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.