Book review: Clinton Heylin “The Double Life of Bob Dylan”

Bodley Head, 2021

“With this being the year of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday we have seen a number of very good books about Bob Dylan pass through the office, but this is something different again. Jason McDonald takes a look at a new book from author Clinton Heylin, described by Rolling Stone as “perhaps the world’s authority on all things Dylan”. This book goes back to where it all started and takes an in-depth look at the early emergence of the man who would become Bob Dylan.” Rick Bayles, Books Editor

Clinton Heylin, the author of ‘Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades’ has returned to write about Dylan between his birth in 1941 and when he first started to be noticed as an artist, around1966, in the first volume of ‘The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless Hungry Feeling’.  Heylin has produced a timely reminder of Dylan’s early years, in time for Dylan’s 80th birthday, by excavating his formative years in this well-researched biography.  There will be a second volume released in the future, covering his mid-life adventures.  Heylin was able to access a great deal of archival material when in 2016 the George Kaiser Foundation purchased boxes of miscellanea Dylan had kept in storage.  Heylin sets out his stall early on, noting that he was able to review materials that were made available to only a few Dylan scholars and that, despite the numerous books, movies, and autobiographies, none of them have captured Dylan in quite the way he has in this volume.  The reason for this, he notes, is partly down to poor research done by others, tall tales (some started by Dylan himself), and fading memories of those who are able to contribute to Dylan’s history.

Arriving in New York City in 1961, the 19-year-old Dylan has stated that he left his life behind, with a blank slate beginning his new life.  Dylan was an avid reader as a child and radio was a lifeline to a young Dylan as he was waiting for his chance to leave and begin his own adventures.  However, Dylan is noted to have played fast and loose with his versions of events in telling tales about his life and protecting other parts of his life from the view of others.  Heylin uses a variety of sources of information to try to unpick events in Dylan’s life, questioning accounts offered up by Dylan and those around him.  Heylin is able to detail the incidents which seem to have had an influence on Dylan and is not above noting Dylan’s failings, such as his double standards when it came to fidelity in relationships.

Dylan is described by those who knew him, including Izzy Young, who ran the Folklore Centre and Gaslight Cafe at that time, as being a quick learner when it came to absorbing music, whether it was new songs, borrowing styles of music, or putting his own stamp on traditional songs. Dylan was noted to be purposeful in his drive to be able to develop as a musician and was able to shut out external noise and focus on learning, listening, and then creating his own musical style.  Initially, Dylan aped the styles of people he admired, whether this was Woody Guthrie or Rambling Jack Elliot, but his voice was distinctive, although not universally appreciated.   This was noted by Heylin in describing the response of Dave Berger (one of the people in the car with Dylan on his move to New York, who told him to shut up and stop singing when he had heard enough!).

Dylan revered particular authors, including Jack Kerouac, and would have liked to have been an author himself, following a lifestyle similar to the characters in the novel.  Dylan appears to have tried on a variety of characters, whether looking like a character from a Dickens novel or dressing like Rambling Jack Elliott.  The question of his name being taken from Dylan Thomas has been raised, with Dylan initially saying this was the case but later denying it and becoming annoyed.  Dylan’s sense of adventure was notable in 1959 when he got his first motorbike and went riding with his friends.  He was moving away from his parents like many other teenagers and was seen by his parents as being beyond their control.  In 1959 he was enjoying r and b music, playing the piano but in 1960 changed to playing folk on his guitar.

Dylan’s early music style was “Talking Blues” where he was noted to be telling different stories while using the same chord changes.  Dylan wrote his first topical song “Down at Washington Square” after police stopped the peaceful gathering of folk singers.  His first proper paying gig was for two weeks opening for John Lee Hooker at Gerdes, prior to that he had been reliant on people he met to lend a hand, buy him a drink and offer him a place to stay.  Heylin notes that when Dylan was paid, he ended up with very little money, as he had to pay back bar tabs to people he owed. Heylin details the recording sessions that Dylan made, noting the genesis of songs that were used in his first recordings and others that appeared in later years in different guises.   Heylin writes about how  ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ started out as a poem until Pete Seeger recommended he turn it into a song and of the evolution of the song that would become both a hymn but also a millstone for him – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.  

Dylan’s relationships play a prominent part in this biography, with the ending of one (with Suze) coinciding with a further movement from the folk community.  The impact of fame on Dylan leading to surrounding himself with other people who acted to protect him from this but also cutting him off from friends.  His increased drug use within this new group of hangers-on was noticed by his friends, who were unable to reach out to him any longer as Dylan was cutting ties with them.  Dylan’s experiences with the Press is also explored, as he becomes more openly hostile at times (to the professional press) while supporting novices, fans, and amateur journalists.

Dylan’s movement back towards rock and roll coming full circle from his teen years is explored with the initial marker being ‘Bringing it All Back Home’ when the music started to pour out of him again.  Heylin recounts Dylan’s experiences with audiences when he began performing half acoustic and half electric sets, with impassioned fans shouting down one another, depending on whether they liked the Old or New Dylan.  Heylin brings this biography to a close with Dylan’s motorcycle accident, drawing this period of musical transition to an end and leaving the next chapters of his life to be explored in the planned follow-up biography.

Heylin’s exploration of Dylan’s early life, his music, including his changing from rock and roll to folk and back again, is an intriguing well-researched tale.  Heylin has included detailed notes regarding recording sessions, highlighting songs left off albums but appearing later, or disappearing completely, much of which will likely be of considerable interest to hardcore fans and Dylan completists.

Reading this book does make you want to listen again to the songs Dylan made famous and with a new appreciation for his talent, whether you are a relative novice to his output, like myself, or a long term, hardened Dylan fan. There is something in this book for everyone and, with it, Clinton Heylin has only strengthened his position as a major authority on Dylan and his work.

2 Comments

  1. Heylin is indeed an authority on Dylan and his work. I bought this book when it came out and have enjoyed reading it – except for Heylin’s unnecessary bitchy, negative comments about several other people who have written about Dylan. It cheapens Heylin’s own scholarship and demeans him, in my view. That said, I am looking forward to Vol 2 which will draw on new material from Dylan archives made available to Heylin before other scholars. That says enough about his stature in the field of Dylan studies – he didn’t need to take cheap shots at other writers/scholars to prove himself.

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