Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone
Chronicles, Volume Oneby Bob Dylan
So writes Bob Dylan in Chronicles, Volume I, his remarkable, book exploring critical junctures in his life and career. Through Dylan's eyes and open mind, we see Greenwich Village, circa 1961/i>
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"I'd come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else."
So writes Bob Dylan in Chronicles, Volume I, his remarkable, book exploring critical junctures in his life and career. Through Dylan's eyes and open mind, we see Greenwich Village, circa 1961, when he first arrives in Manhattan. Dylan's New York is a magical city of possibilities - smokey, nightlong parties; literary awakenings; transient loves and unbreakable friendships. Elegiac observations are punctuated by jabs of memories, penetrating and tough. With the book's side trips to New Orleans, Woodstock, Minnesota and points west, Chronicles, Volume I is an intimate and intensely personal recollection of extraordinary times.
By turns revealing, poetical, passionate and witty, Chronicles: Volume One is a mesmerizing window on Bob Dylan's thoughts and influences. Dylan's voice is distinctively American: generous of spirit, engaged, fanciful and rhythmic. Utilizing his unparalleled gifts of storytelling and the exquisite expressiveness that are the hallmarks of his music, Bob Dylan turns Chronicles, Volume I into a poignant reflection on life, and the people and places that helped shape the man and the art.
Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone
Okay. So. Bob Dylan.
Here's the thing with Dylan, folks: Lots of people have problems just accepting what he's giving them. At this point in time, we are so darn tickled to hear that our cantankerous favorite has given us another little piece of his life that we are just about beside ourselves. We hear the word "memoir" and we attach a certain expectation to it. We want history. We want truth. We want explanations. We want to know what those songs are about, finally. Can you see where I am going with this? If you want to enjoy this surprisingly enjoyable book, you will need to check your expectations at word number one. What we have here is a slightly random account of Bob Dylan's struggle with his destiny as "voice of a generation." It does not seek to explain, only to intimate. He only ever refers to his wife as "my wife." He rarely gives exact dates, skipping 20 years ahead by simply saying, "Years later…". Oh, and no, he does not tell us who the heck he's talking about in "Positively Fourth Street."
The book deals a lot with Dylan's desperate desire not to be anyone's spokesperson, let alone everyone's. The slightly unorganized chronology is focused loosely around Dylan's arrival in New York circa 1961, his anxious retreat to Woodstock to escape the public eye, and the recording of Oh Mercy in New Orleans in the late '80s.
The most moving parts of the book, however, come when Dylan talks about his childhood and family in Minnesota. He often refers to his brown-skinned grandmother who smoked a pipe and seems to have been the genetic impetus for young Robert's word-slinging savvy. There is a certain honesty in his telling here that makes us feel like this time and these people are the only things in his life that he never needed to lie about, regardless of whether or not he ever did. It's one of those rare cases where the realities of these things are actually more remarkable than he could have made them up to be.
The book is great for strange little stories and vignettes: Dylan's first trip to Woody Guthrie's house; how an unnamed jazz singer rescued our hero from obscurity; the time Robbie Robertson asked him where he was going to "take" the music scene; a motorcycle ride through Louisiana to meet a guy named Sun Pie; a girl named Chloe who let him crash at her Greenwich Village pad in the '60s. We also get completely outrageous musings on the pentatonic scale and a random mentions of Machiavelli and Ice-T. All of these are effective tidbits. In a way, these things are more important than an exhaustive rehashing of the studio sessions for the first five albums or whatever. They are what Dylan remembers. They are what he had, day to day. They are not what a reporter or reviewer gave him; or us.
