Book Review: Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan

Aside from The Beatles and Elvis, probably one of the most iconic and legendary musicians is singer songwriter Bob Dylan. Or so I thought, until one of the freshers asked me “Who’s Bob Dylan?”

dylan book cover

Dylan was a phenomenon in the ’60s when he was labelled the voice of a generation and his distinctive (some might say whiny) singing and poetic, charged lyrics made his folk music capture the changing times and feeling of unrest among some young people.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Dylan, while I love lots of his music (his 1976 album Desire is one of my top 10 albums of all time, while “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is, to me, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded) and kinda like the guy, based largely from seeing him being clever, sarky and funny in the documentary Don’t Look Back.

At the same time, a few of his songs leave me cold and there’s an air of pretension that hangs over him at times. Interviews with him can sometimes show him to be self indulgent and obtuse, and some of his changes in direction over the years have been misjudged.

This book does little to help me decide which side of the fence I fall.

It’s not really a traditional autobiography, more a brief memoir, with each section finding Dylan at a different stage of his career- just having signed his deal, recovering from the motorcycle accident and feeling isolated, injured again and wondering if he can continue touring in the late ’80s.

From these moments he shoots off in a meandering chains of thoughts, describing his unease with his “spokesman for a generation” tag, press intrusion and insecurities about his own abilities. His prose his wandering, shambolic and aimless, but it’s captivating enough even if it lacks real depth of reflection at times. Due to the way the book is set out, Dylan touches on things you’d wish he’d develop more, like the reclusive period after the bike crash, the way his star rose in the ’60s or his later career having to deal with the legend tag, but he offers us glimpses and then moves on.

It’s a tough book to read in some ways, with names, books, bands and poems being dropped all over the place, making it the kind of book you have to keep a bookmark in to scrawl all the things you’re going to look up later. There are times when this flows quite easily, but it does at times seem a bit pretentious as though Dylan wants to show how clever and well read he is.

The book’s major strength however is his writing, which has the same kind of lyrical beauty as his songwriting, there are turns of phrase that really grabbed me and little flourishes of beautifully constructed prose.

It keeps you involved but there are times when it frustrates you. Major players are glossed over and it’s light on anecdotes. There’s honesty here but it’s frequently brief and unexplored. It’s nice to read a biography that’s written so well and doesn’t get bogged down in all the childhood stuff (let’s face it, most biographies have one or maybe two interesting childhood stories and then get good when the person is trying to or does achieve their goal), but it’s a frustrating read and I found myself regretting all the things that aren’t here.

Verdict: Extremely well written and an interesting read, but at times extremely frustrating and I found myself wondering if Dylan couldn’t have opened up a bit more and gone a little deeper. It’s less a biography and more a collection of snapshots of the writer at specific times in his life. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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