Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan

Chronicles, Vol. 1

"I'd come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else." So writes Bob Dylan in Chronicles: Volume One, his remarkable book exploring critical junctures in his life and career. Through Dylan's eyes and open mind, we see Greenwich Village, circa 1961, when he first...

Title:Chronicles, Vol. 1
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0743244583
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:320 pages

Chronicles, Vol. 1 Reviews

  • Paul Bryant

    Conscience impels me to remove one star from my original 5. I'm bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

    When this gorgeously written, completely eccentric and endearing memoir came out in 2004 I loved it, and my original review is included below. In the years since then, Dylan fans and commentators have been finding out stuff, and it opens a big can of worms, the worms of

    Because, it seems, if the rabid batgooglers and archive monkeys are to be believed, large parts - maybe all - of Chronicl

    Conscience impels me to remove one star from my original 5. I'm bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

    When this gorgeously written, completely eccentric and endearing memoir came out in 2004 I loved it, and my original review is included below. In the years since then, Dylan fans and commentators have been finding out stuff, and it opens a big can of worms, the worms of

    Because, it seems, if the rabid batgooglers and archive monkeys are to be believed, large parts - maybe all - of Chronicles are not original writing by Bob Dylan at all but an original mosaic of other people's phrases stitched together by Bob Dylan. I quote from some of these findings on the Expecting Rain website :

    from a book called Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, in which a hipster introduces "his chick" to Mezzrow:

    Baby this that powerful man with that good grass that'll make you tip through the highways and byways like a Maltese kitten. Mezz, this is my new dinner and she's a solid viper.

    And now, part of Dylan's description of his friend Ray's girl, Chloe Kiel:

    She was cool as pie, hip from head to toe, a Maltese kitten, a solid viper — always hit the nail on the head. I don't know how much weed she smoked, but a lot. (Chronicles, p. 102)

    And later in Really the Blues, a black man was "sitting there actually talking to a white woman cool as pie."

    Really The Blues, page 241:

    "I never tried to make a real business out of the gauge, but the demand for it just sprang up by itself, and even after giving the other guys their cut I always had a couple of hundred bucks come the end of the week. I was able to take care of Bonnie and her kid real good, with some new furniture in the house, plenty of clothes, and everything else they needed. My name was getting around the country like wildfire."

    Chronicles, page 103:

    "Maybe someday your name will get around the country like wildfire," she'd say. "If you ever get a couple of hundred bucks, buy me something.

    Really The Blues, page 245:

    "...and empty garbage cans loaded with bricks on the heads of the Irish cops on the beat."

    Chronicles, page 103 - 104:

    "I crossed over from Hudson to Spring, passed a garbage can loaded with bricks and stopped into a coffee shop."

    Really The Blues, page 174:

    "There was The Big Apple dangling right in front of my nose, shiny red and round and juicy."

    Chronicles, page 104:

    "The whole city was dangling in front of my nose."

    Chronicles, page 47:

    "The kind of people who come from out of nowhere and go right back into it — a pistol-packing rabbi, a snaggle-toothed girl with a big crucifix between her breasts - all kinds of characters looking for the inner heat."

    Really The Blues, page 6:

    "I found myself running with a literary ex-pug, a pistol-packing rabbi, and a peewee jockey whose onliest riding crop was a stick of marihuana."

    Really The Blues, page 203:

    "These two fly chicks got up on their high-horse when we quizzed them about it - one insisted she was pure Spanish, and sported a crucifix right over her breastworks to prove it..."

    Really The Blues, page 210:

    "He had razor legs, snaggle teeth and dribble lips..."

    Chronicles, page 47:

    "A frantic atmosphere - all kinds of characters talking fast, moving fast - some debonair, some rakish."

    Really The Blues, page 212:

    "...a light gray felt for me with the brim turned down on one side, kind of debonair and rakish."

    Chronicles, page 47:

    "Some people even had titles - 'The Man Who Made History,' 'The Link Between The Races" - that's how they'd want to be referred to."

    Really The Blues, page 210:

    "On The Corner I was to become known as the Reefer King, the Link Between the Races, The Philosopher, the Mezz, Poppa Mezz, Pop's Boy, the White Mayor of Harlem, the Man about Town, the Man that Hipped the World, the Man that Made History, the Man with the Righteous Bush, He Who Diggeth the Digger, Father Neptune."

    From Chronicles page 4:

    "Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets..."

    From The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1916) by Sax Rohmer:

    "The moon sailed clear of the straggling cloud wisps which alone told of the recent storm..."

    From Chronicles page 95, regarding Monk:

    "Even then, he summoned magic shadows into being."

    From The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1916) by Sax Rohmer:

    "To-night the moon was come, raising her Aladdin's lamp up to the star world and summoning magic shadows into being."

