What should we expect from a memoir penned by Bob Dylan? What kind of self-portrait can we expect from a man who writes “What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The press? I figured you lie to it.”
What we get from this man, who has gone to such great lengths to remain something of an enigma, however, is the story of his life expressed with uncharacteristic frankness.
The book, “Chronicles: Volume One,” the first part of Dylan’s three-volume autobiography, gives him the opportunity to confront the ghost of his old fame, the deified Dylan he has struggled against since being heralded as the visionary and prophet of youth movement in the mid-1960s.
“Whatever the counterculture was,” Dylan writes of his seclusion after suffering a motorcycle accident in 1966, “I’d seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese. What the hell are we talking about? Horribly titled any way you want to look at it.”
What Dylan sought, instead, was a life outside of the public realm, in which to cast off his fame, put aside what others saw as his responsibility to the counterculture and to provide for his family.
“I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world,” he writes. “I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”
Dylan does, indeed, seem to invoke almost archaic origins, taking less from the burgeoning hipster scene of Greenwich Village that he found himself immersed in after leaving his Minnesota hometown behind in the early days of the 1960s. He speaks of feeling as much of an affinity with Ricky Nelson, the original teen idol and country musician from the days of “Ozzie and Harriet,” as he did with Woody Guthrie, taking as much from the music of Harry Belafonte as he did from seminal folk artists such as Dave Van Ronk.
Casting off his role as the voice of a generation, Dylan speaks of existing “in a parallel universe … with more archaic principles and values; one where actions and virtues were old style … I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom. Each demanding a degree of respect.”
Dylan put aside chronology when writing the memoir, opting instead to meander from point to point in his life, exposing each with grace and honesty, and without losing the narrative thread of his story. He speaks as candidly about his struggle in the late ’80s to redefine himself as a musician in an era that had clearly moved on from Dylan’s heyday in the ’60s as he does about his first cautious years in downtown New York, moving from club to club and meeting faces and learning whatever he could about his art.
While there is much in the book that he does not explore, fans can rest easy that, with two volumes still to come, the man who is Bob Dylan will have much more to say.