Chronicles: Volume One
by Bob Dylan
A review by Charles Taylor
Wide open. That's how Times Square looks in the 1960 photo on the cover of the
first volume of Bob Dylan's memoirs, Chronicles. The neon is there -- at
that time, for the Automat, BOAC airlines, Canadian Club, Admiral appliances.
But unlike every other Times Square photo you've ever seen, this one shows a vast
street, a large swatch of sky; there's room to breathe and space to claim. It
looks like the main street in an old western as seen by the stranger in town.
Only in this case the stranger isn't a gunslinger but a folk singer.
Wide open. That's how Dylan describes the world in front of him as a young
singer about to make his name in the last paragraph of the book. And it was
the phrase he used to describe America itself when he praised the first volume
of Peter Guralnick's Elvis biography, Last
Train to Memphis: "Elvis as he walks the path between heaven and nature
in an America that was wide open."
Wide open. It's not a phrase anyone would think of to describe Bob Dylan --
at least the Dylan of legend. The Dylan whose public image was set long ago:
Dylan the "protest singer," Dylan the messiah, Dylan the prophet,
Dylan the recluse, the cagey, obscure Dylan, the born-again Dylan, all of the
images of Dylan thrown up by obsessive fans, English majors, and rock critics
of the sort played by Jeff Bridges in the Dylan movie Masked and Anonymous;
a pompous, pontificating ass who winds up impaled on Blind Lemon Jefferson's
guitar. Whether or not the images were true, whether Dylan ever tried to be
a messiah or a prophet, whether or not, despite his reputation for obscurity,
there was an apparent emotional sense to be found in his riddles and metaphors,
was beside the point. To think that the popular picture of Dylan might not be
true would screw up a perfectly good ready-made image, would mess with the sound
bites and the editorial I.D.'s ("Dylan, whose songs of social injustice
made him the voice of the '60s...").
Wide open. That's exactly what we are not to any celebrity who publishes a
biography. We know what to think of celebrities. They're all egomaniacs and
publicity whores -- doesn't matter if they're Paris Hilton or Bob Dylan. That's
how all the pomo Hedda Hoppers have told us to think about celebrity. Forget
about the work; it's the image that matters. Irony is the new Jesus. Crucified
on Sept. 11, it rose again to sit at the right hand of ... well, maybe not God,
but at least Maureen Dowd.
Dylan's work and utterances, even the garbage outside his New York apartment
in the '60s, have been given a ruthless and shallow parsing. There are plenty
of people who expect everything that comes out of Dylan's mouth to be either
revelatory or nonsensical. Last year brought an example of the latter expectation
when critics who had grown up with the oblique humor and elliptical imagery
of Dylan songs reacted, when confronted with the same qualities in Masked
and Anonymous, as if they were seeing a self-indulgent travesty for which
there was no precedent. They killed the movie (one of the most potent and challenging
American movies in recent memory) almost out of sheer laziness. Seizing on holes
in the narrative or the oddball scenes, the reviews complained in the manner
of high school kids assigned poetry who whine about how hard it is to understand.
What may throw some readers about Chronicles is how modest and straightforward
it is. Neither a hallucination, like Dylan's Tarantula,
nor a coffee-table fan's scrapbook (there are no photos), Chronicles
starts in without any preamble, any fuss. The opening and closing sections recount
Dylan's memories of being a young singer in Greenwich Village, just signed to
Columbia by the legendary John Hammond (who would count Charlie Christian, Billie
Holiday and Bruce Springsteen among the talent he got for the label). In between
there are sections on his domestic life as a young husband and father in 1960s
Woodstock following his near-fatal motorcycle accident, and a long section on
the recording of his 1989 album Oh Mercy.
Does he tell all? No. First, because it's none of our damn business. A man
who has been scrutinized the way Dylan has, who has had people literally crawling
through his windows and pontificating on what his role should be, knows something
about the necessity of keeping at least part of it all to himself. Second, because
he realizes nothing is more boring and less revealing than the sort of memoir
that would've included lines like: "And then I met a young Canadian guitarist
named Robbie Robertson."
