When Columbia Records celebrated Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary in the music business in 1992, they feted him with a star-studded concert at Madison Square Garden. During the long evening of music, legendary artists paid homage to rock’s poet laureate by performing incredible songs from the Dylan canon like Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Like a Rolling Stone.
Toward the end of the celebration, Dylan himself finally appeared and took the stage with a quizzical look as if he’d been wandering around looking for a restroom and just happened to drop in on an arena-sized surprise party. He began singing in the inscrutable style that he has used in concert since the 1970’s, making it difficult for all but the most devoted Dylan-philes to know which particular classic from his repertoire he was dismantling. As the show’s disappointing climax rolled on, a friend turned to me and said, If some kid were seeing Bob Dylan for the first time tonight, he would think this was some kind of practical joke.
Unfortunately, this perplexing disconnect between Dylan’s genius as a songwriter and his attempts to subvert his talent through his public persona and performances is no joke. Since the late 60’s, it has become such a chronic problem that it should be considered a full-blown syndrome. The publication of Chronicles, Volume 1the first in a planned series of autobiographiesoffers sufficient evidence that, though there are signs of hope, his condition, for the most part, remains unchanged. Not surprisingly for an iconoclast like Dylan, Chronicles is not a standard autobiography. Instead of proceeding chronologically, Dylan tells the story of his life impressionistically and idiosyncratically, leaping around from his early days in the Greenwich Village folk scene to his childhood in Minnesota, to the making of two unexceptional albums, New Morning (1970) and Oh Mercy (1989). But while Dylan fans will certainly find plenty to dissect, there is a frustrating sense that in print, as in concert, Dylan seems hellbent on confounding rather than connecting.
Throughout Chronicles’ meandering narrative, we are treated to interesting anecdotes, like the one about Dylan and Tiny Tim scrounging meals between sets at the legendary club Café Wha? We are also invited along as Bob and U2’s singer Bono stay up late talking and polishing off a case of Guinness one night in Dylan’s home. Bono’s got the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him.
But for every amusing tidbit there are equally cringe-inducing moments, for example, when Dylan assesses the talent of fellow musician Al Kooper. All he needed was a dynamo chick singer. Janis Joplin would have been the perfect front singer for Al, he writes. I thought it was visionary. Sadly Janis would soon breathe no more and Kooper would be in eternal musical limbo. I should have been a manager. Yikes! I shudder to think what Robert Evans, of The Kid Stays in the Picture fame, could do with passages like these if he gets a crack at doing the audiobook version of Chronicles.
Literary figures like Archibald MacLeish also make unexpected appearances: Archie’s letter said that he’d like to meet with me to discuss the possibility of me composing some songs for a play that he was writing. My wife and I drove over to Conway, Massachusetts, where he lived, to meet with him. It seemed like a civilized thing to do. But instead of illuminating a potentially fascinating experience, episodes like this have the curious effect of creating a bizarre sense of dissonance for the reader. In Dylan’s hands the encounter feels surreal. I half expected the narrative to continue along the lines of Archie? Hey, it’s Bob. Listen, if I’m driving from Woodstock, where do I pick up the Mass Pike to get to your place?
Since the beginning of his career, Dylan has been a master at self-mythologizing. When he first arrived in New York he had already left behind Robert Zimmerman, the nice Jewish boy from Ribbing, to become Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie doppelgänger. In a sense, Dylan has always played an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with his audience. Interestingly, the most revealing sections of Chronicles deal with Dylan’s foiled attempts to destroy his public identity by dropping out of sight to be with his wife and children at the peak of his fame in the late 60’s.
Perhaps his elusiveness is an understandable attempt to carve out some privacy by an artist who was anointed the voice of a generation early on. But Chronicles raises far more questions than it answers. Some passages read like self-conscious attempts to fictionalize his story à la Mark Twain in order to add a sense of drama and import. His conversion to Christianity in the late 70’s and his subsequent reappraisal of his Jewishness in the early 1980’s remain unexamined and are glaring omissions. Throughout Chronicles I often found myself wondering how reliable a narrator Dylan was of his own life, which suggests the question, why bother writing an autobiography at all?
Dylan has courted mystery so faithfully for so long that I am beginning to wonder if it has become an end in itself. An artist wanting to let his work speak for itself is one thing, but writing a memoir that seems designed to frustrate and further obscure oneself seems almost pathological. That’s not funny, it’s just plain strange.