It’s no secret that Bob Dylan has, at times, been a world-class dissembler. Early on in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (the first of a projected three-book series), he describes being interviewed by a Columbia Records publicist assigned to whip up a biographical press release on him back in 1961; with no apparent forethought, the then 20-year-old Dylan fabricated a bogus background for himself on the spot (that his Midwestern family was ”long gone,” that they’d kicked him out, that he’d ridden into New York City on a freight train).
Forty-three years later, the enigmatic, much-mythologized star has apparently outgrown the need to put people on. Chronicles is a strikingly candid, endlessly fascinating tome, miles removed from the fanciful surrealism of his earlier book, the 1971 ”novel” Tarantula (reissued by Scribner this month). Chockful of surprising details and vivid recollections, Chronicles is a sheer gift to those Dylan obsessives eager to get at the truth about the great man.
One caveat: Dylan dishes out that truth on his terms and in his time. Chronicles hopscotches back and forth between the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, with a long stop in the ’80s, a time when Dylan admits he was creatively bankrupt. (On his 1986-87 tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: ”Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”) The pace is leisurely, the tone idiosyncratically poetic. ”The song rose up until I could read the look in its eyes,” he writes about composing a new tune after a fallow period.
There are poignant recollections of his boyhood in Hibbing, Minn., and a wealth of detail about his early days on the New York folk scene and his aesthetic development as a songwriter. It’s old news that Woody Guthrie was a pivotal influence, but who ever imagined that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s morbid 1928 tune ”Pirate Jenny” could have so dramatically jolted his sensibilities? Or that his early-’60s musings about the Civil War would form ”the all-encompassing template behind everything that [he] would write”? Or that a chance compliment from the wrestler Gorgeous George could so boost the teenage Dylan’s self-esteem?
Equally revelatory is his account of the years following his famous 1966 motorcycle accident, when all manner of freaks and radicals were aggressively stalking him. A beleaguered Dylan responded by refashioning his image and consciously changing musical direction: ”I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and housebroken.” Ponder that the next time you spin John Wesley Harding or Nashville Skyline.
Of course, some will be disappointed that Chronicles contains virtually nothing on the recording of those seminal ’60s albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde (although it does include a lengthy — and wholly engrossing — blow-by-blow of the sessions for 1989’s Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy). Nor does Dylan discuss meeting the Beatles, or explore the reasons behind his pivotal shift from folk to rock, a move that practically got him tarred and feathered at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival. We can only surmise that, like an old-time pulp-fiction serial writer, Uncle Bob wants to keep us hanging for the next installment(s).