Bob Dylan: Reluctant Prophet
Dylan's new memoir traces his spiritual and musical journey through modern America.
BY: Alan Light
"Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book," Bob Dylan said in 1997, when the release of his "Time Out of Mind" album returned him to his rightful place front and center in the rock `n roll consciousness after years of uncertain drift. "All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from `Let Me Rest on that Peaceful Mountain' to `Keep on the Sunny Side.' You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing `I Saw the Light.' I've seen the light, too."
Around this time, Dylan gave another interview about American roots music-like the songs of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, several of which he was singing in his concerts. "That's my religion," he said. "I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists.I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity."
Those remarks resonate throughout "Chronicles, Volume One," Dylan's riveting new memoir. The first of a projected series of three, the book is in no way a standard or comprehensive autobiography. Rather, it's an episodic, jump-cut journey through our greatest songwriter's memory, told in rich and sonorous language that couldn't possibly be mistaken for anyone else's voice. And what emerges over and over again is Dylan's notion of the sanctity and power of song-that, while he says at one point that he considers himself "a praying man," the infinite possibilities that come from merging music and words truly is where his faith will always lie.
To be clear, people expecting a thorough personal history, especially a spiritual journal of any kind, will probably be disappointed. Among the things not discussed in "Chronicles": Dylan's Jewish childhood as Bobby Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota; his Bar Mitzvah; his conversion to Christianity and trilogy of gospel-themed albums in the early 1980s; his various flirtations with a return to Judaism (including a legendary, surreal appearance on the 1989 "L'Chaim/To Life" telethon to raise funds for the orthodox Lubavitcher Chabad organization); his near-fatal heart infection; his two (that we know of) marriages or the births of his children. There are scattered references to "my wife," but no explanation that this refers to different women at different times. The motorcycle accident that sidelined him-by necessity or by choice-in 1966 gets precisely one sentence. (Keep in mind, too, that the inclusion of that "Volume One" tag is, if nothing else, a perfect feint; though Dylan has indicated that more books will follow, the interviews he has done to promote "Chronicles" sound like a man in no hurry to get back to writing long-form non-fiction.)
In the end, "Chronicles" actually isn't like any other kind of book. The only thing to compare it to is, well, a song by Bob Dylan-it conjures images and faces and locations, tipped on the edge between documentary and surrealism, forming layers of meaning through precise detail, like the finest of his lyrics. "A reality of a more brilliant dimension" is how he describes folk music at one point, and that about gets it. Encounters with outsized characters (Jack Dempsey, Thelonious Monk, Gorgeous George, Frank Sinatra, Jr.) suddenly materialize and then vanish. The vernacular he uses-"scallywag," "roustabout," "phoney baloney"-connects him to a lost America in whose dying embers he continues to find warmth. It's somewhat surprising, in fact, that for a writer whose work has so often been rich with religious and Biblical imagery and themes of faith and morality, that territory remains so conspicuously absent in these pages-though presumably those subjects ultimately get into waters deeper than Dylan ever intended to go.
Startlingly clear-eyed coming from rock's master of evasion, "Chronicles" centers on three moments at which Dylan found himself at a creative crossroads: his move in 1960 from Minnesota to Greenwich Village, Ground Zero for his beloved folk music; his retreat to Woodstock after the motorcycle accident; and the sessions in New Orleans for 1989's "Oh Mercy." The fragmented structure leaves connections open-ended, but one theme that clearly stands out is Dylan's recurrent struggle for artistic purpose.