    Ed Cook had noted a passage in Chronicles that comes from a different Sax Rohmer novel:

    Sax Rohmer, Dope (1919), A tiny spaniel lay beside the fire, his beady black eyes following the nervous movements of the master of the house.

    Chronicles, p. 167: A tiny spaniel lay at the guy's feet, the dog's beady black eyes following the nervous movements of his master.

    Then there's this -

    Chronicles, page 50:

    "Suspense always had a creaking door more horrible-sounding than any door you could imagine — nerve-wracking, stomach-turning tales week after week."

    Raised on Radio by Gerald Nachman, page 313:

    "The writing of each play, over the years, has been a nerve wracking, stomach-turning, head-spinning series of week-after-week crises."

    Chronicles, page 51:

    "I asked the guy who made the sound effects for the radio shows how he got the sound of the electric chair and he said it was bacon sizzling. What about broken bones? The guy took a LifeSaver and crushed it between his teeth"

    Raised on Radio by Gerald Nachman, page 313"

    "His scare tactics included the sound of a man frying in the electric chair (sizzling bacon), bones being snapped (spareribs or Life Savers crushed between teeth)..."

    Chronicles, page 26:

    "...he was like an old wolf, gaunt and battle-scarred..."

    Call of the Wild :

    "Then an old wolf, gaunt and battle-scarred, came forward."

    Walking back to the main house, I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of the pines. I wasn't near it, but could feel the power beneath its colors. (Chronicles, p. 162)

    Compare that to this longer passage from Marcel Proust's Within a Budding Grove:

    But when, Mme. de Ville-parisis’s carriage having reached high ground, I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of trees, then no doubt at such a distance those temporal details which had set the sea, as it were, apart from nature and history disappeared ... But on the other hand I was no longer near enough to the sea which seemed to me not a living thing now, but fixed; I no longer felt any power beneath its colours, spread like those of a picture among the leaves, through which it appeared as inconsistent as the sky and only of an intenser blue.

    I don't think there can be any doubt that Bob had to have consciously taken these sentences and, with some revision, passed them off as his own.

    Another example is from a book that I imagine Dylan knows well, Huckleberry Finn:

    Every night we passed towns, some of them away up on black hillsides, nothing but just a shiny bed of lights; not a house could you see. ... There warn't a sound there; everybody was asleep.

    And now look at Chronicles, p. 165:

    One night when everyone was asleep and I was sitting at the kitchen table, nothing on the hillside but a shiny bed of lights ...

    My last exhibit (a less exact quote) comes from a book called Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, in which a hipster introduces "his chick" to Mezzrow:

    Baby this that powerful man with that good grass that'll make you tip through the highways and byways like a Maltese kitten. Mezz, this is my new dinner and she's a solid viper.

    And now, part of Dylan's description of his friend Ray's girl, Chloe Kiel:

    She was cool as pie, hip from head to toe, a Maltese kitten, a solid viper — always hit the nail on the head. I don't know how much weed she smoked, but a lot. (Chronicles, p. 102)

    And later in Really the Blues, a black man was "sitting there actually talking to a white woman cool as pie."

    Now what are we to think of these "borrowings"? I know that borrowing and revising tunes and song lyrics is standard practice in folk and blues music, and Dylan has done plenty of that, quite openly, as have others. That doesn't bother me. But in a sustained piece of prose that is not meant to be sung or played, but taken as the author's own composition, it is not standard practice. In the instances given above, I think Bob comes pretty close to real plagiarism, and for all I know there are more instances in Chronicles yet to be identified. Frankly, as a Dylan fan from way back, I'm a little disappointed. Say it ain't so, Bob.

    UPDATE: A couple more.

    Jack London, Children of the Frost:

    "Rum meeting place, though," he added, casting an embracing glance over the primordial landscape ...

    Chronicles, p. 167: I cast an embracing glance over the primordial landscape ...

    Jack London, Tales of the Klondyke:

    Another tremendous section of the glacier rumbled earthward. The wind whipped in at the open doorway ...

    Chronicles, p. 217: Wind whipped in the open doorway and another kicking storm was rumbling earthward.

    UPDATE II: Yet more:

    Sax Rohmer, Dope (1919), A tiny spaniel lay beside the fire, his beady black eyes following the nervous movements of the master of the house.

    Chronicles, p. 167: A tiny spaniel lay at the guy's feet, the dog's beady black eyes following the nervous movements of his master.

    London, Children of the Frost: And then they are amazingly simple. No complexity about them, no thousand and one subtle ramifications to every single emotion they experience. They love, fear, hate, are angered, or made happy, in common, ordinary, and unmistakable terms.

    Chronicles, p. 169: Yet to me, it's amazingly simple, no complications, everything pans out. As long as the things you see don't go by in a blur of light and shade, you're okay. Love, fear, hate, happiness all in unmistakable terms, a thousand and one subtle ramifications.

