A lot of Bob Dylan's mystique derives from his inscrutability. Dylan The Icon scoffs at Donovan and eludes European reporters' questions in Don't Look Back, enrages his fans by going electric at Newport, wrecks his motorcycle and disappears to Big Pink with The Band, paints his face to sing "Tangled Up In Blue" for The Rolling Thunder Revue, announces he's become a born-again Christian, and renders some of the best rock lyrics ever written unintelligible in live TV appearances. But that's not the Bob Dylan of the memoir Chronicles: Volume One. As an autobiographer, he comes off like a chatty, enthusiastic pal, mixing anecdotes from his life with funny observations about pop culture and tidbits from books and newspapers. He uses a plain and at times ungainly voice, occasionally repeating himself or making references to people he hasn't properly introduced. When he gets going on what he has in common with Ricky Nelson, or his impressions of the American Civil War, or why he'd rather coach Little League than march on Washington, Dylan matches the incantatory power of his best songs.
Chronicles is actually a little disorienting—it's odd to hear a legend talk about hustling folk-club owners for hamburgers, or fretting over his guitar technique. The process of demystification clears the air, though, allowing plenty of space for what Dylan's really up to: explaining how to write a Bob Dylan song. The book begins and ends with Dylan signing his first recording and publishing contracts, and it doesn't budge much beyond early-'60s New York. Using his early professional days as a baseline, he zigs back to his Minnesota childhood and zags forward to crucial moments in the '70s and '80s when he struggled to reconcile himself with his cultural impact. (This includes a long look at the creation of the 1989 album Oh Mercy, with guest appearances by Bono, Tom Petty, and The Grateful Dead.) But Dylan doesn't much attempt to connect the dots or hit the high points. Instead, he talks around the facts and gathers impressions of the key figures of the post-Woody Guthrie folk scene, of New York City in winter, of library reading rooms and barren jukeboxes.
It all adds up to one long, lucid explanation of how a hammy kid from the Midwest came to write and record songs that turned the obscurity and grotesquerie of the American experience into wild celebrations of life and art. Dylan's not exactly humble. He boasts about all the people who've recorded his songs, and describes his method as having "taken simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, using catchphrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not been heard before." But at the same time, Dylan remains frank and analytical about what it means to pick up a guitar and think of something to sing. Chronicles pulls triple-duty as a resource, a philosophy text, and an invaluable glimpse into the ever-active consciousness of an American hero.