Friday, January 6, 2017

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan - Book Review

It should come as no surprise to those who have listened to Bob Dylan's music, watched his elusive appearances, and followed his un-forthcoming interviews, that Dylan often doesn't help you to understand who he is. In what purports to be the first volume of his autobiography, Dylan lets you know who he is and how he got there, but don't expect a straightforward narrative explanation. Just as in his songs and too infrequent appearances, he insists in this wonderful book that you do your work, too. If you do it, however, and are at least marginally aware of the details of his life, you will find this extended riff on Bob Dylan's early years in New York as well as his reflections on family, fame, recording, and more to be deeply informative and most satisfying. In Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster, 2004, 320 pages, $27.00/11.99)

He arrives in New York on a cold winter day, alone with only his guitar for company, not knowing anybody, but curious and open to his own experience. He's searching for Woody Guthrie, even then hospitalized in New Jersey, whose muse has drawn him to folk singing and wandering. He finds his way into the Greenwich Village of the late fifties with only the folk songs he's studied and learned, his dogged persistence, and his intelligence, and then burrows himself in the folk music culture of this interesting period roiling with cultural change in America reflected in the musical and social life of The Village. He begins visiting and then performing at little hole-in-the-wall venues where, during the afternoons, anyone can take the stage to sing, recite poetry, or find their own mode of expression, working for tips. He keeps his eyes open, soon meeting people who welcome him to flop on their couches or mattresses in their apartments. He meets, and cultivates in his own elusive way, Dave Van Ronk, and many other artistic and music business lights in the Village.

Dylan describes crashing with Ray Gooch, whose Village apartment was filled with books that he dived into. In an extended riff, Dylan writes about what he read, saw, studied, picked up, put down, returned to and groped through to gain understanding, all the time soaking up a world of literature, history, and art he had become ready to indulge in and integrate into his yearning and experience. He's a virtual vacuum cleaner for seemingly random ideas, musical, literary and artistic, which he slowly but surely integrates.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man - Newport Folk Festival - 1964

In its own discursive way, Dylan's story emerges. He writes about how Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan through an interesting search for a name reflecting the personna he was constructing for himself. It, like much of the rest of the book, makes sense in its own seemingly rambling way. He begins to change, as well, in his concept of himself as a singer, moving from traditional and contemporary folk music to what he refers to as “topical” songs, being careful to remove himself as a “protest” singer, but rather an observer of the contemporary scene. While the narrative seems to wander, it's actually pretty straightforward, laced with references to reading, listening, interacting with the music community and the world in thoughtful and insightful ways.

While the book seems to jump around a good deal, it, nevertheless, captures the person I think Dylan, at least, wants to be. As his celebrity increases, his resistance to being made into something he thinks he's not does, too. He consistently styles himself as a folk singer finding songs in his experience and his internal self. He resists becoming a symbol for the fantasies of others seeking to make him into a symbol. He describes the harassment from “pilgrims” seeking him, along with his growing sense of needing privacy and solitude to do his work. Robbie Robertson, of the Band, asks him, “Where do you think you're gonna take it?” as if he were a single driving force behind music. Life seems to represent his resistance to being styled in some way by others. He writes, “It was impossible for me to observe anything without being observed,” exploring the cost of his celebrity on the family life and creative existence he says he wants to pursue and fulfill. I can find nothing in the narrative that points to his seeking celebrity, much less the iconic status he has achieved. His reactions to attending this year's Nobel Prize award ceremonies represent a consistent response from him, as does the graceful statement he sent in.

Bob Dylan with The Band - Forever Young

I'm struck by the need Dylan expresses, which seems very real to me, to live an ordinary family life in the midst of everyone else's desire to turn him into a symbol for something much larger. In the end, Dylan remains a song writer and story tell of unusual grace and breadth. He experiments, as he writes, “throws everything at the wall,” and much of it seems to work for some audience beyond his desires to be a more solitary, family oriented, singer and writer of songs. For, first of all, he's a writer. But the more I listen to him, the more I find him to be a wonderfull, affecting, and honest singer.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Bob Dylan can write. And he can think and sing. What some people might find surprising is that he's a real person, filled with all that portends, yet driven by the external forces of fame and celebrity to become something more. While he doesn't seek sympathy, reading his Chronicles evoked it in me. I find myself liking the person who emerges while, as has become my habit with books by and about musicians, listening to his songs with increasing understanding and empathy. Chronicles gives the reader entree into the real person Bob Dylan is. But, and it's a big But, the reader has to allow him his reality. In that “But” lies the enormous strength and charm of this book. By the middle, I found myself wishing him the peace of a privacy so difficult for him to achieve.

Dylan's description of a decade-long low period in his career, from the late seventies through the eighties he describes a sense of disconnection from his own work, his sense that his career was going nowhere, that he no longer wanted to perform...just going through the motions. Leaving a rehearsal for a tour with the Grateful Dead, he drops into an obscure San Francisco jazz joint, hears a singer simply killing it, and has a revelation which turns him around. During the following European tour with Tom Petty, he sings eighty long-neglected songs from his catalog without a repeat and senses new energy and inspiration. Again, taken at his word, it rings completely true to me. There's an integrity to the writing as he digs within to describe the indescribable. I've always thought of Dylan as being non-communicative except in performance, but Chronicles is a performance, too, a journey where he takes the risks of self-discovery and finds what he's looking for.

Most of the Time - From Oh Mercy - 1989

His chapter called “Oh Mercy” referring to what has been described as his “comeback album,” discusses song writing and performance, giving huge insights into Dylan's process. How he thinks, jumps from idea to idea while a concept emerges. He resents other people's over-analyzing, but gives himself to the willing reader and consumer of his music. But it must be on his terms. He won't let you take over for him or force him into a mold. His account of the period spent working in New Orleans with producer Danny Lanois to produce Oh Mercy captures the spirit of trying to build a collaborative relationship as well as presenting an impressionistic view of the city and a motorcycle trip with his wife to bayou country that's a joy to read, an extended riff that also helps reveal Dylan's creative process.

“Folk music was all I needed to exist. Trouble was, there wasn't enough of it. It was out of date, had no proper connection the the actualities, the trends of the times. It was a huge story, but hard to come across.” (235) Dylan refers to himself throughout the book as a folk singer, rejecting the critics and fans who would make him into a cultural icon, a leader of a movement, a poet who spoke for and to a generation. For this refusal, for his stubborn insistence to follow his own muse and music, he paid a price, and kept his integrity and at least some independence. Over the more than fifty year course of his career, he has continued to discover himself and his music, while never kowtowing to the rapidly changing world of pop music, but always being aware of what's going on, listening, watching, learning.

Bob Dylan at the White House - 2010 - The Times They Are A-Changin'

Dylan was a voracious consumer of the work of other singers and, later, song writers. Soon after leaving home, he discovered Woody Guthrie, whose work consumed him and helped set his course, until he heard “Ramblin” Jack Elliot, who had traveled with Guthrie, and whose confident singing awed him. Throughout the book, Dylan, explores the influences, both musical and literary, influencing him as well as examining his own inner workings. The amount of careful thought and deep searching that went into thinking through this book should not be underestimated, either in depth or in carefully structured writing. For anyone interested in Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster, 2004, 320 pages, $27.00/11.99) is must reading. I enjoyed it and learned a lot, too. I bought the book from Amazon and read it on my Kindle App.

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