If reading a memoir is a leap of faith that demands a belief in the veracity of the author, then reading a Bob Dylan memoir is a foolish leap into a twisting kaleidoscope of half-truths. No one who picks up the pop icon's Chronicles and reads as far as the seventh page can deny that Dylan might just be taking them for a ride.
There Dylan writes about his first encounter with the head of publicity for Columbia Records, when he was a then-unknown 20-year-old. He says he told the man who would spread Dylan's story across the nation that he was from Illinois, worked construction in Detroit, played folk music, came to New York by way of boxcar and was unmatched by any singer in existence. That last statement was true, concedes Dylan, the memoir writer; "the rest of it, though, was pure hokum--hophead talk."
This is Dylan, the untrustworthy narrator, at his best, revealing a lie while possibly telling another. How, after all, could Dylan, who was recording his self-titled debut filled with folk standards at the time, deny being a folk singer?
The folksinger question is just one example of the kind of evasiveness that has loomed large over Dylan's canon of work: Did the singer stop being a folkie when he picked up the electric guitar and dropped the protest songs? Or was he ever really a folk singer? These questions and others that Dylan has posed by accident or calculation have fueled the fanaticism that has kept the artist in the public consciousness during even his dreariest career slumps.
And it is, no doubt, what makes so enticing the publication of his memoirs and the just-opened exhibit, Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966 at Seattle's Experience Music Project. Music lovers seek answers about one of our era's great voices, and you'd think these fresh explorations of his life and career would offer some revelations. In theory, of course, that's true.
As its title suggests, the EMP exhibit focuses on the singer's life from 1956 until 1966, and the gaps in what is known about the singer's early years have mostly been filled in by historians, biographers and Dylan himself, the evidence provided in an interactive maze of photographs, videos and artifacts. On display, there's the high-school yearbook from Hibbing, Minn., where Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, grew up. There's the Double-O Martin acoustic for which he traded his electric guitar after moving to Minneapolis and discovering folk music. And then there's Dylan's original copy of Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory, a book which solidified Dylan's love for the rail-blazing folkie and precipitated his move to New York City to meet his hero.
These artifacts are classic museum pieces, the exhibit is extensive, and the commentary is astute, if a bit hyperbolic. Here, a constructed narrative presents a seamless progression of the artist's move from hard-strumming folk apprentice to international superstar. But gaps in the singer's story are also displayed, the kind of little white lies that reveal more about Dylan than any number of dusty old photographs could.
For example, take a closer look at the program from his first-ever New York concert, held Nov. 4, 1961, at the Carnegie Chapter Hall, wherein Dylan casts himself as a state-hopping troubadour who played guitar and piano in carnivals--a contradiction of the singer's straight path from playing Minnesota coffeehouses to New York clubs. And then there are the articles about the infamous motorcycle accident that took Dylan off the world stage, starting a second, reclusive phase of his career. If his brandishing the electric guitar on the 1966 tour answered the folk question with a resounding no, Dylan's sudden disappearance from the public stage later that year asked a set of new, more uncomfortable questions: Was he in rehab? Had he lost his muse? Did he even care about the counterculture he helped create?
If his songs are the backbone of Dylan's work, this ambiguity is the heart of his fame, the source of power for a man on a whirlwind existential trip, asking listeners to question the truth of God, government and an emerging national popular culture. To reveal the truth would erode some of the artist's power, exposing him as little more than a man.
In his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan mostly manages to avoid revelations, addressing the supposed motorcycle accident that redirected his career with less description than he offers when describing the recording of a guitar line for an unreleased song. But what the musician does explain is why he was attracted to folk music in the early days of his career.
Writing about his first encounter with the music of Woody Guthrie, Dylan focuses not on the political consciousness embedded in the lyrics, but on style--the influence of Guthrie's diction and the rhythm of his poetry. Dylan writes that Guthrie's songs "had the infinite sweep of humanity in them," considering the folkie subject matter as a songwriting technique, not something burning inside the artist. And in this moment, one of the greatest musical icons of the 20th century reveals himself as a lowly poseur.
Or maybe that's just what he wants you to think.
by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $24)
Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966 is on display until Sept. 5, 2005, at Seattle's Experience Music Project. Go to www.emplive.com for more information.