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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
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 audio version is performed by Sean Penn, who I can only describe as doing Dylan to a perfect "T." 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