Review: ‘Chronicles’

Bob Dylan tells his life story in bits and pieces in "Chronicles: Volume One." Though the literary device feels gimmicky at first, ultimately it has a clear purpose: the invention and reinvention of Bob Dylan by the former Robert Zimmerman.

Bob Dylan tells his life story in bits and pieces, from his youth in Minnesota through his early days in New York and some of his work and experiences in the 1970s and ’80s, in “Chronicles: Volume One.” Though the literary device feels gimmicky at first, ultimately it has a clear purpose: the invention and reinvention of Bob Dylan by the former Robert Zimmerman, who never accepted nor felt comfortable with the mantle of being the bard of a new generation.

The chapters deal with his roots and changes. The creation of Dylan, the folk singer who breaks with tradition and writes his own material, is central to the Dylan story. He goes deep into his little black book in recalling who brought what to him, whether it was a couch to sleep on or a record he hadn’t heard or a discussion of a book.

He bounces to his days hiding out in Woodstock, N.Y., trying to maintain a family life despite the intrusion of fans and wayward souls looking for answers. He even explores the transformation of his singing voice and musical style for “Nashville Skyline.”

Dylan was artistically spent in the 1980s, turning his own soul-searching into recordings of marginal appeal. In discussing Daniel Lanois and the fumbling of the recording of “Oh Mercy” and his breakthrough 1987 tour, Dylan is at his most exposed — fully dissecting his shift in ambition. As he did with “Nashville Skyline,” he employed new techniques and created a game plan; though he doesn’t go into it, a number of his late-’80s reinventions are integral to who he is today in the studio and onstage.

For Dylanologists, “Chronicles” is a treasure trove of clues. Those in the know are well aware of Dylan’s affection for Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk and their music; that he shared an equal affinity for Kurt Weill, Bobby Vee and “Moon River” is the shocker.

Also, the impact of the 1930s blues recordings of Robert Johnson and Lonnie Johnson on Dylan don’t come as a surprise — they fill in holes. And one can only assume many more fascinating hole-fillers will emerge in the second volume.

Chronicles

Simon & Schuster; 304 Pgs.; $24

Production

Bob Dylan
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