    UPDATE III (Oct. 2): Jack London, Tales of the Klondyke: Through this the afternoon sun broke feebly, throwing a vague radiance to earth, and unreal shadows.

    Chronicles, p. 112: The afternoon sun was breaking, throwing a vague radiance to the earth.

    Jack London, White Fang: He carried himself with pride, as though, forsooth, he had achieved a deed praiseworthy and meritorious.

    Chronicles, p. 63: He didn't need to say much—you knew he had been through a lot, achieved some great deed, praiseworthy and meritorious, yet unspoken about it.

    R. L. Stevenson, Providence and the Guitar: As Leon looked at her, in her low-bodied maroon dress, with her arms bare to the shoulder, and a red flower set provocatively in her corset, he repeated to himself for the many hundredth time that she was one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women.

    Chronicles, p. 127: I bought a red flower for my wife, one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women.

    On and on it goes. They found dozens of phrases from a single issue of Time magazine April 1961 embedded in Dylan's text - clearly he wanted to give a lot of pungent contemporary detail in his memories of Greenwich Village and instead of doing what most writers would do, soaking himself in the writings of the time & then writing his own account in his own words, he assembled his memoir by taking the phrases he liked verbatim.

    Plagiarism I think is legally defined as consisting of seven words in an identical sequence, and I don't think Bob ever does precisely that, so, legally, maybe, he isn't a plagiarist. But it sure feels like he is.

    I loved this book and I'm quite shaken up to find out all this stuff. Rabid Dylan fans are brushing the whole thing aside, saying oh well, if you scrutinised any book by anyone else as much as Chronicles has been you'd find the same. But that's just insane, of course you wouldn't.

    So there it is.

    ******

    SOME INVESTIGATIVE WORK IS TO BE FOUND HERE:

    ************************************************

    THE ORIGINAL RAVE REVIEW

    “Everybody’s wearing a disguise/To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes” – okay, so what’s Bob got left behind his eyes? A billion synapses connected to a million memories, that’s what, and they burn with an intensity that only sharpens as he finally gets some of them down on paper. Quotable quotes leap from every page. On Guthrie: “For me it was like an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbour.” On reading American history: “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone. Figured I could send a truck back for it later.” On the year 1962: “The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was.”

    At least half of this book is “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bohemian Folkie”. “What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just call myself Robert Allen…” but then there was a sax player called David Allyn, and that looked good. So he changed to Robert Allyn – “more exotic, more inscrutable”. Then later “I’d seen some poems by Dylan Thomas. Dylan and Allyn sounded similar. Robert Dylan. Robert Allyn. I couldn’t decide – the letter D came on stronger.” He breathlessly captures the entrancement folk songs laid on his 19 year old self : “Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension… It was life magnified…I scheduled my life around it”. To us here in 2009, it looks like Bob became a folk star with very little effort, but he had to take a couple of lumps on the way. After memorising the whole Woody Guthrie songbook, a guy he describes as the Minneapolis Commissioner of the Folk Police escorts him to a phonograph player and plays him Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who'd already been doing pinpoint recreations of Woody for years. “I felt like I’d been cast into sudden hell… Elliott was far beyond me”.

    After 100 pages on the Greenwich Village scene, we jump to 1966 and the tone darkens. Since 1963 he’d been continually hyped and glorified – “the conscience of a generation” and so on. It became intolerable. He tried to get out of the pressure cooker by moving to Woodstock but he found that “roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs of dropouts and druggies.” Under seige on all sides, he used the minor motorcycle accident of 1966 to get some breathing space but the pressure never let up. Even his friends piled it on – in one jarring page Dylan tells of a car ride during which Robbie Robertson asks “Where do you think you’re gonna take it?” Take what? “You know, the whole music scene.” Dylan: “It was like dealing with a conspiracy. No place was far enough away. I don’t know what everyone else was fantasizing about, but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the back yard. That would have been nice… After a while you learn that privacy is something you can sell, but you can’t buy it back.” Around that time he went to see a business broker looking over a portfolio of businesses for sale, in a futile attempt to get out of the show business into something less insane, like curtain rods or freight haulage. Sometimes the story of Bob Dylan is exactly like the Life of Brian:

    Bob: You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!

    Bob’s many followers, after a pause: Tell us how to think for ourselves, O Bob!

    There’s nothing at all about going electric, nothing about Christianity, nothing about Rolling Thunder. Instead of those dramas, Bob regales us with ninety-pages on the making of one of his albums – song by song, session by session. Wow – which one? Could it be Freewheelin’, or Blonde on Blonde? Blood on the Tracks perhaps? Nope, of course it’s Oh Mercy. (Expect similar treatment of Knocked Out Loaded in Volume Two.) This section includes six pages on a truly crackbrained theory about all popular music being based on the number 2, but Lonnie Johnson one time showed him how you could base it on the number three. Hey, whoah there - three??– “I don’t know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is.” He explains how this way of performing will revolutionise his art: “My playing was going to be an impellant in equanimity to my voice and I would use different algorithms that the ear is not accustomed to.” Say what, Bob? Come again? But a few pages later we also get Bob’s delight in buying a bumper sticker which said “World’s Greatest Grandpa”. This is a man of many parts.