If nothing else, Bob Dylan sure can turn a phrase. He engages the reader (as he does the listener) with his seemingly accidental forays into absolute down-home clarity. My favorite line in the book comes when he describes David Crosby as a guy who "could freak out a whole city block all by himself." He uses metaphor in his distinctly recognizable way, so that we know this book is pure Dylan. Who else could come up with, "My haystacks weren't tied down, and I was beginning to fear the wind." If anyone else had said that, we would call it "Dylanesque." Elizabeth McMillan
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Read an Excerpt
By Bob Dylan
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2004 Bob Dylan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarkin' Up the Score
Lou Levy, top man of Leeds Music Publishing company, took me up in a taxi to the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street to show me the pocket sized recording studio where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded "Rock Around the Clock" - then down to Jack Dempsey's restaurant on 58th and Broadway, where we sat down in a red leather upholstered booth facing the front window.
Lou introduced me to Jack Dempsey, the great boxer. Jack shook his fist at me.
"You look too light for a heavyweight kid, you'll have to put on a few pounds. You're gonna have to dress a little finer, look a little sharper - not that you'll need much in the way of clothes when you're in the ring - don't be afraid of hitting somebody too hard."
"He's not a boxer, Jack, he's a songwriter and we'll be publishing his songs."
"Oh, yeah, well I hope to hear 'em some of these days. Good luck to you, kid."
Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffling around, bundled up - salesmen in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes.
None of it seemed important. I had just signed a contract with Leeds Music giving it the right to publish my songs, not that there was any great deal to hammer out. I hadn't written much yet. Lou had advanced me a hundred dollars against future royalties to sign the paper and that was fine with me.
John Hammond, who had brought me to Columbia Records, had taken me over to see Lou, asked him to look after me. Hammond had only heard two of my original compositions, but he had a premonition that there would be more.
Back at Lou's office, I opened my guitar case, took the guitar out and began fingering the strings. The room was cluttered - boxes of sheet music stacked up, recording dates of artists posted on bulletin boards, black lacquered discs, acetates with white labels scrambled around, signed photos of entertainers, glossy portraits - Jerry Vale, Al Martino, The Andrews Sisters (Lou was married to one of them), Nat King Cole, Patti Page, The Crew Cuts - a couple of console reel-to-reel tape recorders, big dark brown wooden desk full of hodgepodge. Lou had put a microphone on the desk in front of me and plugged the cord into one of the tape recorders, all the while chomping on a big exotic stogie.
"John's got high hopes for you," Lou said.
John was John Hammond, the great talent scout and discoverer of monumental artists, imposing figures in the history of recorded music - Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton. Artists who had created music that resonated through American life. He had brought it all to the public eye. Hammond had even conducted the last recording sessions of Bessie Smith. He was legendary, pure American aristocracy. His mother was an original Vanderbilt, and John had been raised in the upper world, in comfort and ease - but he wasn't satisfied and had followed his own heart's love, music, preferably the ringing rhythm of hot jazz, spirituals and blues - which he endorsed and defended with his life. No one could block his way, and he didn't have time to waste. I could hardly believe myself awake when sitting in his office, him signing me to Columbia Records was so unbelievable. It would have sounded like a made-up thing.
Columbia was one of the first and foremost labels in the country and for me to even get my foot in the door was serious. For starters, folk music was considered junky, second rate and only released on small labels. Big-time record companies were strictly for the elite, for music that was sanitized and pasteurized. Someone like myself would never be allowed in except under extraordinary circumstances. But John was an extraordinary man. He didn't make schoolboy records or record schoolboy artists. He had vision and foresight, had seen and heard me, felt my thoughts and had faith in the things to come. He explained that he saw me as someone in the long line of a tradition, the tradition of blues, jazz and folk and not as some newfangled wunderkind on the cutting edge. Not that there was any cutting edge. Things were pretty sleepy on the Americana music scene in the late '50s and early '60s. Popular radio was sort of at a standstill and filled with empty pleasantries. It was years before The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones would breathe new life and excitement into it. What I was playing at the time were hard-lipped folk songs with fire and brimstone servings, and you didn't need to take polls to know that they didn't match up with anything on the radio, didn't lend themselves to commercialism, but John told me that these things weren't high on his list and he understood all the implications of what I did.
"I understand sincerity," is what he said. John spoke with a rough, coarse attitude, yet had an appreciative twinkle in his eye.
