A Book By a Songwriter: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles

Bob Dylan did some amazing things and lived through some amazing times: He was labeled, by some, the voice of the 60s. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival. He met The Beatles. He converted to Christianity. He hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Johnny Cash.

Should we be surprised, then, that none of that stuff made it into the first part of Dylan’s planned three-part autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One? Should we be surprised to find out that Dylan has instead devoted nearly half of the book to recounting the creations of New Morning and Oh Mercy, two albums that are, shall we say, less than canonical? Not really. Dylan has never been one to conform to expectations, and he has never really played into the commonly accepted narrative of his own life. He ran away from being labeled “the voice of a generation,” he retreated from the spotlight at the moments of his greatest fame, and he has rarely been open about many things that fans seem the most interested in, like his conversion and disillusion with Christianity.

In fact, Dylan spends most of his autobiography talking about other people. He talks about Dave Von Ronk and Daniel Lanois and Suze Rotolo. He likes history too. Often, Dylan simply retells facts from history class, or relays the biographies of historical figures:

“Dostoevsky, too, lived a dismal and hard life. The czar sent him to a prison camp in Siberia in 1849. Dostoevsky was accused of writing socialist propaganda. He was eventually pardoned and wrote stories to ward off his creditors. Just like in the early ’70s I wrote albums to ward off mine.”

Dylan isn’t shy about comparing himself to people like Dostoevsky, which can be both annoyingly self-serving and refreshingly honest. Sometimes, as a reader, I was just grateful for him to be talking about himself.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, that we learn more about Dylan from the perspectives he ascribes to others than from what he says about himself. Part of what makes Dylan’s songs so great is his ability to inhabit a particular mindset, to capture a seemingly unique and foreign voice. He has a feel for characters, but he also knows how to bring those characters to life in a way that resonates universally.

Sometimes this requires editorializing. Von Ronk, Lanois, Rotolo, and all the other people who are so thoroughly depicted don’t really come off as real people as Dylan describes them. They sound like characters out of the myth or fairy tale that is Dylan’s own life. This, for example, is how Von Ronk, a New York City folk music star at the time Dylan arrives in Greenwich Village, enters the scene:

“One winter day a big burly guy stepped in off the street. He looked like he’d come from the Russian embassy, shook the snow off his coat sleeves, took his gloves and put them on the counter, asked to see a Gibson guitar that was hanging on the brick wall. It was Dave Von Ronk. He was gruff, a mass of bristling hair, don’t give a damn attitude, a confident hunter.”

This is the kind of introduction a character would get in a John Steinbeck novel, not the kind of recollection you’d have over 40 years after meeting someone.

At times, Dylan himself seems to acknowledge these liberties of memory and creative license. After telling a story about a time the famous wrestler Gorgeous George walked into the same venue that a young Dylan was playing in and, according to Dylan, seemed to mouth something to the singer, Dylan himself admits: “Whether he really said it or not didn’t matter. It’s what I thought I heard him say that mattered, and I never forgot it.” In other words, Dylan always remembered something that may or may not have actually happened.

This, however, provides an important insight into how Dylan writes and even thinks: The literal truth of something is not as important as the meaning it conveys. Dylan writes prose like he writes songs. What matters more than the literal truth or the comprehensive facts of the events Dylan is describing are the tone, voice, and spirit of the events in question. Dylan’s account of the murder in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” matters far more as a tragic and poignant illustration of bigotry, hatred, servility, and corruption than it does as a careful report of the facts of the case. In the same way, Dylan’s introduction of Von Ronk tells us far more about how Dylan viewed himself and Von Ronk at that point in time than it says about Von Ronk himself.

Dylan’s prose style mirrors his songwriting in many other ways as well, not all of them good. He’s prone to long tangents and vivid descriptions of seemingly irrelevant details. His sentence-to-sentence logic is not always evident. Some of his sentences and paragraphs are flat, stolid, or condescending. All of this seemingly reminds the reader that Dylan is operating out of his comfort zone here. In songs, these things can be illustrative, beautiful, or, at worst, forgivable. In prose, it just comes off as bad writing.

