By Mark Guarino
Sorry, Austin Powers. Bob Dylan is and always has been the true international man of mystery. Through the many twists in his 42 years of making music, Dylan always let the songs do the talking. Until now. “Chronicles” is the first of what is reported to be a series of memoirs penned by the 63-year-old enigma. His sudden open-door policy is strange news considering how famously private Dylan is; in the past he’s worn disguises onstage and concealed a secret marriage for years. But read through the first volume – a slim and breezy 293 pages – and it’s soon obvious this isn’t a stricttell-all rag.
Jumping backward and forward in time, Dylan cherrypicks scenes in his life that filled him with great meaning and delivers them with prose that reads like fine fiction. It could be as far as we know. Literal fact has always alluded the songwriter in favor of metaphorical truth.
In the current issue of Rolling Stone, he explains it this way: “With the book, what I try and do is put a feeling across … It’s more abstract, drawn out over long periods of time. I worked the book, if you want to call it that, in patterns … It works on a variety of levels, like some of the best songs do.”
True enough, you get the feeling you’re jogging alongside Dylan, listening to him free associate personal history with random thoughts. First you’re there with him auditioning songs for his first publisher, then you’re watching him struggle for gigs in Greenwich Village, then he’s on tour with Tom Petty, then he’s back in Minneapolis, squatting at a frat house and discovering Woody Guthrie.
The writing is Midwestern straight talk, beautifully bent. The most eloquent passage is his description of living in New Orleans at a time when he was struggling to find his voice again and working with producer Daniel Lanois on “Oh Mercy,” the first step to his late career comeback.
“The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here,” he writes. “You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race toward the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing – spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in theirhands. A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it, but you know it’s here. Somebody is always sinking. Everyone seems to be from some very old Southern families. Eitherthat or a foreigner. I like the way it is.”
Dylan whittles his myth down so it’s mortal-sized. Writing about the way he felt first hearing Guthrie sing (“It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted.”), there’s the feeling the awe still lives. For songwriters, he offers guitar technique and writing instruction (“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.”). And for curiosity seekers, there’s revelations like the one where he states a kinship with early hip-hop insurgents Public Enemy, N.W.A. and Run-D.M.C. (“They were all poets and knew what was goingon.”).
The thread following the zigzagging narrative is the childlike naivete he first felt in his early years as a nobody, discovering poets, painters, hipsters, obsessed fans and himself. It never disappears. Throughout, even in the passage when he’s burnt out and realizes he’s a washed-out club act, Dylan doesn’t stop asking the early questions: Why me? How do I move forward? Unlike most bios, this one isn’t necessarily about the man behind the music. Here, he gets at the man lost inside the music.