    Chronicles is stuffed full of Bob’s Most Memorable Characters (Fred Neil, Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond, Ray Gooch) and Most Memorable Records (including a great section where Hammond gives him an advance copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson, and an account of How “Pirate Jenny” Changed My Life). There’s funny accounts of the folk purists versus the commercialisers. The whole book is drenched in music. You’re tapping your foot as you read. Well, okay, but what about the private life? It’s a little strange there. I was thinking he’s just going to avoid the whole subject but no – right at the end, a sweet few pages on Suze Rotolo (the tone of which is considerably at variance with her public reminiscences) and a portrait of Joan Baez – “she seemed very mature, seductive, intense, magical. Nothing she did didn’t work” – before he got to meet her. Aww. But no, no Sara. Discretion and the usual cabal of lawyers would have made sure of that. And in the Oh Mercy section, many mentions of “my wife” but never is she named. Pretty odd.

    So. Don’t look back? I should coco. When Bob looks back, it’s warm, inclusive, annoying, incomprehensible, panoramic, diamond hard, inspirational, and it’s book of the month, no contest.

    ****

    The Peter Lang Anecdote

    Peter Lang, a great fingerstyle guitarist, was booked to play at Stamford Arts Centre by my friend David who manages it. After the gig Peter came back to David's house and amongst other things told us his Dylan Anecdote. So this is from memory.

    'I was working on a project in Minneapolis with David Zimmerman, Bob's brother. One day I called David. A very famous voice answered the phone. I said "Er.... is that Bob?" He said "Yeah, this is Bob". Wow! I thought hard. What should be the first thing you ask Bob Dylan? Eventually I said "Is David there?" Bob said "Sure, I'll get him." And that was my first and last conversation with Bob Dylan.'

  • Lee

    What a wonderful weird book about the influence of cities and sounds, knowing what you want and going for it and getting it thanks to talent, luck, attitude, and meeting the right people. Funny how it emphasizes what no one really wants to know -- "New Morning" and "Oh Mercy" era stuff instead of everything from "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" to "Visions of Johanna" to "Shelter From the Storm" to "Isis." Those songs are hardly men

    What a wonderful weird book about the influence of cities and sounds, knowing what you want and going for it and getting it thanks to talent, luck, attitude, and meeting the right people. Funny how it emphasizes what no one really wants to know -- "New Morning" and "Oh Mercy" era stuff instead of everything from "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" to "Visions of Johanna" to "Shelter From the Storm" to "Isis." Those songs are hardly mentioned at all -- maybe one or two mentions of "Hard Rain." Otherwise, this is a compulsively readable, folksy, lightly insightful, non-linear self-portrait of the mythic artist as regular guy from the North Country, a family man more concerned with privacy than popularity, a devout Woody Guthrie fanatic of course, not someone particularly special -- emphatically NOT the messiah, NOT the chosen one, NOT the voice of his generation, NOT the leader of the revolution -- umm except he acknowledges that, for a time, he could see and describe and supercharge the deep truth of reality. This ellipitically argues that his success came from casual, wide-open exposure to the world and art (more than just music). He's a super-sensitive empty vessel blessed with the necessary restless desire for MORE, sufficient native critical faculties, just enough OCD, and more than enough midwestern simplicity and charm -- that's pretty much it, says Dylan (not that he can be trusted). Looking forward to volume 2 where he colors in the circles he's drawn in this one.

    Required supplementary viewing:

  • Ian

    I see you on the street

    I always act surprised

    I say, “How does it feel?”

    But I don’t mean it.

    "I can't taste your words,"

    You said, "Your songs are just lies."

    So I cried that you were deaf,

    You'd lost the sight in your eyes.

    And I said that you were wrong

    When you accused me of theft

    But all I really wanted to know was

    What else have you got left?

    No, I never wasted any time,

    And I never took much.

    I never asked for your crutch,

    Now don't ask me for mine.

    Well you got up to leave

    And y

    I see you on the street

    I always act surprised

    I say, “How does it feel?”

    But I don’t mean it.

    "I can't taste your words,"

    You said, "Your songs are just lies."

    So I cried that you were deaf,

    You'd lost the sight in your eyes.

    And I said that you were wrong

    When you accused me of theft

    But all I really wanted to know was

    What else have you got left?

    No, I never wasted any time,

    And I never took much.

    I never asked for your crutch,

    Now don't ask me for mine.

    Well you got up to leave

    And you said, "Don't forget,

    Everybody must give something back

    For something they thieve."

    OK, you know it wasn't me,

    What I wrote was plagiarised.

