Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

      Date posted: May 12, 2007

Bob Dylan: Chronicles Vol 1
Simon & Schuster, 2004, 293 pages, $35.00 (CAN)
While most autobiographies concentrate on the highlight reel, Chronicles is spent almost entirely on the practice field. And it makes sense-that’s where Dylan feels safest, away from prying eyes, labels, and questions. Notorious for ignoring the press and the extroversive demands of his fans, Dylan maintains this stance by concentrating on internal, personal moments rather than the infamous events that the public (via the press) cling to. Although this book is clearly marked “Volume One,” the reader is left with the sensation that the chapter “What Mr. Tambourine Man Really Means,” is never going to arrive. There are virtually no direct insights into any of his most popular records. Entire chapters are dedicated to Oh Mercy (1989) and New Morning (1972), but other than the occasional aside, there is no mention of Freewheelin’, Highway 61, or Blonde on Blonde. His love-life is painted with delicate, honest declarations, but his most passionate descriptions are saved for his many dozens of artistic influences. Like any artist Dylan saves his greatest admiration for those who do things he cannot. His highest compliment seems to be that an artist, or the expression of said artist seems to originate from a far away place, outer space, the unknown. Roy Orbison was singing “from an Olympian mountaintop,” Hank Williams “defied the laws of gravity,” Joan Baez “came down from another planet.”

Outside of Pete Seeger I did not recognize a single name Dylan mentions during his detailed reflections on the New York folk scene in the early sixties, but I was fascinated by each and feel as though if someone asked me now, how I felt about Dave Van Ronk or Mike Seeger’s music, I could explain in detail without ever having heard a single note played.

Rimbaud, Balzac, Kerouac, Poe, and Thucydides are just a few of the writers he cites as influential, but more interesting is the admiration he heaps upon those famous for brute strength: people who can impose their will on others. This thin, bookish artist was constantly impressed with those whose impact was largely physical-wrestler Gorgeous George, “the Great White Hope” Jerry Quarry, pugilist actor Mickey Rourke, John Wayne. He even describes Harry Belafonte as a man who could “kick anyone’s ass.”

Intent on extended metaphor, Dylan chooses to begin the story of his life with an anecdote about meeting boxer Jack Dempsey. Confused and unfamiliar with his guest, Dempsey warns Dylan he looks “a little light to be a heavyweight” but offers some sage advice: “don’t be afraid of hitting somebody too hard.”

The higher we aim, the farther we might fall, and for most, the risk does not equal the reward. Volume One of these Chronicles seems focused on addressing this issue: the moments of Dylan’s life when he had to choose between doing what had already been done (at a very high, profitable level) or trying something new. Upon hearing this, the reader might assume Newport, and the switch to electric guitars would occupy a large portion of the text, but no-Dylan barely even mentions the moment. After all, playing electric guitars and rock `n roll on a stage was nothing new, it was just new to Dylan. The distinction Dylan makes, and the focus of his story, are the moments he feels he has donated something new to the world.

The first such moment would be his decision to write his own songs. It’s hard to imagine that someone so prolific might have once been content to perform other people’s creations, but that was the folk tradition. Perhaps it can be thought upon like Pope, Milton, and other writers of the restoration period, who spent decades interpreting Greek and Roman classics before ever considering publishing their own work. Bob Dylan It was a rite of passage, and for Dylan, the classic he chose to interpret was of course, Woody Guthrie. Hearing Guthrie’s records forever altered Dylan’s perception of the universe. “For me,” Dylan recalls, “his songs made everything else come to a screeching halt. I decided then and there to sing nothing but Guthrie songs. It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice…I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.”

Years of performing passed before Dylan even considered writing his own songs, and his first recording with Columbia records would only feature two originals: “Talkin’ New York,” and the apt tribute “Song to Woody.” Dylan slowly arrived at a daunting, unavoidable conclusion: if he continued to be a folk singer in the purest sense (singing the songs of those that came before him) there would always be people who could do it better. People like Mike Seeger and Jack Elliot could play the guitar and sing better than he ever would, and Dylan knew it. Like his hero Woody Guthrie, Dylan would have to create his own material, using his own, imperfect guitar, and his distinctive, penetrating voice. The process of this discovery is one of the many highlights of this book, described in magnificently generous detail, and as one song turns into two, and two into three, the dam breaks, and the world is witness to a new way to write songs.

The next great moment of discovery Dylan discusses would occur 25 years later, after he had sung all those great songs so many times they had lost their vitality. He had once again become an artist content to sing songs of the past, only this time they were his own. Out on tour with Tom Petty, Dylan longs for retirement. “It wasn’t my moment of history anymore…one more big payday with Petty and that would be it for me.” Losing all emotional connection to his songs, Dylan had never felt more insecure. “My haystacks weren’t tied down,” he writes, “and I was beginning to fear the wind.”

Without spoiling some of the books most intimate moments, Dylan reaches into his past, and uncovers “a certain set of dynamic principles” which empower him, transforming his performances. Whether you agree with him or not is irrelevant–this is an autobiography. Back from the dead, Dylan would begin his “Neverending Tour,” convinced that he had found a way to make his old songs sound new again. For many fans, myself included, this is the only period in which we have had the opportunity to witness Dylan’s live act, and while I don’t think a single one of us wouldn’t trade 2 hours of the most epic, energetic “Neverending Tour” show for a half-hour set at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, I certainly came away satisfied with today’s versions of yesterday’s classics.

It’s effort we want from our entertainers, from our heroes. We want them to keep trying, to not be afraid to fail, to disappoint. Volume One of Dylan’s Chronicles shows us a man who is equally aware of his lean years and his legacy. The triumph of his book is to connect the two, making the reader realize that it’s far more easy for a fan to forgive and forget Knocked out Loaded and Self Portrait than the artist himself.

If Bob Dylan is infamous for ignoring the autograph seekers and picture-takers, he is most celebrated for feeding our internal needs. Perhaps more than any other songwriter Dylan makes music that speaks to us individually, as though he witnessed the worst day of our life, and overheard our closest friend describe the best. It is the finest compliment I can give this book, to credit it with the same magical capacity. I will spare you the revelation of “my” Dylan songs, but I will share one of many moments that felt personal to me, in Chronicles:

Dylan recalls a night when he found himself on top of the covers in bed, flipping channels, and stumbling across the Tonight Show. Joe Tex is performing the show’s musical segment and Dylan remembers that when Tex is finished, Johnny Carson doesn’t bother talking to the soul singer-he simply sits at his desk and waves. Johnny always invited the singer over for a chat, everyone knows that.

There is a quiet coldness to this moment, this snub through a chorus of cheers. The applause of many silenced by the critique of one. Both Joe Tex and Johnny Carson had achieved a measure of success, but while millions remember Carson fondly, only a select few can name a Joe Tex song.

Dylan sums up the situation succinctly: “I thought about how much more I was like (Joe Tex) than Carson. I shut the TV off.”

Darryl Stenabaugh

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One Response to “Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One”

  1. Anonymous c-us Says:

    dylan is the shiznitle gritle

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