June 30, 2016

That release finally comes in the book's final section, when a Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht musical, the monumental recordings of bluesman Robert Johnson, and a smattering of modern art combine to reveal a new sense of expression, a way to think about writing songs beyond the folk tradition. As Dylan puts it, this shift from being a student, an interpretive singer, to becoming a songwriter who finally felt he could contribute something original to the form meant that "my little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral."

The middle section of "Chronicles" shows Dylan in hiding from the assault that followed his rise to fame, when so many fans were turning to him as "Prophet, Messiah, Savior" that he feared being crushed by the weight of celebrity. (Though he never mentions his conversion experience that came about ten years later, this account of his need to retreat certainly sheds light on some of the attraction of revivalist Christianity to the increasingly-wary "Voice of His Generation.") He dismisses his albums from this time with a wave of his hand. The Dylan of this era has lost any sense of why he writes and what it's supposed to do, concluding that "art is unimportant next to life." When he finally spends some time recounting the making of the minor New Morning album (hailed at the time as a return to form), he says that he knew these were "songs that could blow away in cigar smoke, which suited me fine.they weren't the kind where you hear an awful roaring in your head."

Things get more dire in the book's third locale, New Orleans. Dylan is finishing a lackluster tour with Tom Petty, having thoroughly forfeited his direction and his fire, feeling alienated from his own songs. He's excited to find a new (virtually incomprehensible as rendered here) system for playing his guitar, but then smashes his hand. While healing, though, some new songs come over him, which he eventually shows to U2 singer Bono one drunken night, who in turn connects him with producer Daniel Lanois. The sessions over which the shamanistic Lanois presided, deep in the hoodoo of New Orleans, satisfy Dylan to varying degrees, but there are times when he finds life and purpose in the material, flickering reminders of what his music can do at its best.

"A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true," Dylan writes. "They're like strange countries that you have to enter." "Chronicles" captures, in sidelong glances and cherry-picked images, a sense of how Dylan maps those mysterious territories. You cruise through the pages in his distinctive rhythm and suddenly get caught short, breathless, realizing this is Bob Dylan describing his visits to the New York Public Library to read newspaper accounts of the Civil War era ("the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write") or singing to John Wayne on a movie set. There's an unforgettable encounter with a rural Louisiana junk shop owner, preparing for America's takeover by the Chinese, who presents Dylan with a bumper sticker reading "World's Greatest Grandpa."

Did all the events in this book actually happen? Who knows? Less than ten pages in, Dylan shows his hand by including a scene in which he fabricates his bio for a record company publicist. Certainly, the claim that his visit to Jerusalem during his post-accident hiatus, and the resulting photographs of him at the Western Wall, was purely a way to throw his fans off his trail seems disingenuous at best. But what matters is not whether the information in "Chronicles" is accurate-what matters is that it's true. And the evident (in no way guaranteed) thought and effort that Dylan put into "Chronicles" has made for a book that feels heartfelt and sincere.

In a 1991 interview, Bob Dylan said, "the world don't need any more songs. They've got enough. They've got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain't gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares." At the time, during a lull in his writing, it seemed like he was devaluing or underestimating the power of his music, of any music. But what "Chronicles" reveals is that this isn't the case at all-that for him, songs are so powerful that there's no room for frivolity. Their boundaries must be pushed or left alone. The tales he tells illustrate a belief that songs come from a deep and mystic place, and also from a whole hell of a lot of effort. And that's about as good a definition of religion as you're going to find.