‘Still on the Road’ Shines a New Light On Dylan’s Lyrics

The songs of Bob Dylan oftentimes require a secret decoder ring, if you truly care about what is being said in the songs (I never really examined or scrutinized song lyrics to the point of trying to understand, but let its musical impact transport me as a listener to another place). Purposefully enigmatic or not, each song eventually drops into place into the psyche, either dismissed as gibberish nonsense, or moved to the point of personal transformation.

The evolving geography of a Dylanesque landscape appears as a unique vista for each listener. Dylan, through his songs, offers an elusive yet illusory glimpse of the Beat/Folkie/Mystical Minstrel show that this American Master represents. Dylan offers hope when there lingers yet a revolution in the air…

The particular period Still on the Road covers, 1974-2006, illustrates a musical span bookended by utter genius. Blood on the Tracks‘ (released January 1975) creative metamorphoses ends (in this book) with Modern Times (released in August 2006). In between these two releases, and by this I mean the mid- to late-’80s (Empire Burlesque to Down in the Groove to be exact). Years of rough going for Dylan? We give him a pass, for four years out of five decades isn’t much of a gripe at all, and there are very few at all that can not only maintain a musical career for such a long time, and still remain culturally relevant.

Whatever muse he had snatched his ideas from moved on for the time being (as it did for many of our triumphant balladeers and songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s, Neil Young comes to mind), whether it be drugs, boredom, or both.

This book by Clinton Heylin is a saving grace for Dylan fans, young and old. Though many fans have found fault with either his writing, his fact-finding, or his personality, others are still able to glean from a book potentially amassed with well-researched anecdotes, a vital pulse of spirit that regards Dylan’s canonical music with careful and respectful regard. He is, as Heylin will outright state on his own, one of the world’s leading interpreters of Bob Dylan. Where he stands apart from the others is his access to material largely untapped by the untold others who have attempted to dissect Dylan’s massive creative output. Heylin willfully follows into hyper-obsessed scrutiny the origins of hundreds of the old master’s songbook.

No denying it, Still on the Road is encyclopedic, as is its predecessor volume Revolution in the Air. It will, like the first book, become the standard for Dylan reference material. It will also contribute to the increasing fissure between the hardcore followers and the casual fans, that one dare not try to etch into stone a definitive statement to the effect that “because this happened, then this is what the song means, it implies.” Dylan has made a career out of refusing to be nailed down, and for someone to self-process the audacity of doing so, is near blasphemy in most audiophile circles.

The book’s strength is that Heylin is careful to delineate Dylan’s creative periods. He establishes a sensible methodology sorting unreleased songs said to exist from the hazy hinterlands of myth and gossip. Heylin’s intent is to materialize such hearsay into absolute certainty. By basing the brunt of his research on extant studio logs, lyric sheets, notebooks and typescripts, he is able to follow the gestation period of each song (particularly notable the songs of Blood on the Tracks). “Tangled Up in Blue” warrants almost eight pages alone. Heylin unravels Tangled’s development from the legendary New York sessions to the final incarnation that made final cut for Dylan’s 1974 masterwork. Beyond that, for like Dylan’s tour, it never ends, there remain changes still, musically and lyrically, onstage, from 1975 to the present in Dylan’s Neverending Tour.

Relying on Dylan’s statements, particularly the whys and hows of a song’s existence, proves to become damning as evidence alone. This is strikingly pointed out by Heylin who often chooses to “trust the tale, not the artist.” However, in a book such as this, to admit as such and follow through, one ventures into hazards where the line between stone-cold fact and surmising casts a research-based book into uncertainty. How then do we treat a book where the tale is trusted, and not the artist?

In the liner notes for Dylan’s Biography (1985), “About the Songs – Cameron Crowe with Bob Dylan”, we have a veteran music journalist who has hobnobbed with the rock ‘n’ roll heavies, gleaning anecdotes from the man himself. Of “Tangled Up In Blue”, Dylan’s statement of the song has a validity to it absent from Heylin’s research. Dylan explains, “I was never really happy with it. I guess I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do… with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing,it really doesn’t matter.” Heylin attempts to get at the same points, not by interviews with Dylan, but through the examination of the Blood on the Tracks notebooks and studio logs. Dylan may have been talking off the cuff, but what he says seems to jibe with what we manage to glean from the song when we hear it. It does seem like a painting, and the narrative voice shifts as suddenly as a Terrence Malick film. This is what makes the song so damned good.