Recently he had brought Pete Seeger to the label. He didn't discover Pete, though. Pete had been around for years. He'd been in the popular folk group The Weavers, but had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and had a hard time, but he never stopped working. Hammond was defiant when he spoke about Seeger, that Pete's ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, that his relatives had fought the Battle of Bunker Hill, for Christsake. "Can you imagine those sons of bitches blacklisting him? They should be tarred and feathered."
"I'm gonna give you all the facts," he said to me. "You're a talented young man. If you can focus and control that talent, you'll be fine. I'm gonna bring you in and I'm gonna record you. We'll see what happens."
And that was good enough for me. He put a contract in front of me, the standard one, and I signed it right then and there, didn't get absorbed into details - didn't need a lawyer, advisor or anybody looking over my shoulder. I would have gladly signed whatever form he put in front of me.
He looked at the calendar, picked out a date for me to start recording, pointed to it and circled it, told me what time to come in and to think about what I wanted to play. Then he called in Billy James, the head of publicity at the label, told Billy to write some promo stuff on me, personal stuff for a press release.
Billy dressed Ivy League like he could have come out of Yale - medium height, crisp black hair. He looked like he'd never been stoned a day in his life, never been in any kind of trouble. I strolled into his office, sat down opposite his desk, and he tried to get me to cough up some facts, like I was supposed to give them to him straight and square. He took out a notepad and pencil and asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Illinois and he wrote it down. He asked me if I ever did any other work and I told him that I had a dozen jobs, drove a bakery truck once. He wrote that down and asked me if there was anything else. I said I'd worked construction and he asked me where.
"You traveled around?"
He asked me about my family, where they were. I told him I had no idea, that they were long gone.
"What was your home life like?"
I told him I'd been kicked out.
"What did your father do?"
"And your mother, what about her?"
"What kind of music do you play?"
"What kind of music is folk music?"
I told him it was handed down songs. I hated these kind of questions. Felt I could ignore them. Billy seemed unsure of me and that was just fine. I didn't feel like answering his questions anyway, didn't feel the need to explain anything to anybody.
"How did you get here?" he asked me.
"I rode a freight train."
"You mean a passenger train?"
"No, a freight train."
"You mean, like a boxcar?"
"Yeah, like a boxcar. Like a freight train."
"Okay, a freight train."
I gazed past Billy, past his chair through his window across the street to an office building where I could see a blazing secretary soaked up in the spirit of something - she was scribbling busy, occupied at a desk in a meditative manner. There was nothing funny about her. I wished I had a telescope. Billy asked me who I saw myself like in today's music scene. I told him, nobody. That part of things was true, I really didn't see myself like anybody. The rest of it, though, was pure hokum - hophead talk.
I hadn't come in on a freight train at all. What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, '57 Impala - straight out of Chicago, clearing the hell out of there - racing all the way through the smoky towns, winding roads, green fields covered with snow, onward, eastbound through the state lines, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, a twenty-four-hour ride, dozing most of the way in the backseat, making small talk. My mind fixed on hidden interests... eventually riding over the George Washington Bridge.
The big car came to a full stop on the other side and let me out. I slammed the door shut behind me, waved good-bye, stepped out onto the hard snow. The biting wind hit me in the face. At last I was here, in New York City, a city like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn't going to try.
I was there to find singers, the ones I'd heard on record - Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, Ed McCurdy, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Josh White, The New Lost City Ramblers, Reverend Gary Davis and a bunch of others - most of all to find Woody Guthrie. New York City, the city that would come to shape my destiny. Modern Gomorrah. I was at the initiation point of square one but in no sense a neophyte.
When I arrived, it was dead-on winter. The cold was brutal and every artery of the city was snowpacked, but I'd started out from the frostbitten North Country, a little corner of the earth where the dark frozen woods and icy roads didn't faze me. I could transcend the limitations. It wasn't money or love that I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn't need any guarantee of validity. I didn't know a single soul in this dark freezing metropolis but that was all about to change - and quick.
