2016-06-30
"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.

He came to New York City to escape the Midwest, where "mostly what I did growing up was bide my time." He immerses himself totally in the thriving folk scene, but feels no immediate urgency to write his own songs. Woody Guthrie has already written what, for Dylan, were the definitive folk songs, so there was no sense trying to compete with those. Besides, there was too much for this 20- year-old to absorb-the young Dylan has often been described as a "sponge," but the range of references in Chronicles can be head-spinning. Beyond the endless parade of singers and songs, there are movies and sports stars and political figures and painters and historians and novelists, all piling up in Bob's brain awaiting the proper outlet.

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.