Clinton Heylin's latest overblown opus is a companion to Revolution in the Air, which examined Bob Dylan's oeuvre up to 1973, chronicling (via notebooks and studio logs) the evolution of each song and putting Dylan himself right on a number of matters. Dylan might have been there – but only Heylin knows what actually happened.
The author has less to get his teeth into this time round: roughly the same number of songs but many fewer moments of genius. Blood on the Tracks (1974) stands as one of Dylan's greatest albums – very different from "the wild mercury sound" of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde but no less brilliant. No single later album has been so consistent. Heylin is right to call it "truly classic", but wrong to bracket Slow Train Coming with it.
He over-praises Dylan's three specifically Christian albums while underplaying Infidels (which walked a Judeo-Christian line). Similarly, he goes overboard in his discussion of Knocked Out Loaded, Empire Burlesque and Under the Red Sky while failing to give due weight to Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind (producer Daniel Lanois is cast as a villain), Love and Theft and Modern Times, each of them a success.
Taste is subjective, but a book which imagines itself to be a quasi-academic analysis of the work of one of the 20th century's most significant cultural figures needs to be able properly to separate wheat from chaff. It should not defend the indefensible nor take pot shots at work of merit simply because the author finds it personally irritating.
Much of these 500 pages is spent putting Dylan's religious work in biblical context, which means Heylin is constantly quoting from scripture. When it's not the Bible, our polymath guide is drawing on the Tarot, film, litcrit and folklore. The intended impression, as we read his exegesis of Dylan's conversion to charismatic Christianity through study at the Vineyard Fellowship, is that Heylin has written his own book of revelations – except that it has all been chronicled 30 years ago, principally by Paul Williams in What Happened?
One of the criticisms consistently levelled at Heylin is that he doesn't properly credit his sources. Certainly, in discussing "Every Grain of Sand", he mentions the demo Dylan put down "apparently to convince Greek chanteuse Nana Mouskouri to record the song (which she eventually did)". That the song arrived in the mail following a meeting backstage in LA was my own contribution to Dylan studies, direct from Mouskouri's own lips; the incident is noted in No Direction Home by Robert Shelton.
In the text and in his "select bibliography", most of Heylin's references are to his own work. Where that of others is acknowledged it is usually in a disparaging manner. As with Revolution in the Air, Dylan is repeatedly taken to task, the veracity of Chronicles called in to question. He notes that the book is "rumoured" to have begun as a set of sleeve notes; I can confirm that is what Dylan told me backstage at Hammersmith, his publishers looking on as he explained that he wrote too much "and you can't read those things anyway".
Finally, there's Heylin's tortured prose, the use of what he imagines to be Dylan-speak (coulda, kinda, shoulda), and the inattention to spelling and grammar. The acknowledgments – used to knock, inter alia, his American publisher, who "saddled" the book with "an utterly shite cover", actually far nicer than the UK one – note that "I managed to wrestle the proofing process away from said publisher and have got the book properly copy-edited". Enough said.
Liz Thomson co-edited 'The Dylan Companion' (Da Capo)