Reinventing Bobby Zimmerman


October 31, 2004



Bob Dylan is, of course, a musical genius who will be revered long after the last member of the generation that he so inspired in the '60s is dead and buried.

He is also a charlatan, a con man and a champion huckster -- though I mean that in the very best way. So were other beloved and immortal American icons such as P.T. Barnum, Davy Crockett and Huck Finn.

I know that list mixes fictional characters with real men. Barnum defined a distinctly American style of showmanship before his death in 1891, and Crockett was a pioneer in "give the people what they want" personality politics, serving three terms in Congress before dying at the Alamo. Huck lived only on the printed page, but such distinctions hardly matter.

These characters endure in pop-culture consciousness not because of their deeds but the power of the mostly fictional personae they created -- or, in the case of Huck, the one Samuel Clemens fashioned for him after first recreating himself as Mark Twain.


By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster. $24.


Reinventing oneself may be America's most important indigenous art form. Since the Beat movement of the 1950s, there's been no greater forum for it than rock 'n' roll, and no rocker has been better at it than the former Robert Allen Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn.

Far from being the personally revealing look at the "real" Dylan that some reviewers are hailing, Chronicles: Volume One, like many of Dylan's best creations, is a ping-pong game between fiction and fact; a hyper-romantic love letter to a mythical time, place and mood during its rose-colored portrait of the early New York folk scene, and finally a wickedly funny, myth-deflating look at the mundane realities of the act of creation in the long chunk of the book devoted to the making of the unremarkable "Oh Mercy" of 1989.

You want facts, figures and the chronological charting of the musician's highs and lows? Read Robert Shelton's No Direction Home (1985), the finest of the many biographies. This book is a series of vignettes that shift between Dylan's early days in Manhattan ("Modern Gomorrah" and "the city that would come to shape my destiny") and his time in upstate New York (where his biggest problem wasn't recovering from a motorcycle crash but worrying about having to shoot one of his obsessive fans), and from his upbringing in "slate-gray" northern Minnesota to his struggle to climb out of "the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion" during his awful career lull in the mid-'80s.

Chronicles: Volume One is more linear than Dylan's last and only other book, Tarantula (1971), but it's just as much "a work of fantasy and imagination," and its point is the same: To showcase the spectacularly wicked, lightning-quick wit that so memorably eviscerated the hapless journalist in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary, "Don't Look Back." As always, the artist is toying with us, playing alternating roles as he continues to hone his greatest work of art: the towering persona of Bob Dylan.

Dylan cheerfully cops to this -- "Life is more or less a lie, but then again that's exactly the way we want it to be," he writes -- and he's probably having a hearty laugh at anyone who accepts as truth or searches for meaning in trivial, absurd and possibly sarcastic revelations such as his hero worship of Gorgeous George, his admiration for Barry Goldwater and his sense of kinship with Ricky Nelson, Bono and Denzel Washington.

The howlers just keep coming. Dylan quotes Elton John to pay homage to Judy Garland ("Like the song says, 'I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid'"). He strokes the ponderous critic who led the pack in polishing his myth (drawn as a kid to the America of tall tales and legends, he notes that "Greil Marcus, the musical historian, would some 30 years later call it 'the invisible republic'"). He sneers at Robbie Robertson when the guitarist asks him, "Where do you think you're gonna take the whole music scene?" He nods to Gordon Lightfoot when telling us that his birthplace of Duluth is on the edge of Superior, "the big lake that the Indians call Gitche Gumee."

If you can't sense the smirk behind all of that, you just don't know which way the wind blows.

Parsing the reasons why the memoirist focuses on these particular stories when leaving so many other noteworthy tales untold is as irrelevant as speculating about how he actually crafted the book -- whether it was ghostwritten, dictated into a tape recorder or etched into stone tablets. As with his music, the brilliance is in the delivery. Dylan can sing a 200-year-old folk song, a classic like his own "Masters of War," or a ditty manufactured for Britney Spears, and not only invest it with layers of meaning but also make it 100 percent pure Dylan. The same is true about whatever he's writing about.

"It was freezing winter with a snap and sparkle in the air, nights full of blue haze," he writes of a stroll down New York's Seventh Avenue in 1961. "It seemed like ages ago since I'd lay in the green grass and it smelled of true summer -- glints of light dancing off the lakes and yellow butterflies on the black tarred roads."

The obvious influence is Jack Kerouac, who's invoked many times in these pages even as Dylan claims to have moved past his early admiration for the Beat poet. Nonsense. Beyond the stylistic thievery, the goal of all of Dylan's art, as with Kerouac's, is to remind us that life isn't about getting anywhere in particular but about opening yourself up to the experiences along the road. More than the specifics of his life, this attitude is what the book celebrates.

"What I do in the studio doesn't define me as a person," Dylan writes. "There's just too much small print in thousands of pages for anything like that to happen."

As devilishly resistant to fully reveal himself at age 63 as he was at 25, Dylan doesn't define himself in Chronicles: Vol. One, either. But it is an inspired, illuminating and terrifically enjoyable read.