Chronicles of the Tarantula

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?

16 Responses

  1. National Book Award?Is it
    National Book Award?

    Is it that good? Or did Boomers hijack the nomination for biography/autobiography?

    Neither book is on your correspondent’s to-read list.

  2. ChroniclesI don’t have the

    I don’t have the book on me to refer to, but I liked the part that said, “sometines you’d see heavy people like David Amram walk by…” I thought that was cool.

    I didn’t really think about the validity of the stories because I’ve spent years in the company of professional entertainers and I know you really can’t believe much of anything that they say, no matter what the topic may be. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, it’s just who they are. Everyone who seeks that much attention is just built very differently than I am or that most people are, so I didn’t really read the book like it was entirely non-fiction. My Skeptic’s eye was on alert.

    One thing that struck me was his overt railing against wanting to be famous and his hatred of any reference to him being the “Voice of a Generation”. Those two topics came up over and over throughout the book. I think he took the Voice of a Generation thing too seriously.

    To hear him tell it, he was just walking down the backalleys of Duluth with his hands in his pockets one day, and the next, people were climbing on his roof, taking unwanted pictures of his family, and calling him the Voice of a Generation. The way it affected his mind was Kafka-esque.

    In another section of the book however, he makes it crystal clear that he sought fame. He went to New York and hunted down one of his favorite folk singers and played guitar and sang for the guy while the guy was shopping in a music store!

    I thought the book portrayed grouchy Dylan, talented writer Dylan and musician Dylan. Like the rest of us, he’s a bunch of different people all at the same time.

    I really liked that part where he described being inspired by the lounge singer. I could related to being inspired by other artists when you’re in a rut. Even if it wasn’t true, it was a great story.

    Overall, it was a great book.

  3. MasksThis brought me to

    This brought me to remember a line from a movie (Velvet Goldmine), and I think it’s a quote from Oscar Wilde (paraphrasing): “A man does not speak sincerely in his own person, but give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Anyway, that’s why i have always loved Halloween.

  4. Poker Face JokerSome people
    Poker Face Joker

    Some people saw a chair dancing
    Up on a stage
    According to Derrida
    That is what they saw.

    The furniture was made from wood
    Which people think
    Cannot move all by itself
    But I know it can.

    Son, said Dylan’s Dad on TV,
    (Thru Bob’s own voice)
    Even if you get defiled
    God has faith in you.

    This is a paraphrase of course
    Written for my
    Memory in a forest
    Where trees of wood grow.

  5. All Things BobRead it. Liked
    All Things Bob

    Read it. Liked it. Whatever part or parts were actually the ‘true story’ – who knows. I expected nothing less than obfuscation and paradox from the moment I picked it up. Long ago, I gave up trying to interpret his meaning in song or print. This hasn’t made his work any less interesting to me. On the contrary.

    I’ll leave it to critics and National Book Award panels to describe it as an ‘autobiography’.

    As Levi points out, “Deception, identity, and disguise is absolutely central to the work of Bob Dylan”.

    Yes. As it was and shall ever be.

  6. Yeah, I was really surprised
    Yeah, I was really surprised to see David Amram get a name-check! I’ve heard that they hung out a lot in the late 60’s/early 70’s, during the pre-“New Morning” period.

    It’s funny that David Amram talks all the time about his past friendship with Jack Kerouac, but I have barely ever heard him acknowledge that he hung with Dylan, which puts him in pretty exclusive company. I’d love to ask him about this.

  7. Have you seen Dylan’s dog?My
    Have you seen Dylan’s dog?

    My take and retake on Dylans “autobiography” is that this is his reality. I often wonder during the course of a day what it would be like to be in someone else’s head so to speak; what would it be like to be that person? Some people I imagine that their reality is like “snow” on the video screen, you know before blue screens there was just this gray fuzz, video static so to speak. What would it be like to watch Nascar and enjoy it or have the simple drive for weekends, football and beer? Not that I don’t enjoy those kind of things occasionally but in general the mainstream culture as Dylan names it doesn’t appeal to me. I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window and you had to have awkward footwear to walk in it. In this book and in his songs Dylan lets us know what it is like to be Dylan, a reality that is undeniably his own. A reality that he continues to define in his own terms, not speaking as the voice of a generation but in these chronicles as one of an artist who was aware of what was going on around him and of his place in that arena.

    I had read this book when it was first available and thought then that it seemed poorly written disjointed and scattered. Upon further reading I discovered that we are not talking “autobiography” like the story of my life but a rather subjective view of what was important to Dylan the artist. This is what I was feeling about my ART. Not a story of one life as much as an artist and his touchstones of his creative force. Thanks for letting me revisit it.

