I've decided to devote both this and next month's 20 Pounds to the reception afforded "Chronicles" during October and November, primarily in the American press. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, I happen to think that it's much more of a cultural event than, say, yet another Bob Dylan tour of America, and - dare I say it - a damn sight more historical and enjoyable to boot. Secondly, I've amassed so many reviews (well over 100 so far, though not all of them are going to get included here) that the only way to include the best of them is going to be to split them in half.
One thing I can say - and it pleases me no end to be able to - is that, out of those 100-plus reviews, only one was negative! This may surprise Bob, if he ever gets to read this, as much as it surprised me, but there we are; the critical renaissance that began in - when? - 1997 or thereabouts continues unabated.
Before we plough on, I'd just like to nail my colours to the mast and state for the record that I think his book is a lovely, easy-on-the-eye gem, with not one dull page between the covers. I'd like to think that his memory is so pin-sharp that he can still recall the exact contents of a room that he last saw over 40 years ago, or the details of a book that he pulled off a shelf in that same room (I doubt whether I'll be able to do it when I'm his age, and I haven't taken anything like the amount of drugs he has!), but I do wonder whether he hasn't filled in a few of the gaps with a similar cinematic sweep that allowed him to write "Black Diamond Bay". Still, it matters not one jot to me; considering I was fearing either "Tarantula Part 2" or the vague recollections of a tired old man, this little piece of his heart will do me just fine.
And now, onto the reviews.
We'll begin with the familiar name of New York Newsday's David Hinckley, who is aware that Dylan left more out than he included; "...If (it) never feels dishonest, neither does it feel complete. His break-up with the early-60s girlfriend Suze Rotolo, for instance, was clearly more painful than the one sentence here suggests." These, however, are minor quibbles, as far as Hinckley's concerned; whatever memories Dylan cares to share are good enough for him; "...It's more information than Mr. Jones had when we started."
The Boston Globe's Carlo Wolff laments the "tantalisingly vague" prose, pointing out, for instance, that Dylan often refers to "my wife" without clarifying which one (he would not be the only critic to home in on that particular area of muddy water, you'll be unsurprised to learn). At the end of the day, Wolff is happy enough with what Dylan does tell us; "...(It) is packed with ruminations on musical theory, sharp and humorous commentary, flashes of poetry - and facts filtered and coloured to flummox, entertain and illuminate."
Larry McShane of the Reno Gazette-Journal reckons that "the writing is brisk and entertaining" and that "any book that features Bob Dylan sharing a greasy hamburger backstage with Tiny Tim is going to get your attention."
The Huddersfield Weekly News' Richard Jobes was another fan, reckoning that it's an "engaging, contradictory, humorous and deeply human take on what remains one of the greatest bodies of work in popular culture. In the end," he asks, "What more could anyone have hoped for?"
The Rocky Mountain Telegram's Phil Kloer begins his review by listing what the book leaves out; Newport, Jesus, drugs, motorbike spill, etc. etc. but does enjoy what Bob has decided to include. Kloer reckons that he's at his best when he's writing about his influences and at his worst when he's "bogged down in meaningless detail, inventorying the furniture of a friend's apartment or the guest list at a party." While recognising that the 1970 Woodstock chapter "runs more on emotion than reflection", Kloer would have welcomed a little more insight to go along with the honesty as Bob rants against the whole music scene and counterculture that expected more from him than "Nashville Skyline Rag". Not the most positive review I'll include here during the next couple of months, then, but not exactly a bad one, either.
Jesse Kornbluth of the Book Reporter found the first half of the book to be a bit of a bore, as Dylan "meanders through his early days in New York", and was not impressed by Bob's obsession with the intricate details of every room he ever walked into or his "charming but unrevealing portraits of the people he meets along the way". For Kornbluth, its pace picks up significantly when it reaches the Oh Mercy sessions, and Dylan at last has a chance to write about what he really understands; "...The process of creation...that's a safe place for Dylan, and suddenly he's free to write. And joke. Other people enter, and they have their say. The book breathes. And the reader leans in, enchanted by the tale."
