Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan

The idea that an artist is formed not over the longue duree of their lifetime, but instead by key moments in their career has a long history; as innocents beginning their artistic path, or as veterans finding themselves at a crossroads, we are constantly told to direct our gaze at this or that galvanising event. These artists need not be creative per se, as demonstrated by the self made men and women in nineteenth century novels, stuck in their drawing room set pieces. Indeed, the idea of formative moments is so ingrained in the stories our culture tells itself that almost everyone, it would seem, narrates their life as a series of important moments and scenes, rather than as a series of coincidence that blithely follow one another. So much cultural detritus surrounds these notions of pivotal moments that it is difficult to tell whether these moments have such a galvanic force, or whether those that assert the truth of this idea are so conditioned to see it that way that any long coming change – years of diligent work finally coming to fruition – is immediately linked to an event or time that is only tangentially related to the supposed explosion of creativity (or enmity, or happiness).

Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, apparently volume one of his memoirs, prompts these thoughts, not least because it so tenderly and carefully delineates such significant moments of change. It also makes one question how one views artists, especially popular artists, and made me, at least, realise I always thought of Dylan through key moments, but the key moments I saw were like the chronology in a swiftly written hagiography. I saw Dylan the protest singer, Dylan the apostate gone electric, Dylan the burned-out motorcycle crasher, Dylan the flailing divorcee, Dylan the born-again, Dylan the grand old man. None of these labels is necessarily wrong, it’s simply that Dylan, at least on the evidence of this book, refuses to give them weight as 'key moments’. His book is a modest protest at the way we narrativise the lives of others, and create stories about them to explain to us the way they behave, or their qualities and faults. By choosing to focus on distinctly personal turning points, Dylan has confirmed the validity of viewing one’s life through 'key moments’, while exploding any notion we might have had that we can know what someone’s key moments are by reading their biography.

The memoir consists of three chapters based in Dylan’s boyhood and youth surrounding two chapters discussing his experience at times when he was recording two largely unheralded albums, New Morning and Oh Mercy. What strikes one first is the extremely literary nature of this work. It was very clever to place the two chapters focussing on an older, more damaged self between the three on a hopeful, youthful self, so the nascent dreams witnessed in the latter are seen refracted, half-lit, but still present in the chapters on an artist trying to find a voice he still cannot define. The title, too, is apt, for this is a work much concerned with the paying of debts. It chronicles the musical and intellectual milieu that formed Dylan, devotionally alighting on characters and incidents most would see as ephemeral or irrelevant. Again, Dylan is recording his own idiosyncratic (from our point of view) reading of his life, where what matters is the brief conversation in a small town bric-a-brac shop, not the meeting with Robbie Robertson. Indeed, Chronicles can be read as a reclamation of Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan. In his early twenties Dylan discovered, among the bookshelf of a friend, a line from Rimbaud that particularly enchanted him: 'I is someone else’. And that is exactly what Bob Dylan is trying – gently, insistently – to tell us here.

The book also forces us to revaluate Dylan’s achievement, for this achievement was as much of an achievement of 'Bob Dylan’, as it was of small-town Jew Robert Zimmerman. Musically, the achievement is easy enough to describe. Dylan, from very early on, saw, or intuited, that pop music could be far more subtle than those around him allowed, and that lyrical ambiguity was a way to advance pop music artistically without sacrificing any of itself, without becoming 'art’. The major albums of the sixties – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde– were significant, ambitious conceptions that managed to combine a sort of French Symbolist lyrical aesthetic – 'The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face’ – with traditional rock and roll, in albums that were sequenced and conceived not as collections of singles but as self-contained artefacts. Dylan’s innovations were to be used by artists with better voices and less frenzied visions to create a more sophisticated pop music, most notably in the post-Dylan work of the Beatles, as well as appropriated as starting points for people who wanted to make pop music more 'arty’, most immediately in the work of Lou Reed and David Bowie, and it is these two line of rock music that still essentially define popular music today – The Red Hot Chilli Peppers versus Sonic Youth (one could substitute hundreds of examples).

But Dylan’s image itself was also integral to the redefinition of pop music. Interestingly, that he couldn’t sing was an important part of this redefinition. The many criticisms levelled at it merely served to reinforce his music’s outsider status. Rock and Roll had been seen as risqué before, of course, but Dylan’s lack of singing ability had an effect on pop music analogous to Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality in classical: it made appreciating him a litmus test of how radical you were. Furthermore, his various masks helped widen the scope of how a pop musician could represent him or herself, while still remaining an outsider. Dylan, not technically a baby boomer (he was born in 1941), managed to play so many roles that were integral to the self-representation of that generation – experimenter, protester, rocker, hippie, devout religionist, sell-out, mid-life crisis experiencer (not necessarily in that order) – and in turn made them acceptable images for both pop musicians and their listeners to present to the world.

Needless to say, it is exactly the ministrations of that generation that Dylan wishes to get away from in his book. But is the Dylan presented in Chronicles – the sensitive, somewhat trouble man, connected to an older, apparently less brutal past, keen to pay his dues but wary of settling scores – just another mask? If so, it’s a flawless one (even the major fault of this book, the often interminable chapter on Oh Mercy, is somehow endearing, like the disjointed edges of a table by a first-time carpenter) and perhaps, this time, we should go with D.H. Lawrence and trust the tale and not the teller.

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