Heylin tombstone blues

It’s a great comfort to know that should Bob Dylan scholars yet unborn leap from their beds in the middle of the night, tear at their hair and cry, “I can’t go on another minute until I know what Clinton Heylin thought of ‘Bonnie, Why’d You Cut My Hair?'” they need only turn to page 32 of Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973 and thereby find peace.

I’ve long admired Heylin’s diligence as a researcher and asperity as a critic, his willingness to deflate the fannish hagiography that typifies so much writing about Bob Dylan, and his readiness to come out and deplore substandard work even as others are singing hosannas for the arrival of another “masterpiece.” Heylin’s chronicle of Dylan’s life, Behind the Shades, remains the one Bob-bio to read if you’re only reading one, and Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, 1960-1994 is a valuable adjunct to any deep-dish research into the career of His Bobness.

There is arguably a purpose to be served by compiling a song-by-song critical survey of Dylan’s known catalogue, from juvenilia to Planet Waves, from “Song to Brigit” to “Wedding Song.” (There is a second volume in the works covering songs up to 2006 .) Dylan collectors are in a class by themselves when it comes to seeking out every available scrap of the man’s material, and a completist compilation like this can only help them in their explorations.

But even allowing the need for a book like Revolution in the Air, there remains the question of whether Heylin is the man for the job. Songwriting analysis has never been his strong suit: long stretches of Revolution in the Air deal with songs that have already been thoroughly pawed-over, and Heylin has little that’s new to say about them. When he does venture to provide some fresh critical insight, he comes up with a howler like the supposed relationship between Dylan’s achingly personal “Forever Young” and “Heart of Gold,” Neil Young’s hit single:

At a time when every label was searching for a “new Dylan,” Young seemed to be assimilating the sound of the old Dylan. And though they may not seem obvious twins, it is clear . . . that “Forever Young” was [Dylan’s] retort. He was doing Young doing Dylan. And yes, that is a pun in the title. Though it has passed most folk by, he was doing a Dylanesque Young, forever.

To borrow a line from one of Heylin’s rival Dylanologists: What is this shit?

But if Heylin’s analytical skills seem pale and wan, his penchant for starting pissing matches with other Dylan critics and researchers remains as robust as ever. Howard Sounes and Michael Gray, in particular, take their lumps from Heylin; even poor Suze Rotolo, who actually lived through the events he writes about, gets the back of Heylin’s hand. I know many Dylan fans who have complained about this tendency in  Heylin’s work, but Revolution in the Air marks the first time I’ve shared the sentiment. It really does get tiresome this time out.

Given the amount of space Heylin devotes to patting himself on the back while slapping around his rivals, I thought it appropriate that on the dust jacket of Revolution in the Air, the author’s name is noticeably larger than that of his subject. In this case, topography mirrors psychology.

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5 thoughts on “Heylin tombstone blues

  1. Jon Smele says:

    You’ve scored a direct hit. It’s in many ways a marvellous book, full of stuff that Dylan fanatics would want to know about, but any reissue should axe the Introduction, in which Clint does not so much `pat himself on the back’ as give himself a blow job!

  2. davidotas says:

    Don’t forget Clinton’s out of nowhere, seemingly serious suggestion that Bob might have dabbled in homosexuality in the mid 60’s.

    Saying that Just Like A Woman was about a man, quoting The Band colleague Van Morrison as signing “I was queer and you were queer too” in his version of the song from the early 70’s.

  3. Tom Ordon says:

    No doubt, this is Heylin’s worst book. I was surprised and disappointed at some of his comjectures and his poor attitude. However, on the other hand, the book reveals many song titles that are new to the Dylan collector. I am especially excited about the new Basement Tape-era songs. So there is value to the book, but it is not written very well. It is not fun to read. I like his other books, though. What went wrong?

  4. Ken Kaplan says:

    I agree that his analytical skills often are wanting. It appropriate that you label this post with “Tombstone Blues” because he misses the song badly. He insists the images are randomly thrown together which is nonsense. The song, along with “Highway 61 revisited” and “Desolation Row” are surrealistic extensions of “Its All Right Ma…” but this is the most wild of the three and one of my favorites. The first three verses attack what Heylin perceived as the targets of “Ma”, politics, sex, and religion. But here Dylan is extremely caustic. The verses throughout the song set up a point-counter point set of images that subvert conventional thinking. The ghost of Belle Starr (a stripper) hands her “wits” to Jezebel (both a wicked person and considered of ill repute) who is now a nun, “violently knits a “bald wig” (oxymoron) for “Jack the Ripper” who “sits at the head of the chamber of “commerce.

    In 1965, Lyndon Johnson and the war machine were revving up involvement in Vietnam big time. Its not a stretch to consider American leadership then, and in many cases now (George Bush-Dick Cheney-even Obama, with the Drone program) as monsters equivalent to the monster serial killer. The metaphor is apt. They all sit or sat at the “head of the chamber of commerce”.

    Dylan follows this motif in detail or outline throughout the verses. If one is a devout Christian one must blanch at the “blasphemy” of verse 3 but Dylan is calling out the hypocrisy of the violence of organized religion. Also the wild violence of Gypsy Davy is contrasted with a pure Americana book, “How to win friends and influence people.” There also was a real “Gypsy Davy” who was friends with Donovan and the image seems to take a shot at the gentle type of songwriter Donovan represented.

    A.P. Rossiter wrote a classic essay on Shakespeare, “Angel with Horns: The Musicality of Richard III.” in which he demonstrated how the playwright used similar point counter point from acts to lines in that play.

    Highway 61 Revisited is the most withering popular culture musical assault on the American shadow ever created. It stands with the best of George Carlin and works like Dr. Strangelove as incredibly biting social observation and criticism.

    To believe there is not coherence to the construction is to badly misinterpret the artist.

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