The Café Wha? was a club on MacDougal Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. The place was a subterranean cavern, liquorless, ill lit, low ceiling, like a wide dining hall with chairs and tables - opened at noon, closed at four in the morning. Somebody had told me to go there and ask for a singer named Freddy Neil who ran the daytime show at the Wha?
I found the place and was told that Freddy was downstairs in the basement where the coats and hats were checked and that's where I met him. Neil was the MC of the room and the maestro in charge of all the entertainers. He couldn't have been nicer. He asked me what I did and I told him I sang, played guitar and harmonica. He asked me to play something. After about a minute, he said I could play harmonica with him during his sets. I was ecstatic. At least it was a place to stay out of the cold. This was good.
Fred played for about twenty minutes and then introduced all the rest of the acts, then came back up to play whenever he felt like it, whenever the joint was packed. The acts were disjointed, awkward and seemed to have come from the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, a popular TV show. The audience was mostly collegiate types, suburbanites, lunch-hour secretaries, sailors and tourists. Everybody performed from ten to fifteen minutes. Fred would play for however long he felt, however long the inspiration would last. Freddy had the flow, dressed conservatively, sullen and brooding, with an enigmatical gaze, peachlike complexion, hair splashed with curls and an angry and powerful baritone voice that struck blue notes and blasted them to the rafters with or without a mike. He was the emperor of the place, even had his own harem, his devotees. You couldn't touch him. Everything revolved around him. Years later, Freddy would write the hit song "Everybody's Talkin'." I never played any of my own sets. I just accompanied Neil on all of his and that's where I began playing regular in New York.
The daytime show at the Café Wha?, an extravaganza of patchwork, featured anybody and anything - a comedian, a ventriloquist, a steel drum group, a poet, a female impersonator, a duo who sang Broadway stuff, a rabbit-in-the-hat magician, a guy wearing a turban who hypnotized people in the audience, somebody whose entire act was facial acrobatics - just anybody who wanted to break into show business. Nothing that would change your view of the world. I wouldn't have wanted Fred's gig for anything.
At about eight o'clock, the whole daytime menagerie would come to a halt and then the professional show would begin. Comedians like Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce and commercial folksinging groups like The Journeymen would command the stage. Everyone who had been there during the day would pack up. One of the guys who played in the afternoons was the falsetto-speaking Tiny Tim. He played ukulele and sang like a girl - old standard songs from the '20s. I got to talking to him a few times and asked him what other kinds of places there were to work around here and he told me that sometimes he played at a place in Times Square called Hubert's Flea Circus Museum. I'd find out about that place later.
Fred was constantly being pestered and pressured by moocher types who wanted to play or perform one thing or another. The saddest character of all was a guy named Billy the Butcher. He looked like he came out of nightmare alley. He only played one song - "High-Heel Sneakers" and he was addicted to it like a drug. Fred would usually let him play it sometime during the day, mostly when the place was empty. Billy would always preface his song by saying "This is for all you chicks." The Butcher wore an overcoat that was too small for him, buttoned tight across the chest. He was jittery and sometime in the past he'd been in a straitjacket in Bellevue, also had burned a mattress in a jail cell. All kinds of bad things had happened to Billy. There was a fire between him and everybody else. He sang that one song pretty good, though.
Another popular guy wore a priest's outfit and red-topped boots with little bells and did warped takes on stories from the Bible. Moondog also performed down here. Moondog was a blind poet who lived mostly on the streets. He wore a Viking helmet and a blanket with high fur boots. Moondog did monologues, played bamboo pipes and whistles. Most of the time he performed on 42nd Street.
My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry. I'd actually met her before, run across her the previous summer outside of Denver in a mountain pass town in a folk club.
Excerpted from Chronicles by Bob Dylan Copyright © 2004 by Bob Dylan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone
Meet the Author
Bob Dylan is one of the most celebrated songwriters and performers of all time. He has released thirty-six studio albums, which collectively have sold over 120 million copies around the world. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature and has been awarded the French Legion of Honor, a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. His memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list.
