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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

Chronicles is a memoir written by the American singer-songwriter Robert Allen Zimmerman—better known as Bob Dylan. In his book, Dylan writes that he had no desire to be considered the voice of a generation. The memoir is comprised of five chapters; the first two chapters explore his childhood years in Minnesota during the 1940s and his struggles as an artist in New York City. The third chapter explores life with his family in Woodstock, New York, during the 1960s.

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After recovering from a 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan decided to slow down and create a steady life for his family. However, Chapter four explores his inevitable return to the music scene in the 1980s. He struggled to find inspiration and reinvent himself as an artist. The final chapter returns to his childhood in Minnesota and how his mother supported his dreams of becoming a successful artist.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630

After more than forty years in the public eye, Bob Dylan remains one of the United States’ most enigmatic public figures. The number of articles written about him runs into the thousands, the number of books about him is certainly more than a hundred, and in the age of the World Wide Web, Dylan fans have created more than a million Web sites devoted to him. His influence as a songwriter cannot be overestimated.

Chronicles is divided into five chapters. In the first two chapters, “Markin’ Up the Score” and “The Lost Land,” Dylan attempts to make his way in New York City. In the third chapter, “New Morning,” he and his family are living in Woodstock, New York. The fourth chapter, “Oh Mercy,” finds Dylan recording a new album and struggling to rekindle the creative process. The fifth and last chapter, “River of Ice,” returns to Dylan's early days in New York City.

In Chronicles, Dylan dismisses the thought of his being the voice of a generation. It can be surmised that his uneasiness with such a label is not merely because it is such a lofty—almost unattainable—position but also because Dylan wishes to be considered more than merely a celebrity frozen in time. Rightly, he should be considered one of America's greatest singer-songwriters.

Chronicles has a relaxed feel, unrushed and unforced. Dylan is allowed to ramble; no editor has perceptibly molded the memoir's shape. On one page Dylan describes a party or encounter with other musicians, and on the next he references the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This is a glimpse at how Dylan's mind connects seemingly disparate thoughts. The creative process, the ability to make a whole out of the ether, is on display.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. In the late 1940's, the Zimmerman family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota. Hibbing was a middle-class community located not too far from Duluth. By the time young Bobby Zimmerman was a teenager, he had taught himself how to play acoustic guitar. During the mid-1950's, he was listening to rhythm and blues and early rock music. He had visions of escaping from small-town America and making a life for himself outside the Midwest. Years later, Dylan would tell his father that he considered New York City to be the capital of the world. After high school, he attended the University of Minnesota for a short period of time. While at college, Dylan began listening to American folk music.

Dylan is known for keeping his personal life shrouded in mystery. For that reason, critics and fans alike were curious about how Dylan's Chronicles would turn out. With the publication of this work, fans and critics got out their lists of questions they wanted to see Dylan address, as if his memoir was to be his final exam and, to receive a passing grade, he must touch on all the crucial issues. It is true that over the years Dylan has, in interview after interview, protected his own privacy. Remarkably, then, throughout this first volume he has exposed himself on several fronts.

The memoir primarily covers his early years in New York City while he was trying to establish himself as an artist who mattered, an artist who broke all the rules. Three of the five chapters are devoted to the early Dylan, to a time when he was molding himself into the figure who changed American popular music. One chapter is devoted to the late 1960's, during which time he stepped away from the spotlight. Living in Woodstock, New York, Dylan took his time to recover from a 1966 motorcycle crash. He states in Chronicles that he wished to retreat from the “rat race.” Married and the father of three children, Dylan felt that he needed time to find his bearings again, to build a more normal life for both himself and his family. The fourth chapter finds Dylan floundering in the late 1980's. Each of the periods covered in Chronicles has Dylan searching for inspiration, for a fresh way to invent or reinvent himself. Readers must be willing to the shake off all preconceptions and throw away their checklists of questions. Chronicles must be enjoyed on Dylan's terms.