    Do you think there will be a Volume Two?

    What do you think Dylan did today? Is he currently in a tour? Would you like to wake up as Dylan?

    Our realities are our identities. I can feel the conflict in the written word that is “Chronicles” that Dylan felt, in spite of his denial that of being the spokesman of a generation, that he felt an artistic responsibility to report what was happening and at the same time have it happening to him. Isn’t that the true essence of the artists of the sixties and seventies and somewhat from there on out is that they were interpreting our collective experience into this new media of pop culture music with the long player format, artist were fitting their interpretations of something we all felt, indeed something that Dylan knew was being interpreted by other pop artists and emerged as a new art form from cover to content. A slippery slope that requires footwear extrordnair and whose slipping and sliding gives more credibility to the poet. More bounce to the ounce. More punch less dancing. He floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.

  8. The answer is in the titleI
    The answer is in the title

    I haven’t actually read the book yet (still on a library waiting list), but one of the most striking things about all this is the book’s title.

    Jean Froissart’s famous ‘Chronicles’, which dealt with historical events from 1325-1400, is filled with historical errors, as well as events which Froissart clearly made up in order to tell a good story. Ever since, the word has had a slight connotation with ‘legendary material’ – As in’s definition of the word –

    Don’t forget, Dylan is a word man. He knows what he’s doing.

  9. Wow! That’s brilliant. Thanks
    Wow! That’s brilliant. Thanks for posting this because I didn’t know about Jean Froissart’s work. Fascinating.

  10. Definitely — I never knew
    Definitely — I never knew that.

    Isn’t Chronicles one of the books in the Bible? Hmmm ….

  11. Amram also made the Honor
    Amram also made the Honor Roll in the back of Hunter S. Thompson’s last book (up to this point) “Hey Rube”. I was surprised to see his name there. I think he must know everybody.

  12. That’s a real good point,
    That’s a real good point, Levi. The Chronicles of the bible contain a list of genealogies down to King David, the history of King David and King Solomon, and the history of the Jews from then until their return from Babylon. They are also numbered as Chronicles I and Chronicles II.

    I guess it slipped my mind because of all those boring lists of who begat who.

  13. Masked & AnonymousBob, he
    Masked & Anonymous

    Bob, he dance to the nightingale’s tune.

    Glad you reviewed it and are recommending it. Seems to me like the most obvious new “required reading” book in some time. Other than maybe Kerouac’s Chronicles (or diary or lognotes or whatever he called those notebooks they just published) this is the most revealing peak behind the curtain in some time.

    Also, it’s my favorite newly-written book in a while. Whether he met Dempsey or not — and I would not be surprised if he did — his memories of discovering the world in NYC some 40 years ago is Memory-Babe worthy, more vivid than my own memories of 20 years ago. I just loved how he captured those midwestern wide-eyes of first NYC impressions. Coming from neighboring Manitoba to Greenwich Village at the same age, he sure captured what I went through — how overwhelming and mind-blowing and Big every book and apartment and person seemed to be.

    Oh yeah, the other new book is the Phil Lesh Chronicles of The Grateful Leviticus.

    Anyway, just wanted to mention that Chronicles has already been made into a movie (in a way)
    and he called it Masked and Anonymous.

    So glad he and we all lived long enough for him to find his way back to the typewriter.

    Please, sir. can I have some more?

  14. Chronicles… by Bob
    Chronicles… by Bob Dylan

    Yes, I finished Chronicles, Volume 1. It was a work of creative non-fiction, I agree…Yes, it had something to say…Like the shuttle flight of John Glenn. A person is always more than they appear to be. Bob Dylan revels in that muse. He is never boring. He always makes you strive to be a better person yourself. I liked that story of the lounge singer who inspired him in one of his lower moments. (Billectric and yourself also inspire people. Have you ever thought of getting into the inspirational speaking circuit? Perhaps you already have…)

    At any rate, Bob Dylan is a person who inspired me to buy and read his book. I have never missed a concert by Dylan in my adult life. I bought tickets to his June 1st concert at BellSouth Ballpark here in Chattanooga– also with Willie Nelson headlining it. I understand that Dylan et al is also coming to Jacksonville, Florida. Should be a large time, as Dylan and Nelson concerts usually are. It will be quite something seeing them together. I have seen them both separately…

    Anyway, to get back to the book review: I really liked that part of the book which told about Dylan’s trip to Louisiana backwoods with his wife, and the story about him reading books in his opium dealer friend’s house and the New York Public Library.
    He really gave the impression on having being a self-taught philosopher. Dylan to the core…

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