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,