In college I took guitar lessons from a classical guitarist who lived in Greenwich Village in the early '60s. He had not only known Bob Dylan, but had given him a few lessons as well. He described him as "fiercely private" and generally withdrawn. Since stepping into the public consciousness more than 40 years ago, Dylan has maintained a certain unidentifiable mystique about him. While part of this stems from his virtually unparalleled sense of phrasing and storytelling ability, it's also because there has never really been a solid glimpse of the man behind the songs. Even the popular D.A. Pennebaker film Don't Look Back raised more questions than answers after documenting Dylan's three-week tour in Britain.

Dylan fans were understandably surprised and elated, then, when the announcement came that he was releasing an autobiography. In Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan offers a personal narrative of his early years, from his general likes and dislikes to his musical heroes growing up. As in many of his songs, Dylan "paints with words."* Here, in prose, he offers his familiar, unique illumination on the condition of the human spirit and gives the reader a better understanding of what makes him tick. Classical literature and history are his two primary passions, and his affinity for the transformative power of folk music would shape his style for years to come.

What makes Chronicles a page-turner is the same thing that sustains Dylan in his fifth decade of making music: a zeal for life and a dedication to move beyond generic observations to chip away at larger truths. With a Tarantino-esque shifting of chronology, Dylan draws the reader in at his own leisure like a woodsmith whittling away to create an object of even greater beauty. He is completely upfront, unyielding, and spirited in telling his tale--that of a kid from Minnesota who headed to New York City with nothing more than a guitar on his back and a firm belief in himself. Or, as he put it, "I'd come a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else."

(*phrase Dylan uses to describe Woody Guthrie)

Excerpt from Bob Dylan Chronicles, Volume One

"I'd been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever there was to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine. I couldn't overcome the odds. Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn't have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn't penetrate the surfaces. It wasn't my moment of history anymore. There was a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn't wait to retire and fold the tent. One more big payday with Petty and that would be it for me. I was what they called over the hill. If I wasn't careful I could end up ranting and raving in shouting matches with the wall. The mirror had swung around and I could see the future--an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs."

Nathan Rodriguez
JamBase | Colorado
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[Published on: 11/22/04]

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