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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Chronicles - Volume 1

Arguably one of the most important (Western) artists of the 20th century, Bob Dylan came out with Volume 1 of his Chronicles a few years ago. I had been wanting to read them for a while but life had always intervened, so here almost ten years after they came I finally got around to reading the - German - version. I had never read anything by Dylan before, heard virtually all of his songs at least once, know most of the early ones by heart, but I didn't read any of his earlier attempts at straight out (biographical/literature) writing.

What is Chronicles then? It is not of course a faithful recounting of his (early) life, in fact it sets in for the most part with his arrival in New York with some flashbacks to his time in Minnesota, and thus fits the Dylan legend quite well. Just like in his Theme Time Radio Hour - filled with amazing music for the most part - he constantly name drops great artists and songs most of which I was not only familiar with but whom I for the most part adore myself (Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie of course). The most interesting aspect of all these names and songs (and books) might be the ones one wouldn't expect, Dylan seems to be much more read and globally informed than one might have thought. He thus name checks Bertolt Brecht's Dreigroschenoper, Rimbaud, Lord Byron...while also giving voice to the doubt as to what kind of music he recorded in the late 1980s concomitant with Kurtis Blow, NWA and the like.

Dylan hardly tells us anything about his personal life, there is virtually no gossip about his wives, about his many kids, instead much about his cultural origins, the singers he met and worked with before he became Dylan. He also goes on about his musical self-doubts as to the timeliness of his music as seen above already, but also as to his capacity to still produce something he may himself be satisfied with. Thus he mentions at one point that the producer of Oh Mercy was looking for songs such as the ones he had done in the past and yet he (Dylan) simply knew he couldn't deliver anymore.

Finally, and most noticeably maybe is his almost frontal attack of the protest or counter-culture movement he felt he was made the mouthpiece of. I see his point to some extent, he clearly wanted to be seen as an artist not as the exponent of a generation. Yet, at the same time, his early albums especially and this can be heard reflected in many of his early live recordings also, feature songs that were radical in their positioning of the time (and what concerns war and peace still are in the USA even today). It was little surprising then that he was expected to live up to his image as the spokesperson of his generation. 

Even in the German translation I read, Dylan seemingly managed to preserve the staccato of many of his songs as well as the name dropping of his later radio show. Chronciles is not great literature in the sense that Dylan's songs are amazing poetry, but they provide an interesting insight in the self-perception of someone who has to at least be considered among the greatest artists of the 20th century.

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