Personal History of a Legend and a Name By Tom Savage

"Chronicles, Volume 1"by Bob Dylan Simon & Schuster New York, 2004 293 pp.

Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume 1 has many beautifully written passages.  Those curious about the singer's life or about the milieu in which his career occurred will find much of this book fascinating.  For them, the charisma of Dylan's celebrity and the very real effect his songs had on our culture and may still have for many people will carry this book.  Three hundred eighty-five thousand people have bought this book at the last counting I've read of its sales (the first month or so after it was published).

Bob Dylan (né Robert Zimmerman?) turns out to be a very different person from the persona we thought was created by his songs.  When I came to the passage in which he said that he was mostly annoyed that his songs had become the anthems of the 60s and 70s protest movement, I was saddened.  He recounts incidents in which he and his family's lives were interrupted or even threatened by his overzealous fans.  This is a common complaint of famous people.  Allen Ginsberg, an acquaintance or friend of Dylan's, used to complain that his fame had distorted what his poems were trying to accomplish.  Still, both Ginsberg and Dylan were very good at exploiting their fame.  Neither of them ever renounced his celebrity, regardless of how uncomfortable it became for them at times.  Dylan's songs became the anthems for a generation trying to change the world for the better.  It was sad to encounter the passage in Chronicles in which Dylan says that his favorite politician was Barry Goldwater, the first Republican conservative of the past forty or so years to become his party's presidential candidate.  That this passage occurs past the middle of the present volume is another sign of the flaws of this book, inasmuch as it describes a position from Dylan's youth.

Most celebrity "memoirs" are in chronological order.  The first meaning of "chronicle" in my My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor is "usually continuous and detailed historical account arranged in order of time..."  This so-called chronicle of Dylan's life was written, or perhaps edited, in such a way that it is not in chronological order.  A sort of free association seems to be at work here, so that it feels as if the book was not actually written down at all, but tape recorded (as oral histories are) and then transcribed by someone else.  I read with interest the early passages of the book, which included bits which occurred on the street and in the neighborhood in which I grew up at about the same time and talked at length about places and "scenes," as well as some people whom I either knew well or felt I did because my parents knew them.  Just growing up on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s made it so that I too encountered some of what Dylan saw there.  I was nearly a decade younger than he and thus not quite at the center of all this as he was.  Being the right person at the right time and place -- at the right age, too -- appears to be important.

Dylan's book puts itself in a category of celebrity memoirs.  Most such books are not well-written.  Even the few that are rarely measure up to the lives they attempt to document.  One of the better of these, My Autobiography, by Charles Chaplin, nevertheless devotes much time to who Charlie knew or met and the important people he encountered, as if Chaplin had not himself far outdistanced these people in accomplishment by being central to the creation and popularization of the art of the motion picture.  Toward the end of his life, the great British actor Sir Alec Guinness wrote a very different and beautiful book called My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, wherein, for about a year and a half, he records this beautifully written diary of his life, kept some time after the limelight of his fame had faded and not long before his demise.  This book is unique also because it focuses on a small part of its subject's life rather than on the whole of it.  In this book Guinness reveals himself to be a gifted writer and an extremely well-read, intelligent, and even somewhat of a wise old man.  Apparently, he wrote another book called Blessings in Disguise prior to this one, which I hope to read someday.

Bob Dylan is a public figure.  His songs have inspired several generations of Americans.  I first saw him playing and singing when I was in my early teens, at a demonstration in Washington Square Park organized to keep the park open for folk singers to perform.  About 15 years later, I met him once, briefly.  I was working for Allen Ginsberg then, in the latter's home/office on 12th Street, when Dylan showed up with about 40 or 50 groupies.  He played the guitar while Allen sang.  Allen Ginsberg, although a great poet, could barely carry a tune at that time.  (He got somewhat better as he got older.)  But, when I saw that Dylan's role in this event was as an accompanist, and given that the room was much too overcrowded, I went out onto the fire escape and watched (as well as listened) from there.  This event is not included in Dylan's Chronicles, Volume 1.  Perhaps it will be included in Volume 2 or 3?