Here in the UK, The Telegraph's anonymous reviewer had no such reservations; "...There is enough in this slim volume to send even the most noted Dylanologist scurrying back to his notes. In rock and roll terms, this book is like discovering the lost diaries of Shakespeare. It may be the most extraordinarily intimate autobiography by a 20th-century legend ever written." And you can't say fairer than that.
Staying in the UK, Andy Gill, reviewing for The Independent, was not, surprisingly enough, quite so bowled over, though he was certainly not disappointed; "...While the book does suffer from certain longueurs, there are enough bizarre and entertaining snippets of information sprinkled throughout it to fascinate even the most jaded Dylan obsessive.....(it's) an unexpectedly easy and entertaining read. And while one might have hoped for a little more levity, there's no denying the honesty of his account."
Back in the US of A, Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle also acknowledged that it was something of "a slight book" and not a complete or thorough autobiography. However, while he hopes that Dylan is conserving some ammunition for Volume 2 and beyond, he's ultimately satisfied with what we did get; "...What he tells us in this volume is amazing enough. It's a wise, jaunty, richly detailed, even charming account worthy of his artistic accomplishments, an astonishing look inside the mind of a man whose songs not only changed pop music, but also embedded themselves into American literature. As much as Mark Twain or his beloved Herman Melville, Dylan too, has written himself into the American story, and "Chronicles" offers an unprecedented view from behind those famous shades."
Meanwhile, The Houston Chronicle's Janet Maslin reckons it is "hardly tame. It is lucid without being linear, swirling through time without losing its strong storytelling thread......And while this is no time for Dylan to write his own epitaph, still, he has done it; "Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it's like they didn't fade away at all.""
Tony Brown of The Cleveland Plain Dealer enjoyed what he got, but lamented what he didn't get, and comments at length on the book's brevity; "..."Chronicles" feels slight. You can't read between the lines because they're full of air; if you took all the space from between the lines of type, the 298 pages would shrink to 149. Scholarly heft goes missing as well: no index, no bibliography, no notes." But, despite that, and the fact that the text jumps time spans as well as veering off on various tangents ("...Some of these digressions, while striking, go nowhere"), Brown eventually concludes that the book "does more or less make sense, unlike Dylan's 1966 novel "Tarantula", a dime-store James Joycean rip-off." Thank you, Mr. Brown. God bless.
The Rocky Mountain News' Mark Brown discovers that the only drawback with the book is that "(it) addresses only the things that Dylan wants to talk about." On the other hand, he's delighted to learn that Dylan almost had his hands on the unfinished Woody Guthrie portfolio four decades before Billy Bragg eventually set it to music, and he, like us, had never guessed that Bob was such a rap fan. "For some," he concludes, it's going to be a frustrating, incomplete volume in which Dylan is being deliberately coy. But it's a start, and recasts all previous biographies with a more human look at the greatest songwriter of the era."
Michael Kors of the New York Magazine found the book's faults to add to its charm. He considers it "admirable" that Dylan refuses to name his wives or wax lyrical about his affair with Baez, but, at the same time, finds the omission of the details to be "downright perverse". Ultimately, though, he's happier with the finished result than with a "kiss-and-tell" melodrama; "....if you come to this book not expecting Dylan to be a little evasive, a little out of it, you haven't been to see him live in the past twenty years. There's already more than one shamelessly indiscreet biography. Bob's written the book that nobody else could write, one less about what he did than why he did it. That's what makes "Chronicles" only semi-coherent, and that's what makes it inspiring."
John Goddard of the Toronto Star was impressed enough to proclaim that the book "exceeds all expectations", and concluded his lengthy review; "..."Chronicles" reads like the work not only of one of the world's greatest living artists but also of a happy man."
