Paul Williams, the author of five Dylan books and counting, once noted that there's always a Dylan retrospective going on somewhere. The Dylan Industry makes sure this stays so; it maintains a steady thrum and kicks into gear every three or four years, generally timed to a major Dylan event. The last couple times were albums: 1997's Time Out of Mind (its momentum sustained by Live 1966, a legendary bootleg officially released for the first time the following year) and 2001's Love and Theft. Although 2004 saw the issue of the over-praised The Bootleg Series Volume 6: Live 1964 -- Concert at Philharmonic Hall (Columbia/Legacy), now the spotlight's on a book -- and a related exhibit the Experience Music Project hosted from November 2004 to the middle of this month.
The most interesting thing about the Dylan Industry is that it's self-generating, and nowhere more than in publishing, the Industry's epicenter. The literary market is never short of new Dylan product, especially in the past few years. I saw no less than a dozen new or updated books in 2004, and I probably missed a few. Needless to say, no normal person need bother with most of them. This isn't always an insult: Oliver Trager's Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Billboard) may be classic forest-for-trees fanaticism, but it's info-crammed enough for a professional to find handy as a reference. But try to find any use for A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (Da Capo), in which British writer Andy Gill provides pompous commentary while co-author Kevin Odegard recalls, in monotonous detail, which instruments he and his fellow musicians used while playing on the half of the album that was recorded in Minneapolis.
That year also saw microscopic studies by Michael Gray (the third edition of Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan) and Christopher Ricks (Dylan's Visions of Sin, the highest-profile of these books -- aside from Dylan's own -- thanks to Ricks' clout as a poetry-world heavy). There's David Boucher's comparative study of Dylan and Leonard Cohen; Jim Ellison's useful, if frustrating, Younger Than That Now: The Collected Interviews With Bob Dylan (which misses two classics -- Playboy, 1966, by Nat Hentoff, and Rolling Stone, 2001, by Mikal Gilmore); and Benjamin Hedin's less useful Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader.
There's even a Rough Guides volume by Nigel Williamson that sums it all up nicely, as is the series' wont, though it's pretty humdrum critically: When Williamson writes, "Love and Theft is not as important an album as Time Out of Mind," it's essentially code for "Time Out of Mind is a lot more boring than Love and Theft." And then there's Dylan's Lyrics 19622001, which has been kicking around in various guises since 1973 and is exactly what it looks like.
So, shockingly, is Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster), the first of three projected memoirs by Dylan himself. This tome is the Big Kahuna in all of Dylania. The undercurrent of every review I've seen of the thing has been sheer disbelief that it even exists.
"A lot of the Dylanologists I talked to when I was putting this together were shocked it even came out," says Jasen Emmons, the curator of EMP's exhibit, Bob Dylan's American Journey, 19561966. "It had been rumored for so long that everyone was convinced it would never happen."
Or worse, that the result would be evasive in some manner: Maybe gnomic on the order of Tarantula, Dylan's first book, written in 1965 and issued five years later (essentially a semipoetic absurdist riff, a long version of the liner notes from one of his '60s albums), or maybe a glossy rundown of hard facts that would skip or deny the thornier aspects of his life. But it turns out that Dylan remembers more than you'll ever forget, and he remembers in detail.
It's tempting to compare the reception of the book with that of Brian Wilson Presents Smile, the wholly rerecorded version of a scrapped, 37-year-old Beach Boys album that several influential critics were calling the album of the year. The difference is that even in unfinished, bootlegged form, Smile always depended to some degree on the listener's willingness to be swept away by Wilson's aural fantasias. Even at his most fanciful, Dylan has never offered much in the way of escape.
Which isn't to say that Chronicles doesn't traffic in nostalgia to some degree. It's just that the nostalgia belongs entirely to Dylan and not his fans. The three periods he writes about -- from high school to his signing with Columbia Records (which scene begins and ends the book), encompassing his apprenticeship in Minneapolis' and New York's folk scenes, and the making of two albums, 1970's New Morning and 1989's Oh Mercy -- have little resonance for the public at large; after fallow periods, both albums were considered "comebacks" upon release, but today nobody but hard-core Dylanologists considers them major works.
Still, their placement here is instructive. These periods connect not as straight narration but instinctively, as crossroads in Dylan's attempt to get and keep a grip on his art -- the early years as hungry young visionary, New Morning as family man and reluctant celebrity, Oh Mercy as someone drifting away from himself and being restored thanks to an outside trigger.
This falls right in line with Dylan's instinctive approach to his art generally; often, his through-lines are implied more than stated outright. Take the narrative Blood on the Tracks' "Tangled Up in Blue," which slips between first and second person but retains its coherence. That instinctiveness is in the writing itself, too -- Dylan's tone has a drifting romanticism about it even when he's bearing down: "I did everything fast. Thought fast, ate fast, talked fast and walked fast. I even sang my songs fast. I needed to slow my mind down if I was going to be a composer with anything to say."
For all its lack of linearity, Chronicles is amazingly lucid and specific. Dylan goes on at length about his heroes, and he's extremely good at pinpointing their appeal. On Joan Baez: "Both Scot and Mex, she looked like a religious icon, like somebody you'd sacrifice yourself for and she sang in a voice straight to God ... also was an exceptionally good instrumentalist." (The ellipse is Dylan's, by the way.) On Albert Grossman, his manager: "Usually when he talked, his voice was loud, like the booming of war drums." On Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny": "Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin. And then there's always that ghost chorus about the black ship that steps in, fences it all off and locks it up tighter than a drum. It's a nasty song, sung by an evil fiend, and when she's done singing, there's not a word to say. It leaves you breathless. In the small theater when the performance reached its climactic end the entire audience was stunned, sat back and clutched their collective solar plexus."
Like his greatest albums, Chronicles has a voraciousness and force of personality that overwhelm petty objections. If Dylan's recollections are breathless, they're also hard-nosed, and that's appropriate to the sense of discovery afoot as well as the extreme bitterness he details about dealing with the fame he'd gained in the late '60s, a period when he was seen as a figurehead for a movement he wanted nothing to do with. (He rattles off the titles -- "the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese" -- with both perfect comic pacing and a real sense of anguish at the trap he'd gotten into.) It's a long, frequently excitable exhalation, as if years of keeping this stuff mostly to himself had finally become too much, a mirror image of his early need to be heard.
That's equally true of the lengthy description of approaches to performing that Dylan credits for reviving his interest in his own music in the late '80s. After skipping out on a rehearsal with tour mates the Grateful Dead ("I wasn't planning on going back. If you have to lie, you should do it quickly and as well as you can"), he stepped into a bar to watch a jazz combo and began paying attention to the singer, who "wasn't very forceful, but he didn't have to be; he was relaxed; but he sang with natural power."
Dylan went back to rehearsal and started over, in more ways than one, eventually adding a guitar technique learned from bluesman Lonnie Johnson that works entirely on mathematical principles: "I'm not a numerologist. I don't know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is." It's both nuts-and-boltsy and metaphysical -- a good description of Chronicles as a whole.