Chronicles : Volume One
published: 6 /
Ever enigmatic, the first volume of Bob Dylan's autobiography provokes as many questions as it provides answers. Ben Howarth finds 'Chronicles : Volume One' nevertheless to be an electrifying read
Lou Levy, top man of Leeds publishing company, took me to a restaurant on 58th and Broadway. Lou introduced me to Jack Dempsey, the great boxer. Jack shook his fist at me.
‘You look too light for a heavyweight, kid, you’ll have to put on a few pounds’.
‘He’s not a boxer, Jack, he’s a songwriter and we’ll be publishing some of his songs’.
‘Oh yeah, well I hope to hear ‘em some of these days. Good luck to you kid’.
In the first volume of an autobiography that nobody (including Bob Dylan himself) seriously imagined would ever see publication, the master songwriter proves himself also master of the anecdote. 'Chronicles' began as an attempt to write sleevenotes for the remastered 2003 editions of some of his albums but evolved into a fully-fledged memoir.
Dylan makes no attempt to be comprehensive. Even when the second and third volumes see the light of day, the depth Dylan has chosen to go into will mean he is unable to rein his entire career into the pages. The bulk of this volume is devoted to Dylan’s time in New York as a young folk singer and new arrival to the city, a time shrouded in some mystery because of his tendency to fib when being interviewed. The other chapters detail the recording of two of his many albums, the breezy 'New Morning' (1970) and the harrowing 'Oh Mercy' (1989). Fans will have to wait for the stories of his most celebrated works, although one hopes that this volume will draw attention to these two undervalued discs.
Music enthusiasts will take delight in 'Chronicles', but it is not for celebrity junkies. Dylan is well noted for his privacy, and though the stories reveal much about his music career his private life is in no way compromised. Indeed, he doesn’t even allude to the fact that the wife he talks of in 1970 is different to the wife he talks of in 1989! Neither wife is mentioned by name, nor are any of his children. What Dylan is fond of describing are his literary and musical inspirations, and the many fascinating characters he meets along the way. Dylan’s analysis of the 50's jazz greats, the pop stars of the 60's, his mentor Woody Guthrie and the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson are all a joy to read, as are his memories of Greenwich Village; the opium smoking beatnik couple he lived with, his fellow folk singers, the friends and enemies he made and, later, the testing relationship with his most sympathetic producer Daniel Lanois. Readers will also learn the real reason why the young Robert Zimmerman chose his stage name.
Dylan’s writing style is not always flawless, but like his songwriting shows little evidence of perspiration but more than occasional inspiration. Though the writing is clumsy, every page is worthy. Dylan spent his life watching and learning with an odd combination of cynical objectivity and unbridled enthusiasm, his memoirs are as much about what he saw as what he did. Modern singer songwriters are generally loathsome, self centred in the extreme and raking it in by singing their diaries to the world. 'Chronicles' illustrates why Dylan’s art is so much more than that. This is a reckless, sprawling account but one that is nothing short of electrifying.