To be sure, though, the times in which Dylan seems like a bad prose writer are greatly outnumbered by the times when the reader is reminded that this is, in fact, Dylan. His sense of humor is the same, his voice is the same, and his wit is intact. It would be quite difficult for a Dylan fan not to enjoy reading this book. For others, I can’t offer the same heartfelt recommendation. The book doesn’t stand as a historical document or an explanation of what Dylan was thinking at every stage in his life. He doesn’t even depict what many would consider the most important times in his life. But for the glimpses of Dylan recording an album (even if that album is mediocre), stumbling into a music club late at night, meeting girls and fellow folk singers, signing his first contract, even discussing his opinion of James Joyce, Chronicles is invaluable. As a lens onto the mind of Bob Dylan, it is paramount.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on April 18, 2010 at 7:59 PM

    Dylan has never been one to reveal his true self, and that is part of his appeal. He could publish his personal, locked, diaries and you still wouldn’t know a thing about him. I have a friend who played keyboards on an album with Dylan and his instructions were to create the sound of an “oak tree”. OK – makes sense to me.

    Reply

  2. Forever ENIGMATIC, please Bob write the next one !!!!

    Reply

    • Posted by Shawn on August 24, 2010 at 12:33 PM

      Seriously, Bob, its been six years, I believe. Let’s see Volume Two. I say no Christmas album this year and concentrate on the book. Write about the period just before your second and secret marriage and just after it, maybe the Good As I Been To You time. I know you won’t tell us about the marriage years, so my idea ought to get your attention. Thanks, and no matter what, I’ll be there the day the book is released..

      Reply

  3. Posted by Patrick on April 19, 2010 at 8:48 AM

    I found that the stories Bob tells are in between the lines. I would have loved to know what he was ON during recording of blonde on blonde, what he was thinking when he played when the ship comes in in 62, but really his story is so much more than songs and scenarios to me. they are about feelings and emotions and those are timeless things. I enjoyed the stories about New Morning, failed plays and Sun-pie. They are what touched me most. That and i could really picture those dingy apartments he stayed in before he made it big.

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  4. Posted by Annnie on April 21, 2010 at 5:13 PM

    I read the book & it was great. I’m not sure why its being reviewed now as it came out years ago. any dylan fan will already own this……

    Reply

    • Posted by Shawn on August 24, 2010 at 12:39 PM

      Well, some kid is just coming up now, got his downloaded copy of Dylan’s greatest hits and is wondering what to learn next. Someone will need a review of the book in the years to come and this one is written so well. That kId will probably read a bio of Dylan and run across the Chronicles book cause it’ll be referenced in some link. I got into Dylan in the 80′s, wondered who that Woody Guthrie was he mentioned, read a bio of him, found out through that there was a book Woody wrote. This is how it works. With this review what is old is new again.

      Reply

  5. [...] enjoy this song, though, is that Dylan himself seems to be enjoying himself. One of the things that stands out from reading Chronicles is the romanticism of the early folk part of Dylan’s career, and this song gives an impression of [...]

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  6. [...] though, people were laughing at “Blowin’ in the Wind.” According to Bob Spitz, Dave Von Ronk, one of Dylan’s early mentors, had a pretty dismissive reaction to the song:  “Jesus, Bobby—what an incredibly dumb song! I [...]

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  7. Posted by Shawn on August 24, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    I don’t believe I’ve ever recommended Dylan’s book to anyone. It’s a book you come to naturally or you aren’t one of the chosen. And the way the book is structured this is what Dylan is saying. Pretty much what he has said about his music all along. If you like his stuff then great, if you don’t then you don’t. It’s the case anyway, so Dylan is just pointing out the obvious and sounding cool doing it. it’s not a book for the casual listener of his work and I gotta believe many folks got a 100pps in and left it at that. I read every word, not taking it as actual fact, and will read it again before the second volume is published.

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