Chronicles Volume One by Bob Dylan

Determined to be a man out of time

Ben Thompson
Sunday 17 October 2004 00:00 BST

This first volume of a projected three-part memoir was typed on an old-fashioned Remington typewriter, entirely in capital letters (presumably to distinguish it from Dylan's earlier literary foray, his disastrous 1966 novel tarantula, which was tapped out wholly in lower case). This preliminary commitment to myth-making turns out to be a happy portent of a book which measures up to - and in many respects surpasses - the highest hopes anyone could have had of it.

Over recent weeks, advance publicity and newspaper extracts have - as often happens - created a fragmented and misleading picture of the work they supposedly herald. The Bob Dylan I was expecting to encounter here was a dour, uncommunicative individual; given to referring to different women as "my wife" without noting the change in their identity, and steadfastly refusing to address such important issues as his late 1970s conversion to evangelical Christianity, or what it felt like to co-star with Rupert Everett in the classic film Hearts of Fire.

The narrator of Chronicles Volume One turns out to be a superbly candid and engaging character, with a sharp descriptive eye (John Wayne "looked like a heavy piece of hauled lumber") and a writing style pitched somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut at his most drily aphoristic and a grown-up Holden Caulfield.

The story begins and ends with vivid tableaux of Dylan's arrival in New York in 1961. His total recall of every detail of rooms which he stayed in for a few nights more than 40 years ago (not to mention his eye for interior design) will seem mysterious to anyone who has seen him on stage in recent years, apparently unable to remember the words to his own songs. But this book doesn't just transcend concerns about whether Dylan's version of events can be relied upon, it uses that suspect veracity as the starting point for a fascinating explanation of pretty much every weird and seemingly inexplicable thing he has ever done.

From the tissue of lies with which Dylan bamboozles his first Columbia Records press officer, to his admission that a formative encounter with a wrestler called Gorgeous George might not have transpired exactly as he describes it ("It's what I thought I heard him say that mattered"), the finest literary mind would have had its work cut out inventing a narrator this unreliable. Since Dylan's propensity for "talking out of both sides of his mouth" has been exacerbated by the reverence of his audience, we are at best naively complicit in his equivocation, at worst active partners in it.

So this book's pivotal chapter finds Dylan holed up in Woodstock with his young family, dreaming of white picket fences, and fantasising about "setting fire" to the fans who gaped at him "like they'd stare at a shrunken head or a giant jungle rat". His savage assault on the ovine propensities of the 1960s counter-culture is intriguingly suggestive of the celebrity-addled 21st-century landscape presented by Chris Heath's biography of Robbie Williams. (These two books have more in common than admirers of either performer might have expected.)

Dylan's reluctance to accept the mantle of "toastmaster of his generation" - a resonantly dispiriting coinage - spurs him on to a prolonged and often wilful estrangement from his own muse. "What kind of alchemy," he wonders, "could create a perfume that would make reaction to a person lukewarm, indifferent and apathetic?" The honesty with which he recounts first his relentless pursuit of that magic formula, then his faltering steps towards some kind of creative resurgence, is all the more startling in the context of the genius for obfuscation he demonstrates elsewhere.

Volume One's apparently random, episodic structure - the author has likened his narrative method to "cutting a deck of cards" - echoes that of his hero Woody Guthrie's rightly celebrated Bound For Glory. But ultimately, Bob Dylan's autobiography warps Guthrie's original template into a compelling new shape in just the same way that his music did. If you've always wondered how this man transformed the supposedly antique certainties of folk music into the soundtrack to the most self-consciously forward looking of decades, this book has the answer.

It was Dylan's willingness - determination, even - to be a man out of time ("What was topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood") combined with a rare insight into the moment he was in ("the 50s culture was like a judge in his last days on the bench"). The power of that combination echoes down through the decades as clearly in these pages as in any song you might care to mention.

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