Back in the UK, Mike Marqusee, writing for The Guardian, reckoned that the prose was "a Dylanesque blend of luminous specifics and myopic vagueness." This, he suggests, is no bad thing; indeed, it's all part of the whole Dylan package. "Perhaps," he concludes, "I'm swayed by the fact that this book is so much better than I feared it might be (as a fan since the 60s, I've got used to disappointments). But with this rich, intermittently preposterous, often tender work, Bob Dylan has delivered more than many of us dared hoped for."
Amen to that, Mike.
Howard Hampton, writing for The Village Voice Literary Supplement, describes the book as "generous, incisive and disarmingly sincere" and suggests that "what hits home most is the quality of boundless affection". He's got a point; if you compare Bob's book, in which he has only pleasant and positive things to say about everybody, with, say, Joan Baez's mammoth ego-trip "With A Voice To Sing With" (which should have been subtitled "And An Arse To Talk Out Of"), in which she nastily puts down everyone who's ever pissed her off - especially Dylan - then I think you'll see who walks away with their dignity intact in the old autobiography stakes. "The book," Hampton concludes, "is full of casual-sounding words that ricochet through the room like chain lightning, a language that means to knock you sideways into Judgement Day but still leave a smile on your face."
Gerry Smith of the wonderful website Music For Grown-ups only submitted a couple of hundred words for his review, but do you really need to read anything more than this couple of dozen; "Chronicles Volume One is a serious work of literature. It will be read and re-read, and then read again, more slowly, in these parts." There - doesn't that say everything that needs saying?
The Yale Daily News' Rick Cortazar admits that "the chapters are riveting", but would rather have read about the 1964-67 period, especially Bob's parties with the Beatles and the influence his drug taking had on the songs he was writing at that time. Instead, Bob "divulges several eccentricities that will confound even his most ardent fans" such as his "glorification" of Bono (a man who, according to Cortazar, "poses himself in such a messianic light that he must wear a crucifix for nostalgia purposes") and his revelation that Barry Goldwater was his favourite politician. Could have been worse; he could have said George Bush (a man who has "L" and "R" painted on his shoes so that he knows which way round to put them on, just as his wife has "C & A" printed on her knickers. Sorry, old joke).
None other than Paul Williams reviewed it for The San Diego Union-Tribune, and, though he advises anyone who already thinks they know what to expect from a Bob Dylan autobiography to avoid it ("...no one, not even a, ahem, Dylan expert like me, can predict or guess what he'll say and do next"), he recommends it to everyone else; "...There's a lot to enjoy. And it's a surprisingly honest and revealing autobiography, albeit an eccentric and unconventional one.... (It) can best be appreciated as....Bob Dylan in 2004 interviewing himself and just talking about his life and his music and influences. In subtle ways, it may be the most revealing and entertaining Dylan interview yet."
Jeff Miers of The Buffalo News theorises that Dylan wrote the book(s) as an attempt to "awaken from the nightmare that is history" and the results may surprise some people because of "how real, how cogent, and how "on topic" the mysterious bard actually is."
January Magazine's John Keenan insists that "Chronicles" has, at a stroke, consigned the likes of Christopher Ricks, Michael Grey and all the other "cloth-eared inhabitants of academia" to irrelevancy; "Dylan has fashioned...the ontogeny of a 20th century musical soul, a portrait of the artist as an American pioneer." And, what's more, "All the evidence of "Chronicles" points in the direction of the survival - against all the odds, at times, and as often as not in the face of indifference or incomprehension - of an unquenchable creative spirit."
Coming back home to the UK for a minute, we find Bryan Appleyard of The Sunday Times enthusing over the book in no uncertain terms. A fan of some 40 years, he admits that he's come to expect the unexpected from Bob, both good and bad, but "Chronicles" has thrown him for a loop; "....Anything could happen with Bobby and it usually did at least twice. But the one thing none of us expected was that he would ever write a good book." From the text, he learns what Bob learned from his Grandmother; happiness isn't on the road to anything. "These days," Appleyard ascertains, "Dylan is happy, perpetually touring on the happy road to nowhere." And, in conclusion, he reveals that he, too, is now happy. In fact, "I cannot remember a book that has made me happier than this one."
