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Chronicles: Volume One Paperback – September 13, 2005
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One would not anticipate a conventional memoir from Bob Dylan--indeed, one would not have foreseen an autobiography at all from the pen of the notoriously private legend. What Chronicles: Volume 1 delivers is an odd but ultimately illuminating memoir that is as impulsive, eccentric, and inspired as Dylan's greatest music.
Eschewing chronology and skipping over most of the "highlights" that his many biographers have assigned him, Dylan drifts and rambles through his tale, amplifying a series of major and minor epiphanies. If you're interested in a behind-the-scenes look at his encounters with the Beatles, look elsewhere. Dylan describes the sensation of hearing the group's "Do You Want to Know a Secret" on the radio, but devotes far more ink to a Louisiana shopkeeper named Sun Pie, who tells him, "I think all the good in the world might already been done" and sells him a World's Greatest Grandpa bumper sticker. Dylan certainly sticks to his own agenda--a newspaper article about journeymen heavyweights Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis and soul singer Joe Tex's appearance on The Tonight Show inspire heartfelt musings, and yet the 1963 assassination of John Kennedy prompts nary a word from the era's greatest protest singer.
For all the small revelations (it turns out he's been a big fan of Barry Goldwater, Mickey Rourke, and Ice-T), there are eye-opening disclosures, including his confession that a large portion of his recorded output was designed to alienate his audience and free him from the burden of being a "the voice of a generation."
Off the beaten path as it is, Chronicles is nevertheless an astonishing achievement. As revelatory in its own way as Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, it provides ephemeral insights into the mind one of the most significant artistic voices of the 20th century while creating a completely new set of mysteries. --Steven Stolder --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
For legions of die-hard fans and Dylanologists, there is but one voice. And hearing it spoken is rare, mainly during concert band introductions. So the sound of actor Penn taking on Bob Dylan's legendary and oft-cryptic persona is, initially, a surreal aural experience. But after awhile, it becomes clear that the choice was apt. Like Dylan, Penn is a fearless performer, and his own iconoclastic personality serves the narrative without ever threatening to upstage it. One detects a reverent restraint in Penn's voice that conveys the impression that his casual performance is likely as studied as his acclaimed screen work. He adopts a subtle Guthrie-esque workingman's tone, peppering his delivery with plenty of conjunctions. Only when recounting Dylan's youthful arrival in New York City does Penn's preternatural, been-there-done-that tone seem inappropriate. Not surprisingly, Dylan's prose style is lyrical and rambling, the rhythm and cadences jazz-like, and the content prone to Beat influences. But Penn handles these charges with skill. His delivery is even, but his voice dips and rises with welcome emotion when Dylan discusses his unwanted anointment as the conscience of a generation. Overall, this is a solid and compelling audio adaptation.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
First, it's not an autobiography in the usual sense of the word. Sure, Bob is writing about himself and what he's done, but time flows freely forward and back and the subject changes (sometimes radically) every few paragraphs. He doesn't indulge in much self-justification, he doesn't try to chart a distinct arc of personal development, and it's not rare for him to start down a detour that screams for more exploration and then to turn the bus around. The comparison to X-Ray, the autobiography of Ray Davies of the Kinks, isn't entirely justified -- I don't think Dylan fictionalized much -- but Chronicles is closer in spirit to that than to more conventional rock autobiographies.
Second, Dylan lets you into his mind but he doesn't much open his heart. Suze Rotolo is the subject of some lyrical reminiscence, for instance, but their relationship is kept very abstract -- maybe he's protecting her privacy, I don't know. He talks about his love for his wife and kids at length in the "New Morning" chapter, but they never even show up as characters! His second (?) wife does show up in the "Oh Mercy" chapter, but she remains nameless and faceless. The only emotions Bob really describes are awe for his idols in his early days and frustration and loathing for himself in the "Oh Mercy" period.
Third, and finally, don't overestimate how much ground it covers. At 293 pages, the book is short; the font and the large amount of whitespace padding make 293 pages sound longer than it is. I read the book in just about five hours of reading, and much of that time my pace was leisurely. The content is pretty rigidly circumscribed, too: the first, second, and last chapters cover his early life and career, in Minnesota and in New York (1949-62); the third and fourth his "New Morning" (1969-70) and "Oh Mercy" (1988-89) periods, respectively. There's only a handful of anecdotes that fall outside those ranges.
One brief, nitpicky comment before I praise the book: Dylan needed a better proofreader than he got. I know he missed at least one deadline with the manuscript and probably more, and so publication was likely something of a rush-job, but he has a tendency to use words whose meanings elude him ("incredulously" instead of "incredibly" -- facts don't tend to be credulous), and a sharp set of eyes should have caught them in a once-over. The grammar, on the other hand, is better than some have given him credit for. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if awe of the man stood in the way of proper proofing.
Anyhow, my three corrections to misconceptions could be taken as negatives. If it's got these problems, you might say, why is it worth five stars? My answer to that is that the man has a way with words, and just 'cause he won't be tamed by chronology & word choice & all that jazz doesn't mean that his recollections aren't delightful.
The book doesn't resemble a chronological biography so much as a Jim Jarmusch movie, a collection of short anecdotes tied together with a declarative sentence here or an interrogatory paragraph there. Dylan, who's rapidly turning into everybody's favorite dubious grandpa, full of funny stories and odd ways of looking at the world, sheds light on his influences, his contemporaries, and his colleagues that are alternately revealing, funny, incisive, and patronizing, but always entertaining. The anecdotal approach he's chosen couldn't be better suited to his personality or even his view of life (after all, Louie the King, Georgia Sam, and God shared the same song). For sheer entertainment value, Volume One of Chronicles slays the rest of the Dylan bookshelf.
Postscript: there's a six-song companion CD available for free from some retailers with two unreleased songs ("The Cuckoo" from the Gaslight and the original demo of "Dignity") and four released tracks from "New Morning" and "Oh Mercy" ("New Morning", "Father of Night", "Man in the Long Black Coat", and "Political World"). Keep your eyes out.
Not being a literary critic or anything close to it and having read this book many years after its release, all I can add to the conversation is that like his music, you'll either like his autobiography or you'll be confounded by it. He certainly does elicit strong opinions either way, which are fun to read. I've started thinking of him as one of the 20th/21st century's greatest trolls who just starts fires everywhere and then sits back and laughs.
Not that I think this autobiography is a troll, not at all. I find it to be beautifully and purposefully written. I do think that some sections are taken directly from journal entries made right at the time -- the meetings with Archibald Macleish are a good example, and the detailed notes on the studio sessions. These take on a more crisp, direct writing style than the free-flowing, poetic recalled memories of his time as a hungry young folksinger in Greenwich Village.
If you're one of those people who are coming to him now because of the Nobel, this autobiography isn't a bad place to start, but do understand that it's not what won him that prize. To get to the bottom of that, you'd have to listen to 55 years of music.