    It was far easier just

    To steal it.

    Lest I be misunderstood

    They weren't any heartbreaks I embraced

    No, I was a master thief

    And all I did was rob them.

    You think I got a lotta nerve

    To say I am your friend

    But in my academic gown

    I just stand here grinning.

    So you lost your way,

    But the way you made me feel

    Halts my turn away.

    Someone's got it in for me,

    They're planting stories on GoodReads

    Whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out quick

    But when they will I can only guess

    They'd better hurry up and do it real soon

    Otherwise I'll have to shoot a man named Graye

    And take his wife to Italy.

  • Geoff

    I’m going to do something I try not to do here, since I consider this to be a site about other people’s words- I’m going to ramble on autobiographically for a bit.

    I bought this first volume of Dylan’s Chronicles the day it came out in 2004, was anticipating the hell out of it. Back then I was managing a used record store in College Park, Maryland. I studied poetry and creative writing at UMD, big waste of my time, could’ve learned all that on my own, learn more now on my own than I did then anyw

    I’m going to do something I try not to do here, since I consider this to be a site about other people’s words- I’m going to ramble on autobiographically for a bit.

    I bought this first volume of Dylan’s Chronicles the day it came out in 2004, was anticipating the hell out of it. Back then I was managing a used record store in College Park, Maryland. I studied poetry and creative writing at UMD, big waste of my time, could’ve learned all that on my own, learn more now on my own than I did then anyway, except from maybe two or three professors who had something to say, and besides reading a lot of Shakespeare, it was a big snooze. Though I did find Frank O’Hara and John Ashberry and Fernando Pessoa and I feel like I learned a great deal about ol’ Will’s plays I wouldn’t have come to on my own. Other than that, I should have studied languages or education or linguistics or history or something that could have landed me a better job after I graduated. When I did graduate, the world was so opaque to me I didn’t know how to take the next step. The reality that I considered the adult, professional world to be seemed so dead and vacant to me that I wanted no part of it, but I knew that my consciousness and my conscience were no longer with the style and opinions of my youth. I had always played music, written songs, shitty as they were, and my circle of friends were mostly wanna-be artists and musicians, some skateboarding punks, pot-heads, some real dim and bright lights. I got a job managing a used record store a few of my friends worked at. That way I didn’t have to move home after graduation, could stay around DC, which I loved (coming from a small town in southern Maryland, the DC/Baltimore duality is almost overwhelmingly fertile, experience-wise, especially if you are young and don’t know other cities). So I started working at this record store that was, in retrospect, at the same time the best and the worst decision I could have made.

    But it suited me because I knew music inside and out. I knew punk, weirdo-rock, jazz, little no name labels, blues, pop, rap, R & B, African music, Brazilian music, folk singers, composers- I had an infinite catalog of songs always running through my head, felt like I knew millions of lyrics by heart, could name jazz artists by the first four or so bars of a tune, dove deep into every style of music. And I was playing music, writing it myself, so it was an ideal situation, but one I still wanted to keep extremely temporary, employment-wise. My favorite bands came out of the 80’s noise scene, SST bands, stuff like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Spacemen 3, Pelt, bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi, I got into Pavement because they were like nothing I’d ever heard, I dug The Velvet Underground as much as anyone could, “Pale Blue Eyes” still makes me weepy, I loved those strange little short-lived mathematical bands like June of 44, A Minor Forest, Hoover. I also loved jazz, all jazz, from Louis Armstrong to the most wild Albert Ayler tunes, Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, the European improvisers of harsh noise like Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafsson, especially drummers like Hamid Drake, Paal Nilssen-Love, and the masters like Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich, Philly Joe Jones; the great tenor players Sonny Rollins and Lester Young, and those ethereal beings such as Sun Ra, Bobby Hutcherson, Anthony Braxton, who you couldn’t really define or pin down. I came to exalt Django Reinhardt as if he was the real Jesus, the three-fingered Jesus, more striking and more straight to the point than the other Jesus. I had all kinds of music coursing throughout my entire being, pulsing through me all day, all night, I worshiped these people, had shrines to them, treated vinyl records like idols. I played music all day in the store, just put everything on. Heard so much. Found so many things I would never have known about unless I had those hours to just explore a vast quantity of random records at my leisure. The only stuff I didn’t really get into was the watered-down stuff, the stuff that sounded too polished, too clean, like pretty college boys made it, or like it cost a million dollars to record. Anything gritty, anything that had something a little off to it, something that didn’t quite sit right, that made you wonder just what the hell was up with this person, I could get into. All genres, all types. The common thread was originality and heart, and something mournful or odd about the tune. It wasn’t until those long, strangely-paced hours of digging through the stock of that record store that I came to know Bob Dylan’s music.

