Bob Dylan has been ducking, weaving and obfuscating for so long – been the repository of so many people’s fantasies and theories – that it’s well nigh impossible now to tell where the truth about his life and art ends and the myth-making begins. Can any artistic figure of the twentieth century have been more avidly scrutinised, while at the same remaining so resolutely inscrutable?
It should be said at the outset, then, that anyone coming to Chronicles in search of disclosure about born-again Christianity, house-hunting in Crouch End or the mysteries of advertising Victoria’s Secret lingerie – all stuff of Dylan myth – will be disappointed. This is not an autobiography in any conventional sense of the term – but then surely no one would seriously have expected him to show his hand this late in the game. However, what we get is far more fascinating, and more revelatory than that: a sense of how it actually feels to be Bob Dylan.
Eschewing a formal chronological narrative, Chronicles consists of three self-portraits at crucial stages of Dylan’s career. The first finds him newly arrived in New York in the early Sixties, on the brink of discovery, imbued with the sense that destiny ‘was looking right at me and nobody else’.
The second section jump-cuts to the end of the decade, a time when Dylan was grappling with the burden of being the spokesman for a generation – ‘The Big Bubba of Rebellion, The Czar of Dissent’. The third moves forward yet further, to the mid-Eighties – when Dylan was experiencing a creative crisis, alleviated by the recording of the Oh Mercy album and the beginning of what has since become known as ‘the never-ending tour’. Broadly: creative birth; death; and rebirth.
The first, New York section is utterly engrossing. Here is Dylan passing the hat in the coffee-houses and cellar-bars of Greenwich Village, sleeping on friends’ couches, sucking up experiences and influences like a sponge: jazz, classical music, literature – the Romantic poets, Edgar Man Poe, ‘Fox’s Book of Martyrs, the Twelve Caesars, Tacitus’, lectures and letters to Brutus, Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy’ (he is big on lists), nineteenth-century newspaper reports, pretty much everything. And all, to borrow his own phrase, as if his imagination was ‘actually on fire’.
The tone here displays both a surprising humility and an immense generosity and gratitude towards those who helped him on his way: the friends and acquaintances who sustained him, the artists who inspired him – Roy Orbison, who ‘sang like a professional criminal’: Robert Johnson, who, ‘when [he] started singing, … seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armour’; Hank Williams; and, of course, Woody Guthrie.
From all of this you glean how Dylan learned to understand what makes a great artist, how to sift out the authentic from the phoney. This is the ‘poet musician’ (his phrase) finding his own voice – and, more than that, becoming his own man.
Quite how much his audience wanted him to be their man, and the toll their passion exacted upon him, is the theme of the second section. Here is Dylan holed up in Woodstock, trying to find some semblance of domestic happiness with his young family, while interlopers, spooks, trespassers and moochers clamour at his door, demanding that he ‘stop shirking [his] duties as the conscience of a generation’ – a role which Dylan makes clear he never sought and had no interest whatsoever in fulfilling. ‘I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.’
His contempt for the attempts of his audience and critics to shoehorn him into the role of messiah is palpable. His descriptions of the vicissitudes and expectations of fame are chilling, and the stratagems he employed to subvert and evade them hilarious: going to Jerusalem and wearing a skull-cap (‘quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist’), starting a rumour that he was enrolling at college to study design, recording an entire album based on Chekhov short stories (which ‘the critics assumed was autobiographical’), all the while searching for the alchemy to create ‘a perfume that would make reaction to a person luke-warm, indifferent and apathetic’. As for the press – ’I figured you lie to it’.
The final section finds him in the mid-Eighties, middle-aged, bereft of inspiration and fearing that a hand injury has brought his professional career to an end. ‘I was what they called over the hill,’ he states baldly.
Dylan’s despair is tangible, but a chance encounter with an unknown singer in a bar points him towards a new way of phrasing his own singing. Remembering a guitar technique which he learned from the blues musician Lonnie Johnson, he suddenly hits on a way to rework his material and make it new again, signaling a creative rebirth, and the beginning of what became the ‘never-ending tour’. All of this is fascinating, showing just how alive Dylan has always been to the quiet signs and hidden currents that shape destiny, an artist who has always trusted to instinct rather than intellect.
Dylan writes beautifully, in a wry, muscular bop-prosody, rich in metaphor and hipsterese – laconic and wide-eyed with wonder at the same time. One would expect him to have a poet’s ear for the rhythm of language of course, but the Proustian recall for the fine detail of events, conversations, even interior decoration is surprising – ’near the sofa, a wooden cabinet supported by fluted columns, near that an oval table with rounded drawers. a chair like a wheelbarrow…’ There are passages here which are so invigorating you find yourself reading them over and over again to savour the cadence and originality of the language; phrase-making that has you laughing out loud. Meeting his girlfriend Suze Rotolo for the first time, and falling in love, ‘the air was suddenly filled with banana leaves’. Ruminating on current affairs, he writes ‘I liked old news better. All the new news was bad.’
Chronicles itself makes no claim to be a document of record. Whole sections of his career go missing (perhaps the next volume will fill some of the gaps); the famous motorbike accident is passed over in a line; two wives are mentioned, but never named. He is careful to preserve his privacy, and – honourably – the privacy of those around him. But what we do learn is enthralling. Dylan omits the things you thought you wanted to know, but tells you far more about what really counts than you’d have dared to imagine he might – about the inner workings of his mind and how his art has been buffeted and shaped by the times. At one point (talking of Daniel Lanois, the producer of Oh Mercy) Dylan writes, ‘I know that he wanted to understand me more as we went along, but you can’t do that, not unless you like to do puzzles.’ An unalloyed pleasure, Chronicles may not be quite the solution, but it feels as close as we’re ever likely to get. And it will have you hurrying back to your Dylan albums to listen, and wonder, anew.