In Woody Allen's film Zelig, the title character changes into whatever he touches. A pregnant woman, a rabbi or a blind man -- for Zelig, anything is possible. Fictional characters aside, Bob Dylan has been, throughout his career, the great American chameleon. He is enigmatic: a Jewish kid from Minnesota; a folk-singer in denim one minute, a rock star in leather the next; an exile; an actor; a respectable citizen, father and grandfather. Never predictable, Dylan simultaneously baffles and astonishes. At times, even his most vocal supporters have been hard pressed to explain his career and personal decisions, and he has become all the more intriguing for it.
Since Dylan hasn't exactly helped to separate myth from reality, the publication of Chronicles: Volume One (Scribner), his first attempt at autobiography, comes with huge anticipation, and music fans worldwide -- from those who consider Dylan worthy of a Noble Prize in literature to anyone interested in the evolution of music over the past five decades -- have been holding their breath to see what he would deliver. Now that it's finally here, even those already enamored by Dylan's talent can expect to be happily surprised.
Chronicles begins smoothly, without hesitation. Throughout the book, which begins with his days playing folk music at Cafe Wha?, where Dylan spent his time between gigs eating free burgers and fries (often with Tiny Tim by his side), the writing is crackling and intense, the scenes picturesque. Here, for instance, he describes his arrival in New York City: "Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffing around, bundled up -- salesmen in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes."
At Cafe Wha?, Dylan became eager for more than irregular gigs, though. "I needed to play for people and all the time," he writes, knowing already that he wanted to do for music what Picasso did for the art world: fracture and crack it wide open. About these early days of living on friends' couches and just getting by before his first recordings, he writes, "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."
Dylan's observations in the book range from Moby-Dick ("the ultimate fish story") to Roy Orbison ("He sang like a professional criminal"). He is as comfortable discussing Judy Garland as he is Nietzsche. Not surprisingly, his early education came as much through literature as music, and he spends much of the book detailing the importance of his discoveries. He devoured whatever was near. There was Tacitus, Gogol, Balzac and Thucydides, his favorite. He often includes capsule biographies of his masters to show how his life came to echo theirs. "Dostoyevsky, too, had lived a dismal and hard life. The czar sent him to a prison camp in Siberia in 1849. ... He was eventually pardoned and wrote stories to ward off his creditors. Just like in the '70s I wrote albums to ward off mine." You can almost hear him laughing.
In those early days in New York City, he'd disappear into the public library to read newspapers from 1855 to 1865 and learn about daily life. He knew that he wanted to write songs that wouldn't conform to his own times. How to go about it was a different matter. "If anything, I wanted to understand things, and then be free of them," he writes. "I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. ... You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right."
Throughout his self-education, Dylan's influences remained folk singers, particularly Woody Guthrie. "The folksinger," he writes, "could sing songs like an entire book, but only in a few verses." Anyone who has ever listened to "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," say, or "Joey" knows that Dylan is as much novelist as "poet musician," as he calls himself in the book.
Chronicles hums with a stream-of-consciousness, bandit-on-the-run energy. Some parts are more polished than others, and there are a few repetitions, as if Dylan sometimes loses his thread, but he is always quick to get back on track, even if it might not take us down any of the main arteries of his career. There are blackouts. Years, even decades, pass in the white space between chapters. He spends more time on albums that fans and critics deem minor than on his watershed moments. The structure, at first awkward, is intricate in the way his long songs have always been. Like the epic poets who served as his songwriting guides, he demands that the reader work alongside him in a keep-up-with-me-if-you-can manner, and the payoff is striking.
After the '60s, many die-hard fans believed that Dylan turned his back on them. They wanted him to fit into a mold, and Dylan writes well of the anxiety this gave him. Why, for instance, couldn't he write another song like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" or "Masters of War"? But those who think that he recorded his best work in the '60s have somehow forgotten that the nature of the artist is change. He has always practiced what he once sang and not looked back. Lucky for us, he has broken from his peripatetic routine to show himself, if only for a moment, before heading down the next path. Wherever that may lead, Dylan promises it will include another installment of Chronicles. Let's just hope the wait isn't long.
- In those early days of hanging out in New York City, Bob Dylan knew that he wanted to write songs that wouldn't conform to his own times. How to go about it was a different matter: "I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right."