If you bet that Bob Dylan would hawk women's underwear on TV before he'd ever tell his life story, you've won—and this antimemoir won't make you rethink your assumptions. About as forthcoming as the KGB, Dylan barely mentions his greatest recordings (the only two albums he delves into are obscure ones: 1970's New Morning and 1989's Oh Mercy). He has more to say about his idol Woody Guthrie than his parents, and he doesn't mention the names of his two wives or six kids.
So why is this an essential work, as throbbingly alive as Dylan's "bible," Jack Kerouac's On the Road? It's the mad Beat rush of impressionistic images: Folksinger Dave Van Ronk "was passionate and stinging, sang like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he paid the price." As Dylan is about to hit it big, "everything was in transition and I was standing in the gateway. Soon I'd step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up." At a low point in 1987, "my hay stacks weren't tied down and I was beginning to fear the wind." At times Dylan seems a dazed prophet adrift in a landscape of his own creation; he wanders into a movie called The Mighty Quinn—named for a song of his. It turns out to star Denzel Washington—who will later act in a film inspired by another Dylan song, "Hurricane." More seriously, when Dylan, shackled by fame in the '60s, arms himself and hides from mobs of fans in Woodstock, N.Y., one group demanding he come out to lead the revolution is the Weathermen—named after a line in still another of his songs. "I wanted to set fire to these people," he writes. Shivery metaphors appear again and again: midnight, murder, fire. Reading this book is like slipping into the skin of a poet, the poet of our time.