Tuesday 3 May 2005

Chronicles: Volume One

Bob Dylan

One of the great drawbacks to being a legendary figure is that it’s never your own legend to which you belong - it is always someone else’s. Every person will have their own expectations of you, their own reasons for identifying with you; and, ultimately, the belief that you are just like them. It explains why we prefer our icons to be dead: the cult of the individual often has little to do with the complicated business of existence itself.

This is a problem of which Bob Dylan is clearly aware. Even from his very emergence he understood and tapped into the mythology of the troubadour and bluesman, constantly ensuring he never revealed too much of himself behind the legend he created. He also clearly appreciates that unlike the contemporaries with whom he is most closely linked - Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King - he has not had the decency to die yet. As he acknowledges halfway through, how could people who viewed him as ‘The high Priest of Protest…the Czar of Dissent’ ever view him for ‘what I really was - a folk singer?’ But of course Robert Zimmerman the musician - and he was famously never a great musician - wouldn’t have sold nearly as many records as Bob Dylan the prophet.

So how do you approach an autobiography, without talking about yourself too much? The trick Dylan uses in Chronicles is surprisingly similar not to Kerouac or Melville (two of his literary idols) but to Julian Barnes. Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot was a mock-biography of Gustave Flaubert that, in reality, was not about the famous writer at all: it was an attempt by the novel’s narrator to relate to his own identity through his favourite artist. In Dylan’s book, the standard autobiographical techniques - chronological narrative, self-searching analysis of the key events in the subject’s life, critical refutation and score-settling - are here eschewed in favour of mini-essays on his favourite writers, musicians and influences.

The fact that his wife in the first half is a different woman to the one who appears later on is not important to Dylan: if you want to know how he felt about his divorce, listen to Blood On The Tracks. If you are seeking a greater insight into the effect of narcotics on the creative process, just hear his stoned laughter on ‘Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35.’ You won’t learn any more about Dylan’s music from the first instalment of his autobiography than you would from listening to his recorded works: but what else did you really expect?

In an age when the media fetishise the ugly self-destruction of Kurt Cobain and, currently, Pete Doherty, artists like Dylan remain refreshing oddities. He was the youthful mystic who converted from Judaism to Christianity; deliberately coy about his private life yet capable of devoting entire albums to his personal relationships; the voice of the new generation who harked back to an archaic classicism in American music. Above all he was the washed-up relic of the failed counter-culture who threw himself back into relevance with 1997’s Time On My Mind, and promptly broke the habit of a lifetime by selling that album’s ‘Love Sick’ to market lingerie. Again the answers to these contradictions are not to be found here, but that may be because there is no real point: having become a spokesman for a generation once and hated it, Dylan often seems to confuse merely to avoid being pigeon-holed, and allowed to continue making his music.

This, however, does not make Chronicles a worthless read. Dylan is excellent at explaining what inspires him about the great folk singers, the importance of intellectual hunger and the worries that beset all artists when they feel their Muse has deserted them: his description of the frustrations that went into making Oh Mercy are valuable for anyone considering writing themselves. When he refuses to believe that archive footage of Robert Johnson is fake because the bluesman is exactly how he imagined (or wanted), Dylan almost sounds like the ‘child staring at the rain’ (as Murakami once described his music), and you suspect he revealed more about himself than he wished. Chronicles may at times be a difficult and meandering book, but it is a must for anyone who prefers their icons to be breathing rather than dead martyrs - and to keep a little bit back for themselves.

Till 6 May 2005



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