    Dylan had always eluded me, don’t know why, I came to him relatively late in the development of my tastes. I guess it was that I was well-versed in obscurities, but big names of the popular music world seemed instantly repugnant to me; it’s a fault of youth, wanting things to be just for yourself. I just thought that if the masses liked them they couldn’t hold any kind of secret. That the secrets were held by a chosen few, who spoke in tongues, and that those kind of revelations wouldn’t, couldn’t reach a mass audience. The weirder the better, it seemed to me, and the more authentic. So when I put on “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, I just expected it would be another 40 minute write off. Not that I didn’t know Dylan; you can’t grow up in America and not know the name Bob Dylan. It’s like not knowing the names Abe Lincoln or Lee Harvey Oswald. But I don’t think I had ever seriously listened to one of his records until now, and in retrospect I think that was the singularly best time for me to hear him, maybe the only time up until then that I was ripe to understand what he was doing, the immensity of what he means, as a songwriter, as a cultural figure, as a presence in the American twentieth century. You can’t be a child or of a child-like mind to get Dylan. You have to have experience, you have to have known some kind of pain and loss and redemption of some sort; like the great blues artists- Charlie Patton, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly- you can’t be kidding around and get what these guys are trying to put across.

    Dylan hit me like a brick in the face. “With God On Our Side” and “Chimes of Freedom” were the first songs I remember being utterly enraptured with and destroyed by from him:

    “Starry-eyed and laughing as I recall when we were caught

    Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended

    As we listened one last time an' we watched with one last look

    Spellbound an' swallowed 'til the tolling ended

    Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed

    For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse

    An' for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe”

    “To Ramona” was perhaps the greatest love song I’d ever personally heard: “The flowers of the city, though breath-like, get death-like sometimes.”... “Corrina, Corrina”, “Girl of the North Country”, etc., the big ones hit me too, “Hard Rain A’Fallin’”, “Only A Pawn in Their Game”. Those first few acoustic records of his seemed like liquid fire, lightning and stone all at once, all of it telling utterly real and bleak truths. And then I moved on through his catalog. “Bringing It All Back Home” and the rock-a-billy blues forms, the humor in the lyrics, the takes they kept of Bob laughing at himself, the searing rhythm of the band, “Highway 61 Revisited” which is probably in the top 5 greatest records ever cut, and on through the weirdness of the early seventies, the mid-seventies masterpieces “Planet Waves”, “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”, and then off into the cosmos of the 80’s and 90’s when he was throwing all this stuff at the wall to see what would stick, and the eventual renaissance of his late 90’s records and albums from this century, when he really found his form and his tongue again, when you realized he never lost anything but was just out for a long walk... what it was (and this took me a lot of listening to pin down) was that Dylan captured it all, all the influences, all the currents, all the sounds, all the weirdness and nostalgia, the Americana, the high lonesome sound of the mountains as well as the chaos of the city streets, the resonance of the abandoned plains and the reverberation of both ocean coasts, the silence of the hermetic shepherd under the stars and the cockiness of the hard-boiled city kid, the upstart... everything I liked about all the music I had discovered, it all flowed through that great flame of hair, burned in those eyes, seared in that voice and echoed in those plucked strings...

    I came to say things like “the Elizabethans had Shakespeare, we have Dylan” and I believe that. Dylan

    twentieth century America to me. Somehow it all became amassed in this slight, skinny Jewish kid from the North Country. He seems like the ghost of everyone who ever lived, singing all their laments.

    So when the first volume of his autobiography came out in 2004 I had my copy set aside at the now long gone but always loved Vertigo Books, and eagerly ran over from the record store to pick it up. But for whatever reason, the first few pages didn’t catch me. I don’t know why. I thought of Dylan as

    great artist of our times, of the times preceding mine, of the times to come, and yet, it may have been because of the other reading I was into then (a lot of Joyce, reading and rereading Ulysses), it didn’t grab me. I set it aside. It’s seven years later, I’m working a much better job, just put a record out under my own name, Dylan is still with me as strong as ever, and I’m closing the last page of this remarkable first volume of his memoirs.

    The book itself is most definitely not only for Dylan aficionados, mostly because so much of what is in the book is Dylan observing the world and times around him, going deep into specifics of memories, fixing time and place by weather, news, architecture, the personalities he encounters, the particularities of the sky and trees, the shadows on streets, the vibe of rooms, the ambience of smoky cramped clubs; basically he writes with an eyes-open style, absorbing the physical world, not self-involved but totally observant. Dylan the man disappears into the spaces he evokes, and then he emerges, startles one with some strange sentence or description, and then the earth is spinning on again, and he is immersed in discourses on folk songs, bars, cities, literature, politics, human nature, history, specifics of music theory, recording techniques, travels; the narrative is utterly non-linear, too; he leaps from memory to memory, associations taking him across decades, and this being the first of what is to be a three volume series, you can see Chronicles becoming this big time, shuffling, always-in-motion mosaic.

