(I’m a big Bob Dylan fan, and I loved his memoir, “Chronicles” – I wrote this review for Good Reads a little over a year ago)
Dylan is a hero of mine, but I never expected this book to be this good. The parts where he describes his experiences as a young folksinger on the streets of New York City in 1960-61 are amazing. Here is this “complete unknown” from the wilds of Minnesota landing in the NYC coffee houses, learning his craft as a performer, and then, with no ambitions greater than adding some new material to his act, beginning to write songs. It’s fascinating as he brings to life Dylan before he was Dylan, before he had ever written a song, before he became the greatest songwriter ever and the most elusive and enigmatic cultural icon, when he was just another anonymous folk singer on the NYC streets at a time when the fuse was being lit for what was to be the greatest cultural explosion in our history, an explosion that would resonate with the echo of his voice. “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changing” have become the definitive, archetypical protest songs, theme songs for any attempt to promote and preserve humanity. “Like a Rolling Stone” captured the dissonance, the restlessness, the anger and the chaos of a world in change, while “Mr. Tambourine Man” poetically described where this chronicler of time and space landed after the explosion, bruised, exhausted, and longing for escape (“To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / silhouetted by the sea / circled by the circus sands/ with all memory and fate / driven deep beneath the waves / let me forget about today until tomorrow”). Before Dylan was Dylan, pop music was Perry Como, folk music was the Kingston Trio, and the Beatles were singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Dylan recaptures where he was during this time with an amazing recollection of detail, and with a rhythm and voice of a seasoned novelist.
Dylan has spent much of the past forty years trying to deconstruct the myth and icon he has become. It’s fascinating that here, in his autobiography, he traces the origins of that myth, and, in many ways, embraces it, by describing the neon-lit wintry New York nights, the various couches and floors of apartments he slept in and their stuffed bookshelves from which he fed his new found intellectual appetite, and the coffee houses and clubs where the metamorphosis from a young anonymous mid-western misfit to the mysterious and misunderstood genius who would change the course of popular music and culture forever would occur. In doing do, Dylan seems to be accepting that our need for the myth and underlying mythology is just as important as his need to break free from it.