Bob Dylan
Chronicles: Volume One

A perfect coffee-table book for anyone who agrees that Dylan's canon of lyrics constitutes some of the most important poetry of the last half-century.

By Jonathan Polonsky

October saw the publication of an autobiography we had every reason to believe would never materialise. Bob Dylan, the subject of dozens of unauthorised biographies, finally decided to step out from the shadows of his self-imposed emotional exile and tell it how it really was. Well, sort of...

Dylan continues his habit, which his poetic voice established in the mid-1960s, of telling part of one side of a story while shielding us from the whole truth. At times, this can be very frustrating. Recounting his early days as a struggling musician establishing himself on the folk scene in bohemian New York, for example, Dylan neglects to tell us how he got there, why he got there, and what he thought about his experiences. What he does tell us, though, is fascinating, and generally told in an eloquent, poetic voice. In both style and content, Dylan reminds you of his great early influence, Jack Kerouac.

The most successful part of the autobiography is that in which Dylan expertly recaptures the early 1960s folk-revival heyday, and profiles the major players involved. It can be startling to remember that a 60-something is telling the story, not the energetic teenager that seems to be leaping off the page with such vivid, wild-eyed prose. Dylan's powers of recollection alone are astounding.

This period both begins and ends the book. The middle is somewhat less successful. Dylan's rambling style can become a little oppressive, veering away from a charming Woody Guthrie-esque affectation towards an expression of genuinely disordered thoughts. It's hard to gauge what was happening inside Dylan's head while he wrote some of the sections — the book can feel like a mix of writer's block and a desire to get everything down at once.

One chapter in particular describes a difficult recording session in New Orleans. Dylan often begins an anecdote, quickly getting sidetracked by another recollection, and another, before finally returning to the original story several pages later, having been led down various narrative cul-de-sacs. In some places, it can work, but in others it can be an exercise in frustration that could have been avoided with the most cursory level of editing. This was, perhaps, a first draft that neither Dylan nor his publishers felt it necessary to rework.

This is only the first of three autobiographical volumes, though, and there is every reason to expect that, in subsequent chapters, Dylan will pull his personal narrative together into a coherent whole, which can be pored over for generations, just as his lyrics will be. On the subject of his lyrics, Simon & Schuster have decided to publish Lyrics: 1962-2001 to celebrate the completion of chronicles. It is a well-organised, exhaustive, and, at £35 (cheaper on Amazon), surprisingly inexpensive collection — a perfect coffee-table book for anyone who agrees that Dylan's canon of lyrics constitutes some of the most important poetry of the last half-century.
Contributors retain the copyright to their own contributions. Everything else is copyright © Spannered 2015.
Please do not copy whole articles: instead, copy a bit and link to the rest. Thanks!