Saturday, October 30, 2004


By Bob Dylan

Simon & Schuster, $24, 293 pages


He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in the Spring of 1941 in St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minn., but found the name he became famous under two decades later when someone in the Twin Cities asked him who he was. He answered, “instinctively and automatically … Bob Dylan.”

Or at least that’s the explanation Bob Dylan, folk singer and American icon, offers in his volume of autobiography, “Chronicles,” and it has the ring of truth. Not that Mr. Dylan isn’t above fabrication. A couple of pages into Chronicles, he admits to telling a publicity man at Columbia Records in the early ‘60s, where he cut his first record, that he came from Illinois, had worked in construction in Detroit, and arrived in New York City hobo-like, on a freight train.

None of that was true. But it sounded good and it helped to cultivate the wild-child image the ambitious young man wanted to spread about himself and continued to do so in song, interview, and film, all of which followed rapidly as hiis name became known worldwide in what appears now as a very short period of time.

In the five measured and beautifully written essays that make up this book, we are given as close a look at this enormously influential latter-day troubadour as we are likely ever to have, at least from his own pen. Mr. Dylan’s memory for detail is phenomenal and he has a talented writer’s gift for knowing what to tell us, and what to leave out.

“Chronicles” isn’t particularly chronological. The five pieces, with such names as “The Lost Land,” “New Morning,” and “Oh Mercy,” jump around in time. But they are always coherent and suffer very little from the ambiguity (and downright opacity) that some of Mr. Dylan’s songs are famous for.

Mr. Dylan spends part of the book (but by no means a big part) debunking his image as a social and political radical. Some of what he reveals will astonish. As a boy, for example, he wanted to go to West Point. “I wanted to be a general with my own battalion.” More amazingly, in the 1960s, he writes, “My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater who reminded me of Tom Mix,” and wryly adds: “there wasn’t anyway to explain that to anybody.”

That’s certainly a Bob Dylan no one knew back in those days. He did not want to be “the mouthpiece, spokesman, or … conscience of a generation,” he now claims. Nor did he seek appointment as “the Big Bubba of Rebellion” or the “High Priest of Protest.” These were visions of his role created for their own purposes by press and public and to which he never subscribed, he says.

What did Mr. Dylan want? Privacy for him, his wife, and children, for one thing, and privacy was in short supply once he attained celebrity. But he also wanted to be free to practice his art and allow it to take him where it would unfettered by a public’s expectations.

“I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper,” writes Mr. Dylan, sounding very much like one of his songs. He adds that he wasn’t “someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire,” explaining that “all I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities.”

That’s a big claim, and an arguable one. The skills needed to express “powerful new realities” are given to very few artists. But where Mr. Dylan is right on the money is when he sums up what he sees as his accomplishment. “What I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, use catch phrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not been heard before.”

Indeed, the richest parts of “Chronicles” deal with music and musicians. Mr. Dylan creates a great portrait of Dave Van Ronk, a folk-singer who befriended him during Mr. Dylan’s early days in Greenwich Village.

There are well done appreciations of the late Johnny Cash and of Jack Elliott (“Jack was some master of musical tricks.”). About Hank Williams, Sr., Mr. Dylan writes: “When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems like sacrilege.”

And on the two men who probably had the greatest influence on him, Woody Guthrie and the great blues singer Robert Johnson, Mr. Dylan waxes eloquent. Guthrie, he writes, “had a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic.” As for Johnson, to whom his debt is immeasurable, Mr. Dylan writes: “Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires.” It was Johnson, he acknowledges, who enabled Mr. Dylan to feel “free enough or upraised enough to write.”

What will no doubt surprise readers is Mr. Dylan’s love for music that isn’t like his own. He likes Ricky Nelson, the Kingston Trio, Bobby Vee, and Harry Belafonte, to cite a few examples. He thinks the song “Moon River” great. “I could sing it in my sleep.” And he makes a special trip to the Rainbow Room just to hear Frank Sinatra, Jr., sing.

There’s not much about Mr. Dylan’s family in “Chronicles.” He mentions his great fondness for his maternal grandmother, but his parents go largely unnoted, as do his two wives and his children. Perhaps they’ll make the second volume of this autobiography. There’s very little, too, about his early life. “My first performances were seen in the Black Hills Passion Play of South Dakota.” He played a Roman soldier with a spear.

That’s a great image, and there are others. Mr. Dylan claims he once saw the ghost of John Wilkes Booth “in the mirror — an ill spirit” in the Bull’s Head Tavern in New York City, an establishment once frequented by the actor and presidential assassin.

And once when he was in New Orleans, a city he likes very much, Mr. Dylan describes passing a cemetery and having the urge “to pray at one of the tombs.” What does he pray about when he prays? A few pages later, Mr. Dylan gives a hint: “”I pray that I can be a kinder person.”

The person who emerges from this book is reticent, given to rumination, and above all, voracious when it comes to anything that can improve and deepen his art. He’s also something of a shaman and visionary, but those roles play second fiddle to the musicianship.

That’s the image Mr. Dylan cultivates skillfully in this first autobiographical installment. It may be the true Bob Dylan, or one true Bob Dylan among several. If there’s one thread that runs from those early days in Minnesota to the present time it’s his need to sing and perform, coupled with his ambition, and it’s these facts he conveys so well.

Still, one can help wondering what would have happened if he’d had the gumption to announce his admiration for Barry Goldwater back in the 1960s, despite the fallout. It might have cost him a few of his admirers. But would it have led others into the streets demonstrating for the man from Arizona? The mind boggles.

Stephen Goode is a writer in Maryland.

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