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Saturday, April 17, 2021

CRAIG BROWN: A fascinating biography reveals the gulf between Bob Dylan’s life and his lyrics

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A Restless, Hungry Feeling: The Double Life Of Bob Dylan Vol 1: 1941-1966 

Clinton Heylin                                                                                    Bodley Head £30 

Rating:

Bob Dylan has long been the least approachable of rock stars. By the age of 24, he had already erected a sign on his property saying: ‘IF YOU HAVE NOT TELEPHONED, YOU ARE TRESPASSING.’

Now coming up to his 80th birthday, he remains as gruff as ever. But his standoffishness has had a perverse effect: the more he tries to keep his fans at bay, the more they pursue him, and the dottier they become.

‘Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy?’ he barked at an interviewer in 2012. ‘What the f*** is the matter with them?’

Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) was just one victim of his infidelity. In fact she becomes a double-victim in this book, as Clinton Heylin clearly dislikes her

Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) was just one victim of his infidelity. In fact she becomes a double-victim in this book, as Clinton Heylin clearly dislikes her

I thought of this outburst as I read the first page of Clinton Heylin’s new, 500-page book about Dylan. Under ‘Also by Clinton Heylin’ are listed eight further titles just about Bob Dylan, including Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades, Bob Dylan: Day By Day and Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years.

For some reason, Dylan brings out the worst in writers, perhaps because they really want to be him. Most Dylan books are overwritten, nerdy, hippyish and hard to follow, a deadly combination of the pot-head and the saloon-bar bore.

Heylin regards himself as the king of Dylan biographers ‘having,’ as he puts it, ‘been gratifyingly informed, in person or print’ that an earlier book ‘remains the go-to biography for any serious student of the man and his art’.

Like so many of his rivals, he never uses one word when he has 20 to spare. ‘Despite bookshelves the world over continuing to groan ’neath a never-ending onslaught of tomes on or about the man and/or his work, Dylan remains an elusive figure in the world of (the rock) biography; even more now that his position in the pantheon is secure and his creative output has slowed to a trickle,’ he writes in his introduction.

Though he is well-known for telling tall tales about himself, Dylan is also a great hoarder of his own memorabilia. Sure enough, all this self-curating paid off. And how! 

Five years ago, he sold his personal archive to the George Kaiser Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a reported $22 million.

Researching The Double Life Of Bob Dylan, Heylin spent ten weeks sifting through all the boxes in the archive. Cleverly, Dylan himself still has the copyright over all the written material, but Heylin uncovered much else, including ‘hours and hours’ of out-takes from two tour documentaries and lengthy recordings of Dylan talking at the start of his career, in 1962 and 1963.

How odd, that a man long regarded as the greatest truth-teller of his generation should emerge from these pages as quite such a fibber. Virtually nothing he has ever said about himself turns out to be true. 

He never went to Reform School, was never brought up by foster parents, and never ran away from home at the age of 12.

Instead, he was brought up by nice, middle-class parents in a comfortable home in Hibbing, Minnesota. In the words of someone who knew her, his mother was ‘everything Bob is not: outgoing, effusive, warm, charming and socially adept’. 

Years later, when he played Carnegie Hall for the first time, he told a reporter that he didn’t know his parents. ‘I’ve lost contact with them.’ In fact, they had travelled up from Hibbing, just to see him, and were sitting proudly in the audience.

As a teenager, he combined obsessive secrecy with overwhelming ambition. A classmate recalls: ‘He never wanted anyone to know ANYTHING about him.’ At the same time, he was convinced that he would be a star. 

In his English class, he passed a note to a friend that read: ‘I’m going to make it big. I know it for sure, and when I do, you bring this piece of paper and for two months you can stay with me, no matter where I’m at.’

Throughout his life, he has fostered the myth of himself as a solitary hobo in his youth. In his 2004 autobiography, he wrote about his lonely voyage to college in Minneapolis. 

‘I rode in on a Greyhound bus – nobody was there to greet me and nobody knew me and I liked it that way.’ In fact, as Heylin points out, he had lots of friends and relations on campus, and one of his cousins was the president of a frat house.

IT’S A FACT

Sleepy rabbit Dylan in The Magic Roundabout was named after Bob. In the French original, he was called Flappy and played a Spanish guitar.

According to his friend and rival Dave Van Ronk, when Dylan arrived as a teenager in New York, ‘he had a lot of stories about who he was and where he came from, but he never seemed to be able to keep any of them straight’. 

He would regularly sing other people’s songs, pretending they were his own, and pinch their arrangements without telling them.

But there is no link between virtue and talent. Dylan had an amazing capacity for absorbing influences, and incorporating them into his own style, all the time driven by ruthless self-belief. 

‘I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt’s paintings,’ he said.

Of his voice, he once said, perfectly accurately, that it would ‘either drive people away or they’d come in closer to see what it was all about’. John Updike described it as ‘bestial howling’. 

Another reviewer compared it, perhaps a little harshly, to a dog with its leg caught in barbed wire.

There was always a gulf between the man and his music. His songs were everything he wasn’t – passionate, sensitive, honest, committed, sincere. The singer Judy Collins met him for the first time in 1962, and came away disappointed. 

Having been desperate to encounter ‘the mind that created all those beautiful words’, after their meeting was over, ‘I walked away thinking, “The guy’s an idiot, he can’t make a coherent sentence” ’.

Perhaps, if there is such a thing as genius, it occurs only during the act of creation. After all, the 1960s gave rise to many beautiful love songs penned by unloving people. 

And when Heylin describes the 15-month period in which Dylan composed all the songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde as ‘surely the greatest creative burst in the history of popular song’, he is barely exaggerating.

A member of Dylan’s technical crew finds it hard to discern any link between the songs and their composer. ‘People make the mistake to think that he’s the guy who sings The Times They Are A-Changin’. But the guy who wrote that song only existed for that moment, for that righteous thought. It took me a while to realise that. But he actually convinces you that, yes, it is me who is talking to you, and I’m being sincere about it… In reality, he’s just singing a song and just playing.’

The more successful he grew, the nastier he became, particularly to his coterie. The shrewd writer Al Aronowitz observed: ‘To be the constant targets of digs from Bob was the price each of us paid for hanging out with him… and Bob liked to feel big by making his hangers-on feel small.’ 

He liked to surround himself with sycophants, there to feed him lines and laugh in all the right places.

He was every bit as ruthless in his romantic life, quite a different figure from the wistful, yearning, loving narrator of so many of his songs. Joan Baez was just one victim of his infidelity. 

In fact she becomes a double-victim in this book, as Heylin clearly dislikes her, never missing a chance to call her ‘the caterwauler from Carmel’ or to grumble that she would ‘suck the life out of several of his songs’.

In fact, a similar complaint might be made of Heylin himself, and with greater justification. He is clearly a diligent researcher, but his galumphing prose tends to suck the life out of his material. 

I found myself having to reread many sentences, in an attempt to untangle the mixed metaphors. ‘By the spring of 1965,’ reads one random sentence, ‘nascent rock bands were beginning to flex undeniable commercial muscle in the studio, demanding the hours, and sometimes the days, to realise their latest pitch to posterity, no matter how many rolls of the dice it took.’ 

Come again?

Craig Brown’s latest book, One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time, is out now in paperback.  



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