I think it’s great that Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles: Volume 1” was nominated for a National Book Award, listed by the New York Times as one of the top five books of 2004, and awarded many other honors. In fact, the old guy has written an amazingly breezy, funny and original book, and he deserves the recognition.
But I’m a little annoyed when I read reviews depicting this book as Dylan’s long-awaited “true story”. Sure, the book is billed as an autobiography, but Bob Dylan has been hiding behind masks longer than the four members of KISS put together, and I find it hard to believe he’s dropped all of them now.
Deception, identity and disguise is absolutely central to the work of Bob Dylan, who has been in the course of his career an earnest protest singer, an amphetamine-popping rock star, a country-western refugee, a glitter-suited superstar, a born-again Christian, a sloppy has-been drunk, a mellowed-out jamster and a resurgent elder statesman of rock. It’s exactly this neverending game of hide-and-seek that makes his work so compelling to his fans — you never know where he’ll jump out at you from next, always with the straightest of faces. But you can’t become a completely different artist every three years and then suddenly drop the artifice and tell the truth. For the artist currently known as Bob Dylan, artifice is truer than truth, and this is how it must be.
“Chronicles: Volume 1” is a masterful performance, a deadpan portrayal of an autobiography, but it is no autobiography. On page one, skinny young Bob Dylan is mistaken for an up-and-coming boxer by famous prizefighter Jack Dempsey in a swanky Manhattan bar. I don’t believe this happened, just as I don’t believe Dylan ever worked for a while on a fishing boat outside the Delacroix, or that any princess on a steeple ever carried on her shoulder a siamese cat.
I do not mean this as a slam on Bob Dylan, but rather as a observation of his artistic integrity. If Dylan had actually met Jack Dempsey in this bar, I believe, he would have written him into the book as Cassius Clay, simply on principle, because that’s the kind of artist he is.
The book jumps from decade to decade, and it reaches a moving peak in the chapter about the 80’s, by all accounts the worst phase of Dylan’s career. An admitted alcoholic, he had lost all interest in music. He hated doing concerts, until he saw a cheap but inspired lounge singer who imparted in him some mysterious wisdom that led to his resurgence as an artist. This is the most confessional, self-critical chapter in the book, and even I am willing to believe this part of the book reveals something deeply personal about Dylan’s life at that time. It’s amusing, though, that nowhere in this chapter does Dylan tell us exactly what wisdom he received from this lounge singer; he simply tells us he received it. That’s Dylan …
I hope “Chronicles: Volume 1” wins the National Book Award, but I don’t think anyone should try to read it too literally. The joy of any Dylan work is in the imaginative leaps, the exotic mixture of comedy and tragedy, and the finely crafted wordplay. I think Dylan’s new book should be read in the same spirit as “Tarantula”, the short book of stream-of-consciousness poetry/prose he published in 1966. “Tarantula” is somewhere between beat poetry and Marx Brothers comedy. Each section begins as a blurt of weirdness:
the original undertaker, Jave, with bangs, & her hysterical bodyguard, Coo, who comes from Jersey and always carries his lunch/ they screech around the corner & tie the old buick into a lamppost/ along came three bachelors sprinkling the sidewalk with fish
a strange man we’re calling Simply That wakes up to find “what” scribbled in his garden. he washes himself with a scrambled egg, puts his glasses in his pants & pulls up his trousers.
All of the sections then turn out to be letters or epistles of some sort, and each is signed with a different funny name, among them Silly Eyes, Toby Celery, homer the slut, benjamin turtle, Gumbo the Hobo and Wimp, Your Friendly Pirate.
I think Dylan was telling some truths somewhere inside this 1966 book, and he must be telling some somewhere inside “Chronicles: Volume 1” too.
What do you think?