As promised (or threatened, depending entirely on your point of view) last time, this month sees the continuation of a lengthy examination of the critical fate of "Chronicles" during the last few months of 2004.
As we saw last month, the overall reaction was extremely positive, and this batch won't really be any different. A few more voices of dissent might have made it a bit more interesting to type up, but I ain’t complaining none, and neither, I would suspect is Bob! Okay, let’s get the show on the road, then.
New York Newsday's Stacey D'erasmo certainly enjoyed reading it, though she remains somewhat unconvinced that Bob’s memory retrieval is 100% accurate; “..... (it’s) nothing if not sincere; whether or not it’s believable, it’s clear that he believes it, or would like to believe it.”
Carlo Wolff of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel also seems to doubt that we should take everything that Bob writes at face value, describing its contents as being full of facts that are “filtered and coloured to flummox”. Still, he’s got no problem with that, and reckons that the books’ “easy, conversational style (makes it) engaging”, and that it’s entertaining enough to allow the reader to forgive Dylan for the “jumpy chronology” and the fact that he still leaves most facets of his life closed and mysterious (which makes this book pretty unique in the field of autobiographies, I would have thought).
Terry Lawson of The Detroit Free Press especially enjoyed reading the section detailing Dylan’s meeting with Sun Pie - a portion of the book that he feels works extremely well. “Dylan is now in his element,” he writes, “that place that Greil Marcus dubbed “old weird America.”
The Orlando Sentinel's Jim Abbott also expresses doubts that the book is completely on the button, but, again, doesn’t let it worry him; “It's impossible to know how much Dylan, a relentless manipulator of his history and image, is pulling our legs. The good news is that it’s still pretty entertaining, even if he is.”
The Lexington Herald-Leader's Walter Tunis reckons that Dylan’s writing really shines when he’s describing his geographical locations; “you sense the snow-blown streets of Greenwich Village as vividly as the steamy boulevards of New Orleans. Such selective and unsentimental reflection make “Chronicles” a work of beautifully complete incompleteness.”
Devin McKinney, writing in The American Prospect, reckons that Bob’s prose places him in the realm of “the great American crank”, and that “Dylan has spent his career working toward that echelon, and with “Chronicles”, he's reached it.”
And The Daily Iowan's Adam Greenburg found the Dylan who emerges from the pages of the book to be much more a man of doubts and insecurities than his 40 years in the spotlight have portrayed him to be.
Greg Kot (now, there's a blast from the past), writing for The Malaysian Star, finds Dylan’s vulnerability to be “ennobling” and suggests that Dylan has concentrated more on the man than the myth and that the story of that mere mortal may well be “better than the legend’s”.
The Weekend Australian's Imre Salusinsky states that “Chronicles” sees Dylan joining “a line of modern myth-makers that stretch back to William Blake”, and, irregardless of the books’ truth or lies, what matters is “it’s word-play and word-magic, its flights of daft numerology and its detours, its evasiveness on the trivia and utter candour on the things that matter. This is what makes it an aesthetic memoir to place next to Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria”.
Here in the UK, The Guardian's Robert McCrum recommends it to everyone but those hoping that Dylan will “decode the thrilling enigmas of his songs” (was there really anyone expecting that?) and finds it a fascinating and important book despite of - or because of - its faults. “It’s occasionally close to self-parody,” he concludes, “But still incredibly quotable in a read-aloud-to-your-friends sort of way. Just as you are about to lose patience with the American rock star's Mount Helen size ego, he reminds you that he’s Dylan, and finds his groove. Then you realise why Dylan will always be part of the unofficial soundtrack of our lives. “Chronicles” takes its place next to “On The Road” and Guthrie’s “Bound For Glory” as an essential record of an American artist’s manifest destiny.”
Susan Larson, writing for New Orleans’s Times-Picayune, obviously concentrates on the “Oh Mercy” sessions and agrees with Bob’s claim that the place has the best radio stations in the world. Ultimately, though, the Bob Dylan who slowly emerges through the thousands of words is no prophet and much less the consciousness of the free world. Perhaps, she surmises, he is no more than an American dreamer “with a boundless capacity for self-invention, both angry prisoner and desperate escapee of his own myth.”
And over on the other side of the world (albeit a world that has grown somewhat smaller thanks to the internet), Gregory O'Brien, contributor to New Zealand's www.stuff.co.nz website, penned a wordy, worthy piece that can neatly be summed up in this brief quote; ““Chronicles” is an engaging, gritty artefact of a life still being lived.” Amen to that.
Meanwhile, back in Bob’s home town, excitement over the book’s publication was in danger of reaching fever pitch. Many bookshops in Duluth were expecting steady - if unspectacular - sales, and a few were even considering putting up small displays to promote the thing. However, most were determined to keep their feet firmly on the ground and rely on word of mouth instead.