Except, perhaps, "The Leonard Cohen Bumper Book Of Jokes And Chuckles", hey, Bryan?
Michealangelo Matos of the Seattle Weekly thought that Dylan's difficulty in describing the guitar technique that he learned from Lonnie Johnson - "I'm not a numerologist. I don't know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is" - also sums up the book perfectly; "...It's both nuts-and-boltsy and metaphysical - a good description of "Chronicles" as a whole."
Vue Weekly's Josef Braun actually enjoyed the massive chronological gaps and the lack of answers to the Big Questions, feeling that the books scatter-shot approach suited Dylan's style and made reading it a more pleasurable and rewarding occupation; "...His prose flows....across rickety rooftops decorated with old TV antennae, along train tracks running through mountain ranges. Jokes, stray thoughts, fragments of history flicker, catch fire, sing out like runaway sparks. Reading this stuff's a pleasure......It doesn't behave in a scholarly manner, but it belongs among the very best books about American music."
The Tampa Tribune's Curtis Ross also points out (for the umpteenth time!) that the absence of a linear approach and a refusal to discuss his bike accident or his divorce will confound and disappoint some readers, and, "in that respect, it's more "New Morning" than "Highway 61 Revisited". However, "for those willing to take the time and to navigate his sometimes knotty prose (some writers mix metaphors, Dylan makes gumbo with them), "Chronicles" offers a genuine peek into the workings of Dylanís mind."
Geoffrey Himes of the Baltimore City Paper reckons that the book's "sharply original voice" is "a genuine, welcome surprise", not least because it refuses to sink to sensationalistic kiss 'n' tell level; "..."Dylan argues that music is his connection to the public, so if he has anything to explain to the world, it's in his songs. After all, it's not an artist's marriage or drinking problem that makes him different from you or me; it's the art, and it's a treat to find a famous memoirist who realises this."
Charles Taylor of powells.com penned a lengthy and favourable review, which also touches upon "Masked And Anonymous" (which he calls "one of the most potent and challenging American movies in recent history" and therefore earns my respect and admiration for all time), the 1991 Grammy appearance (in which Dylan set out to prove that "nothing is settled. Everything is up for grabs") and Dylan's post-"Time Out Of Mind" work, which, along with this book, will not, he suggests, become tired and obsolete; "...in the last decade, Dylan seems to be opening up the time portal he always envisioned. Put on "Time Out Of Mind" or "Love And Theft" or the version of "Dixie" he sings in "Masked And Anonymous", maybe the most profound piece of American popular music since "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and what you hear is ageless......(Dylan's work this past ten years) feels like the rock of ages - solid and inexplicable and known to us, even if, as the best music always does, it makes you wonder, what was that?"
Meanwhile, the UK's Guardian was suggesting potential Christmas presents for dysfunctional Dads, and amongst the Looney Tunes DVD box sets and Mahler and Diana Krall albums sat "Chronicles"; "...The first surprise is that it makes any sense at all....The second is how good it is: witty and beautifully written, it reveals Dylan to be noticeably less barmy than his fans." I would like to argue that point, but cannot.
And the Scottish Herald presented a fine review, complete with a superb full-colour 1966 Jerry Schatzberg portrait. Hugh MacDonald feels that "Chronicles" details the life of two men (or one schizophrenic, I guess) who may seem very similar - almost identical, in fact - but are actually very different; "...(Dylan) peers out of this wonderful, flawed, picturesquely rambling account as a shy, taciturn man, fuelled by four-star ambition. This force compels him. "I needed to play for people and for all time." Thus the mythical two-headed beast faces up to separate fates. Robert Zimmerman will tonight pray "to be a kinder person". Bob Dylan is demanded by destiny to prepare to play everywhere from Fresno, California to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as the Never Ending tour goes into an American fall."
