The Rebel Against the Cause
April 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
I was never particularly musically inclined, but even I have heard Dylan in my youth, in the company of others more exuberant than me, who called him God. It is the memory of their fanatical hero-worship that made me curious enough to want to read his autobiography.
If the point of an autobiography is to make readers familiar with all the important events in the author’s life, ‘Chronicles’, would be an apt title for it (chron·i·cle/ˈkränikəl/noun, a factual written account of important or historical events in the order of their occurrence). But factual rendition of events in chronological order is not the point of Bob Dylan’s autobiography and so the name is either inappropriate or deliberately ironic . After reading the book, I am convinced that it is the latter – yet another attempt at the slightly zany sense of humor that Dylan was famous for in his dalliances with the popular media.
I even have a strong mental image of how the book was written: I imagine Dylan relaxing on a sofa, leaning back against some comfortable cushions, cowboy-booted feet resting on the armrest, gently strumming on his guitar, clad in designer jeans and motorcycle jacket, the overhead light reflecting off his sunglasses, glass of Wild Turkey over by the side, talking softly into a tape recorder.
Dylan’s writing is just like Dylan’s singing: lyrical and full of striking imagery, yet bone-dry and matter-of-fact, conversational, stream-of-consciousness stuff. The tone is earthy, raw, hints of a school-of-hard-knocks education, yet Dylan is deceptively erudite. Besides talking about hundreds of musicians, he refers to Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Montesquieu, Martin Luther, Balzac, Gogol, Maupassant, Hugo, Machiavelli, Dante, Ovid, Sophocles, Faulkner, Byron, Shelley, Longfellow, Poe, Thucydides, Freud, Milton, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tacitus, Pericles, von Clausewitz, Pushkin; the poetry of Rimbaud, the films of Fellini; and Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Kerouac, of course.
If Dylan’s life had been chronicled by someone else, his book would have dwelt more on the heydays of the sixties, the Joan Baez years, on the many controversies around his politics, his decision to go electric, his marriages and his divorce, his motorcycle accident, his Born Again Christian phase and the albums and tours of the eighties and nineties – in that order. But Dylan doesn’t choose to highlight those as the defining events of his life, and who can argue with that? He ends where he starts – with the years as a struggling free-lance night-club folk singer on Bleecker Street in the early sixties, clearly a period that he remembers with much fondness. Then he flash-forwards a few years; he is suddenly married and a father, already famous, all ready to settle down and live the good life in anonymity, recoiling from paparazzi attention and the insistent demands of the hippie generation that he should be their leader. Then, at length, Dylan discusses the tortuous making of his album ‘Oh Mercy’, released in 1989 when he had been out of the limelight for years. In what for me was the most fascinating section of the book, Dylan takes us through the sheer agony involved in recording the album, the pain of a creative genius who is no longer able to do what he did years ago, to effortlessly bring to existence sublime works of music. Now, at the age of 48, an age when “the mirror had swung around and I could see the future – an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theatre of past triumphs“, the act of creation had become an excruciating one, while the ear –cruelly- retained its ability to distinguish the great from the merely good. Not being a creative genius, I can only guess the torment involved, but I do admire Dylan’s unblinking honesty in talking about it.
There is a standard structure to a heroic life story, as I have observed before: initial fame and fortune, a crisis and fall from grace, the humiliation, the doubt and the angst, the friends and encouragement picked up along the way, the rising hope, the final challenge, the ultimate triumph, the glorious return. Typical of the man: Dylan has his own unique take on this format – there is nothing conventional about it. His initial crisis is of his own making – the abdication of the onerous responsibility of being ‘the conscience of his generation’. He had started out as a rebel – but all he wanted now, completely contrary to popular expectations and heroic tradition, was “a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard.” And finally, his act of redemption is not a return to public adulation, but a cathartic return to creating music that he himself thought great, but which the public (with the exception of the critical connoisseurs) largely ignored – but their opinion didn’t matter.
Perhaps the greatest paradox about the man is that for someone whose music is so rich with vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, there is so very little archetypical to his own life. To defy all expectations, to reject the right of other people to have expectations of him – this is Dylan’s primary instinct. In a sense, he was such a rebel that he rebelled against the cause itself, against a narrative being thrust upon his life. I know people like him. I used to think they were very cool; and then at one point I thought they were self-centered and irresponsible; but now I think they’re just people, and they deserve respect for living their lives precisely the way they want to, without hypocrisy, compromise or deception.
And yet, of course, there is definitely one thing deceptive about the title of the book. Dylan calls it ‘Chronicles Volume One’, but as far as I can make out, this is a complete work by itself. From what I got to know of the man from this book, I doubt that he ever had any plan to write a second volume.