“It will sell,” said a breathless Anita Zager, owner of the Northern Lights Books and Gifts shop, “It’s not going to be Harry (Potter) or Bill (Clintton) or Hilary (Clinton). But there’s plenty of interest around here.”
Over in good old down-town Hibbing, where Bob is hardly the Number One Son, there was even something of a stampede in one bookshop (possibly the only bookshop, for all I know). Howard Street Booksellers reported selling out their entire stock of five - yes; five! Count ‘em - copies in one day.
“For us,” said owner Mary Keyes, presumably after she’d had a nice cup of tea and a lay-down, “We’d say it’s a rush.”
Phew, and there was me thinking that my home town can get a little dull from time to time.
Okay, after that exciting interlude, it's back to business as usual.
The Oshkosh Northwestern's Christie Wells, a local artist and a long-time fan, concludes that the final surprise is “how readable it is and how well it captures the inner voice and impulses of an artist who has consistently attempted to remain outside of the public eye.”
John Boonstra of the New Haven Advocate predicts that the back-and-forth-in-time nature of the book (“like a CD player set on random play”) will infuriate some people, but it’s clearly and precisely written, and, anyway, the 1970 and 1987 chapters are “every bit as pivotal as the segments concentrating on his early years”. Boonstra has difficulty in deciding whether Sun Pie actually exists or whether he’s a figment of Dylan’s imagination (“....there are a couple of moments that remind us that Dylan can’t give up his role as the Trickster of his generation”), but doesn’t let it spoil his enjoyment. Whatever, “he (Sun Pie) is an entertaining anomaly in an autobiography that is otherwise candid.”
The Las Vegas Mercury's Mike Prevatt also expresses doubts as to the validity of what he's just read; “.....There are several passages that speak of his flexible sense of honesty and his occasional need to shield himself with white lies. One has to wonder whether he’s duping people yet again with this book. Why believe him now?”
If there are untruths and flights of fancy in the book, then Prevatt ponders whether Dylan may have included them deliberately; “He may never be seen as an everyman, but he tries his damndest to convey that here......If anything, the only underlying reason is the one behind “Chronicles” - to get the completists off his back. Predictably, he’s left them wanting more.”
Corey Mesler of the Memphis Flyer reckons that we now have two Dylans; “two authorative voices (that he) has mastered. There is the singer who can break your heart or kick you awake......and there is the chronicler who has penned a frank autobiography. In these disjunctive times, a vision this sincere and singular can offer hope.......Bob Dylan's story in Bob Dylan's voice is, finally, inspiring.”
Stephen Goode (brother of Johnny B? Sorry.), writing in The Washington Times, reckons that “Mr. Dylan's memory for detail is phenomenal and he has a talented writer’s gift for knowing what to tell us, and what to leave out.” He notes that the book refuses to follow any strict chronological order, but doesn't have a problem with that; “......they (the chapters) are always coherent and suffer very little from the ambiguity (and downright opacity) that some of Mr. Dylan’s songs are famous for.”
Old fan Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times isn’t convinced that the book is entirely accurate; “Far from being the personally revealing look at the “real” Dylan that some reviewers are hailing, “Chronicles”, like many of Dylan’s best creations, is a ping-pong game between fiction and fact; a hyper-romantic love letter to a mythical time, place and mood during its rose-coloured portrait of the early New York folk scene, and finally a wickedly funny, myth-deflating look at the mundane realities of the act of creation in the long chunk of the book devoted to the making of the unremarkable “Oh Mercy” of 1989.”
Despite losing points for writing off “Oh Mercy” as "unremarkable", this is a good review which concludes thus; “As devilishly resistant to fully reveal himself at age 63 as he was at 25, Dylan doesn't define himself in “Chronicles”, either. But it is an inspired, illuminating and terrifically enjoyable read.” ‘Nuff said.
Andrew Martin of the Columbia Spectator can’t resist quoting that line from “It's Alright Ma” (a practice that was done to death back in the mid-80s, but has thankfully disappeared of late. Please don’t encourage it to make a comeback - if you hear anyone saying it, give them a slap); “As always, Dylan makes no excuses and gives few explanations. You know something is happening, but you don't know what it is, and with a genius as singular as his, you wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The Aspen Times' Stewart Oksenhorn doesn’t quote from 40 year-old Bob Dylan songs, even though he’s surprised that Dylan barely mentions such “character-defining” events as the Kennedy assassination or the Cuban Missile Crisis. He selects two 1987 episodes - the rehearsals with the Grateful Dead and the onstage epiphany in Locarno - as the most interesting. Futher along, he concludes that ““Chronicles” is Dylan at his most straightforward; paradoxically, this adds a layer of complexity to the icon. How are we to square this goodfellow with the writer of such acerbic songs as “Positively 4th Street” and “Idiot Wind”, and a song loaded with contemporary politics, like “Neighbourhood Bully”?” Answers on a postcard, please.
