So far, we’ve checked out books by Don Felder, Eric Clapton, Paul Zollo (Tom Petty), and Joe Vitale. This week, we look at perhaps the best rock autobiography ever written.
It figures that the Rock Reads champion book would be written by one of the best songwriters of all time. This Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer has been telling stories in music for nearly a half-century, and his latest album (Together Through Life) debuted at NUMBER ONE on the Billboard album charts. He celebrated his 68th birthday on May 24, and he’s touring the country this summer with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson.
Who better to tell the story of Bob Dylan’s life than Bob Dylan? Chronicles, Volume One is an incredible look back at not just one musician’s life, but also a bit of a first-person recollection of some fascinating moments of 20th Century American history.
Chronicles is not a linear, chronological, or comprehensive retelling of Dylan’s life. (There are lots of those books available.) It doesn’t include juicy bits like when he turned the Beatles on to pot in the 60s. What the reader gets, however, is priceless. If you ever wondered what it might be like to be a young folksinger arriving in New York City for the first time in the dead of winter, knowing no one and having no place to stay, you’ll be able to experience it through the eyes of Dylan as he tells his stories. The incredible details of his early New York years—of finding his own voice, learning from (and eventually surpassing) the stars of the folk scene, and transforming from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan—are presented in a way so that each small detail fills and becomes part of the picture as a whole. Simply put, the reader is able to feel like he was right there with Dylan. It’s really written that well.
Throughout the book, Dylan tells what it’s like to be seen as “leader of the Movement” and “conscience of a generation” while all he wanted to do was be a family man, take his kids to ballgames, and try to lead as normal a life as possible. Dylan recalls that no matter where he took his family, people would follow, demonstrate, and beg him to “lead them somewhere.” He explains how he tried, with varying degrees of success, to “demolish [his] identity” and deconstruct the myth. Dylan writes of his no-win situation:
“Reporters would shoot questions at me and I would tell them repeatedly that I was not a spokesman for anything or anybody and that I was only a musician. They’d look into my eyes as if to find some evidence of bourbon and handfuls of amphetamines. I had no idea what they were thinking. Later an article would hit the streets with the headline ‘Spokesman Denies That He’s A Spokesman.’ I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.”
Other standout stories that Dylan recalls for us include his being asked to write songs for an Archibald MacLeish play (songs that became the basis for Dylan’s New Morning album), recording his Oh Mercy album with Daniel Lanois in the haunted city of New Orleans, and how he was planning to retire but was reborn on stage during a tour with Tom Petty in Switzerland. He even touches on the creative process and how he wrote some of his songs.
Throughout the book, Dylan’s eye for detail (and amazing memory of past events) makes for a very compelling story. Rumor has it that a Volume Two is in the works and that it will highlight different parts of Dylan’s amazing story. Suffice it to say that with a Number One album and continued touring, the story is nowhere close to complete. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to add Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan to your bookshelf.