TLS review of 3 Dylan Books

How has the singer-songwriter remained an enigma, hiding in plain sight?
by Wesley Stace

Bob Dylan’s thirty-third studio album, Together Through Life, released this year, made its debut at Number One on both sides of the Atlantic, receiving universally rave reviews. Dylan-worship has never been more orthodox. In the 1980s, he couldn’t buy himself good reviews with some of his finest songs; now, aged sixty-eight, he can’t avoid them.

This has coincided with a general willingness on Dylan’s part to meet the world halfway. With an eye on posterity, he has become more productive in diversity: the first volume of his autobiography (Chronicles, 2004), a book of drawings (Drawn Blank, 1994), an exhibition of paintings (The Drawn Blank Series, 2007 – the same drawings coloured in), a Broadway musical (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 2006), a lengthy stint as a DJ (Theme Time Radio Hour, 100 episodes and counting), and a readiness to pursue more obvious commercial opportunities, which has led to associations with Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret and the Co-Op. His song “Things Have Changed” from the film Wonder Boys (1999) won him the Oscar that he displays on his guitar amp at every concert – an average of about 100 shows a year for the past twenty-one years. He is hardly the hermit of old, who managed one full concert between 1966 and 1974, yet still somehow an enigma, hiding in plain sight.

Though the concerts still have their pleasures, Dylan no longer cares to communicate very clearly, and his audiences seem content to indulge a legend, even when the object of their attention is standing out of the light, away from centre-stage, forgetting lyrics, playing an instrument (keyboard) that is not his forte. If it is in performance that the songs live and breathe, then it is also occasionally where they die.

What is never in doubt is Dylan’s enduring ability to connect with a new audience who are discovering his older classics for the first time. Still alive, still active, still Number One, he is taking us into uncharted territory in what was once considered a young man’s game. Together Through Life, indeed. The new record is lazy and charming, full of riffs borrowed and blue, befitting a songwriter with nothing left to prove. For someone who never looked back, and advised against it, most of the “late style” lyrics are nostalgic, as are the accompanying interviews: radio isn’t as good as it was when he was young, people aren’t in love like they used to be. In fact, quite how much of the album Dylan wrote is obscure. Those lines not purloined from old blues songs may well have been written by The Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter, whom Dylan “hired” as a collaborator.

So now is the perfect time to take stock of the catalogue. Clinton Heylin has been an indefatigable chronicler of Dylan since the 80s when he co-founded Wanted Man, The Bob Dylan Information Office, with its fanzine/journal the Telegraph, under the editorship of John Bauldie. In the world of Wanted Man, Heylin was an extremely affable and opinionated conversationalist, always the man most likely to turn his passion into a career. He has written the best Dylan biography (Behind The Shades, 2001, since revised as Behind The Shades Revisited, 2003) and a day-to-day guide (Stolen Moments, 1988). His Bob Dylan: The recording sessions, 1997, followed soon after Marc Lewisohn’s classic The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, and the new book capitalizes on Ian MacDonald’s song-by-song Beatles book Revolution In The Head (to the title of which Heylin’s obviously alludes).

The idea is simple: marshal every last scrap of evidence regarding the compositional order of the songs (their dates of copyright, the various pertinent interviews, surviving manuscripts, etc) in order to tell their story “not from the outer realms of speculation, but from the centrality that is their compositional history”. If this “new” approach adds value to the store of Dylan knowledge, then it would appear to be a perfectly good way to cook the same egg that Heylin has had on the boil for so long.

In fact, the headlines are few (Heylin tells us the second verse of “Blowin’ in The Wind” was written after the rest of the song – the Dylanological equivalent of “Small Earthquake, No-one Hurt”) and the methodology seems suspect. For example, after Dylan has recorded “Drifter’s Escape” for John Wesley Harding, Heylin explains: “Enthused by what he had achieved, he began writing a whole set of songs along similar lines”. This assertion depends on a myriad of assumptions, the first being that the song was written before the other songs on the record. But Heylin presents no evidence for this apart from the fact that on the first day of recording (October 17, 1967) Dylan recorded three songs, of which “Drifter’s Escape” was second, and that he didn’t record again until November 6. Heylin has elsewhere demonstrated the tortuous route a song can take from the pen to the recording studio (for example, “Mr Tambourine Man”, which Dylan famously held back) and it would take an unusually obsessive-compulsive kind of artist to record songs (or order them on the finished album) in the sequence in which they were written. Who’s to say Dylan didn’t write the other songs for John Wesley Harding first but chose to record “Drifter’s Escape” earlier purely to create a particular mood for himself or his players? We simply don’t know, which is better than pretending we do.