The splendidly named Gur Zak, contributes a lengthy and highly readable review for the www.haaretz.com website, and notes that Dylan usually avoids turning the mirror on himself and “only rarely does he emerge between the lines”. Furthermore, he “does not look back fondly on the past, nor does he use his memories to exert pressure on our tear ducts.” Whilst Zak asserts that we should admire him for writing a book without resorting to such tactics, he also feels that it represents the books’ one weakness; “To a certain extent, it remains cold, overly intellectual. Brilliant, but not moving. Dylan’s refusal to expose his feelings prevents us from really getting near him - and, perhaps, even prevents Dylan from getting near himself.”
Adam Miller's four-star review on www.beingtheremag.com is far less specific or defined, and he simply advises his readers that it’s a “must-read” for any Dylan fan (stating the bleedin’ obvious, or what?). “He’s definitely got some interesting stories to tell,” he says, “and it’s nice to finally hear what he’s got to say about his massive influence and fascinating career. And for someone who has rarely offered a reflection on his music or personal experience, that's a pretty big deal.”
The Morning Call's Geoff Gehman seems to have enjoyed the book well enough, though he spends much of his review mourning what isn’t there, rather than what is; “.....Dylan recalls all types of weather but not the genesis of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with its lightning-rod line: “You don't need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows”. He identifies with Nietzsche’s feeling of being old at a young age but never says how he filtered this feeling into “My Back Pages”.........He never names his children, but jams the books’ second to last paragraph with a list of famous Minnesotans.” Honestly, there’s no pleasing some people, is there?
Kevin Rabalais, writing for New Orlean's Gambit Weekly, says that ““Chronicles” hums with a stream-of-consciousness, bandit-on-the-run energy. Some parts are more polished than others, and there are a few repetitions, as if Dylan sometimes loses his thread, but he is always quick to get back on track, even if it might not take us down any of the main arteries of his career. There are blackouts. Years, even decades, pass in the white space between chapters........The structure, at first awkward, is intricate in the way his long songs have always been. Like the epic poets who served as his songwriting guides, he demands that the reader work alongside him in a keep-up-with-me-if-you-can manner, and the payoff is striking.”
Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle enjoys it because “the prose has none of that hand-tooled faux-sincere gloss of standard celebrity biography. It is naive and direct; it is not cryptic and is not smug.” Further along, he seems relieved to note that “the flaws in the book are another guarantee of authenticity. Dylan misuses words – “incredulously” for “incredibly”, for instance - and lists apparently every folksinger he ever met, including many who do not otherwise figure in the narrative.”
Ultimately, he decides that “you have to care about Bob Dylan to care about this book; it is not a sweeping overview of anything. But (it) is a lot more genuine than many books from that time. Dylan is peddling no metaphysical trinkets; he's just showing us the sights.”
The Daily Yomiuri's Brad Quinn asserts that the book is unlikely to appeal to anybody who is not a Dylan fan, but, for those fans, it's a treat because it’s “the chance to hear the tight-lipped Dylan speak, even if what he says sometimes sounds ridiculous.” Even if the general premise of the review is vaguely negative (or, perhaps, “disappointed” would be a better word), Quinn does manage to finish on something of a high, albeit somewhat reluctantly; “It’s hard to know what to make of some of this stuff, other than to wonder if Dylan might have done with another editor. But even still, it’s hard not to look forward to Volume Two when there’s still so much more to come - the Rolling Thunder tour, the Christian conversion, the Victoria’s Secret ad. Dylan’s first volume leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Most likely they all will.”
As an aside, why do so many people seem to think Dylan will eventually address the Victoria’s Secret advert? I think it's a 99.9% dead cert that he won’t (actually, forget that remaining 00.1% - he definitely won’t), and, even if he did, what would he say? “In 2004, I appeared in a TV advert, filming next to a young girl in her underwear. I cashed my cheque and forgot about it, and then a bunch of people who last listened to my music in 1969 slagged me off in the press. It didn't bother me none; I don't pay no attention to that stuff." (Wow, that was just like the real thing, wasn’t it?)
John Nesbit contributed a four-star review to the culturedose.net website, and decided that the book “certainly isn’t for the casual Dylan fan, but people who dig his music and readers interested in the creative process will find Dylan's latest “prose” fascinating. Budding poets too will find much to savour here as well, since the long narrative often reads like an extended song.......this book belongs in the library of anyone interested in the inside thoughts of creative genius.”
