Perhaps the first savior of rock music, it has long been known that Bob Dylan fiercely resisted the labels thrust upon him by adoring fans and critics. If it took him some 40 years to respond to a few of them, within the context of his autobiography, so be it.
As far as I knew, he writes, I didnt belong to anybody then or now. I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation ... [a generation] I had very little in common with and knew even less about the generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.
One might expect such themes to dominate the pages of the initial tome of his three-volume memoir, Chronicles. But this isnt a tale of the dark side of fame. And its not a behind the scenes look at rock or the social turbulence of the 1960s.
Beginning and ending with the signing of his first recording contract, Chronicles skips through just part of Dylans life and career, concentrating upon several creative periods in 1961 and 1987. With so much ground to cover, Dylan simply abandons the linear approach, comfortable to move between decades at the drop of a hat.
Dylans prose is remarkably engaging, with a loose, rambling style, and words that effortlessly drive his prose. Its the closest any of us will ever come to seeing from his point of view, and in this way, he delivers. Through Chronicles, were transported from the barren winter wastelands of Dylans Minnesota adolescence to the steamy jazz clubs of New Orleans, from clubs and galleries of sixties New York folk/art/theater scenes to the hospital room of an ailing Woody Guthrie, where Dylan sat at his bedside for hours on end, playing the American legends songs back to him.
What emerges isnt the angry voice of a generation or fierce loner. Its a thoughtful and hardworking artist trying to find his place amongst a long tradition of American songwriters. Its a family man who moves his wife and children to another town to get away from the protesters outside his home (the liberal ones, who insisted that he explicitly denounce the war in Vietnam). Its the rugged optimist who, on a motorcycle ride with his wife in rural Louisiana, fi nds the inspiration to finish an album.
This book is about Dylan, mind you. But at its best, Chronicles also conveys Dylans love for music, the history of English and American folk songs, and the writers and performers who kept these stories alive. Dylan clearly admires the artists whose passion for performance made him believe they were the subjects of the very sea shanties and murder ballads they sang, the artists who made him strive to be a better musician because of the vitality they brought to their art.
Dylans legacy in American history may be ultimately as much myth as truth. But, in the American songbook, Dylans contributions are as vital now as ever. By celebrating the lives and work of so many others, Chronicles shows us why.
Read more reviews at the A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center Web site: www.southwestern.edu/library/reviews/what-reading.html.