The first of the curious jumps in time is from the very early 60s to 1968.  It occur between Chapters 2 and 3.  For a long time, while reading this book, I felt cheated.  How did Robert Zimmerman, or whatever his original name was, really become the Bob Dylan whose music almost everyone seemed to love at one time?  He sets the stage, his apprenticeship, so to speak, in the early chapters.  But then, nothing.  He just steps over the period.  Finally, in Chapter 5, he names John Hammond, the record producer, as having discovered him and making him the "Bob Dylan" many of us felt we knew when we were young.  In the meantime, we've visited many places and times -- the 1970s when he made records in order to pay his creditors, and a 1980s visit to New Orleans chronicled here, when nothing seems to go quite right but songs are recorded anyway.

Does chronological order matter in a "chronicle" or "memoir"?  Is the well-served lack of order in this book an intentional joke or parody on the idea of order in life, or a parody of such public reminiscences?  These questions may finally be decided by the work as a whole once all its volumes are published.  Still, at about this time, all this reviewer has to go on is this one book, the first volume.  On the basis of this volume alone, then, it is fair to say that the jumping forward and backward between decades is a distraction to the reader.  Much of what is related by Dylan, however, is intriguing.  His early interests in jazz, classical music, and poetry are inspiring.  As a popular singer, at times, he has done more than any other performer to bring the arts of poetry and popular song together.  It's also intriguing that his "apprenticeship" as the Bob Dylan-to-be included a lot of time absorbing the songs of Woody Guthrie and many other fine artists of the generations that preceded and concurred with Dylan's own.  He cites many and diverse inspirations and influences.  Woody Guthrie appears to have been his primary inspirational mentor, and Dylan sought him out frequently in person as well.  It is good that Bob Dylan, Zimmerman, or whatever his names were (see p. 78 about this quandary) acknowledges many and diverse creative inputs into his life.  However, rather than a straight time line, this book forms at least an arc or possibly a kind of circle, returning to his beginnings as a creator and propagator of his own songs toward the end of the book with the acknowledgment of John Hammond, record producer, as the person who discovered him and got him his contract with Columbia Records.  At this point, he begins to fill in the gaps between Chapters 2 and 3.  In spite of this book being not really a memoir in the autobiographical sense, Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume 1 is an interesting and an entertaining read for anyone who has lived through any of the decades during which Dylan's songs have been available to use, either through radio play or in our own private media input outlets.  As a young man, he was such an omnivore that even classical music appealed to him, including the piano music of Franz Liszt.  Is Dylan aware that a contemporary composer named John Corigliano has set Dylan's words to his own music?  It's a 36-minute-long piece of voices and orchestra called "Seven Poems of Bob Dylan."  He must know this or have approved of it, one supposes, because copyright questions might otherwise be involved here.  Classical music, at least on this level, is incredibly honest about such borrowings, on the rare occasions when they occur.

Dylan has been such a unique voice for so long in popular music that this book is odd in its jumpcut, flashback technique of recording his life.  Hopefully, many more of the loose narrative threads will be tied by the end of the succeeding volume or volumes.  Dylan has clearly had a life story which demands to be told, particularly from his own perspective on it before some later biographer has his or her say about it.  As a "memoir," Chronicles: Volume 1 is inferior both to Pablo Neruda's Memoirs and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes; the first by the poet-diplomat from Chile who became South America's finest poet of his time; the second, the extremely well-written account of an impoverished Irish childhood which propelled McCourt into a kind of literary fame and spurred on the current publishing craze for memoirs both by the famous and the unknown.  In this way, it seems, soon everyone with any kind of life story to tell, whether of momentous impact or of comparatively insignificant details, will find a potential audience for it somewhere in the world of books.