Dylanology has always been a dirty business, right back to when Dylan creepophile A J Weberman was literally going through the singer’s trash for clues and meanings. But Clinton Heylin brings the beef like no other. His run of books about Bob Dylan – there are another eight – is characterised by mean-spirited put-downs of fellow Dylanologists, associated musicians, documentarians (Heylin twice refers to Scorsese’s Dylan biopic Rolling Thunder Revue as a ‘mockumentary’), even the Dylan zine he used to contribute to (which had the temerity to edit a reprinted article of his) – and of course Dylan himself. Heylin at one point explodes with an apoplectic ‘Poppycock’ (seriously) when Dylan gives his own – admittedly, notoriously unreliable – account of events.
As a prose stylist, Heylin’s a square, his sentences padded out with cliché and hackneyed metaphor. Songs fit like gloves, Dylan ‘dots the “I” in naivety’, Suze ‘flies the coop’ so Dylan returns to an ‘empty nest’; it’s all ‘’twas’ and ‘we know not’. At its absolute nadir, this work, the first volume in a two-part biography of Dylan, reads like an inexplicably angry sessionography. But he is good for the facts.
Why do we need yet another pass through the Dylan archives from one of its most hard-to-like commentators? Well, Dylan’s turning eighty this year, for starters. But it’s the sale by Dylan of his personal archive to the George Kaiser Foundation in Tulsa in 2016, for a reported $22 million, that is the justification for Heylin publishing what you would think (maybe secretly hope, even) would be his final Dylan biog, one that is light on original interviews and, well, descriptions of the music, even, and based more on trawling the archives and other sources for alternative lyrics, correspondence, film outtakes, bootleg recordings and obscure interviews. As such we get lots of details about what might have been written when, and whose memory might be faulty, but not much description of how the songs sound and how the music feels. Heylin is more about puncturing the myths, so he is good at tracking down the truth behind Dylan’s early nickname – ‘Hammond’s Folly’ – at Columbia Records, say, and Dylan’s rewriting of history in ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. And like all of the best (read: maddest) Dylanologists, Heylin believes his idol to be in secret communication with him, as when he suspects that Dylan’s dismissal of ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’ is a coded response to Heylin’s assertion that it was Dylan’s ‘first masterpiece’.
The book runs from Dylan’s birth in 1941 and ends just before the motorcycle crash in 1966 that derailed him, but like all of the best biographies (except when it comes to Jesus), it skips over the early years and starts with Dylan as a youth, already restlessly reinventing his past, disowning his parents, claiming he had worked as a rent boy in New York, that he had played as a sideman to various famous musicians and that he was a bum who slept in a flophouse. From an early age he was clearly aware of himself as another, like Rimbaud, and of all it would take to stay true to the myth that rose up in him and the great talent he had been gifted.
Here’s Dylan in 1965 in a revelatory interview that Heylin uncovers with a student from Cambridge University:
Q: What do you mean when you say you don’t write about anything?
BD: I write inside out + sometimes the dimensions cross. I can’t write about the tree, I must write of the tree.
In his manic accumulation of facts, his tracking of just how haphazard and off the cuff the creation of Dylan’s early masterpieces was, Heylin presents a man possessed by the artistic persona he willed (or lied) into life. But this is high magic, and as the second half of the book progresses, you can sense Dylan becoming more aware of the demands and scale of his talent, and how suddenly the protest song seemed too programmatic and limiting an artform, one that detotalises experience, when what Dylan was out for was wild mercury.
Heylin makes extensive use of the 1965 and 1966 press conferences, where Dylan performs as his own warm-up act, ripping and trouncing the attendees and refusing to answer questions. But what seems implicit in this is that Dylan simply no longer wants to talk about ‘meaning’. He is in the grip of his own muse so completely that his creations have become inexplicable to him. As we power into 1966, Dylan is increasingly medicating himself. The kinds of artistic epiphanies this brings on can induce madness when not properly grounded, and this is an initiation Dylan is going through in these years, and so suddenly the out-of-control energy feels frightening – the endless recording dates, the snatched fragments of lyrics, the flights, the chaotic sessions, the drugs, the Beaujolais, the all-night hotel jams.
Heylin pegs Dylan as anti-intellectual, quoting him dismissing T S Eliot in favour of Percy Sledge, but I don’t think ‘anti-intellectual’ is quite right. I think it’s more about Dylan coming to confident terms with what his own experience of creation has been: the triumph of mythos over logos. By 1966, it was no longer the controlling, analytical, rational part of his brain he was singing from.
Heylin describes the loose, haphazard sessions as Dylan pushes through Highway 61 Revisited and on to Blonde on Blonde, the musicians working without much instruction from Dylan, who will abruptly abandon something if he’s not feeling it, even if it’s one of his greatest songs. He has become a channel for magic, and now he is running on faith alone. How that faith develops – or is rationalised, perhaps – will be the key to the next book, you would imagine, though it’s tempting to suggest that when Dylan talked about his great forgetting, in the wake of his motorcycle crash, he did indeed lose touch with the magic. Or perhaps he reconciled himself with logos. The Bible-simple albums that followed, such as the brilliant John Wesley Harding, would suggest as much.
But here he is, heading for an inevitable fall, this ‘thief of fire’, as Heylin rightly hails him, channelling Rimbaud. If you think of ‘A Restless, Hungry Feeling’ as being written by a Baron Corvo-esque self-aggrandising maniac obsessively accumulating facts in order to match the creative hysteria that took Bob Dylan to the edge of vision, then it all starts to make some kind of sense. Indeed, it might be worth it alone for him alerting me to the Stuttgart 1991 show, where an eight-minute rendition of ‘New Morning’ contained ‘not a single intelligible line’. Thanks mate!