A story from the recording of Planet Waves gives insight into Heylin’s modus operandi. Dylan’s friend Lou Kemp arrives with a woman (a “wannabe rock chick” in Heylin’s phrase, which assumes a lot about an otherwise unidentified female) who, on hearing the song “Forever Young”, asks Dylan: “Are you getting mushy in your old age?”. At a later session, Dylan recorded the song “Dirge”, which the tape log lists as “Dirge for Martha”. Heylin magically deduces that Martha is the “wannabe rock chick” and that “Dirge”, presenting “prima facie evidence that he was not” getting mushy, was Dylan’s response to her question. Heylin has no idea whether the woman was called Martha but on the next page, he signs off on “Dirge” with the rhetorical flourish: “I wonder whether Martha found ‘Dirge’ mushy?” This is far from the forensic approach we have been promised.

As far as Heylin is concerned, Dylan’s career fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Everything must and does add up. Each scrap of known information has to explain something: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” was “probably a direct response to [a] phone call” from his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, a conversation that also inspired “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, written, according to Heylin, ten songs earlier; Dylan played another song at a concert in Providence in 1975 “maybe as a request from some old Newportees”. The reasoning is inductive rather than deductive, and leads to the creation of chains of logic and narrative threads where none exists. Very few artistic careers depend on the neat cause and effect that Heylin takes as his premiss. On June 16, 1965, the songwriter has a bad day at Studio A in New York City recording fifteen takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” (of which number four was the version used for Highway 61 Revisited). Dylan “learned an important lesson that afternoon”, which was: “Never flog a song to death, eke out its essence, and, if it won’t yield it up, be stoic in the face of any resistance.” Did he? How do we know? It is only on page 375 that Heylin wonders aloud: “Yet all this could be hindsight toying with us”.

A by-product of this rationalism is that almost nothing is allowed to happen in Bob Dylan’s imagination. This becomes unintentionally comic. Of the opening line of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” – “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez” – Heylin notes: “As for any direct influence from the women of Juarez, we have no documented evidence Dylan visited Mexico at this time”. When it comes to hypothesizing about the real-life characters who inspired various songs (which Heylin himself calls “the whole absurd game of naming names”), Revolution In The Air becomes a compendium of well-worn gossip: Marianne Faithfull (“Like A Rolling Stone” “concisely documents Marianne’s well-documented convent-school upbringing”), Edie Sedgwick (“Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”), Andy Warhol (“Queen Jane Approximately”), Joan Baez (various). The usual suspects are gathered to no great effect: there doesn’t seem to be any new evidence.

Dylan’s instrumentals are “simply omitted”. Why? “Wigwam”, for example, may not be the most important song in the canon, but one can’t omit it from a definitive book simply because one has nothing to say about it. This is a giveaway: for all the lip service to the equilibrium of words and music, Heylin’s musical analysis is cursory. (“Maggie’s Farm” isn’t a twelve-bar-blues.) The words are the thing, but strange lyrical readings mar otherwise cogent analyses. It is simply not true, however convenient for the critic, that “‘Your gravity fails / And negativity don’t pull you through’ communicates as a feeling, nothing more”. The repeated plea in “Queen Jane Approximately” (“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”) is not “slightly sinister”, as Heylin claims (shortly before noting that in later performances Dylan adds “inflections of sorrow and pity”. This perhaps suggests that the songwriter had always meant the invitation compassionately.) The songs of The Basement Tapes apparently defy lyrical analysis: “Any attempt to render sense . . . strikes me as against the whole spirit of the sessions”. Fair enough, but why then does Heylin quote one of those songs as sensible evidence a few pages later? Heylin doesn’t know the difference between alliteration and assonance (“Dylan has to use his voice to make [phony/lonely/show me] alliterative” – a feat beyond even Dylan). Besides which, Dylan is not “first and foremost, an oral poet”. Heylin’s entire book is predicated on the fact that he isn’t. Could he have meant an aural poet? A performance poet?

Heylin’s apprenticeship at the fanzines has left him a breathless writer. In that context, the hijacking of Dylan lines into a writer’s own text (“the answer my friends”, “but the times they were a-changing”) constitutes a kind of Bobcat “Parlare”; here it is stale and obtrusive. One forgives his hyperbolic enthusiasm (Dylan “creating a thing called rock music” with “Like a Rolling Stone”) but it’s hard to know if he is joking when he says that, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, Dylan invented rap music. (Heylin’s joke indicator – “(boom boom)” – isn’t blinking here.) When he isn’t being folksy (“nope . . . gee . . . ya”), he lapses into cod Victorianism (“pray tell . . . methinks. . . nay . . .”.) Add general longwindedness (“subjected to a studio situation” means “recorded”) and one begins to understand the girth of this first volume. Two volumes will be required, apparently, for an author who, to drive home his points, likes to say everything twice – for example, the immodest claim that the director Todd Haynes stole from Heylin’s biography the idea for an episode of his Dylan-inspired movie I’m Not There. (He might rather disavow it.) Ploughmen dig Heylin’s earth. He wearily admits to “providing yet another valuable resource for the congenitally lazy breed of rock critic to cherry pick for this month’s . . . feature”, and darkly mentions theories “adopted uncredited by certain American writers”.

