Any book that features Bob Dylan sharing a greasy hamburger backstage with Tiny Tim is going to get your attention — especially when the story is told by the ordinarily reclusive Dylan himself.
Dylan’s much anticipated autobiography, “Chronicles Volume One” (Simon & Schuster, 293 pages, $24), is chockfull of such entertaining anecdotes. There was the time he saw the ghost of John Wilkes Booth in a basement barroom mirror in lower Manhattan. And the days he spent playing Woody Guthrie songs in a hospital room with Woody Guthrie.
And there’s the first person to recognize young Dylan’s musical acumen: professional wrestler Gorgeous George.
“He winked and seemed to mouth the phrase, ‘You’re making it come alive,”’ Dylan writes. “ I never forgot it. It was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years.”
The book begins with Dylan’s early days in New York City, signing his recording contract with music impresario John Hammond. The transplanted Minnesota boy recounts his early days in Greenwich Village, hanging out with Tiny Tim and meeting heroes like Dave Van Ronk.
Later, Dylan recounts a dinner with U2 singer Bono, who arrived for the meal toting a case of Guinness. “He’s like that guy in the old movie, the one who beats up a rat with his bare hands and wrings a confession out of him” Dylan writes. “If Bono had come to America in the early part of the century he would have been a cop.”
They finished most of the Guinness, too.
The writing is brisk and entertaining, offering some insights into a performer who remains a cipher to many. There’s no real format; Dylan jumps from providing a laundry list of his reading material to a description of performing at the Gaslight to tips on playing poker (Dylan, FYI, was quick to fold and not much of a bluffer).
But there’s no attempt to tell his story chronologically or in any linear form.
At one point, he writes about watching Joe Tex perform on “The Tonight Show,” and getting irritated when Johnny Carson didn’t invite the singer to sit on his couch.
Wonder how Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan? He briefly considered taking the stage name “Bob Allyn,” but rejected it as a name more fit for “a used-car salesman.”
There are other interesting tales and stories throughout the book, including Dylan’s trip to the Coney Island home of Guthrie. The folk singer, who was hospitalized in New Jersey, had told Dylan to stop by the house and pick up a bunch of unfinished Guthrie songs that were stored the in basement.
Guthrie’s wife wasn’t home, and Dylan left empty-handed. Decades later, the songs were recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco, who put music to the vintage Guthrie lyrics.
Dylan also recounted a meeting with jazz genius Thelonious Monk, who told him, “We all play folk music.” And in another chapter, he writes about his near retirement in 1987, following a tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Only a revelatory moment at a show in Switzerland persuaded Dylan to keep on playing live shows.
Dylan writes at length about the fascination with him and his works during the 1960s, when his decision to strap on an electric guitar caused a ruckus. All the attention became incredibly bothersome, he writes: “I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice.”
He also writes about his childhood fascination with the military. “Before I knew I was going to be a singer and my mind was in full swing, I had even wanted to go to West Point,” writes the man who would later pen the anti-war anthem “Masters of War.”
“I’d always pictured myself dying in some heroic battle rather than in bed.”