Dylan holds things in reserve. The motorcycle accident gets one line. He summons
the ardor of youth to write of his famous love affair with Suze Rotolo, the
young beauty walking through Village slush with him on the cover of The Freewheelin'
Bob Dylan ("She was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen"), and
treats their breakup with the discretion of a true gentleman ("She took
one turn in the road and I took another. We just passed out of each other's
Dylan is revealing about the things that matter. As a writer he makes the distinction
between fond reminiscence and false nostalgia. Without offering any cheap psychological
explanation, he gives a pretty good idea of where the sideshow quality of his
'60s songs came from. On the first page, Dylan is introduced to Jack Dempsey
in the boxer's restaurant on 58th Street. Old blues legends and new folk singers,
like Dave Van Ronk and Fred Neil, populate the Village. Dylan crashes with the
likes of the wandering descendant of Southern generals and his woman, a hatcheck
girl and model for Cavalier. And all the time young Dylan is imbibing the mixture
of books on the shelves of the apartments where he stayed and the music coming
out of the clubs and jukeboxes. It's "Desolation Row" as a boulevard
of promise. You understand why T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound occupied the same song
as fishermen, Einstein, Robin Hood, fortune tellers, tightrope walkers -- they
all shared space in Dylan's head.
There's a similar catholicity in his musical taste. Dylan talks about his love
for the "old-timey" ballads he was discovering as he scouted out rare
folk and blues sides or learned songs from other singers, talks about how he
felt divorced from the culture's preoccupation with the here and now (a preoccupation
that's infinitely worse today). "What was not a mistake," he writes,
"was the ghost of Billy Lyons, rootin' the mountain down, standing 'round
in East Cairo, Black Betty bam de lam. That's the stuff that was happening.
That's the stuff that could make you question what you'd always accepted, could
litter the landscape with broken hearts, had power of spirit." The old
newspapers (from about 1855-1865) on microfilm at the New York Public Library
began feeding his ambitions as a composer. "It wasn't like it was another
world," he writes, "but the same one only with more urgency ... The
age that I was living in didn't resemble this age, but yet it did in some mysterious
and traditional way."
But Dylan was no purist. When he is writing about the variety of music he heard
as a kid, on the radio and at fairs, and later in New York clubs and coffeehouses
and lofts, he calls up the variety of influences on the young Elvis Presley
that Guralnick wrote of in Last Train to Memphis. Reading Chronicles,
you also know why Dylan would be reviled in the folk community a few years down
It may not have been hip to say so in the Village in the early '60s, but hearing
"Travelin' Man" coming out of a jukebox reminds the young Dylan of
why he loves Ricky Nelson. It's the most perceptive tribute that the still-underrated
singer could have hoped for: "Nelson had never been a bold innovator like
the early singers who sang like they were navigating burning ships. He didn't
sing desperately, do a lot of damage, and you'd never mistake him for a shaman.
It didn't feel like his endurance was ever being tested to the utmost, but it
didn't matter. He sang his songs calm and steady like he was in the middle of
a storm, men hurtling past him."
Elsewhere, he talks about listening to Judy Garland, taking the D train to
the Brooklyn Paramount to see his old Minnesota friend Bobby Vee, how Frank
Sinatra's "Ebb Tide" killed him whenever he heard it. Years later,
recording an album in New Orleans, he takes notice of a Paula Abdul song blasting
out of a passing car. In the same period, he ventures into a strange little
Louisiana roadside shop and hears the Beatles' "Do You Want to Know a Secret"
coming over a scratchy radio and captures in simple lines the euphoric community
that group offered: "I remembered when they first came out. They offered
intimacy and companionship like no other group. Their songs would create an
There was an underside to that community that Dylan has already spoken of.
"Then," he said, meaning the '60s, "you didn't know which end
the trouble was coming from. And it could come at any time." As Chronicles
is read and reviewed, we can probably expect to hear that Dylan turns out to
have hated the '60s, in the same manner that some reviews of Philip Roth's The
Plot Against America have said of Roth, "Whaddya know? He's a Jew after
all!" "There has been so much talk about 'The Good War,' the Justified
War, the Necessary War, and the like, that the young and the innocent could
get the impression that it was really not such a bad thing after all,"
wrote Paul Fussell about World War II. And for all the undeniable sense of possibilities,
it is still easy to get the impression that the '60s were all the Youngbloods
singing "Get Together" and none of the Stones singing "Gimme
There's no romanticism about the '60s in Dylan's writing, just an honest reckoning
of things as they were. He doesn't treat his generation as angels who were somehow
exempt from promulgating the violence that was in the air. Dylan implicitly
addresses the irony that the era preaching individuality had its own version
of the stifling conformity it decried. In 1964 Irwin Silber, the editor of the
folk magazine Sing Out, published an open letter, Dylan recalls, accusing
him of "shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation." Dylan
adds: "I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs."