- Date of Birth:
- May 24, 1941
- Place of Birth:
- Duluth, MN
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Bob Dylan is known as a spiritual man, but also a loner, often offering opaque answers (or none at all) to direct questions. True to form, in Chronicles I there are many biographical omissions, and we are not given any real insights into his spiritual beliefs. However, what this autobiography does offer is a very engaging look at one man¿s evolution with his own creative voice, both in light of, and in spite of, the public attention it has received. It is on this level that Chronicles I interested and challenged me. Unlike Bob Dylan¿s previous book, 1966¿s Tarantula, which was a psychedelic roll through his subconscious, Chronicles I features an introspective Dylan writing plainly and openly about his creative process. For a famous recluse Dylan is remarkably exposed however, many of the elements that defined Dylan¿s musical path are dealt with only in passing¿sometimes in a single sentence. In fact, in some cases the moments that made Bob Dylan into Bob Dylan are ignored completely. Counter to what many music critics and fans may have wanted or expected, we are not offered an autobiography that is a full, wide-screen disclosure. What we are given is an invitation into the creative process of one of popular music¿s most significant icons. We are given snapshots of the formation of the man at different stages of his career: the young man striving for success the successful man striving for authenticity the older man striving for inspiration. The book is an account of process, perseverance and passion, and we see Dylan struggling to form and understand the voice that he feels is uniquely his, recognized now as one of the most significant in pop culture in the last fifty-odd years. To me, Chronicles I is at its best when it is showing the Dylan of the early 1960s, when he first arrived in New York City. Virtually alone in an unfamiliar city, Dylan began playing shows in folk clubs around Greenwich Village. We are told of how he forged his identity on hard-scrabble folk music and emulated the parts of other artists that he admired, in a slow opening of his creative scope and a honing of an authentic voice of his own. Collectors of rare folk albums provided source material that became Dylan¿s foundation, and with a few specific musicians providing artistic epiphanies, Dylan¿s unusual vision took over. Dylan¿s writing is a cadence of shortened sentences and clipped asides, and often reflects a wry humour that surprised me. But most impressive about Dylan¿s prose style was how similar it is in tone to his music. Chonicles I displays the same combination of simple words and sentence structures, mixed with vivid and unusual metaphors that are characteristic of Dylan¿s lyrics. Open the book to nearly any page and read for a paragraph or two and a voice you already know is reading to you. These lyrical skills have inspired a whole raft of pale imitators in a variety of genres, but are best used in the practised hands of an old pro. I was also struck by Dylan¿s admission that he notices details more than narrative, a trait that informs his music and his writing. When I think of any significant Dylan song, it is the frayed snippets of sepia-toned characters that emerge. There are vagabonds, dilettantes and debutantes in his songs, and so too, in his recounting of his life, where he tells stories about the people and the times that were forming around him. As one of the most heralded and most revered musicians in modern times, it is revealing to see the processes of the man behind the myth.
I had never been a Dylan fan, knew only what any 40-something American knows of his public life, and the only song I ever listened to carefully enough to enjoy it was *Tangled Up In Blue*. Attracted by nothing but curiosity and the luscious noirish cover, I bought this and read it. Okay, yes, I'll make a fool of myself here---just about every word did indeed glow like burning coals. I was entirely unprepared for the rich rich ride this book provides. The untethered chronology is wonderful precisely because the voice is so present, so immediate in every epoch it offers--we are always living a *now* with this voice. I had to read it with a highlighter because by the 3rd page I found there was no way I'd be able to memorize the passages whose loveliness/ingenuity/wit/feeling burned like, well, you know. So engrossed was I in this book, that it wasn't till about page 50 that it occurred to me: Oh, wait a minute--is this why people are Bob Dylan fans??? And now, a mere two weeks after reading Chronicles, I find that I want to restrategize my longterm life plans to maximize the number of times I can listen to Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, or Fixing to Die, or Gates of Eden, or Shelter from the Storm, or Lonesome Day Blues..okay you get the picture. I hope ardently that other people will open the Dylan door through this book--it's an amazing experience.