    It’s no surprise that the most literate of song writers loves books so much, and one of the early pleasures in Chronicles is Dylan discovering the books he was to adore, rifling through the libraries of different friends whose couches he happened to be crashing on. Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, Gogol, Maupassant, Poe, Byron, Shelley, Milton, Ovid; but above all Balzac, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. (As recently as “Love and Theft” Dylan was still lifting lines like “Time and love has branded me with its claws”, in “Po’ Boy”, straight out of Baudelaire’s “Le Spleen de Paris”). He can’t help but quote Nietzsche and Von Clausewitz and he keeps returning to Kerouac, who he adored as a youth but then came to de-romanticize. Kerouac is to him another emblematic, problematic American figure. He cites Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, and then tells how he eventually met Graves and wanted to ask him all these things about that book, and the poetic muse, but by that time he had forgotten everything about it.

    Dylan came from Duluth, near where Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country-blues, begins, near where the Mississippi River starts, the cold North, steel country, where foghorns blast over Lake Superior, almost mythical territory in itself, and it is in the mythos of America, the mythical Americana of the twentieth century, that Dylan immerses himself, his music, and his recollections- the America of radio plays, general stores, one-room schoolhouses, frost-hewn meadows, coal mines, church bells, patriotic heroes and heroic villains, cowboys and bank robbers and sheriffs and train jumpers, county fairs, Woody Guthrie-esque wandering minstrels above all else, delta blues men and call and response holler sessions- even if you don’t love Dylan, Chronicles is a gigantic, rich, full catalog of all of this kind of lore. One of his song writing techniques in the early Greenwich Village days was to spend hours in the New York Public Library, reading endless newspapers from the 1850’s and 1860’s, picking up random, strange, peculiar stories about the daily life of antebellum Americans. All of that shows in his early songs, and it shows in the particular distance he kept from the movements and currents of his own times- when the entire 60’s youth culture was demanding him to take a stand and be their voice and leader, he could not have felt less in common with them; characters like Stagger Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were more of his peers and contemporaries than the hippies marching on Washington or at Woodstock. His reality was formed by folk songs, which were formed by the lingering smoke of history and personal experience. He was to take those folk forms and blow them all to pieces, make them more than contemporary or futuristic, was to mold something completely new and different from that material, but the American past and American folk stories are the generating point of all he did or has ever done, and the fashions and causes of the times only seem like drops in the great ocean of history he was drawing on.

    Beyond all of this, Dylan can write prose very well, very interestingly, and in a style that is all his own. If you have heard Theme Time Radio Hour or any recent interview, that is the voice of this book- the blown out, craggy, father-time voice that sounds and talks like it is centuries old, like a petrified forest's would be. The strange rhythms of his speaking voice are not lost in his sentence structure, neither is his ability as a striking wordsmith. On New Orleans:

    “The city is a very long poem... Everything in New Orleans is a good idea. Bijou Temple-type cottages and lyric cathedrals side by side. Houses and mansions, structures of wild grace. Italianate, Gothic, Romanesque, Greek Revival standing in a long line in the rain. Roman Catholic art. Sweeping front porches, turrets, cast-iron balconies, colonnades- thirty-foot columns, gloriously beautiful- double pitched roofs, all the architecture of the whole wide world and it doesn’t move. In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There’s only one day at a time here, then it’s tonight and then tomorrow will be today again.”

    On Johnny Cash:

    “...ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s a the edge of a fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest...”

    On Dave Van Ronk:

    “Every night I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a timeworn monument... his voice was like rusted shrapnel.”

    On an 8 second, 8mm film clip of Robert Johnson:

    “He’s playing with huge, spider-like hands and they magically move over the strings of his guitar. There’s a harp rack with a harmonica around his neck. He looks nothing like a man of stone, no high-strung temperament. He looks almost child-like, an angelic looking figure, innocent as can be. He’s wearing a white linen jumper, coveralls and an unusual gilded cap like Little Lord Fauntleroy. He looks nothing like a man with the hellhound on his trail. He looks immune to human dread and you stare at the image in disbelief.”

    I particularly like “structures of wild grace” and “nothing like a man with the hellhound on his trail”. Chronicles is full of this kind of stuff. If you have any notion of or interest in the history or the music of what is called Americana, of everything us Americans here in the United States are culturally perched upon in the twenty-first century, this first volume of Dylan’s memoirs seems like a proper portal that can lead you to into its great depths; it’s fascinating and I can’t wait for the next volumes.