Dylan had seen the noose that came with his role. He heard the individuality
of the voices in the folk and blues he was drawn to, where the folk community
heard only "the struggle," the need for the performer to obliterate
himself in the service of the masses. That belief had odious manifestations.
In his book on minstrelsy, Where
Dead Voices Gather, Nick Tosches wrote about the white kids turned on by
the blues revival of the '60s who -- to experience "authentic" black
culture -- wanted rediscovered black musicians to affect the roles of poor,
illiterate farmhands. Who, Dylan must have thought, could have heard Woody Guthrie
or Hank Williams or Bascom Lamar Lunsford and not heard an individual? For that
matter, who could have heard "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
and not heard an individual?
"Whatever the counterculture was," Dylan writes, "I'd seen enough
of it." Dylan is generous in his praise of others in Chronicles.
But as any good performer should, he has his share of ego. With a touch of humor
he notes, of his arrival in New York, "I had a heightened sense of awareness,
was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot."
As Dylan sees it, withdrawing as he did to escape the freaks who besieged him
and the ridiculous calls for him to be a leader cost him the ability to observe.
He is open about the aimless, uninspired spate of work he produced in the late
'60s and, with the exceptions of his reunion with the Band, Blood on the
Tracks, and the Rolling Thunder Revue, most of the '70s. But what distinguishes
Chronicles is what has distinguished -- and upset people throughout --
most of Dylan's career: the inconvenience of his genius.
In the middling, muddled '70s, we knew how to think about "Bob Dylan"
-- a former genius putting out records that nobody was very eager to hear, even
if we halfheartedly listened to the "Dylan Is Back!" hype that preceded
each one. We knew we'd be let down. He would turn up at celebrity benefit concerts
and be feted now and then, but otherwise everyone could pretty much relegate
Dylan to his glory years, agree that Highway 61 Revisited was pretty
great and think it was just too bad about Shot of Love or Infidels.
But Dylan, much as he did to the folk community in the '60s, screwed up the
script, tossed in a new act when most of us were expecting the curtain. Starting
with 1992's Good as I Been to You, an album whose ugly, thrown-together
cover suggested those endless late-Elvis LPs, Dylan began finding his voice
again. Except that nobody was ready for a Dylan comeback that ended with "Froggy
Went-a Courtin'." But he did it by going back, as he did scouring the microfilm
of old newspapers as a young man, by returning to the strange old blues songs
and ballads he had loved, by putting together a hard, tight young band who toured
with him endlessly. Dylan had always kept his songs open to interpretation and
new ways of playing. The new versions turned out to be too strange even for
some older fans. Like the mean version of "Masters of War" he screamed
through on the 1991 Grammy Awards during the Gulf War, a version so fast and
hard it took nearly half the song to go by before being recognized.
A performance like that can say to people who had long ago decided they knew
how to think of Bob Dylan, "Nothing is settled. Everything is up for grabs."
It wasn't the young beautiful dandy of the '60s in gabardine print suits before
us. This was a man with a jowly, lined face, a sharpie's mustache, and an almost
formal bearing. The suits and cowboy hat he wears throughout Masked and Anonymous
make him look like a cross between a gentleman rancher and the ghost of Hank
But what we see isn't an aged man as much as a man who has slipped the limits
of age. Are those suits a hipster's look or a link to the past? Why not both?
In 1960s New York, the young Dylan had felt something contemporary in stories
about reform movements, anti-gambling leagues, slave-wage factories. For a while
he made his own contribution to the legacy of those news reports and tall tales
and rumors and prophecies. He outran the mantle of "conscience of his generation"
as hard and fast as he could, only to wind up being slapped with it when the
contemporary state of his career seemed an unworthy coda to that work.
Finally, in the last decade, Dylan seems to be opening up the time portal he
always envisioned. Put on Time out of Mind or Love and Theft or
the version of "Dixie" he sings in Masked and Anonymous, maybe
the most profound piece of American popular music since Smells Like Teen
Spirit, and what you hear is ageless.
In Chronicles he writes about what he learned from those ancient news
There was a broad spectrum and commonwealth that I was living upon, and the
basic psychology of life was every bit a part of it. If you turned the light
towards it, you could see the full complexity of human nature. Back there,
America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing
synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing
template behind everything that I would write.
As good an explanation of any as to why the work Dylan has been doing for the
past 10 years feels like the rock of ages -- solid and inexplicable and known
to us, even if, as the best music always does, it makes you wonder, what was