog, had me agog. And who else would think to describe the painter Chaim Soutine as "the Jimmy Reed of the art world?" This is the closest Dylan's come to re-creating the human menagerie of Blonde on Blonde, and it works as well on the page as it did on the record.
I hope we have room to get into a few of the personal revelations, which cut close to the bone—they're entirely in the service of Dylan's story, and Dylan's story is always in the service of the people he's met, stolen from, given back to, and remembered. Because of this, the memoir ends up being remarkably generous, in the way that only honest books can be. In another, more straightforward interview, Dylan said: "There's just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them. And that might be all they have going for them. However, that's no small thing." He's right, of course, and it more or less sums up how I felt while reading Chronicles. I can't tell you how glad I am to be discussing it—and better yet, discussing it with you!
Alex Abramovich is writing a history of rock 'n' roll. He lives in Astoria, Queens. Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker.