Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chronicles: Volume One

Bob Dylan's talents apparently spread well beyond the writing of songs, though anyone who has ever listened to "The Hurricane" should know that the man knows how to weave a tale. Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One is a book that entwines its reader to the words of its writer. It isn't a tell all. It doesn't examine many of the mistakes Dylan made; and it doesn't even really delve into his music, at least not the music we remember him for. He makes vague allusions to situations ardent fans will be aware of; but even without that knowledge, without knowledge of Bob Dylan as anything but a 1960s political folk singer, the book still possesses a magic in its telling. Dylan spends some time on the characters that populated his life, but very rarely the ones we know well; Richard Pryor gets name-checked early on in the book when he discusses the clubs he played. Joan Baez's relationship with Dylan gets one line in the book: "Joan was born in the same year as me and our futures would be linked, but at this time to even think about it would be preposterous". 

The chances of Dylan actually delving into any of the emotionality of their romantic endeavors in a possible Volume Two (or even Three) is slim given how little he allows the book into the corners of his world. And that is a good thing; instead, whatever little scraps we are granted are made all the sweeter. He details how he falls in love with Suze Rotolo, who shared the cover of his Freewheelin' Dylan album and who has a memoir of her own out about that time, and the affection he still holds for her in that time rings clear. His anger is still palpable when he writes of how he would have been responsible for the safety of the intruders of his Woodstock property, how the press and constant attention and adulation and vocal disappointment from his fans turned his life into a circus attraction. These are two of the scant instances we are actually privy to real situations.

Somehow, Dylan makes that work to his advantage while protecting the privacy he holds dear; instead of allowing the reader into an endless stream of salacious events, he instead turns his attention to what is important to him: the music that inspired him, the books he enjoyed (and some he didn't), and the method to his artistry. In this way, we see more of the real Dylan than if he'd explained about his conversion, about the hows and whys of Blood on the Tracks, about his feelings regarding Jakob Dylan's pursuit of a musical career. We get pages waxing poetically about Woody Guthrie, about Guthrie's (and other artists) influence on Dylan, and how Dylan would take the train into Jersey once he made it to New York City in an effort to keep Guthrie company during his last couple years alive. We learn of his own relationship with his music; my favorite part of the book is when Dylan describes the funk he'd fallen into. How he went on a tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and would not deviate from the 20 or so songs he had played consistently for years. How he was no longer motivated by performing his own songs, how he wasn't inspired to write. And how he was able to recapture all of that -and then how he promptly broke his hand.

Dylan's style of writing isn't formalized. It is very much like the Beats he admired, without the drug-induced madness or weaving tales of sex. His book has an ebb and flow all its own. In parts he is irreverent. In other parts incredibly poetic. Sometimes funny. At times he is able to capture all three at once. And although it isn't strictly linear, it has a thread that keeps the reader from being thrown off the course Dylan sets. There is an affection pouring from Dylan, both for his tale and for the person who picks it up. It isn't a book that requires serious contemplation; but it is a most enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, almost like reading a packet of letters from an old friend with whom contact had been lost years before and only recently re-established.

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