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.