In the first pages of the book, two of Dylan’s statements given only two years apart, 2007 and 2009, spells out how he contradicts himself. In the former, Dylan states “My stuff was never about me, per se, so everybody who… thought it was about me… they took the wrong road.” In 2009, it’s ”I’m not a playwright. The people in my songs are all me.” ‘Nuff said.

It’s beyond contention to state that Heylin has a lot on his hands tackling a book such as this. If one resorts to scrutinizing Dylan’s utterances, then one willingly chooses to be cast into a labyrinth of Dylan’s design. You either have to take the ball and run with it, or freeze up and try to tame waters that are best left undisturbed (Heylin has tried the same strategy by tackling the daunting challenge of Shakespeare’s sonnets).

Heylin privies his readers to Dylan’s stylistic development, offering up not only studio outtakes, but any given song’s significant alterations whenever Dylan performs them live. “Isis” from Dylan’s Desire (1975) is one such example. The song is a unique representation of a typical Dylan storyline, an intermixed synthesis of the traditional with the fantastical, punctuated by hammering piano chords and an urgent yet melancholy violin supported minimally by bass and drums. There within like a heated coal lies potent mythology intertwined with Dylan’s personal domestic strife. In the scheme of things, hinted at by Blood on the Tracks, “Isis” then becomes a marital flipside to the album’s other “marriage-on-the-rocks” track, “Sara”.

In 1975, “Isis” endeared me to the rest of the album when I first heard it (I was 11-years-old). It took me someplace special that The Who and Led Zeppelin did not. This, admittedly, was regardless of whether the lyrics made sense to me or not.

Flash forward to 1985 to Dylan’s Biograph. “Isis” is now outright stated as a “song about marriage.” Dylan rips into a high-energy uptempo version spitting the lyrics,set afire with venom and spite. Heylin offers an explanation, by way of example, of “Isis”’ evolution. We learn by way of a musical collaborator, Jacques Levy, in an excerpt from an interview that “Isis” began as a ”funeral dirge.” “Isis” found its teeth because Dylan, in Levy’s New York City loft, had no guitar with him. Between them was a single piano that on this occasion suited this particular track just fine. By the time of the Rolling Thunder Tour, the song had changed into a theatrical centerpiece, this time because he did not have to his advantage a piano. Dylan stalks the stage in theatrical whiteface, harmonica in hand, spitting the lyrics with enough poetic vigor to give “Isis” its own life force. In Biograph, Dylan offers no comment on the song, and perhaps we are best left to his reticence to make sense of the nonsensical.

In the era of CDs, particularly from the mid-’90s on when they weren’t just a repackaging of the vinyl editions, the experience of buying, opening and absorbing yourself into the liner notes of any given release was nullified. The importance of artwork and/or photography has become largely absent from these products of pop culture. In the past, the marketing of a release was as vitally significant as the music it wrapped itself around. To bring up again Desire, because it was my first Dylan experience, the whole photo montage offered clues, but no solutions to the album’s mysterious contents. The question then, is this what are best left with?

Pertaining to Bob Dylan, this book serves its purpose (apart from the Bootleg series, Dylan’s own artistic representation for his new releases is rather sparse). Reading Still on the Road (and Heylin’s Revolution in the Air) and using it as a reference guide potentially offers each song a new breath of life. There becomes possible a distinct appreciation, albeit a new appreciation, for songs that may have faded, after being heard so often, into the nether-regions of our consciousness until they cease becoming artistic entities of their own. Like wallpaper, we see it every day, but we don’t see it. “Like a Rolling Stone” has a heavy message to it, but sometimes the message isn’t heard until it is tossed on its side and viewed from a different angle. Still on the Road offers such an angle.

RATING 7 / 10