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The Music of Words

Photo by Don Hunstein

So Bob Dylan has finally published a memoir: Chronicles: Volume One. It’s possible the author isn’t sure what exactly the word chronicle means (in a Newsweek interview he more or less admitted this). At any rate, his chronicle isn’t very chronological: He begins the book in 1961, when he is starting out as a performer and no one has heard of Bob Dylan; skips to 1971, when, sickened by celebrity, he’s trying to get people to forget Bob Dylan; then it’s on to 1989, when, mired in creative uncertainty, he no longer seems to be sure who Bob Dylan is or ought to be; and finally it is back to 1961 again, with Dylan taking his first stab at songwriting.

Though Dylan writes that he admires T.S. Eliot, this haphazard narrative approach isn’t a variation on Eliot’s “In my end is my beginning.” This is more like “In my end is my middle.” Or “In my beginning is my muddle.” Hard to say what it is, really, but in a characteristically Dylanesque fashion, the counterintuitive structure is evocative and coy and sly. The beginning and end of the book cover the period in his life when he was still singing other people’s songs rather than writing his own. And its center deals with his minor achievements as a songwriter, not his major ones. In effect, this is a meal without a main course.

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One thing that Chronicles demonstrates is that Dylan is more at home with the music of words than the meaning of words — and sometimes with the nonsense of words. Of an encounter with the poet Archibald MacLeish, he writes: “It was great meeting him, a man who had reached the moon when most of us scarcely make it off the ground.” That’s hyperbolic enough, since MacLeish doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on Dylan. But then he adds: “In some ways, he taught me how to swim the Atlantic.” To which one can only scratch one’s brow and say, “What?”

Another thing that comes through is that Dylan sees people, the ones who impress him anyway, less as people than as symbols, as figures in a pageant, as mythological types like the parade of grotesques in “Desolation Row.” This allows him to sketch in characters with short, vivid strokes, but few people in the book come alive in a sustained, novelistic way. They come and go, and after a while become interchangeable. They seem not quite real to the author, and hence not to the reader either.

 

Some of the best parts of the book are found early on, as Dylan evokes the excitement of his first winter in Greenwich Village, when “the cold was brutal and every artery of the city was snowpacked.” I laughed when he described a girl, a fellow singer, as “funky, lanky and sultry.” On the other hand, he can write stuff like that in his sleep, and there are parts of the book that read as if they were written in his sleep. There are also some charming lyrical passages, touched with comedy, that immediately bring to mind the songs:

 

Across the street from where I stood looking out the window was a church with a bell tower. The ringing of bells made me feel at home . . . Iron, brass, silver bells — the bells sang. On Sunday, for services, on holidays. They clanged when somebody important died, when people were getting married. Any special occasion would make the bells ring. You had a pleasant feeling when you heard the bells. I even liked doorbells and the NBC chimes on the radio.

 

That last line, the way it sidles up to absurdity, is pure Dylan.

Much of Chronicles is dedicated to Dylan’s decades-old task of standing everything you thought you knew about Bob Dylan on its head. Its centerpiece is a prolonged assault on the 1960s, on his own fans, on his image and celebrity. While stoned hippies were turning him into a demigod, a high priest of prophetic poetry, the man himself was raising a family and dreaming about an anonymous bourgeois existence framed by a white picket fence. He even paints himself as a fan of the archconservative senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater (“There wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody”), and a Civil War buff whose imagination was fired by the past more than by the present.

Sadly, the book also demonstrates how Dylan has never really understood his own talent, mastered and nurtured it. Rather, he has been its prisoner. He rode it to glory when it blazed in the 1960s, but stood helplessly by when it flickered and almost went out in the 1980s. His account of trying to resurrect his muse in 1989, when he recorded Oh Mercy, is both touching and baffling. It becomes truly strange when he recounts a long conversation with a crank in a junk shop outside New Orleans. (He buys a bumper sticker that reads “WORLD’S GREATEST GRANDPA” from him.) Dylan seems almost as weird and lost and befuddled as the crank himself.

Would someone who knew next to nothing about Bob Dylan find this memoir compelling? Probably not. The chronological gaps are too cavernous, and vital background information is fleeting at best. This is a book that will resonate only with people who already know Dylan’s story and who will appreciate his elliptical improvisations on a shopworn biographical theme. At its best, Chronicles has a slightly crazed, slipshod lyricism that, like the weaker songs — and sometimes even the greatest ones — teeters on the edge of self-parody. But there are way too many stretches of hipsterish jive-talk and lazy hot air.

It’s nice to have this memoir, but some good new songs would be better.

CHRONICLES: Volume One | By BOB DYLAN | Simon & Schuster | 293 pages | $24 hardcover


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