Dylan seemingly has absorbed everything around him, remembered everybody with whom he came in contact. He introduces the reader to the crazy world of Greenwich Village in the opening chapter, in which it becomes obvious that the author is a multifaceted individual and that he has opinions on a variety of diverse topics. He has always been intrigued by American history and popular culture. In addition to his Greenwich Village environs, Dylan found inspiration from reading the works of Thucydides, Ovid, and John Milton. He thoroughly enjoyed the time he spent in the New York Public Library, where he read newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm in the library's tomblike confines.

He rubbed elbows with numerous characters, both the famous and the not-so-famous. In writing his memoir, Dylan takes the time to comment on how these people talked, walked, and went about the business of surviving. (He even recalls sharing his french fries with the novelty performer Tiny Tim.) Alongside Dylan, the reader is introduced to such figures as former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. The memoir opens with the “top man” from Leeds Music Publishing Company, Lou Levy, taking the young Dylan to Dempsey's restaurant located on 58th Street and Broadway. Levy has advanced Dylan “a hundred dollars against future royalties,” but Dempsey has no idea who this young kid is. The former champion remarks that this fellow needs to put on some weight before he steps into the ring. It is then pointed out that Dylan is a musician, and Dempsey is kind enough to wish the fledgling singer good luck.

The legendary talent scout from Columbia Records, John Hammond, had a “premonition” that Dylan would be an important artist. Hammond had previously discovered many “monumental artists,” including Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, and Count Basie. Through all the Greenwich Village days, Dylan was aware that something big was going to happen in his career. He relates that Hammond saw him “as someone in a long line of a tradition of blues, jazz and folk and not as some newfangled wunderkind on the cutting edge.” It would now be up to Dylan to “focus and control” his talent in order to succeed.

A few pages into the second chapter, Dylan speaks of the changing world into which he was born. As he saw it, the world of 1941 “was being blown apart and chaos was already driving its fist into the face of all new visitors.” He mentions that his father had been stricken with polio and was, therefore, unable to fight in World War II.

In the middle of the second chapter, Dylan finally gets around to talking about what drove him to compose his own songs. He opens a paragraph with “I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs.” He makes the point that the transition from being merely a singer to being a singer-songwriter was a gradual process and not an easy one. He says he wanted to write songs that were “bigger than life” and that would “say something about strange things” that had happened in his life. He desired to be a force, as Pablo Picasso had been a force in the world of art. Dylan admired those artists who were driven, who pushed forward against all the odds. For him, Picasso was a revolutionary, and he “wanted to be like that.”

Before he had even left home, Dylan played with various stage names, including “Elston Gunn.” Eventually, he settled on Dylan after reading the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He was inspired by such great American musicians as Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie. (When Guthrie was confined to the Greystone Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, Dylan would try to visit him as often as possible.) Dylan is adamant that he does not write “protest” songs; instead, he sings “topical” or what he calls “rebellion” songs.

Chapter three opens with Dylan having to attend his father's funeral back in Minnesota. It is the late 1960's, and he is wrestling with how he should live his life. He is tired of the music business and tired of how celebrity has boxed him into a corner. For the fifth and last chapter ofChronicles, Dylan returns to the early 1960's in New York City. He mentions that his mother has supported him in most of his endeavors. There are flashbacks to growing up in Minnesota. Dylan describes biding his time in Minnesota, getting ready for the big world, getting ready for a future that no one in his wildest dreams could have imagined.

Many first-rate biographies of Bob Dylan and studies of his songs have been written, including Clinton Heylin's Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments, Day to Day, 1941-1995 (1996), Paul Williams's Bob Dylan: Watching the River Flow, Observations on His Art-in-Progress, 1966-1995(1996), David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina (2001), and Michael J. Gilmour's Tangled Up in Blue: Bob Dylan and Scripture (2004). Dylan's own memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, should take its rightful place alongside the best of what has been written about this great American singer-songwriter. Readers can only hope that the next two volumes will be as entertaining and as compelling as the first volume.

Review Sources

Booklist 101, no. 6 (November 15, 2004): 530.

Entertainment Weekly, October 15, 2004, p. 77.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 10, 2004, p.8.

The New York Times, October 5, 2004, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (October 24, 2004): 14.

People 62, no. 17 (October 25, 2004): 51.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 49 (December 6, 2004): 20.

Rolling Stone, October 28, 2004, p. 45.

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