I read Chronicles, Volume I over two years ago. I didn't have the energy to consolidate all my thoughts and reactions into a coherent book review. Here are my major impressions, as I recall them.
The beginning was a little dull, and I feared that the rest of the book was going to be just another formulaic narrative about a small town boy from the Midwest who comes to the big city and climbs his way to the top. The biography of Madonna that I had read was just like that. But by the end of the first chapter, Dylan reaches liftoff. It is a great read.
Unlike so many people in our therapeutic culture that feel the need to vent nearly every thought and feeling, Dylan always has an old-fashioned, taciturn personality. And he has written this autobiography, I sense that he has been very circumspect about what he has chosen to say about himself. Throughout the book, I kept thinking that there must have been many interesting anecdotes and characters in the background that he wasn’t telling us about, that could have made for a fuller, more colorful story. But it is clear from the book that Dylan doesn’t see why such details are important. I don’t think he has any underlying mystery, complexity, or secrets. What you see is what you get. He is simply a stark personality, like a character in a Nathanial Hawthorne short story.
Dylan comes across as essentially a regular guy with old-fashioned values. He is a hard worker and a family man. The public tried to draft him as the prophet of the movements and counterculture of the 60’s. However, he rejected that role, virulently. He actually was not political minded at all. I think he was very realistic and knew his limitations. The one thing that can be said with certainty about him is that he was a genius at taking whatever topic was in the air at the time and making a great song out of it.
As Dylan was a Jewish boy who grew up in the Protestant Midwest, I am interested in his religious and cultural influences. It was fascinating to hear Dylan talk about what a memorable occasion it was for him to play the role of a Roman Soldier in a Christian passion play. He doesn’t say much about his conversion to Christianity or his later, resurgent Judaism.
As a member of the Woodstock Generation and as someone who likes the arts and cultural things, I thoroughly enjoyed the portrayal of the Greenwich Village and the folk music scene in the 1960’s. I’ve always liked folk music. I was very pleased to see that from his earliest years, Dylan was a serious folk musicologist. I admire him for that as much as anything.
I am very sympathetic to the fact that he was depressed for while, later in his life, and for the same reasons that anybody else gets depressed. It should show people that it can happen to anybody. I am disappointed in myself that after listening to his album, Oh Mercy, that I didn’t recognize that so many of the songs were a reflection of depression.
Dylan uses a certain, interesting narrative pattern in several places in the book. He will cite an event and his reaction to it. He will then go off on a tangent for many paragraphs or pages explaining his reaction. Then, after the reader has almost forgotten the original event, he returns to his jumping off point. It makes me wonder if he hasn’t spent many years in psychotherapy.
I can’t wait for Volume II.