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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster, 293 pages, $24
Dylan, he was a-changin’

Reviewed by MATT STOULIL

Bob Dylan paints landscapes with words, which he proves again in the pages of his recent autobiography. His lyrical oeuvre speaks for itself, and the way he crafted his chapters for Chronicles, Volume One is similar to his songwriting style -- full of imagery, open windows and fluidity. He lets us in from the stage door to get a glimpse behind the scenes of his eventful existence: from his youth in Minnesota, to showing up in New York with his suitcase and guitar, on to recording in Nashville and New Orleans. But he does not give the store away; there are two subsequent volumes in the making.

The book has garnered much attention from many critics, and Dylan even made a rare appearance on “60 Minutes” with Ed Bradley Dec. 5. His book is nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award alongside Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (see story).

Chronicles looks into different phases of Dylan’s artistic development, most notably his early years in the seemingly magical Greenwich Village fold of performers and bohemians. Dylan portrays himself as a curious, determined young musician, immersing himself in a multitude of musical genres, from opera to folk and jazz. He played in the folk clubs whenever possible, for free cheeseburgers, French fries and a pass of the tip hat in the beginning, and read voluminously in the apartments he crashed in. He paints his early years as a time of inspiration and anticipation. “The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.”

Throughout the book, Dylan’s attention to detail seems uncanny. For instance, Dylan makes mention of a day over 40 years earlier when he had planned to visit an ailing Woody Guthrie in a New Jersey hospital, but the weather would not permit: “Snow was falling like white dust. Up the street, toward the river, I watched a blonde lady in a fur coat with a guy in a heavy overcoat who walked with a limp. I watched them for a while and then looked over to the calendar on the wall.” Dylan either has a mind like a steel trap or is a gifted embellisher; regardless of which it is, his writing in Chronicles is vivid.

Dylan digresses into a rougher, less inspired leg of his career in the ’80s when he attempts to overhaul his performance techniques and regain the energy he lost once he became a celebrity. He describes recording an album in New Orleans, which seems to have pumped life into a downturn. He reminisces about the makeshift studio in the parlor of a Victorian mansion with a fleet of vintage motorcycles parked out back. An extended bike ride into the bayou with his wife gives him the inspiration he needs to complete the record “Oh Mercy.”

Dylan also flashes back to his first courting of folk music when, after high school, he left Hibbing, Minn., and headed into Minneapolis. There he discovered the records of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and other American music pioneers, mingled and played with other folk enthusiasts and began the journey toward his own music.

Chronicles is a fascinating foray into the otherwise opaque world of Bob Dylan. He has given the world his records, and now he is beginning to give some of the story behind the music. Dylan touches upon the topic of being labeled a messianic figure, the so-called voice of a generation: “I really was never any more than what I was -- a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze. Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad.”

His self-image seems to be that of a songster who cherishes the small things and cares for his wife and children and does what he can to get by and stay out of harm’s way. Sounds a little different from the fire and brimstone folk rock he churned out in the ’60s. But I guess everyone grows up.

Matt Stoulil is an NCR staff member and occasional contributor. His e-mail address is mstoulil@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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