Bob Dylan is everywhere. After more than 40 years, he is still turning out vital work, like 2001’s “Love and Theft,” and earlier this month he managed to release the first volume of his much-anticipated memoir, simply titled “Chronicles.” The book is the prose version of his incisive, visionary songs: it is as easy to absorb as his music.
Books are not unfamiliar territory for the songwriter. In 1967, he published something called “Tarantula”, either a long avant-garde poem or the internal monologue of a schizophrenic. When I was 15 I actually managed to find a copy and read it, but though I was at a very impressionable age back then, I was not very impressed. The ramshackle, disjointed poetry conveys nothing more than pure confusion, making me long for the “blank” in blank verse. The same cannot be said of “Chronicles,” a shockingly lucid account of several of the monumental periods of Dylan’s life.
The book contains more information than a fan could have dreamed was possible, but at the same time Dylan tells more than one would want. The narrative is not linear, and as a result he rambles in and out of the fringe periods of his life. He talks about his early life in Minnesota, then switches to his post-“Blonde on Blonde” seclusion in Woodstock, N.Y., jumps ahead to his performing and recording difficulties in the late ’80s, only then going back to his early days in New York.
The chapters are riveting, but Dylan’s early infatuation with Woody Guthrie, which plagued his self-titled debut, always seemed to me to be one of the weak parts of his career. I do not get Woody Guthrie: I admire him for writing “This Land Is Your Land,” but I can’t sit through “Grand Coulee Dam” or any of the other marginal songs he tossed off regularly. I am literally incapable of sitting through them long enough to care.
But after that period, between 1964 and 1967, Bob Dylan was the coolest man on the planet. That hair, those sunglasses, his suits — everything he did, said and wore drew the blueprint for hipster status.
I want to hear about his mid-60s parties with the Beatles, the obviously omnipresent drugs and his incredible productivity. But Dylan barely refers to them and the period that brought them on (and I would be surprised if he even remembered any of them.) It is amazing that someone so undeniably wasted could compose a line as striking and unforgettable as “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”
There is a scene in “Eat the Document,” an unofficial documentary about his first tour with an electric guitar, when Dylan sits with John Lennon in the back of a limousine. Lennon looks positively frightened and even a bit disgusted with the impossibly wasted Dylan. They banter for a bit in loosely pre-scripted dialogue until Dylan succumbs to his rising nausea and vomits on the floor. If ever there were an event that called for self-examination and reflection, this is it, but Dylan ignored the nugget just as he ignores the entire period.
What Dylan does is divulge several eccentricities that will confound even his most ardent fans. For instance, who would have guessed that his favorite politician of all time is Barry Goldwater? I assume, or at least hope, that he’s inspired by the man’s poetic surname. Dylan also finds James Joyce to be one of the most egotistical men who ever lived, just as confusing as his glorification of U2 band-leader Bono (who I think poses himself in such a messianic light that he must wear a crucifix for nostalgia purposes.)
I have particular trouble imagining Dylan hawking his new book. For one thing, he performs over 100 shows a year (in such wonderfully enticing places as Uncasville, Conn. and Upper Darby, Pa.), which would leave him no time for the regular rounds of TV appearances and book signings. But of course he wouldn’t do those anyway, because he’s still too smart to give the people what they want.