Bob Dylan

Matt Cale is like a complete unknown..

There are two distinct types of people in this world: those who so love Bob Dylan that they cannot imagine the 20th century without his influence and insight, and those who possess a loathing so intense that their contempt for his music could only be eclipsed by the mere thought of reading his book. I might not elevate his records to the top of my personal collection, but I do grant him the honor as one of music’s most lasting giants; a man who seemingly couldn’t sing a lick, yet used words and images to shape the way we view our world. He might have worked better as a poet on the page, but I’ve never believed that vocal talent alone was enough to qualify for musical sainthood. If it was, a shrill harpy like Celine Dion would never relinquish the crown (and we all know that she’s more likely to send blood rushing from the ears than words of praise streaming from the lips). So let’s dispense with that up front — Dylan mumbles, croaks, and whines, and no one will ever mistake him for Nat King Cole. Nevertheless, no one man altered the art form more than Mr. Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, and I shouldn’t have to defend his vocal range when his lyrics defy all serious criticism.

His albums aside, we now have Volume 1 of Dylan’s memoirs, which should be surrounded by quotation marks, as this is less a narrative than a random collection of thoughts, observations, and genuinely weird ruminations. In an age where so many autobiographies play it safe (think of Hillary Clinton’s book, which she refused to admit that she wanted Bill’s cock in a jar) and are obviously ghostwritten, it is refreshing to encounter the work of one unique human being, not at all the pasted patchwork of a disinterested committee. It is doubtful that this book could have been written by anyone else, and one can imagine Dylan collecting scraps of paper, napkins, and others odds and ends to put it all together for the publisher’s deadline. While two other volumes are promised, I wouldn’t count on their appearance, as from all accounts Dylan would rather talk about anything else than what is expected (or hoped for) by fans and admirers alike.

Take the omission of, well, any of his most influential works. Nothing on Blonde on Blonde? Blood on the Tracks? Highway 61 Revisited? And where are the thoughts and ideas behind his great comeback works Time Out of Mind and Love & Theft? Perhaps they are being saved for the remaining volumes, but it’s not as if Dylan wrote in any sort of order that would leave a reader with a clue about an overall direction. He moves from his early days in Minnesota, to his first glimpse of New York City, to his minor albums Oh Mercy and New Morning, and then to the past once again. He describes his wives in great detail, only we don’t have any clue who they are because he doesn’t give their names. He drops Joan Baez’s name, yet fails to mention their intimate relationship. And his life-changing motorcycle accident? No more than a sentence, and for all we get he might as well have been describing his breakfast. I’m not the sort of reader who needs to wallow in gossip, but I can understand the frustration of those who might think that Bob is up to his old tricks and mind games once again.

If there is a theme to this book, it is Dylan’s unwavering reverence for folk music in general, and Woody Guthrie in particular. Dylan’s career is unimaginable without the great Depression era songwriter, which might cause some to wish that Mama Guthrie had strangled the poor lad in his crib. But I’ll remain thankful, for the idea of socially relevant art, while at times a popular notion, has fallen out of favor in recent years. Dylan too has preferred the clever to the political as of late, but somehow we know he’s waiting for the right time to explode. Dylan’s tale, therefore, is an attempt to locate the authentic; the sort of music that stems from experience and wisdom rather than cynical calculation. No one, perhaps, will ever reach the levels of authenticity practiced by the likes of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson (he lived it, man), yet that doesn’t prevent Dylan from embarking on his own quest to discover the very possibilities of music.

True, this book would be of no possible interest to non-fans, but even as an admirer (and I count myself as one who prefers his later work to the 60s essentials), I couldn’t help but feel that at nearly 300 pages, the damn thing stayed up way past its bedtime. The funky, hypnotic rhythm of the early chapters (and they do read like great prose when an author’s really on top of his game) eventually gives way to a perturbed repetition, as if Dylan had to write a certain amount and as a result kept going over the same ground. He rarely elaborates beyond the essentials, but he does have a way of expressing simple ideas in a humorous, flavor-filled manner. He makes the banal fresh, even inviting. And yet, despite an absolute lack of pretense (he never shouts platitudes or answers to life’s questions, preferring to let his music do the talking in that regard), he cuts off the discussion when we’d like to hear more. And he’ll let some nutcase ramble on about the destiny of the Chinese, yet will pull back from his own detailed assessment. And his gripes about the pressures of fame (and subsequent pulling away from the limelight), while refreshingly understated and lacking the typical celebrity martyr complex, don’t reach far enough into the American soul, as if he couldn’t be bothered with a larger context.

So if you are inclined to give Chronicles a chance, I would not be appalled if you admitted to skimming now and again, nor I would wag my finger as you knocked back a few in order to plow your way through. As there is in fact a faint haze that hangs over many a page, it might help to meet the prose on its own terms, which necessitates as much wandering and stumbling about as forward momentum. It may take a true disciple to tough it out (and the unimpressed will certainly remain unconvinced), but there are sufficient rewards to justify spending a few days with one of our finest storytellers. And it should surprise no one that personality takes center stage here, as Dylan has taken folk music’s romance with the obscure, the marginalized, the notorious, and the damned, and created a virtual rogue’s gallery of Americana. Like many of his songs, these people are a mere heartbreak away from oblivion. And he’s just the man to tell their tale. Now if he’d only get busy with his own.