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Dylan Pens, Penn Reads 

Bob Dylan has been putting words to music for a long time, for over 40 years now. In that 40 years, there have been a lot of Dylans: the folksinger Dylan, the rock & roll rebel Dylan, the crooning homebody Dylan, the anguished lover Dylan, the tarot-reading outlaw Dylan, the saved Dylan, the never-ending tour Dylan, the Oscar-winning Dylan, and a few more. So now we have the best-selling author Dylan, with his newly published autobiographical work, Chronicles: Volume One, prominently displayed near the entrance of a big chain store near you.

Most celebrity autobiographies follow a predictable pattern: Startling new revelations! Old scores settled! My apologies to all concerned! But although he grudgingly discusses the trials of his celebrity in one chapter, Dylan keeps to the high road. He's also selective in his choice of material, leaving accounts of the rock & roll rebel Dylan and the saved Dylan for a future volume.

What Chronicles: Volume One does provide are detailed reflections on his musical and intellectual development in Minnesota and New York, his passage through two artistic crises associated with the making of the albums New Morning and Oh, Mercy, and verbal sketches of people that have mattered to him. He begins and ends in the same place: the mythic early 60s New York of neon Times Square in the book's cover photo -- cold to the touch but beaming with possibilities.

Knocked out on a portable typewriter in odd hours while on tours, Dylan's book flows directly out of his experience, and it's deliberately not a polished and composed essay. His style has news hound punch, tossed off in a clipped, conversational style, one straightforward declarative sentence after another -- no sprawling periodic sentences for our bard.

Such a style seems uniquely well-suited to be read aloud. Due to the vagaries of the reviewing business, the abridged audio-book of Chronicles arrived before the book, and I got to hear Sean Penn's reading before seeing any text. Penn is one of the great dramatic actors going these days, but he doesn't attempt to mimic Dylan's voice. Instead, he lets the rhythms of the prose shape his own voice, employing an all-purpose urban accent that fits Dylan's streetwise tone like a comfortable, well-worn pair of old boots. He can call up passion when the material calls for it, though. As he reads Dylan's account in the "New Morning" chapter of home invasions by fans and moochers and the media hype that followed him mercilessly during the late 60s, Penn's voice goes hard with scorn and empathetic outrage.

When the book finally arrived, I checked to see what the audio abridgement had left out. Most of the cuts were inconsequential, simply editing out some details that left the main thrust of the recollections intact. There are some significant omissions, though, especially for fervent fans of Dylan's musical development. There's a long description of Dylan's early friend and fellow folk musician Len Chandler gone from the first chapter, and the audio-book's "New Morning" chapter mentioned above drops informative portraits of his record producer Bob Johnston and session musicians Charlie Daniels and Al Kooper.

So what insight about Dylan does Chronicles give us about him that we couldn't get just by listening to the music? The Greeks claimed that the arts were the daughters of memory. Memory is what Bob Dylan has in spades, and in this book he demonstrates how it is a key component of his extraordinary artistry. When he sings in "I Shall Be Released," "they say everything can be replaced/yet every distance is not near/ and so I remember every face/of every man who put me here," he's not kidding; he really does. His book just puts on display for all to see the prodigious memory that made him in his youth a "Woody Guthrie jukebox," that made it possible to claim a daunting repertoire of short stories masquerading as folk ballads, that allows him even today to perform over a hundred different songs a year on his concert tours.

A cynic might say that he only remembers the broad outlines and just uses his talent for images to fill in plausible details. I don't think that's the case at all. Dylan at his old typewriter goes right back to the spot, and he's going to give you all the information necessary to get you there, too, rather like the songs.

He remembers the secretary he saw through a window over Lou Levy's shoulder as he signed his first music publishing deal; he remembers every book and record in his housemates' apartment where he self-educated himself; he remembers the furnishings of Archibald MacLeish's studio where he discussed writing incidental music for a play the former poet laureate was working on. He remembers every detail of every musical influence: Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Bertold Brecht. He gives us all the news events, radio serials and advertisements, and childhood games that fired his youthful imagination. He was wide open to it all, and he never forgot a damned thing.

Listen to Sean Penn reading from Chronicles: Volume One at http://www.simonsays.com/content/content.cfm?sid=33&pid=505680

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