By Kiddo Cosio
“See, you just want me to say what you want me to say,” says a defiant, ironic, supposedly fictitious Dylan-esque character played by the creepily androgynous Cate Blanchett (yes, that’s right, Galadriel from LOTR movie fame) in the critically acclaimed 2007 biopic I’m Not There. In the film, six actors play a different facet of folk legend, pop-prophet and rockstar Bob Dylan’s enigmatic character: Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, African American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin, and the late, great Heath Ledger. It’s a trip, to say the least. And though artistically soaked in what appears to be meaning, it does little to help one place a finger on what Dylan might actually have been like. This is its genius and appeal. But it is not very satisfying to one seeking answers.
As 2013 rolled around, I picked up Chronicles: Volume One (2004), the autobiography by Bob Dylan, hoping to arrive at more answers about the world’s–and perhaps history’s–quintessential minstrel, as I’m Not There brought me so near and yet left me so far, when I first watched it five years ago. The paper, non-fiction version jumps right into first-person shooter mode, with Dylan himself holding the trigger.
It turns out our hero was no prophet. Overcome by fame and a clamor for him to rise up and be a leader of his generation’s activism, Dylan was certain about not wanting to be the face of any movement. “Reporters would shoot questions at me and I would tell them repeatedly that I was not a spokesman for anything or anybody and I was only a musician,” he reveals.
Though the world has painted him as a counter-cultural icon, he did not see himself as such. “Whatever the counterculture was, I had seen enough of it,” says Dylan. “I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meaning subverted into polemics, and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest.” Instead, he created the army of confusing alter-egos the world has pigeon-holed him into: rebel, movie star, cowboy, Zionist, born again Christian, academic wannabe, drunkard, whatever.
But his motives are laid bare in Chronicles: “What mattered to me most was getting breathing room for my family,” recounts Dylan. All was a diversion, it turns out, an escape tactic to facilitate an exit from fame into normal life. “Art is unimportant next to life, and you have no choice,” he says.
It might let some down to know that their great leader was no leader at all, at least not intentionally. But learning that his motivations were closer to home offers some satisfaction, painting Bob Dylan in a more human light. He exposes his diversionary tactics, illuminating that family–not activism–was his priority, hence the enigmatic public persona: “Changing ideologies like tires, like shoes, like guitar strings–what’s the difference? As long as my own form of certainty stayed intact, I owed nobody nothing. I wasn’t gonna go deeper into the darkness for anybody… My family was my light, and I was going to protect that light at all cost.”
Chronicles: Volume One, is of course, just the beginning of Dylan’s public introspection. He speaks of his own Genesis account, and how he cut his teeth, first as a wannabe, and later as the standard by which folk artists would be measured for generations to come. He wades into the lesser known parts of his career, the apparent lower points such as when he was the touring undercard to then rising star, Tom Petty, and the struggle that came with recording a post-peak record in New Orleans. It’s a long story, and even Dylan is still alive, and still touring. The story is still unfolding.
In 2013, his relevance remains intact. A fresh folk movement is alive and well, in the hands of young artists such as Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers and The Lumineers who are enjoying their respective hey-days. Even pop chart-topper John Mayer’s 2012 Born and Raised album wades deep into folk troubadour territory, shedding a bit of the ‘shred’ heard in his earlier work. These musical journeys roll along a road previously traveled and paved in large part by Bob Dylan who, whether intentionally or not, made it cool to wield an acoustic guitar and scream out folk tunes with an imperfect voice.
The good news about Chronicles: Volume One is that we hear it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. The bad news is, well, we hear it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. The author, though speaking with an apparent authenticity and vulnerability all throughout is still Bob Dylan, the enigma. Although it is rich with confessions and inside stories, one can’t help but wonder what the real deal actually is. Is he taking us for a ride, yet again? Who knows what his intentions are, and if his anecdotes are semi-fictionalized in an attempt to evade intrusion. Will we ever know? That is the question Chronicles: Volume One leaves the reader asking.
But perhaps even more important question is this:
Does it even matter?