[22 April 2009]
Having written a biography of Bob Dylan and a catalogue of his recording sessions, Clinton Heylin returns to the songwriter with his discovery that between 1957 and 2006, Dylan wrote an astonishing 600 songs. These can be neatly divided into two volumes, analysing 300 apiece, and Revolution in the Air is the first of these, spanning from his first ever song, written in 1957 about Brigitte Bardot, up to 1973’s “Wedding Song”.
The book is as comprehensive as its premise demands and obviously written very lovingly. If Dylanology is thought of as a recognised academic discipline rather than a hobby that enthusiasts sometimes write about, then Heylin is certainly good at it. However, this is not enough to save Revolution in the Air from its major flaws. The most intrusive of these is Heylin’s style: he is as condescending as hell. Take this extract from his introduction:
Having already written extensively (exhaustively?) about the author of this inestimable body of song – though not for the past decade – I have returned to find the world of Dylan experts, would-be academics, and online know-it-alls in a greater stew than in the days when the internet had yet to compound every crackpot theory, crank story, or distorted fact into an endemic diaspora of misinformation.’
Clearly, he trusts no one’s scholarship but his own, and not only does he feel the need to make us aware of this, he also has to criticise the sources he has come across in his research for their apparent inadequacy.
Later, he wonders ‘why no one had yet tackled the songs in a systematic way when the likes of XTC and the Clash [!] had both been the subject of such studies?’ His point is a fair one; less reasonable is the exclamation point which he feels compelled to insert, tucked into a pair of square brackets, as though he’s letting us in on the secret snort of derision he’s delivering into his cupped hand. If ‘the songs’ are to be the main focus of this text than why must Heylin childishly use a technique such as this to assert Dylan’s superiority over any other artist?
The other big problem is that it’s hard to figure out what the book is really for. It might be an essential piece of literature for the shelves of serious Dylan devotees, but it’s still hard to imagine even the most ardent fan reading it from cover to cover. Essentially, it’s a reference book, and it’s written like one. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the circumstances in which one would want to look up the origins of a specific Dylan song seem rather few.
It does possess, up to a point, the feature of the best reference books – once you’ve looked up one entry you get a yen to read a few more that catch your interest. But read too many in one sitting, and the book becomes very tiresome.
There is some interesting biographical detail, perhaps information that the average biography would neglect to mention, but this is counterbalanced by some astonishing geekery, factoids that would surely send most Dylanologists to sleep. Dylan has an appeal that has lasted for decades; he has captured several generations, but at times Heylin almost makes him uncool. The meticulous, scholarly approach that he seems so confident in is not without its flaws either: the title, for example, is taken from “Tangled Up in Blue” – a song that doesn’t even fall under the time period covered by this volume.
In the introduction, Heylin discusses his motivation for writing the book, and the planning process: ‘Maybe it wouldn’t be the greatest story ever told, but it would provide the evidence necessary to blow away any other claimant to the singer-songwriters’ crown of thorns.’ Now, surely whatever the nature of the book, anything that has a more linear narrative than Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary should attempt to tell a good tale? Heylin is absolutely right in saying that this is not a great story; unfortunately its secondary function, supporting Dylan’s claim as our foremost songwriter, is redundant – no evidence is required at all for that.
Some of the stories behind the songs are interesting in themselves: we are informed that the next volume, Still on the Road, will begin with ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’. I bet the story behind that one will be particularly fascinating, but I still think Heylin’s forthcoming book will be another one to avoid.