The legend of Bob Dylan can survive and even thrive on a work of self-exposure, but the mystery of Frank Zappa is that anyone should bother to enquireby Erik Tarloff / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
“Garbo talks!” was the two-word advertising slogan for the Swedish star’s first sound picture, Anna Christie (1930). One has a similar reaction to Chronicles: Volume One: “Dylan talks!”
It isn’t that he has never spoken before; over the years, he has given plenty of interviews. But he has always taken pains to manufacture an elusive identity for himself, usually answering questions in a maddeningly gnomic manner and frequently lying outright. A dedicated practitioner of that dreadful 1960s phenomenon, the put-on, he kept himself hidden behind a variety of joker’s masks, always poised to waltz away from responsibility for any word he uttered.
No longer. In Chronicles, Dylan talks, and for the first time in public he talks with apparent frankness and feeling. The result is a superb book: strange, idiosyncratic, unpredictable, sui generis, by turns shrewd, frustrating, funny, and occasionally revelatory. It confounds our expectations: the Bob Dylan living inside Bob Dylan’s head is not the person most of us assumed was there. No snarling wiseass, no hippy, no political radical, but rather a modest and serious artist surprised, even terrified, by his fame, with broad (and often square) musical tastes, as much bemused by as proud of his talent, a family man pleased to sport a bumper sticker proclaiming him the world’s greatest grandpa.
Dylan talks, and one of the glories of Chronicles is that, in talking, he conveys a singular voice and consciousness. This, among other things, means that anyone hoping for a neat, chronological account of his life and career will be disappointed. The book hopscotches around the life in a stream of free-associative reminiscence, and in the process omits or stints on some of the moments one might regard as key: first album for Columbia, first awareness of major stardom, transition from folk to rock, amplification brouhaha at the Newport folk festival. These are mentioned glancingly or not at all. Instead, the reader feels he has caught Dylan on a quiet night in a mood of unaccustomed loquacity, where, over a glass of wine, he ruminates about what it felt like to be Bob Dylan. Folksy solecisms abound, and many anecdotes go on for pages without ever arriving at anything resembling a point, but somehow it is all part of the pleasure. He is a congenial and unpretentious companion, and he seems to have no agenda beyond candidly sharing a piece of himself.