Book Review: Bob Dylan’s Back Pages

Bob Dylan’s first installment of his memoirs invokes the bard of old with engaging prose and an old carny’s sleight of hand.

“Chronicles, Volume I” By Bob Dylan.

By Tim Riley

Bob Dylan is one of rock’s great trapeze artists. His songwriting is the stuff of literary aerobics, but his performances could re-attach your spine to your soul — you thrilled at his antics even as you realized he was a showman in every sense. In Dylan’s songs, career reversals, and genre moves, he goaded the crowd with high-wire daring before spinning backwards into the net. For long stretches Dylan’s theatricality made you believe his every gesture hinted at greatness, that he had surpassed his inspiration, Woody Guthrie. Even on cruise-control, Dylan seems keenly aware of what we keep forgetting: what he juggles best are question marks (“How does it FEEL?”).

He’s done it again, only this time with a memoir, “Chronicles, Volume I,” that reads like a movie montage. Contrasting themes of wild-eyed youth and world-weary fatigue, the narrative features out-of-order reels and lively depictions of Greenwich Village, his folk Eden. Because it’s so jaunty, and lousy with images, it’s gotten rave reviews from all quarters, which it mostly deserves.

But the irony the book gives off reminds you of the question marks that hovered over 2001’s “Love and Theft” (2001), his aesthetic comeback from a long dark night of mediocrity: why a new medium, and why now? After all, hasn’t Dylan been writing “autobiographical” prose all along? Since his songwriting trailed off, somewhere between 1976’s “Desire” and “Love and Theft,” he’s been running on the fumes of his mystique. That’s a lot of hot air to spend after you’ve wowed the circus for 13 years (1963-1976) as the canniest acrobat in the center ring. From his own perspective, Dylan’s life story resembles “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again),” an epic yarn at once alluring and out of reach, megalomaniacal yet sympathetic. The passages in which he complains about celebrity stalkers are the sure sign of a narcissist who commands worship but detests the fan. Dylan’s niftiest hat trick may be his complete write-off of the 1960s: if you quoted him without attribution you might mistake him for Ronald Reagan on a rant: “America was wrapped up in a blanket of rage. Students at universities were wrecking parked cars, smashing windows. The war in Vietnam was sending the country into a deep depression.” On second thought, skipping the 1960s might be his canniest move. Can the uprooted tree describe the hurricane?

Even so, the larger story is hogwash on any number of levels, from his so-called “enlightened” view of women’s oppression to some of the decor he “remembers” from early 1960. If you enjoy Dylan at all, you’ll find the book funny, inscrutable, and captivating. Yet it is anything but revealing. The story takes shape in four roughed-out sections: it opens as he performs song demos for Lou Levy, who ran Leeds Music Publishing, then skips ahead to 1970, his Honorary Doctorate from Princeton, and the reaction to “New Morning,” then ahead again to New Orleans and the recording of “Oh Mercy” in 1987, then back again to Greenwich Village in 1961, just as he signs to Columbia Records, on the precipice of fame and a thousand dangling metaphors.

At first this structure is maddening. Dylan seems to be leaping around without purpose, lighting on particular episodes that seem exemplary only in the slightest sense: conveying a mood or an emotion that’s private and unknowable, and therefore not very revealing (“The moon was rising behind the Chrysler Building, it was late in the day, street lighting coming on, the low rumble of heavy cars inching along the narrow streets below–sleet tapping against the office window…”). But by the end when he returns to the Village, Dylan recaptures an innocence his music has long since lost. Reading this book you’d never recognize the “Dylan” who appears onstage at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 (one of his four or five great live sets, unmentioned here), or onstage at his own 30th anniversary bash in 1992 (again, unmentioned). Those peaks seem as immaterial to him as his induction into the Rock’ n’ Roll Hall of Fame (1988), or his Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1991.

To learn what he really cares about, turn to the passages where Dylan shows his side show grasp of hokum and fame. When his ears prick up to other singers, Dylan’s descriptions are at their best, like his portrayals of Ricky Nelson or Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. When he gets to Hank Williams, you sense Dylan’s intimacy with hero-worship: “I’d learn later that Hank had died in the backseat of a car on New Year’s Day, kept my fingers crossed, hoped it wasn’t true. But it was true. It was like a great tree had fallen. Hearing about Hank’s death caught me squarely on the shoulder. The silence of outer space never seemed so loud. Intuitively I knew, though, that his voice would never drop out of sight or fade away–a voice like a beautiful horn.”

That’s a nice detail: Dylan admiring Hank’s voice. In the midst of all this blarney, there are scenes that conjure up dodged bullets. Once, while sitting around Johnny Cash’s house after dinner with Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, and some others, trading tunes, an anti-Semitic remark from a Country Music patriarch Joe Carter stops the camaraderie cold. Dylan barely blinks. It’s not news that the Carter family were paranoid misogynists with redneck vinegar in their veins, but it does seem fraudulent of Dylan, one of the sharper tools in the shed, to glance at it with nary a shrug.

As the first entry into a projected trilogy, you’re forgiven for suspecting that the very subtitle (Volume One) is another end-run around the larger idea of a true epic Dylan “memoir.” But then, as usual, Dylan makes you feel like a grump for calling his bluff when he’s getting away with the literary equivalent of murder: this book should have been much longer, but it’s infinitely preferable shorter. Perhaps it took him a couple hundred bad songs and sessions to cough up a decent piece of prose. Perhaps it took him a couple hundred bad songs and sessions to cough up a descent piece of prose. Perhaps he’s biding his musical time, feels that the circus has long since passed him by and caught up with again too many times to get all sentimental about it, and the rearview mirror gets boring if you have nothing left to say.

Perhaps the notebooks he’s kept start pulling him back in, he found inspiration in writing about other people’s music, and cranked it out as if a different medium had suddenly sparked the old muse — like one of those dusty crowd-pleasing flips he stumbled on during a slow night on the high-wire. He gives it extra play on a whim, and surprises himself yet again with how much music the words carry, how much the crowd buoys him. Suddenly, catching his balance, he snaps back into the habit of pleasing himself with his innate skill at making the crowd roar. Just for kicks Dylan does it again, then falls backwards down into the net, grinning.

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