And that should do it for English-language reviews this month (though be warned; the next issue will carry on where this one has left off!), but I should mention a few of the European ones that I've seen.
The Spanish press was, as far as I know, as wordy, worthy and full of hot air as it usually is.
The German press was, on the whole, pretty enthusiastic, and we'll have a quick look at a few select pieces now.
Unless I'm missing something in the translation, Die Welt Kompakt's Matthias Heine seems to have used his review to emphasise Dylan's non-non-violence approach to life (he even titles his piece "Master Of War"), and dwells at length upon Dylan's boyhood wish to enrol in West Point, and the Woodstock years, when he felt forced to buy some guns to protect his family.
As an aside, I personally just cannot envisage Dylan - especially 1969/70 Dylan - standing there with a great big gun in his hand, blasting away at dozens of intruders and snarling; "Come on, you muthafuckahs.....say hello to my little frien'."
See; there's my point - I muddle him up with Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Brian DePalma's "Scarface" every time!
Stuttgarter Zeitung's Michael Werner called it a "brilliant autobiography" and proclaimed that, "with every word, Dylan produces delightful art with his aphorisms and dialogue which could come from his best songs."
Der Spiegel's Thomas Huetlin reckons that "the man really is a weirdo. For the first half of his life, Bob Dylan works hard to conquer the masses. And the second half he spends saying goodbye to them - not involuntary like most rock stars, but on purpose." Still, he insists, what more could you expect from such a "super-mysterious guy" who types out his story on an ancient typewriter in capital letters and then subtitles it "Volume 1"? Even so, he likes what he reads; "...The story told in "Chronicles" is of a man losing the success that made him great; his music. And who regained it when he left the masses behind."
Die Welt's Uwe Schmitt also enjoyed the book, claiming that "Bob Dylan can tell stories almost as well as he can write songs". However, he fails to be convinced by Dylan's insistence that he doesn't enjoy - and never has - being Bob Dylan the Legend; "...If we believe the memoirs, Bob Dylan's been in the wrong job for half a century now. Even in the sixties, he was longing for a petty bourgeois existence, tired of the persecutions.....Dylan might not know who he wants to be, but he knows what he's talking about."
Gerrit Terstiege of Handelsblatt again notes that Dylan deliberately ignores the facets of his life that most people would like to hear his take on, but that, ultimately, we should be thankful for what we've got; "...Even if he doesn't give us all the answers, and still keeps some secrets, Dylan is electrifying us once again."
Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore concluded that "this is a remarkable book. Just like Henry Miller's best work, it not only portrays its time, it explains and shows the potential of the human mind."
And Werner Schmitz of Stern awarded it four out of five stars and called it an "atmospherically compact autobiography".
And - just to be ornery - letís end this month's trawl through the "Chronicles" reviews by mentioning the only negative one (there always has to be one, doesn't there?) I've come across amongst the reams and reams of paper that I've managed to accumulate during these past couple of months. It's courtesy of Lloyd Carroll of the Queens Chronicle, who compares it to Dylan's Oscar performance of "Things Have Changed", where, so we are told, he slurred his words so that you couldn't understand what he was singing. "Chronicles", apparently, "is just as incoherent....(it's) a mess because Dylan rambles on and the chapters are not written in anything close to the sequential order. You almost have the feeling that he vetoed the idea of allowing an editor to oversee this project." Anyway, he reckons that Dylan tells us that he always preferred Bobby Vee and Rick Nelson over Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard (no, he doesn't) yet fails to explain why he likes them (yes, he does). Ultimately, he decides that "I won't be holding my breath for Volume 2". Oh, please do, Lloyd. Please do.
