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Book Review

Bringing it all back home

Chronicles, Volume One
Simon and Schuster

In anticipation of his long-awaited autobiography, Dylan fans had three fears: it would be as embarrassing as his ill-fated fiction Tarantula (1966); it would be ghosted and inauthentic; or, perhaps worst of all, it would be a dud. The good news for Bobcats is that every line of Chronicles, (volume one, two more to follow) reverberates with the marrow-shaking snarl of the mesmerising American voice that first signed up with Columbia records in New York City in 1961.

In the commercialised world of early Sixties American music, young Robert Allen Zimmerman (aka Elston Gunn, aka Robert Allyn and finally aka Bob Dylan) was a revolution. "What I was playing at the time," he writes, "were hard-lipped folksongs with fire and brimstone servings, and you didn't need to take polls to know that they didn't match up with anything on the radio."

Born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941, the son of respectable midwesterners, the Zimmerman boy grew up in a place of "violent storms that always seemed to be coming straight at you and merciless howling winds off the big black mysterious lake". There's nowhere that's more American. Lindbergh came from out of this north country. So did F Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and Eddie Cochran. Dylan identifies strongly with these "adventurers, prophets, writers and musicians".

The magical opening pages of Chronicles are a star-struck homage to the Neal Cassady generation. On the one occasion Dylan hangs out with Bono they drink a crate of Guinness, discuss fame and swap Kerouac quotations into the night.

Was he fazed by the snow-packed arteries of the city? Was he, hell! "I could transcend the limitations," he writes. And he did. "Blowin' in the Wind", "Desolation Row", "Tangled Up in Blue", "Don't Think Twice", "It's All Right", "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", "Just Like A Woman", "Mr Tambourine Man" and "The Times They Are A-Changin" - these are some of the songs that set him apart from his generation, and guarantee an immortal place in our hearts and minds. "I'd either drive people away," he writes, "or they'd come in closer to see what it was all about. There was no in between."

That's the story he tells here - and the price he paid for following his boho muse. The evocative long second and third sections of Chronicles take the reader up to Woodstock and beyond to the point where Dylan is sick of the whole business, sick of fame, "sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, sick of being America's media-licensed "outlaw" ".

There are plenty of important details missing from this memoir. The five chapters do not amount to a formal autobiography, more a Kerouac-esque riff on some formative moments. After his relationship with Suze Rotolo and, briefly, Joan Baez, we are never, for instance, given any hard facts about the women he refers to as "wife". But in place of conventional chapter and verse - and why would you expect Dylan to be run-of-the-mill? - the reader gets a candid account of his battle with his ageing self ("my live performances never seemed to capture the inner spirit of the songs") and his lonely, obsessive quest to reconnect artistically with his youthful genius. Dylan writes: "There was a missing person inside myself and I needed to find him." He is frank about his decline, admitting that at times he was barely a notch above "a club act".

If you are looking for a text that will decode the thrilling enigmas of his songs, this book is not for you. It's a bravura performance with smoke and mirrors. And all the time he is trying to find the literal and creative momentum to write songs. The Fifties beat spirit of the restless Kerouac is Dylan's inheritance, and in his quest for what Ginsberg called the "hydrogen jukebox world" he would occasionally stumble into the "reality of a more brilliant dimension" - the folk song, which was "all I needed to exist".

Chronicles is occasionally close to self-parody but still incredibly quotable in a read-aloud-to-your-friends sort of way. Just as you are about to lose patience with the American rock star's Mount Helen size ego, he reminds you that he's Dylan, and finds his groove. Then you realise why Dylan will always be part of the unofficial soundtrack of all our lives. Chronicles takes its place next to On the Road and Guthrie's Bound for Glory as an essential record of an American artist's manifest destiny.

This review was first published in The Guardian


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