The New York Times once noted that Heylin “seems to feel himself in competition with his subject”. This is perhaps most evident in the way that Heylin tries to emulate Dylan’s tone, particularly the spiky interview persona of the mid-60s. With Heylin, it is always personal. He makes reference to Jerry Garcia’s “fulsome frame (for worms)”, while missing no opportunity to stick the knife into Joan Baez (her “warbling”, her “glass-shattering voice”). Van Morrison is simply a “c***”, though Heylin’s modesty forbids us knowing precisely how much he hates the singer. Respected Dylanologists Michael Gray and Michael Krogsgaard are respectively a “so-called expert” and “a Danish dentist and amateur Dylan collector”, and Heylin goes so far as to suggest a book-burning of competing volumes, written by the “chronically misinformed, the mercenary and the magpie” interested only in collecting “a bountiful publisher’s advance”. People who disagree with him are damned, and here he summons the language of Dylan’s Christian period: compounding sins, sinning by omission. (His attitudes towards the opposite sex are also somewhat biblical: a woman is either a “lass”, a “gal”, “hormonal”, or “well-endowed” with “ample charms”.) Heylin’s uncontested status as an expert makes his mistakes all the more noticeable. Quoting the opening line of his subject’s first great song “Song To Woody” as “Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote a song for you”, rather than “I wrote you a song” (thus conflating it with David Bowie’s “Song For Bob Dylan”) is an embarrassment that should have been caught by a copy-editor. The book has no notes, and the few sources I checked yielded surprising errors. The accumulation of knowledge is all for Heylin, but he is more than happy to parade his own ignorance. Criticizing a “poetaster” for a “condescending” appreciation of Dylan, Heylin resorts to Private Eye-ism: “Simon Armitage, who he?”. If only Heylin knew. One yearns for someone to assemble this wealth of information in a less prejudiced, more straightforward way. (In fact, the writer may have mellowed with age. The dedication here to Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s longtime associate/manager, is polite: “many thanks, and goodwill”, in stark contrast to the bizarre, and perhaps unique, dedication to Heylin’s Bob Dylan: The recording sessions: “It is NOT dedicated to Jeff Rosen.”)

It is a relief to turn to Barry Feinstein’s two books of photographs, where we see Dylan through a clearer lens. Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric and Real Moments show us the songwriter on either side of fame’s looking glass. The first is a collection of Feinstein’s photographs of Hollywood in the early 60s – its backlots, its symbols, its stars – with a text written (and since forgotten) by Dylan in 1964. Dylan’s contribution consists of twenty-three poems in a style familiar to anyone who has skimmed the liner notes to The Times They Are A-Changin’ (for which Feinstein took the iconic cover image) and Another Side of Bob Dylan: they are apparently written on the same typewriter with the broken shift key and the inability to type the “o” in “to” or the “d” in “and”. The poems would be quite incomprehensible without the images, causing one to wonder whether it was a habit of Dylan’s to gaze on art as he free-associated; “an lolita reads toilet paper while prayin’ in her favourite church” could find a home in any cryptic mid-60s Dylan song, but it makes perfect sense with its accompanying image: Sue Lyon (of the film Lolita) reading a copy of Magruder’s American Government while she has her hair done. It is charming how the young Dylan tries to inhabit the images, to engage them as best he can, his tone appropriately angry, sarcastic, and satirical.

Many of the poems question the rewards of fame as represented by “the Hollywood dream”. Real Moments sees those fears realized, finding Dylan two years later, on tour as if running for his life, a psychedelic mad hatter against the drab suits of Liverpool and Manchester in 1966. These are indelible images of life in fame’s full glare. No man pictured sitting next to the French singer Françoise Hardy ever looked so glum. Feinstein’s text, too, is delightfully downbeat. That unhappy picture shows the sulky duo “swapping records and talking”.

The final set of pictures in Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric shows the winners at the Academy Awards in 1960 clutching their statuettes.

i couldn’t tell who was laughing mama
i couldn’t tell if it was me or this thing I was holding.

Dylan now finds himself with his own Oscar on his guitar amp every night. The laugh is certainly his.