If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you know I’ve just finished reading a biography of Bob Dylan.
I wrote a rather long review of the book, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Biography, by Scott Marshall. I found the book interesting for several reasons. For one, Dylan has marked the time for me. My life has more or less coincided with his career and so many of his songs have become kind of landmarks for me. I hear the songs and I remember where I was and what was going on at the times they were popular. The best example of this, I guess, is the Byrds version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” which is probably one of the reasons I wanted an electric guitar.
If you read my review, you also know that I was and am interested in Dylan’s spiritual life – that is what the book focuses on, of course – because I see in him echoes of my own experience. So does everybody else, I guess. Dylan is like my generation’s Rorschach test. Everyone looks at the same ink blot and everyone sees something different. They are certain that what they see is “there,” that it is just what the artist intended to say or depict.
I was so satisfied with this book and my interest in Dylan so rekindled that I got from the library a copy of Chronicles, Volume I, Dylan’s autobiography.
I had never attempted this one before and that’s because I had heard that Dylan’s prose writing was inscrutable; almost nonsensical. I think I may have taken a stab or two at Tarantula way back when, but more recently I had looked at a few scenes from some of Dylan’s movies – Reynoldo and something or other – and found them confusing and unsatisfying, almost deliberately obscure.
This book, Chronicles, Volume I, is not that way. That is, it is not deliberately obscure. In fact, the first pleasant surprise the book gave me ( I am three-quarters of the way through it right now) is that it is quite readable. It does flow and the sentences and paragraphs make sense. It’s not some hard-to-get-at literary trick. It tells a story.
And, as Ray Kinsella says to Terrance Mann in “Field of Dreams,” it’s a good story.
Good in many ways. It is the story of fantastic success. How a young man from nowhere, USA , thrown into the big city without connections or money, makes his way along on pretty much his talent and desire alone. Lots of such stories end quite the other way, but this one goes on. This small-town boy goes on to heights of fame and stardom that you could almost say were “theretofore unknown.”
Second, it is a story about music. About how music is composed and how it is recorded. All very interesting stuff to anyone, like me, who grew up listening to popular radio.
Lots of what Dylan has to say about his music – about his inspirations and his work with other musicians is a bit on the obscure side. But I don’t think Dylan is trying to be cute or tricky here. He tries his best, I think, to describe what went on inside him at various stages in his career. A hard thing to communicate, even if you’re trying.
I guess the book is fairly honest in what it does relate, although I am told that there are those who would argue that much of what Dylan describes is rather loosely connected to what actually happened, it is not a true Chronicle or at least not a true chronology. It jumps around from decade to decade and completely omits any mention of several parts of Dylan’s life that are surely relevant to an exposition of his work and character.
For instance, there is not a single word about the experiences that led to his Baptism and embrace of Jesus Christ as Messiah. Even if you are cynical about this, even if you think it was all a stunt, it is nonetheless an undeniable part of his story and any “chronicle” is grossly incomplete without some exegesis on the subject.
Moreover, there is little or no mention or identification of the several women in Dylan’s life, even during those eras that he does describe. In this book, Dylan speaks only his wife as a love interest and speaks of himself only as a dedicated family man. There are reasons to doubt that and any fair chronicle of his life must address that issue.