  • James

    I am not by any means a big fan of autobiographies or biographies written with the ‘popular’ market in mind: Autobiographies can all too often be divided into the self-aggrandising, self-serving, self-promotion type, or alternatively the celebrity/ghost written cut and paste, vacuous and pointless nonsense type or the pseudo ‘warts and all exposé’ type – or sometimes a combination of all three. Biographies on the other hand, more often than not are written with the agenda either of the fan or th

    I am not by any means a big fan of autobiographies or biographies written with the ‘popular’ market in mind: Autobiographies can all too often be divided into the self-aggrandising, self-serving, self-promotion type, or alternatively the celebrity/ghost written cut and paste, vacuous and pointless nonsense type or the pseudo ‘warts and all exposé’ type – or sometimes a combination of all three. Biographies on the other hand, more often than not are written with the agenda either of the fan or the character and career assassin. All of which for me seem ultimately pointless and futile. Whilst I am sure that there may be many fine books within this genre, maybe I just haven’t come across them yet. (Perhaps I should look to the more accessible end of the literary / historical types of biography – although these can often be weighty and intimidated tomes).

    It goes without saying that the reading and success of any biography does of course depend on the audience, the reader. I am a big fan of Bob Dylan (his music up until around 1976) which does of course cloud and prejudice my view of anything written about or by him. I therefore approached this recommended autobiography with some caution but also with high hopes.

    Evident here, as you would expect, is Dylan’s undeniable skill for storytelling and the story here is bookended by passages concerning the earlier part of his career. Unfortunately though, the book is somewhat dominated by a very lengthy middle passage devoted to the lead up to and writing, recording of Dylan’s 1989 album ‘Oh Mercy’ with producer Daniel Lanois. Whilst this album did represent something of a renaissance for Dylan, it is certainly not viewed in the same light as such great and classic albums such as ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (and more). Whilst there may be an element of ‘Oh Mercy’ representing a period when Dylan got his song-writing muse back, a return to form of sorts – it is hard to see how this is truly deserving of such a lengthy section of the book – so many words dedicated to this.

    Far more successful for me are the passages describing the New York, folk / art / cultural scene of the early 1960’s and convey well what an inspirational and exciting time this must have been. The passages describing his discovery of Guthrie and others who influenced and inspired Dylan and who are clearly revered by him are also compellingly written.

    Interesting too (although nothing that we didn’t really already know) are the descriptions of Dylan’s first experiences as a proto-celebrity – along with his discomfort and frustration at being deemed the ‘conscience and voice of a generation. I love the following quote from him in this book on that subject:

    “I really was never any more than what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the grey mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze”.

    Ultimately and unfortunately, this book seems to me very much a missed opportunity. I would like to have known more about the creation of, and inspiration behind those classic albums – rather than a late period partial return to form album such as ‘Oh Mercy’ – which pales by comparison.

    Perhaps though, those great albums of the past have been deliberately left in the past with an all pervading and intact air of mystery and enigma. Maybe they’ve just been written about and over analysed to death by others over the years? Maybe it would have been good to hear more from Dylan on these albums and maybe not – who knows? Maybe demystifying them would have detracted from their greatness – although I doubt it?

    Interestingly enough, Dylan does clearly acknowledge that musically he no longer holds the flame, no longer saw the 'truth' or 'had power and dominion over the spirits' or 'sees into things to see the truth of things' as they really are. A realistic acknowledgement that his greatest song-writing and recording days are well and truly over and long gone - recognising that now it is someone else's turn, that someone else will come along.

    Dylan seems in this book to be far more comfortable when writing about others – he is most compelling and engaging when writing of Woody Guthrie, Kurt Weill, Robert Johnson and others. Perhaps he is just not that comfortable when writing about himself and in some respects – he gives very little away – there is precious little about his part in the civil rights movement, nothing about his ‘religious period’, nothing really about his ‘private life’ so to speak of.

    As you would expect from Dylan, ‘Chronicles’ is not what you would expect – the uncompromising and obtuse even obscure attitude of Dylan throughout his musical career is something to be (more often than not) lauded – unfortunately here though – this results in what is ultimately for the most part a dissatisfying read.

  • Jonathan Ashleigh

    After being on my “to read” shelf for a while, this book jumped up a couple spots when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. He didn’t win the prize because of this autobiography or for his novel, but rather for the lyrics he wrote down and then placed over music.

    This autobiography is well written and honest, but it is disjointed at times and didn’t tell me much about the things I thought I wanted to know about. I wanted to know what Dylan was thinking when he wrote songs like “Blowin'

    After being on my “to read” shelf for a while, this book jumped up a couple spots when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. He didn’t win the prize because of this autobiography or for his novel, but rather for the lyrics he wrote down and then placed over music.

    This autobiography is well written and honest, but it is disjointed at times and didn’t tell me much about the things I thought I wanted to know about. I wanted to know what Dylan was thinking when he wrote songs like “Blowin' in the Wind,” and I wanted to know something about his wife and his children. These seem to be things he doesn’t want to talk about and I should have known he wasn’t going to. He has always held a stance of not discussing his music or his personal life and I have to respect him for that. Maybe I wouldn’t like his music if I knew too much about it, or him, and maybe that is something Bob Dylan knows — he did just win a Nobel Prize.


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