Before finishing for this month, I really should mention the interviews that Bob gave during the autumn, primarily to promote a book that really needed no promotion. I guess anyone who manages to make it to the end of one of my articles (and congratulations; you almost have) will be sufficiently hooked on Bob Dylan to have searched out these interviews for themselves, so there seems little point in quoting huge chunks here.
As well as the three printed ones, I believe he also granted his first radio interview in many a long year. I've not heard it myself, but understand that he primarily revealed that he knows how to fly an aeroplane (an interesting fact, but not particularly earth-shattering), so maybe I'm not missing very much!
To Newsweek's David Gates, he reveals that his approach to writing the book was "like I had a full deck, and I cut the cards and whatever you see, you go with that. I realise there's a great gap in it." Whilst discussing how little he actually enjoyed writing it, he provides quite possibly my favourite quote; "lest we forget; while you're writing, you're not living. What do they call it? Splendid isolation? I don't find it that splendid."
Most interestingly, he reveals that he hopes to have a new album written before he embarks on his autumn tour, and, after that's released, he'd like to go back and re-record a lot of his old songs.
But, possibly the most disconcerting admission is that he believes his God-given talent began slipping away somewhere in Woodstock after the bike crash ("it was like a bag of wind. I didn't realise it was slipping away until it had slipped away.") and didn't really return until the recording of "Time Out Of Mind". Like Gates (who really wants to argue this point but doesn't dare), I'm dumbfounded that, in a single stroke, Dylan has written off ďPlanet Waves", "Blood On The Tracks", "Desire", "Street Legal", and "Slow Train" (surely still his greatest album vocally?), and does he really think that his current shows are better than, say, the 1975 Revue or those exceptional 1980 Gospel dates, to name but two? Usually I'd be inclined to give Dylan the benefit of the doubt on his opinion of his own career (even if I disagree with him), but this time I'd have to seriously take him to task. I'd agree that ďTime Out Of Mind", "Love And Theft" and "'Cross The Green Mountain" are almost as good as the previously mentioned albums, but, to my ears, the current shows are nigh on unlistenable, and I haven't had to say that since 1993.
To the Sunday Telegraph's John Preston, he expands upon his wilderness years, especially the 1980s, when he considers himself to have been "just above a club act". The old songs and all the paraphernalia that went with them had turned sour for him; "...I was carrying a package of rotting meat. The glow was gone and the match had burned right to the end. I was going through the motions. The whiskey had gone out of the bottle." He describes those years as being in a long dark tunnel, one that took him a long time to emerge from, "but I got there in the end."
He discusses at length the book-writing process to Edna Gunderson of USA Today fame, explaining that it was Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal who suggested that, rather than write his life story, he pick specific periods of that life and write about those ("I understood that strategy...I didn't have to write an apology. I wasn't trying to explain anything to anybody...I was just trying to charm my way through it, really."). To him, the motorbike crash "would fall under the category of what doesn't matter...In no way is the book an open confession...The confessional stuff is okay if you do the penance along with it, but that was never my intention."
Of his 1980s work, he admits that "it was just a misdirection of my talent....I would not have called it a creative slump. I had horse-whipped myself so bad, and I was critically hurt in so many ways. I really didn't have much more to say at that point."
And there we have it. What better place to sign off this month than with a few wise words from a Bob Dylan who - when he's not suggesting that his 2004 live shows are even as good as, say, 1986 (let alone the 1975-80 Glory Years) - does seem to be, as the Guardian suggested, considerably less barmy than his fans.
And that includes me, I guess. After all, donít I spend hour upon hour every month searching the internet for press material and then typing it all up here in these pages when there are a hundred other things that I could (and probably should) be doing?
I somehow doubt whether Bob would approve, and Ė letís face it Ė he would probably be right not to do so.
Next month I shall continue to drive down the endless highway of "Chronicles" reviews. Fingers crossed that I reach the end before the wheels fall off and burn.
THANKS TO EXPECTING RAIN, JENS WINTER, ANTONIO J. IRIARTE, BOBBY RONALD
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