American Culture

Chronicles Part 1: Bob Dylan being Bob Dylan

Dylan gonna be Dylan. But in his memoir he reminds us why he’s Dylan.

“I’d come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else.” – Bob Dylan

Early Bob Dylan (image courtesy CBS News)

Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles: Part 1 is a book I came to with a good bit of skepticism. One reason for my skepticism that comes from having read Dylan’s novel Tarantula, a book I found self-indulgent and (perhaps) purposely off-putting.

Another reason for skepticism comes from having read David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, a well researched book whose view of Dylan is less than sanguine, portraying Dylan as opportunistic, self-centered, and callous.

My last reason for skepticism comes from having seen a number of interviews with Dylan where he is evasive, defensive, and at times downright hostile to reporters and interviewers asking him questions about his life and work. Any who has seen the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back has seen that Dylan in action.

Having now read Chronicle: Part 1, I must say that some of my impression of Dylan is incorrect. He opens up about his home life, his early days in Minneapolis, his move to New York, even his recording of the 1989 comeback album Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois.

But Dylan gonna be Dylan. So of course he’s evasive and vague on some points. Just none of the important ones.

A great deal has been made of the quality of Dylan’s writing in Chronicle: Part 1, and, in truth, it is quite good, exceptional even. Here he is explaining what made Bob Dylan become Bob Dylan:

…songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality. Some different republic, some liberated republic… whatever the case, it wasn’t that I was anti-popular culture or anything and I had no ambition to stir things up. I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window and you had to have awkward foot gear to walk with.

And here Bob talks about the price of being a cultural hero and why he decided to drop out:

The worth of things can’t be measured by what they cost but by what the cost you to get it, that if anything costs you your faith or your family, then the price is too high, and that there are some things that will never wear out.

And here Dylan explains how he thinks his life and work is seen, Nobel committee be damned:

Wherever I am, I’m a ’60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows.

Chronicle: Part 1 is divided into five sections: “Markin’ Up the Score,” “The Lost Land,” “New Morning,” “Oh Mercy,”and “River of Ice.” Of these, “Markin’ Up the Score” and “River of Ice” ring truest for those who approach Dylan’s memoir hoping to gain a deeper understanding of what makes Bob tick. “River of Ice” is especially revealing as Dylan shares memories of growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, and figuring out that he wants to be a folk singer – and what kind of folk singer he wanted to be:

All these songs together, one after another, made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard [Woody] Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there – mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn’t actually heard him, not in this earth shattering way. I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie has such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs….

…Woody Guthrie had never seen nor heard of me but it felt like he was saying, ‘I’ll be going away, but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.’

Well, Bob, as we all know, you’ve done Woody Guthrie proud. Nobel Prize for literature proud.

There is an elegiac quality to Chronicle: Part 1. It feels at times as if Dylan is telling us who he is so we won’t forget him even as he is telling us farewell. Given his age, and the importance of his body of work, the likelihood of Dylan’s being forgotten is minuscule.

But Dylan gonna be Dylan. So he reminds us why he’s Dylan:

Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it’s like they didn’t fade away at all.