Revolution in the Air
The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-73
(Chicago Press, 2009)
Still on the Road
The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2006
(Chicago Review, 2010)
As a supplement to my ongoing pop music odyssey, which, if I recall correctly, is focused around the discography of Bob Dylan, I thought that I would dig out this first (and, so far, only) volume of his autobiography. I’d meant to read it years ago, but somehow never got to it. Well, I enjoyed it thoroughly, needless to say. I would enjoy reading Bob Dylan’s laundry receipts, and the book is a good deal better than that.
A peculiarity is that the story he tells skips over the two periods in his career which have attracted the most attention: those years in the mid-1960s when he made that string of brilliant records from Freewheelin’ up through John Wesley Harding, and his Gospel period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he tossed out his songbook and, for a time, sang only about Jesus. Of this latter period we hear nary a peep in the book, and the former period is alluded to only in a passing reference to his later songwriting difficulties (“I couldn’t get to those kinds of songs … To do it, you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough.”).
Instead, Dylan writes about growing up in Minnesota, his early days in New York City prior to his first record contract, his personal and professional challenges in the early 1970s, and the recording sessions for Oh Mercy in the late 1980s. It’s a strange selection that must have raised a few eyebrows at the publisher’s house. If one wanted to write about Dylan while studiously avoiding writing about Dylan, one could hardly do better.
Still, the book manages to be quite fascinating on its own terms. I learned, for instance, how he got from his real name to his stage name: Robert Zimmermann -> Robert Allen (from his middle name) -> Robert Allyn -> Robert Dylan (after Dylan Thomas) -> Bobby Dylan -> Bob Dylan. And while of course I knew the importance of Woody Guthrie during his early years, I did not know that the great bluesman Robert Johnson was also a decisive influence — that is, assuming that such claims are actually true; with Dylan, one is never quite certain that the narrative is free and clear of bluff.
Among the most interesting sections of the book, for me, are those which relate the troubles that beset him in the early 70s: a kind of artistic impasse, writer’s block, and the plague of fame. He confirms what I have long maintained: that casting him as the “voice of the generation” leading the cultural revolution in the 1960s was a misapprehension of his true character and ambitions. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” he writes. “I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.” And, sounding just a bit like the sage despite himself: “Privacy is something you can sell, but you can’t buy it back.”
He then goes on to claim that his four or five subsequent records — widely regarded as including some of his worst music — were a calculated effort to throw off the mantle that he had been made to bear. It’s worth quoting him at length on this point:
My house was being battered, ravens constantly croaking ill omens at our door. What kind of alchemy, I wondered, could create a perfume that would make reaction to a person lukewarm, indifferent and apathetic? I wanted to get some. I had never intended to be on the road of heavy consequences and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots. Liberty for myself and my loved ones had to be secured. I had no time to kill and I didn’t like what was being thrown at me. This main meal of garbage had to be mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I’d have to go great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.
I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little. Coming back I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and housebroken. The music press didn’t know what to make of it. I used a different voice, too. People scratched their heads. I started a rumor with my record company that I would be quitting music and going to college, the Rhode Island School of Design–which eventually leaked out to the columnists. “He won’t last a month,” some people said. Journalists began asking in print, “Whatever happened to the old him?” They could go to hell, too. Stories were printed about me trying to find myself, that I was on some eternal search, that I was suffering some kind of internal torment. It all sounded good to me. I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too. I missed out on Woodstock–just wasn’t there. Altamont–sympathy for the devil–missed that, too. Eventually I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories–critics thought it was autobiographical–that was fine.
The references here are to Nashville Skyline (“a country-western record”), Self-Portrait (“whatever stuck”), and New Morning (“everything that didn’t stick”). The last remark, which can only be an allusion to Blood on the Tracks, I take to be one of the more brazen examples of bluff within these pages.
Alongside Chronicles, the Dylan thread of my pop music odyssey has been much enriched by Clinton Heylin’s two hefty volumes about his songs. All of them, you understand, all 600-odd. Heylin, who has written one of the more well-regarded biographies of Dylan (unread by me) and is, I gather, among the more sensible and sober of the (generally slightly mad) Dylanologists, here devotes a page or two (or ten) to every song Dylan is known to have written. I’ve consulted it over and over again as my odyssey has progressed, and I’ve not been disappointed.
Heylin is not much interested in interpreting the songs, and although (given how much time he devotes to his subject) he must be a rather fervent admirer of Dylan, his tone is generally flat and factual: he tells us when and where the songs were recorded, when they were first performed live, sometimes discusses alternate takes or alternate lyrics, discusses the circumstances in which the song was written, and gives an overview of how it has fared in his live sets over the decades. I found the books consistently interesting. (I was genuinely surprised to see the middling reader reviews at Amazon.com. Only after reading a few did I realized that jealous nit-picking is evidently a common pastime among your die-hard Dylan enthusiasts. There may be some factual errors in the books, but not enough to allay my enjoyment.) One of the unexpected things I learned from the books is that a large number of Dylan’s songs were not performed live for years, sometimes decades, after they were first recorded and released.
I will say that Heylin seems to grow more intemperate as he nears the end of his survey. It is clear that he dislikes Daniel Lanois’ involvement in Dylan’s record-making (on both Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, which to my mind are his two best records of the past 30 years), and he seems to really dislike Love and Theft. It’s fine to dislike the records, of course, but are they really so much worse than the dross Dylan dribbled out through much of the 1970s and 1980s? Not to my mind. But every man, Heylin included, has his ups and downs, and a little distemper cannot overshadow what is a fine achievement. I’m grateful to have these volumes on my shelf.
Dylan aficionados will have picked up on the fact that the titles of Heylin’s books are taken from phrases in “Tangled Up in Blue”. If, as I fondly hope, Dylan has a long life and dozens of albums still ahead of him, future volumes in this series might well include A Different Point of View: Songs of Bob Dylan, or In the Spotlight so Clear: Songs of Bob Dylan, or perhaps Heading for Another Joint: Songs of Bob Dylan, and even, I suppose, someday, Something Inside of Him Died: Songs of Bob Dylan.
As an envoi, let’s hear a song that I didn’t know about until reading Heylin’s books. This is “Caribbean Wind”, from the Shot of Love sessions. It’s a fantastic song: