What seems like a Dylanologist's pedantry becomes such fascinating detail
BOOK OF THE DAY: EAMON DELANEYreviews Revolution in the Air The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol 1: 1957-73By Clinton Heylin Constable 482pp; £20
THERE IS something appropriate about Bob Dylan visiting us yet again this week. Whether it is the inspiration he draws from Irish folk songs and the likes of the Clancy brothers or whether it is his rueful lyrics about Ulster Scots settlers, we feel a curious kinship with this Jewish American troubadour. Either way, we should be honoured to have him back.
Like Shakespeare or James Joyce, Dylan is one of those artists who appears extravagantly gifted, a singular songwriter who bridges the gap between 1950s folk and 1970s rock and has produced a rake of albums that would beat the output of a host of others. Even those albums which purists consider not among his classics, such as Street Legal, (1978) are to me, totally accomplished, with every song fitting perfectly into a powerful and heartfelt meditation on love, relationships, and God.
Having said all that, one can get impatient with the hagiography around Dylan. There is too much nostalgic reverence now about rock music, mainly by grown men in their 40s and 50s unable to detach themselves from the heroes of their teenage years. For example, Martin Scorsese’s lengthy documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, lauded the man with a rapture bordering on the homoerotic, but it also revealed Dylan’s own vanity and narcissism, from which, admittedly, he draws with rich results. This book is a work of similar dedication but it is at least scholarship. Clinton Heylin is a leading Dylanologist, who forensically trawls the songs, telling the story of their drafting and recording.
Dylan arrived in New York in 1961 and, within two years, he had produced Blowing in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Falland The Times They Are A-Changin’. In just under two months at the end of 1964, he wrote the bulk of his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, an astonishing burst of creativity. Heylin analyses the gestation of every track and what seems at first like pedantry is actually fascinating detail.
For example, he traces Subterranean Homesick Bluesto folk rock “scat songs of the forties” and, interestingly, Chuck Berry, including a direct lift with the fantastic line “Twenty years of schoolin’/ and they put you on the day shift”. The song, proto punk if ever there was one, is famous for its video of Dylan standing in a Manhattan back alley and holding handwritten placards with the unfolding lyrics, a memorable moment of 1960s protest. But Heylin’s focus is on the lyrics and song writing. “Despite being a tad premature in inventing the ‘promo’ pop video (and rap music into the bargain), the song gave Dylan his first Top Forty US hit,” he writes in a sweeping but utterly illuminating aside.
The book is full of such detail. For example, on I Want You, he speculates that “the dancing child in his Chinese suit” was the ill-fated Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and that the person taken “for a ride” was the singer Nico, with whom both were friendly. It is fanciful stuff, with colourful cross references, but it’s absorbing speculation. At almost 500 pages, and with so many familiar songs – this is only Volume 1 – it is impossible to stop browsing. And what Heylin makes continuously clear is that, instead of sticking to a successful formula, Dylan was always changing and experimenting. It is this which makes him a truly great artist.