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Junkballs

Bob Dylan’s memoir is worth a listen.

By 12.13.04

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Chronicles: Volume I
by Bob Dylan
(Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $24)

Bob Dylan's efforts to tell his story have usually been more in the service of disguise than revelation. When he came to New York for the first time in 1961, he fashioned an entire past for himself out of whole cloth -- he'd traveled by freight train; his parents were dead; he'd worked all around the country, doing odd jobs. In 1966, at the height of his fame, he gave a notorious interview to Nat Hentoff for Playboy, virtually the entirety of which was drug-addled free association and red herrings. He became a guru of misdirection. When he toured Europe during the height of Vietnam unrest in the 1960s, he draped an enormous American flag behind him on stage. When he played at West Point during the first Gulf War, he sang "Masters of War." Some of his oldest devotees expressed dismay when he recently agreed to appear in a commercial for Victoria's Secret. You have to wonder where they have been the last 40 years.

"Never trust the artist, trust the tale," warned D.H. Lawrence. The challenge with a Dylan autobiography, of which Chronicles is said to be the first of three volumes, is that the artist and the tale become one. It may be classed under nonfiction/autobiography, but Chronicles is as much a story as "Tangled Up in Blue," even if the names aren't changed this time. It's tempting to regard the book as another Dylan put-on, but even a cursory read makes clear that it isn't all misdirection. At least one of the following statements, for example, seems to be in earnest:

1. "The press? I figured you lied to it."

2. "In my real life I got to do the things that I loved best and that was all that mattered -- the Little League games, birthday parties, taking my kids to school…"

Chronicles is a fitting encapsulation of Dylan's art -- the reader must sort out the authentic from the contrived, and guessing at times is unavoidable. Maybe Dylan dreamed of attending West Point when he was a boy, as he claims; he came from a conservative, Middle American Jewish family. But it sure sounds like another piece of hipster hokum.

And what to do but laugh when he claims that "the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write" could be found in the American Civil War? There's a sadness to our laughter, though, because of a gnawing sense that he actually might mean what he's saying, and we'd never know it. Now what about the Civil War…we start to think, and then the old suspicions bring us up short, or ought to. He can't possibly mean it, could he?

None of Dylan's contemporaries developed as keen an understanding of the way American fame can frame a person for life within a single, constricting identity. Much of his career of misdirection has been dedicated to resisting the effort of a voracious pop culture to define him, to put him in a frame from which he cannot escape. His efforts, as self-serving as they often are, have been successful to an impressive degree. It's difficult to know, though, at what level he understands that his deepest con game has worked a con on him as well. To avoid being a prisoner of fame, he's become a prisoner of anti-fame. As Dylan well knows, William Blake once wrote, "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's." Dylan's version might be, "Better to enslave myself in my own system than in yours."

WHATEVER THE MERITS OF this personal struggle, Dylan's fealty to his music is the great redeeming truth of his life. Few musicians can claim to have served American music so well, to have inhabited, stretched, and disseminated so many of its traditions. If Dylan himself is shrouded in mystery, his musical canon seems increasingly of a piece, invariably connected with the music of American popular or folk traditions, even if he often bent them beyond recognition and made them seem almost his own personal property. Put beside those achievements, his life does not seem nearly so interesting, or so necessary to understand.

Reviewers have responded positively to the book's vitality, of which there is plenty. But you would think after 40 years of cat and mouse, they would be less easily swayed by Dylan's claims that all he ever really wanted was to settle down with his family, have a white picket fence (he actually uses the phrase), and putter around the house. No doubt there is truth lurking here somewhere. But wasn't there a more believable way of saying so?

Dylan's writing is often rhythmic and musical, as one would expect, and his wit redeems his forays into self-pity and grandiosity. But there are passages that make clear he is a songwriter, not an essayist:

What kind of alchemy, I wondered, could create a perfume that would make reaction to a person lukewarm, indifferent, and apathetic? I wanted to get some.…I wasn't the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots.…This main meal of garbage had to be mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I'd have to go to great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.

Surely he wouldn't let this masterpiece of self-parody and mixed metaphor slip by unless he meant to? Yet the reader senses that there is no game here, just a patch of bad prose. The only error worse than letting Dylan fool you is assuming he must be putting you on merely because he is writing poorly. As an autobiographer, he is a good junkball pitcher, all flutters and dips and arcs, and somewhere in that mess is the ball. He once wrote a song about Catfish Hunter; he must have loved Luis Tiant.

All this parsing will make the book an engrossing read for those who aren't yet tired of the game. Chronicles gives pieces of the story of Dylan's life -- but the important word is story.

It's pretty safe to say, for example, that Dylan is telling tales when he opens the book by describing a meeting with Jack Dempsey one evening in 1961 at the former champion's restaurant. "You look too light for a heavyweight kid, you'll have to put on a few pounds," the old champion tells him, and signs off with, "Don't be afraid of hitting somebody too hard." But even an elderly Dempsey, who really did ride on freight trains and work odd jobs, wouldn't have mistook Dylan for anything other than a welterweight bohemian.

It's a charming story, though, and it does no harm to tell. For a book of tales, it starts things off on a high note, and a symbolic one -- the counterculture's wonder boy coming face to face with a man who was an icon of the Old America. Dylan helped finish off that country, and then lived long enough to rue its passing. There's a sadness to that, too.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.