When Greil Marcus reviewed Bob Dylan’s eagerly awaited 1970 album Self-Portrait for Rolling Stone, he began with the infamous line “what is this s—t?” Dylan’s legions of fans, Marcus included, suffered traumatic disillusionment upon listening to the inscrutable collection of covers and poorly-produced musical experiments to be found in Self-Portrait, in large part because all were expecting something more revealing from the “self portrait” of the larger-than-life musician whose impact on popular culture had been—and continues to be—so enormous. While Chronicles, the first in a promised series of autobiographical works by Dylan, offers far more to capture the interest of Dylan fans and curious readers alike, one must still ask a paraphrase of that infamous question: what is this?
Less a standard autobiography than a pastiche of more or less confessional
diary entries, Chronicles lurches between topics, locations, and decades throughout its almost three hundred pages, focusing on Dylan’s experiences growing up in Minnesota, his early years as a professional singer, and the recordings of New Morning and Oh Mercy. That neither is one of Dylan’s more popular works is an indication of the unconventional, nonlinear approach Dylan takes in Chronicles. He begins with his arrival in New York as the original vagabond at the beginning of the 1960s, but refocuses in ensuing chapters on his hermitlike days in
Working largely within these brackets but not averse to forays into other periods of his nearly half-century career, Dylan offers often-spellbinding commentary on countless other artists and songs, reflections on random historical events that struck Dylan’s fancy at a time or place (he’s got a serious jones for Civil War history), and even quotably succinct musings on the nature of music: “a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.” Chronicles is a masterpiece compared to Dylan’s 1965 stream-of-consciousness novel, the virtually unreadable Tarantula. This time around, readers will be pleasantly surprised by the accessibility and tone of Dylan’s prose. Seemingly gone are the days when Dylan would deliberately fabricate the details of his life and career to confound reporters and amuse himself, and Chronicles offers precious glimpses into Dylan’s musical and artistic opinions and peeves, some of which are surprising. Bono of U2 has “the soul of an ancient poet”? James Joyce is a hopelessly arrogant writer, but Frank Sinatra, Jr. is all but a musical soulmate? Dylan considered his own folk playing style to be “hard core”? Each of these and ten thousand other revelations startle and fascinate, and it is in these descriptions that Dylan’s writing excels. Other astounding tidbits include the suggestion that Blood on the Tracks, arguably Dylan’s finest album and considered at least loosely autobiographical, was based on Chekhov short stories.
As he has done throughout the years in interviews and liner notes, Dylan
also has some fun in Chronicles exploding fans’ expectations, particularly in the attention paid to famous moments in his life. His 1966 misadventures on his motorcycle—the motorcycle accident!—is treated with almost comic abruptness: “I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered.” Similarly, his several wives are unnamed and largely undescribed, as are his parents. Most surprising (and disappointing) of all is the complete lack of attention paid to his conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s, indeed Chronicles reveals nothing about his religious convictions at all. To the extent we learn anything about his faith journey, it is through his claim to have appeared in Israel in a yarmulke to confuse the legions of fans and critics who would never cease looking to label him. In this sense, Chronicles slyly subverts the standard format of a memoir: there’s precious little here in the way of biographical fact that couldn’t be gleaned from the many professional biographies of Dylan.
That being said, Chronicles seems at points to be poorly edited,
and bedeviled by malapropisms and mixed metaphors. One might fairly ask who would be up to the task of editing this prickly iconoclast, who reputedly composed the original version on a manual typewriter during his never-ending tour schedule, but reviewers who gush too ardently (including Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, who calls it a “circuitous, digressive, brilliant monologue”) are far too quick to forgive. A relaxed and colloquial style is one thing; patent disregard for basic standards of prose is another. This is, after all, the writer who has contributed many a well-turned phrase to the American lexicon, the same man literary critic Christopher Ricks recently called the greatest living user of the English language.
So back to our original question: what exactly is Chronicles?
Less than a memoir, more than a diary, it is maddening and flabbergasting but also spellbinding and rich in detail. Chronicles works like Dylan has always worked, on his own terms. Those looking for an autobiographical account of Dylan will be sorely disappointed, as will anyone seeking confirmation of the more lurid details of Dylan’s back pages. Those seeking a peek or two inside the head of this quizzical artist, a loose chronicle instead of a literary masterpiece or standard tell-all, will find much that tantalizes and delights.