Bob Dylan, CHRONICLES: Volume One, narrated by Sean Penn

I’m listening on to Bob Dylan’s 2004 book ChroniclesVolume One, narrated by the American actor Sean Penn. Penn has a “rebel” persona that resembles that of Dylan, and his expression and intonations often leave me feeling I’m listening to the author himself.

It’s really a good book. I’d read it in print when it came out, but listening to Penn is a much more vivid experience for me.

Chronicles brings powerful archetypes to life. Dylan has the same gift of telegraphic language here as in his songs. He writes memorably about his early days in New York City, starting when he was 19, playing the clubs in Greenwich Village and gradually clearing the way to sing in the better ones (and, eventually, land the record contract he’d been craving).

Remembering back some 40 years to write the account, he takes the reader or listener right there! It’s almost like he waves a wand or casts a spell of words and a character appears. Some of the people he writes about are known, at least to his fans:

  • John Hammond, the famous talent scout who signed him to his first recording contract
  • Fred Neill, the folk singer who presided over the pass-the-hat musicians at the Cafe Wha!, the best-known of the small Village venues
  • Dave van Ronk, an established folk singer who, albeit grudgingly, gave Dylan advice about how to get established at a more upscale venue, The Gaslight

You can feel the power of New York City of those days as “the capital of the world”—which, if you’ve ever been there, you feel like it is (at least, that was still true when I lived there). Dylan names some of his inspirations in music, such as Woody Guthrie, Roy Orbison and Hank Williams. He’s really lucid about the archetype of the “creativity angels” that help propel us, inspire us to make the invisible visible to others, and make the unknown known to ourselves and the world.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Photo: US Department of State. Public domain.

In several of the vignettes he presents in Chronicles, he’s finding himself, refining who he is and discovering who he wants to be. He’s had a sense of destiny all his life, but finding his way to manifesting it is a grueling, prolonged process. He begins as a simple folk singer, believing in folk songs for their gritty honesty, and is quite eloquent about what they are and what they aren’t:

There was nothing easygoing about the folk songs I sang. They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn’t come gently to the shore. I guess you could say they weren’t commercial.

Though Dylan detested most of the commercial music of the early 1960s, he was ever on the lookout for his next career step, and wasn’t at all oblivious to the quest for “success.” It took time, though, for him to even start to write his own songs and unfold the beginnings of the unique creative contribution he was to make.

The dream becomes a nightmare

And then, when Dylan attains all of that and more, the book of his recollections segues to the point where it becomes a nightmare. A few years down the road, he’s married and is raising kids, and he wants to be as far away from the limelight that had found him as possible!

Yet, to get away from it turns out to be impossible. The family had moved to the small artists’ colony of Woodstock, New York, in the Catskill Mountains.

But even here, Dylan says bitterly—and this is possibly the most bitter writing I’ve ever read or heard, which Penn spits out very convincingly—even as he removes himself and his family from urban life, every day, yokels among his ‘fans” come looking for him. They knock on the front door, peer through windows and jump out of their cars to try to get a look or a word.

There is no way to outsmart his fame. He can’t eat in restaurants, go out to a movie or a live performance, go to the beach or to a museum. His wife and children become victims, too.

Dylan’s dilemma makes the world seem like a madhouse! So many of us are seeking to “perfect our craft,” our art. And for what? To be driven mad, if we also should happen to “succeed”? It gives one pause.

Bob Dylan was known as a prophet of sorts, though he denied that, saying things like, “I’m just a guitar player.” Statements like that can only, I think, be seen as an index of the suffering that his prominence has brought. Surely, it’s commonly understood that a visual artist does more than make pretty pictures, a musician makes more than nice sounds, and a poet creates more than pleasing rhymes.

The arts have always been media for “prophecy,” or, shall we say, the visionary utterances and expressions that aren’t endorsed or even recognized by—and may indeed be anathema to—the conventional establishment. Such art, by expressing universal, living truth, plays a vital role in the very survival of humanity.

Hearing Bob Dylan’s experience, it all almost seems like a zero-sum game. For everyone who awakens, there seems to be someone else who does his or her best to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. It’s such experiences, I suppose, that led Bob Dylan once, at a New York City concert, to come onstage wearing a Bob Dylan mask that he’d bought in Times Square.

Bob Dylan with Barack and Michelle Obama. Photo: Pete Souza. Public domain.

An artist that people will remember

I’m among those who felt, for years, that Dylan should receive the Nobel Prize for Literature before he actually did get it in 2016. As a friend of mine used to say, “He’s the poet people will remember in 200 years, not T.S. Eliot.” (Aside: I like Eliot, too.) Dylan’s work is prophetic, not in terms of predicting the future, but of ferreting out and giving voice to realities beneath the surface.

His music can also be incredibly enchanting and beautiful. I remember driving in California once, years ago, and just as the two-lane state highway I was on entered a deep redwood forest, Dylan’s song “Visions of Johanna” from Blonde on Blonde came on the FM radio. It’s impossible to describe how sublime that experience of Nature and the song together was, creating an Art even beyond either of the two separately. I would imagine that most Dylan aficionados have some version of this experience.

I recommend Chronicles highly, especially the audio edition read by Sean Penn. Within the book, the author weaves several more extraordinary tales that I haven’t touched on here, such as a beautiful chapter that takes place in New Orleans. It’s one among several glimpses of Dylan as almost a specialist in rebirth or self-renewal.

As mentioned above, his glorious procession of rise and triumph in the 1960s ended in a kind of flaming burnout, due to the oceanic public response to his visionary contributions to American and world culture. After this and what seemed like other periods of emotional and creative bankruptcy or injury, he goes on to find creative renewal (in a different way, each time) in the various stories told in Chronicles.

Dylan’s perseverance and his capacity to find new beginnings throughout his career is one of the things that most endears him to me. Whoever we may be, this quality of self-regeneration is a necessary skill—itself a kind of art—as life goes on.

Bob Dylan originally promised three volumes of his Chronicles. In my enthusiasm after listening to Penn’s narration, I wrote to Simon & Schuster, the publisher, asking them to do all they can to get the other two written and into print. Heck, they say that we, the public, helped get him the Nobel Prize—so maybe we can get this done, too!

Thanks to The Mindful Word

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