Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
reviewed by John J. Kotarski ‘93
Director of Web Development and Communications
Perhaps the first “savior of rock music,” it’s long been known that Bob Dylan fiercely resisted the labels thrust upon him by adoring fans and critics. If it took him some forty years to respond to a few of them, within the context of his autobiography, so be it.
“ As far as I knew,” he writes, “I didn’t belong to anybody then or now. I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation…I had very little in common with and knew even less about the generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”
One might expect such themes to dominate the pages of the initial tome of his three-volume memoir Chronicles.But this isn’t a tale of the dark side of fame. And it’s not a “behind the scenes” look at rock or the social turbulence of the 1960 s.
Beginning and ending with the signing of his first recording contract, Chronicles skips through just part of Dylan’s life and career, concentrating upon several creative periods in 1961 and 1987. With so much ground to cover, Dylan simply abandons the linear approach, comfortable to move between decades at the drop of a hat.
Dylan’s prose is remarkably engaging, with a loose, rambling style, and words that effortlessly drive his prose. It’s the closest any of us will ever come to seeing from his point of view, and in this way, he delivers. Through Chronicles, we’re transported from the barren winter wastelands of Dylan’s Minnesota adolescence to the steamy jazz clubs of New Orleans, from clubs and galleries of the sixties New York folk/art/theater scenes to the hospital room of an ailing Woody Guthrie, where Dylan sat at his bedside for hours on end, playing the American legend’s songs back to him.
What emerges isn’t the angry voice of a generation or fierce loner. It’s a thoughtful and hardworking artist trying to find his place amongst a long tradition of American songwriters. It’s a family man who moves his wife and children to another town to get away from the protesters outside his home (the liberal ones, who insisted that he explicitly denounce the war in Vietnam). It’s the rugged optimist who finds the strength to finish an album after an uneventful motorcycle ride with his wife in rural Louisiana.
This book is about Dylan, mind you. But at its best, Chroniclesalso conveys Dylan’s love for music, the history of English and American folk songs, and the writers and performers who kept these stories alive. Dylan clearly admires the artists whose passion for performance made him believe they were the subjects of the very sea shanties and murder ballads they sang, the artists who made him strive to be a better musician because of the vitality they brought to their art.
It’s fitting that Dylan spends many of the last pages of this volume telling the story of Robert Johnson, the legendary Delta bluesman whose two dozen recorded sides in the mid-thirties gave him fame some thirty years after his death, reigniting untold passion for the blues in the American folk-life of the 1960s. As the tale goes, Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a four-way crossroads at midnight (“Me and The Devil Blues”) in return for fearsome talent as a songwriter and guitar player. But Dylan wastes no time giving credence to such legends. Instead, Dylan writes about Johnson’s style, his voice and rhythm, what the music taught him as a lyricist and a performer.
“In about 1964 and ’65, I probably used about five or six of Robert Johnson’s blues song forms, too, unconsciously, but more on the lyrical imagery side of things. If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down – that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised enough to write… I just couldn’t imagine how Johnson’s mind could go in and out of so many places. He seems to know about everything, he even throws in Confucius-like sayings whenever it suits him. Neither forlorn or hopeless or shackled – nothing hinders him…Robert Johnson’s code of language was like nothing I’d heard before or since.”
Like Johnson, Dylan’s legacy in American history may be ultimately as much myth as truth. But, in the American songbook, Dylan’s contributions are as vital now as ever. By celebrating the lives and work of so many others, Chronicles shows us why.