Bob Dylan's riveting new autobiography would disappoint those who are eager to learn about Dylan the young artist, but it does offer information and inspiration for those who seek a portrayal of his artistic process.
But his memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. I," was received well enough that it is up for the National Book Critics Circle prize in the biography/autobiography category. The award is set to be announced Friday. Dylan will likely be too busy with the tour to attend the March 18 ceremony in New York. He isn't scheduled to play that day, but will be in Las Vegas the day after.
As always, Dylan is tight-fisted when it comes to giving away personal details, details that would help simplify his complex lyrics. It seems that Dylan, who does elaborate on several formative childhood moments and adolescent experiences, approached the writing of “Chronicles” from a more interested, ambitious, and committed position.
Dylan writes as someone who wants to portray the developments that have accompanied his journey to become the most original and unique songwriter of his time in a candid and thorough manner.
In this book, for the first time, the artist opens a few cracks that shed light on the events that helped shape his emotional world.
Blues and Brecht
The book offers outstanding observations, as Dylan analyzes key figures that surrounded him when he left Minnesota for New York, up until his first outburst of writing, which turned him into the most important artist of his generation.
Dylan fondly salutes the friends who took him in when he was homeless, the musicians who shared the small stages with him, and the array of artists who had influenced him through their record albums.
Dylan does not present his story in simple chronological order. Rather, he defines circles that lead the reader from his family's two past generations to the provincial American experience of the 1950s, and on to his first experiences as a singer and guitarist.
Dylan - the Jewish angle
Dylan then leaps to his soul-searching period in the 1980s, and, toward the end, takes us back to the dramatic peak that came in the early 1960s, when he discovered the then-rare recordings of blues giant Robert Johnson, and the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
Dylan's brilliant breakdown of Johnson's, Brecht's, and Weil's work, and the chilling manner in which he describes the magnitude of their influence on him, offer a rare understanding of the revelations that, according to Dylan, are responsible for his formation as an artist.
Dylan hands Johnson, Weil, and Brecht the keys to the deciphering of his transformation from another traditional artist into a revolutionary one, from a talented and diligent student to a leader in his field.
Dylan fans that have made a passion of tracing the Bob’s religious travels, from assimilated Jew in a North Country town to a born-again Christian and then back to some form of acceptance of his faith will be disappointed.
Except for early passing references to his uncles who served in World War II and Israel’s capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, there is no overt discussion of Dylan’s cultural and religious roots. Readers who had been looking for Bob to say his time at the Theodor Herzl summer camp in northern Wisconsin was a formative time, or whether he really considered moving to a kibbutz in the 1970s will have to wait for Volume 2 to see if he is willing to address that part of his life.
As a result of those and other omissions, “Chronicles” does not divulge any material that would make for a future Hollywood movie based on Dylan's life, but it does offer an abundance of thought-provoking information that gives us a first-hand look, from the most distinguished source, into the intimacy of art.