Sometime in the fall of 1959, when an 18-year-old Bob Dylan was playing coffeehouses in Minneapolis, he was invited by a friend named Flo Castner to come by her brother’s house and listen to records. Dylan had by that point developed (it’s not clear where or how) an almost religious passion for American folk music, but his exposure to it had been haphazard. That afternoon, he pulled out a Woody Guthrie 78 and dropped the needle. Describing the moment in Chronicles—the newly published first installment of what Simon & Schuster swears will be a three-volume memoir—Dylan writes that when he heard what came out of the speaker, he “didn’t know if he was stoned or straight.”
For a while, he’d been trying to figure out what to be. Back in his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, he’d fronted various ephemeral rock bands. It was the older stuff that spoke to him, though, that offered a depth and interest to which he could imagine dedicating himself. Yet the snobbish pieties of the early-sixties traditional folk scene turned him off. He cherished the time-honored American idea that the greatest artists are mercenary in co-opting whatever serves their purposes, that only dilettantes have time to worry over the purity of their influences.
He loved sea chanteys as much as the next troubadour, but he also thought Judy Garland was pretty terrific, and knew that a sensibility unable to see how the two were alike was a sterile and pedantic one. Up to that day, he’d found no models for the kind of thing his mind was groping toward, music with roots that wasn’t “roots music.” The culture, too, was in between pulses. Beat was played out, but nobody’d heard the Beatles. Dylan was floating.
Suddenly he felt “like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbor.” Guthrie sang folk songs about folks who hadn’t died in the nineteenth century. Dylan decided, then and there, that he “was going to be Woody’s greatest disciple.” Which meant, of course, being Woody. The plan didn’t last. Jon Pankake, one of the local folk eggheads, put a finger in his chest after a gig and told him he was too late—Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was already Woody Guthrie. Dylan listened with dread to some Ramblin’ Jack records and had to admit it was true. So he did the practical thing and became Ramblin’ Jack for a while, until the ever-vigilant Pankake called him on that, too. There was nothing for it. He’d have to become Bob Dylan.
The story of how he did, and of what it was like to be Bob Dylan once he had succeeded, is the frayed and segmented thread that somehow binds together Chronicles. It’s the kind of book one puts over a lit match and considers holding there too long, the kind of book one slaps shut in frustration and resents for being too peculiar to abandon altogether, the kind that occasionally makes one wonder about its author’s neurological well-being, and, in the end, kind of a unique and wonderful book. Before it came out, Dylan told an interviewer that the book would involve a “take on people who’ve had takes on me.” That teaser made most people figure the book would be a revenge memoir, a collection of little “fuck you, I’m Bob Dylan” daggers for everyone who’d ever called him a traitor, a liar, a solipsist, a misogynist.
There’s no doubt such a book would have been darkly fun, but the one Dylan’s written instead is superior—both less palatable and more worthwhile. He’s written a portrait of the artist as a young artist, foregrounding the evolution of his music. In doing so, he’s gone back and reconstructed not what the rest of us have found fascinating about his career but what he found fascinating, so fascinating that he’s been willing for 40-plus years to put up with the frequent and, by his own telling, sometimes nightmarish misfortune of being a cultural icon.
“The thought of hearing something he liked and not being able to steal it would have paralyzed Dylan.”
The book begins and ends in downtown Manhattan in the winter of 1961. Dylan has no address; he’s living on the couches of various beautiful freaks and playing cafés, albeit bigger ones than he’d played in Minneapolis. Singer Liam Clancy once told an interviewer that Dylan was like “blotting paper,” and that’s the impression of himself he gives here. It’s a truly vivid account of a young provincial artist, head on fire but still a bit empty, finding himself for the first time in the aesthetic bazaar of a cultural capital.
Everything Dylan touches turns to fuel. Readers who are into his music (it’s hard to imagine other readers) will get pleasant and in many cases unexpected shocks of recognition as he ticks off the items he was stuffing into his bag. In one memorable scene, Dylan sits and listens to the Robert Johnson album King of the Delta Blues Singers, an advance pressing of which his first producer has smuggled to him. We see him, still practically a child, communing with the dead and at that point largely forgotten singer, whose exquisitely creepy voice “made [him] nauseous.” But there are also pages on Brecht, the early professional wrestler Gorgeous George, and Harry Belafonte, whose indifference to critics’ constant harping on authenticity Dylan notes and files away.
Dylan’s mind is a craftsman’s mind, technical: Even way back, on that living-room floor in Minneapolis, he’d been caught by Woody Guthrie’s diction, his “stylized type singing.” This is why he couldn’t ever be a true snob, even if he’d wanted to—the thought of hearing something he liked and not being able to steal it would have paralyzed him.
Chronicles is no less maddening for all these virtues; it’s an awkward book. Dylan can do set pieces that wouldn’t embarrass a licensed prose stylist. He’s brilliant at sketching personalities with a swift, glancing stroke, writing of David Crosby that he “could freak out a whole city block all by himself,” and of a poor schizophrenic named Billy the Butcher that “there was a fire between him and everybody else.” His editors have made the wise and perhaps unavoidable decision to let this be a kind of folk memoir—“folk” in the sense of “folk art,” complete with sketchy grammar and hokey idiom and crackpot historical theories. But at times, one suspects that a fat cell full of some extremely pure mid-sixties acid must have dissolved without warning and slipped into Dylan’s spinal column while he typed—as when he writes that, at a certain point in the late eighties, “my lyrics . . . would now explode musicologically like an ice cloud.”
He tells us unforgivably little about the many afternoons he spent with Woody Guthrie in the latter’s New Jersey hospital room, but gives us 25 lines on the rubber-band guns he and his boyhood chums used to shoot at each other.
Also, Dylan’s admirable unwillingness to indulge in any potentially compromising personal details can be downright perverse. He talks about “my wife” at one point, then many pages later talks about “my wife,” never naming this wife or bothering to mention that the references are in fact to two different wives. He tells us about seeing Joan Baez on TV and in another place mentions a song she wrote about him, as if the two facts were curiously coincidental, not at all connected to their intervening, notorious affair.
But if you come to this book not expecting Dylan to be a little evasive, a little out of it, you haven’t been to see him live in the past twenty years. There’s already more than one shamelessly indiscreet biography. Bob’s written the book that nobody else could write, one less about what he did than about why he did it. That’s what makes Chronicles only semi-coherent, and that’s what makes it inspiring.