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.
CHRONICLES: VOLUME ONE
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
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 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.