I was very impressed with this book. I have always been a huge fan of Dylan's and was very familiar with his work.It could be a little dry to some depending on your taste in writting and music of coarse. What makes this book so great to me is that he is very percise on small details. He does not leave anyting out about the moves he makes. You get a thourough understanding of all the things he does once he hits New York. From the people he meets, to the books he read, to the shows he plays, you get a little bit of everything. I would recommend this to anyone interested in music or poetry.
To say that Dylan doesn't care about his fans is a lie. You don't write an autobiography just to write one, you do it for the fans. He doesn't need any more money, he did this one for the fans. Everyone needs to take this book and embrace it if they haven't already. What you need to understand is that Dylan isn't some stupid punk bad boy who writes lyrics that don't make sense. He is a poet, and probably the greatest lyricist ever. He has given us a chance to take a look at his life. This book is his own account, and when the critics embrace a book as one of the Best of 2004 in over 15 different legitimate magazines and newspapers you know there is something special. That something special is the autobiography according to the artists' memory. We could pick at little pieces and say that it didn't happen, but you look at the big picture and take it all in. Imagine if Beethoven, Jim Hendrix, or Jerry Garcia would've done something like this. A man who will never be forgotten, a living legend who has just given us a piece of his life, a piece of history. This book really shows the genius behind the songs, shows the poet even when he's writing a paragraph. Bob Dylan didn't start out as a star when he entered New York, it would take more work than most imagine. Everyone and their brother ought to read Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan.
One of the things I liked best about Chronicles is Dylan's focus on songs and musicians, which after all have been the focus of his life. Songs are living things for him, they DO things, have personalities, and he is brilliant at describing what the music and songs do. I also appreciated his description of his mind when he was on the cusp of re-creating modern music, the sense that something new had to be imagined, and the simultaneous immersion in the craft of song- writing. Besides prodding my own desires to create, I want to hear the musicians he writes about - Robert Johnson, Odetta, Woody Guthrie, not just others' renditions. This book is elusive, yes. That's what I expect from artists, and like about them.
This book truly is outstanding. Being a creative person, myself, I understand that Dylan does not feel the need to explain his songs to anyone. You either understand them or you don't. If they were all spelled out in plain english, they would lose all meaning. This book was an amazingly honest insight into Dylan's thoughts and feelings, which is what a memoir should be. He tells of his long journey from his small hometown to New York to New Orleans and everywhere in between. This book reads like one beautifully written song. He overlooks 'major' events and instead focuses on the images he remembers so vividly. His tale is an intriguing one, if that's what you are looking to get out of this book. This is not a book for those who narrow-mindedly search for the logical explanation behind the man and his songs. Highly recommended for those with a creative spirit.
After a lifetime of playing with the press, Bob Dylan has started to come clean. This book not only gives intererting inside info about the man and his music, but the writing is elegant and stylish. No mere auto bio here, he jumps around in different time periods in his life and still only gives some of what you might want to know. STill, it is intimate, engaging and a wonderful read.
This man is unbelievable. His music; timeless and powerful with lyrics to blow away ANY other artist ever. A sense of melody, time and songwriting unparalled in the music world. His voice always changing causing every drop of emotion to be felt. His ability to constantly move forward and never stay in one place over the years. Needless to say, once you hear it you want to know all about this guy. What makes him tick? Well, this book is beautiful. His storytelling, attention to detail, his passion. All of these things and more shine through in this book. Get his Lyrics 1962-2001 book too for another look at this brilliant mind. This book is a must have, no questions asked.
Just from the excerpts I've seen so far (e.g., Newsweek, etc.), this is going to be a MUST HAVE & MUST READ & MUST LISTEN! Wow! This is almost better than the songs... Well, no, never, but still. I may have to get both the Vol. 1 book AND the Sean Penn audio. Checked at my local B&N today and they said come back Oct. 5th:-( I can't wait!
I loved the book