Willamette Week's Mark Baumgarten expressed grave concerns that the book was not exactly on the level, claiming that Dylan has lied to us for years, so why should we believe all we read this late in the game?
“If reading a memoir is a leap of faith that demands a belief in the veracity of the author,” he writes, “then reading a Bob Dylan memoir is a foolish leap into a twisting kaleidoscope of half-truths. No one who picks up the pop icon’s “Chronicles” and reads as far as the seventh page can deny that Dylan just might be taking them for a ride. “He then begins to delve closely into the text, looking for clues to back up his claim with all of the religious enthusiasm of the devoted conspiracy theorist. There are probably dozens of similar fan-based websites out there doing the very same thing, and, if you want them, then the best of luck to you.
In his lengthy review for The Austin Chronicle, Shawn Badgley describes it as “an epic historical prose poem and mind-blowing, elliptical, picaresque memoir.” Within its pages, he tells us, “Dylan is relatively unguarded. Dylan is funny. Dylan is street. Dylan is substantive. With an eye occasionally cataractous but most often clear, he describes friends and enemies, encounters and environments, insecurities and epiphanies.” And, further on, “.......like his best work, it possesses an undeniable universal pull. The guy, you might’ve heard, can tell a story, and he can tie it to, like, big things.”
A good review, though at times it does seem as though Badgley has been leafing though his "Boy's Bumper Encyclopaedia of Big Words".
Greil Marcus contributes a typically wordy yet readable piece for Rolling Stone. Try this for size; “Because he’s a musician, the reflections are sometimes echoes, and some of the echoes are words. “My father,” Dylan writes of Abraham Zimmerman, “wasn’t so sure the truth would set anybody free” - and those words sound down through the book. This isn’t just the stiff-necked Jew turning his back on Jesus pronouncing that “the truth shall set you free,” it’s the truth, as, again and again in “Chronicles”, Dylan applies it to songs. Folk songs. Old songs. Songs that resist the singer, that change shape as soon as he thinks he knows what they are. Songs that they force the singer to exchange facts for mystery and knowledge for ignorance.”
No one writes quite like old Greil, do they? Even when he’s talking old bollocks, as he may be here for all I know, he does it with style and panache.
An anonymous reviewer for The Socialist Worker concludes that “he writes about his love of the music and the America it represents. This is clearly another America to the one of Bush, imperialism and war. That’s why I always laugh at those who say to oppose US oppression is to be anti-American.” Fair point.
Paul Beston of The American Spectator also doubts the validity of everything Dylan writes, especially the opening meeting between a young Bob and an ageing Jack Dempsey. “Even an elderly Dempsey, who really did ride on freight trains and work odd jobs, wouldn't have mistaken Dylan for anything other than a welterweight bohemian.”
“It’s a charming story, though,” he concludes, “and it does no harm to tell. For a book of tales, it starts things off on a high note, and a symbolic one - the counterculture’s wonder boy coming face to face with a man who was an icon of the Old America. Dylan helped finish off that country, and then lived long enough to rue its passing. There’s a sadness to that, too.”
And we’ll leave it for this month with a look at a few more German reviews, kicking off with one by Gottfried Blumenstein in Leipziger Volkzeitung, in which he - like so very many others - lists the chapters of his life that Dylan has omitted, but does declare that “everything is written in brilliant prose”.
Fritz Werner Haver of Thuringer Allgemeine claims that it’s “more than an autobiography; it's a literary work of art” and Frank Schafer, writing in Switzerland’s Neue Zurcher Zeitung, reckons that it’s a “beautiful autobiography”.
Finally, Willi Winkler, in Germany’s Literaturen, is not surprised that Dylan keeps the insights into his private life hidden. After all, he says, he's hidden behind myths and legends for decades, so why should he suddenly open up now? And yet, by the time he's reached the final page, he discovers that he has discovered something new; “.....and so, in the end, the singer, who wanted to be one of the Beatnik authors, reveals something about himself. Brecht, our beloved Brecht, was the model for some of the greatest songs written in the second half of the 20th century.”
And that’s it for this time, and, having covered close to 100 reviews over the last two months (not that I've been counting. No, really; I haven’t dared to count them), I guess we can safely put the lid on the whole “Chronicles” thing and lock it away.
And yet its recent nomination in a couple of Book of the Year awards has caused a few more critics to emerge from the woodwork to appraise it and hold it up to the light beside its fellow nominees. With that in mind, after a month’s grace, I might briefly return to it to see how it stands up in the big wide critical world now that the initial excitement over its publication has waned a little.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.
THANKS TO: the Expecting Rain website and Jens Winter
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