The Guardian, 16 October
Mike Marqusee reviews Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
“I went though it from cover to cover like a hurricane. Totally focussed on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio.” Thus Bob Dylan, forty five years after the event, recalls a formative moment in modern popular music: his first encounter with Bound for Glory, the autobiography of Woody Guthrie.
In structure and style, Dylan’s memoir recalls Guthrie’s, but its mood and preoccupations are different. Instead of the open skies and sharp outlines of Bound for Glory, Chronicles is full of smoky, jumbled interiors. Where the master’s book was rumbustious, optimistic, teeming, the disciple’s is ruminative, sometimes puzzled, and in the end painfully lonely. And where Bound for Glory offered the uplifting tale of Guthrie’s discovery of his vocation as a people’s singer, Chronicles traces a more equivocal journey, one involving loss as well as discovery.
The bulk of the book is a captivating evocation of Dylan’s first year in New York City (1961), with flashbacks to his boyhood in Minnesota. Here he draws a touching portrait of himself as an ambitious young artist, trembling on the brink of self-realisation. Two chapters in the middle are less enjoyable but revealing excursions into later junctures in the singer’s career, studies in alienation, frustration and compromise.
What’s not in the book could fill tomes (and already has). There’s nothing about singing at the 1963 March on Washington or going electric at Newport in 1965 or the Judas! heckle in Manchester in 1966. Nothing about drugs or sex. Nothing about the fundamentalist Christian phase or about his Jewishness.
Nonetheless, in the course of his meandering narrative, Dylan touches on a fascinating variety of topics – personal, musical, historical. New York at the dawn of the 60s is recreated with warmth and detail. This is the flickering urban landscape of ‘Visions of Johanna’, peopled with “all kinds of characters looking for the inner heat” mingling in cluttered, carefully observed Greenwich Village apartments. In Dylan’s memory New York is “cold, muffled, mysterious”, a city of epiphanies: “I passed a horsedrawn wagon full of covered flowers, all under a plastic wrap, no driver in sight. The city was full of stuff like that.”
Chronicles is peppered with vivid sketches of the stars of New York’s folk demimonde: Fred Neill, Cisco Houston, Len Chandler, Paul Clayton (whose suicide a few years later Dylan does not mention), the blues guitarist and Marxist intellectual, Dave Van Ronk (“no puppet strings on him ever”). John Hammond, the veteran left winger who produced Dylan’s first albums, is recalled with awe: “there were maybe a thousand kings in the world and he was one of them.”
The prose is a Dylanesque blend of luminous specifics and myopic vagueness. It’s unpruned, sometimes repetitious. There are malapropisms and clichés. But the lapses and rough edges are part of the Dylan package.
Among the book’s pleasures are brief, acute appreciations of the likes of Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, Harry Belafonte, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, “the bittersweet, lonely intense world of Harold Arlen”, composer of “the cosmic Somewhere over the Rainbow”. There are also intriguing, off-the-wall observations about figures ranging from Clausewitz and Thucydides to Joe Hill and Balzac (“He wear’s a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee… one of his teeth falls out, and he says, ‘What does this mean?’”), plus a tip of the hat to the flamboyant professional wrestler Gorgeous George, who was also an influence on Muhammad Ali.
The Dylan of these chapters is a true believer in the religion of folk, which “exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it.” He claims that the old songs taught him that there was nothing new on this earth. History was cyclical: societies emerge, flourish, decline (but “I had no idea which of these stages America was in”). Here he seems to be reading back into his youth some of the attitudes he struck later on. The young man who wrote ‘Hattie Carroll’, ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘Masters of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was a poet of urgency, and he would have found the fatalism of the later Dylan far too pat. “I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics,” he insists. “My favourite politician was [right-wing] Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix.” Maybe, but this “primitive” also dissected the political psychology of the fall-out shelter craze in ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’, lambasted anti-communist hysteria in ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’, and explored the link between race and class in ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’.
At first glance the chapters in the middle of the book appear to concern the making of New Morning (1970) and Oh Mercy (1989). One’s heart sinks. Why not Highway 61 or Blonde or Blonde or Blood on the Tracks or even Love and Theft? Yet there’s a surprise hidden in these chapters, for they tell stories most artists avoid telling, stories of unresolved crisis. Of failure.
The New Morning chapter is framed by Dylan’s stiff encounter with the elderly poet, Archibald MacLeish, who wants him to compose songs for a play he’s written. Dylan respects the poet but cannot communicate with him. Indeed, he seems to have lost the ability to communicate with anyone. Since those sweet, vanished days in Greenwich Village, his life had been transformed. He was not only wildly famous; he was famous as ‘the voice of a generation’, and he hated it. Retiring to rural Woodstock he finds “moochers showing up from as far away as California on pilgrimages … rogue radicals looking for the prince of protest.” People “would stare at me when they saw me, like they’d stare at a shrunken head or a giant jungle rat.” He’s shocked at an Esquire cover featuring a monster with four faces: JFK, Malcolm X, Castro – and himself. ”What the hell was that supposed to mean?”
He can no longer function as an artist. Creativity requires “observation” and “it was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed.” The half finished tunes he started for MacLeish end up on New Morning but Dylan remains ambivalent about their value. They aren’t the kind of songs “where you hear an awful roaring in your head.”
The Oh Mercy chapter explores a career crisis of the late 80s and includes several pages of musicological flummery about “a style of playing based on an odd instead of even numbered system”. This wary-eyed, seen-it-all sceptic has a history of falling for cranky notions, but the claim that the new system enables him to sing endlessly without “fatigue” or “emotion” makes one suspect an old-style Dylan put-on. For all its unaffected frankness, Chronicles has its share of feints and dodges, and it wouldn’t be Dylan’s otherwise.
The Dylan of the middle chapters is spectral, even to himself. And this is immediately apparent when one returns, in the final chapter, to the heady early days in New York. Here he provides a step-by-step account of the influences that led him to his ferocious synthesis of tradition and individuality. First, there’s Guthrie, whose songs had “the infinite sweep of humanity in them”. Then there’s Brecht and Weill’s Pirate Jenny: “a wild song… a nasty song… . there was no love for people in it.” Then Robert Johnson: “the stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window.” Wrap it all up with Rimbaud and a beautiful left-wing girlfriend, and “I was sitting at the gateway”.
Chronicles ends with Dylan on the verge of his breakthrough. But this breakthrough will also be – we know from the intervening chapters – a tragic rupture. The pathos of Dylan is that his self was ripped from his grasp at a time when he had barely begun to know it. It’s clear that these wounds still smart, that Dylan still reels from the trauma, and that the memory of those early months in New York, those months of discovery, remains precious. “The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave.”
Perhaps I’m swayed by the fact that this book is so much better than I feared it might be (as a fan since the 60s, I’ve got used to disappointments). But with this rich, intermittently preposterous, often tender book, Bob Dylan has delivered more than many of us dared hope for.