At long, long last arrives the word from the Man himself. The book that fans and critics having been waiting years for hits the shelves and the question is, was it worth the wait? For those hoping for a blow-by-blow account of the construction of some of the greatest songs in the canon of popular music, a full revelation of the meaning of his lyrics or even a detailed account of Dylan’s everyday life for forty-five years will be disappointed, for this is no warts and all autobiography. Rather Bob offers up his reflections on what he considers key periods of his life and those people who have been decisive influences on his long and varied career. What emerges is a fascinating sketch, rather than a full portrait, of a searingly intense artist at crucial junctions of his life when he found himself either in tune with the times or bewilderingly out of step.
Eschewing the traditional biographical format “Chronicles” begins and ends with Dylan’s arrival in New York City at the start of the 1960’s as he embarked on his career as a folk musician. Encounters with the characters who comprised the folk scene at the time, as well as other acquaintances, are recalled in surprisingly vivid detail, given the length of time that has elapsed since those formative years. In interviews Dylan admitted that he prompted his memory by identifying the people he knew at particular times and then reconstructed events based on his recollections of the time he spent with them. So what we are given is not necessarily a diary account but rather an evocation of a time when the fresh-faced troubadour, still untroubled by the trappings of global fame and mythologizing, began to make his mark on the music world. We also glimpse the true, and touchingly sensitive, nature of the person behind the “Dylan” public persona.
The second part of the book leaps forward several years to the end of the Sixties when the burden of being the “spokesman for a generation” had clearly taken its toll on Dylan. Reeling from the loss of his father and under pressure from his peers as well as his huge fan-base, he was finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the public image with the private man. As he puts it, he could cope with being dubbed “Legend. Icon. Enigma (Buddha in European clothes)..harmless…Prophet, Messiah, Savior – those are the tough ones.” He recounts tales of his rural home being besieged by fanatical admirers – break-ins being a regular occurrence – and his not being able to lead the “normal” life he so craved at the time. The fact that he had a young family whom he wanted to shield from so much unwelcome attention simply served to deepen the disillusionment he was feeling with his place in the entertainment business. Feeling at a personal and professional nadir he embarks upon a new album, “New Morning”, hoping that this will bring some sort of spiritual redemption. One sees that this was a man no longer comfortable with the expectations being heaped upon him as some sort of revolutionary leader, particularly at a time when America, and much of the World, was embroiled in social and political upheaval. Indeed, it is clear that Dylan always saw himself as simply a singer of songs rather than any sort of spokesman or leader and the new, softer style of this record – taking him away from the coruscating polemics of his earlier work – marked a new direction to take him into the 1970s. He himself admits, it was the first of many ‘comeback’ albums.
A further jump forward to 1987 and the recording of another album, “Oh Mercy”. As ever, this was hailed as a rebirth at the time, although to those who followed his career closely Bob was always capable of producing an average album months after a masterpiece. What fascinates about this particular section is the deep well of emptiness that Dylan was drawing on at the time. Surprisingly, given what had gone before, he was finding it impossible to write any songs and the routine of live performance no longer provided the adrenaline buzz that had been the cornerstone of his career, resulting in a series of lacklustre performances that tarnished his reputation in the eyes of many fans. Even the great songs he had produced over the previous twenty-five years meant nothing to him - he calls them “strangers”. To his credit, Dylan recognized the need to find a new approach to his work in an attempt to galvanize his creative juices and to reconcile him to the continuing round of live shows. The alternative was a genteel retirement with his dogs and his garden. With a new producer, Daniel Lanois, on board he struggles with his inner demons to record the album and we learn that there are different influences now guiding Dylan’s life. His second wife, although unnamed, emerges as a key figure at this time and together they embark on a road trip from New Orleans that helps Bob to come to terms with the new direction his career must take, enabling him to produce his best work in over a decade.
So, is this the tome that puts to rest the Dylan myth industry? Well, not quite since there are large sections of his life that are barely mentioned in this volume or are not covered at all: the explosive impact of his “going electric”; his masterpiece, “Blood on the Tracks” or his conversion to Christianity to name but three and dedicated Dylanologists will argue into eternity about the significance of his lyrics. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read the account of the central character in his own words and without the spin and interpretation that so many previous authors sought to attach to the man and his work. Perhaps it is not an entirely unvarnished flick through his back pages but Dylan should be applauded for his candour and the vibrant style with which he writes. Perhaps a book more for Dylan fans than the uninitiated but, nevertheless, a fascinating account from one of the great cultural icons of the Twentieth Century. It is to be hoped that there are many more volumes to come.