Road to nowhere

Bob Dylan: behind the shades

Clinton Heylin <em>Viking, 800pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0670885061

Ten years ago, when the original edition of Behind the Shades was published, there were signs that His Bobness was about to rise again from the dead: his collaborative efforts with the Traveling Wilburys had given him a fresh sound and a new audience; his live shows had a dynamism that had been lacking in the previous decade, and, to cap it all, Oh Mercy received the critical and commercial success that it deserved.

But the Second Coming never happened, and that brief renaissance appears now to have been no more than a final flicker of a dying flame. In the intervening decade, Dylan has been engaged on the "Never-Ending Tour", living in hotel rooms, battling with the bottle, forming "romantic attachments to women unworthy of the moniker Muse" and rehashing old material in erratic shows. He has not quite forsaken his abilities as a songwriter - because, as he says, reminding us that he has not lost the ability to conjure up an arresting image: "Once in a while the odd song will come to me like a bulldog at the garden gate and demand to be written."

Time has been kind to Dylan. The past decade has seen him belatedly receive the recognition that has always been his due. He has been presented with more lifetime achievement awards and Grammy awards than you could wave a harmonica at, musicians new and old are queuing up to honour him with speeches of the "without him I'd never" variety, and there is scarcely a dissenting voice to counter the view that, in Dylan, we have one of popular culture's few geniuses.

That Heylin considers him a genius is just as well, given that he has devoted an enormous chunk of his life to writing about Dylan, producing five books, as well as another about the bootlegging industry that Dylan's prolific output and profligacy helped to create. Heylin is also a co-founder of Wanted Man, a British magazine devoted to the study of all things Dylan. Such obsessive interest has not blinded him to the faults of his subject, either in his life or his works. Heylin's assertion that the recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" (1965) was "perhaps the most important six minutes in modern rock" is a rare piece of hyperbole; Time Out Of Mind (1997), which has fooled less astute critics, is dismissed here as a "work constructed by proxy and built on sand".

With the enthusiasm of a true fan, but without the myopia, Heylin diligently charts the course of Dylan's life from his origins in a small Jewish community in Minnesota, through his speed-fuelled breakthrough in the New York folk scene as a Woody Guthrie clone to his reinvention as rock star. Heylin allows himself sometimes to be weighed down by the burden of his own research, and the information about recording techniques, production values and Dylan's working methods, coupled with his ever-shifting cast of musical accomplices, is simply too detailed.

The title of the biography, too, turns out to be something of a misnomer. It is perhaps just as well that we do not have to look too closely into those glazed and sunken eyes, since what we see is the familiar picture of the strung-out rock star. Dylan emerges from these pages as a vain, drugged-up, cruel and unpleasant paranoiac who blames the world and hides away from it. His conversion to Christianity, though sincere, did not arrive with such force as to imbue him with any lasting moral code, but with a fondness only for apocalyptic posturing.

Heylin is reluctant to look beyond the bad behaviour in search of the essence of Dylan. Rather, he contents himself with letting things remain a "mystery that will reside for ever in the man's cranium". This might be the right approach: attempting to get a fix on Dylan's character is a bit like nailing jelly to the wall. Perhaps he is best summed up by a Woodstock contemporary who maintained that "there are so many sides to Dylan, he's round".

Mercifully, the bulk of Heylin's analysis is devoted to the work, to the "chains of flashing images" that draw as much from Kerouac, Rimbaud and the Bible as they do from popular song, and to the elusive "wild, mercury sound" that draws together folk, blues and country, fusing them in poetic rock songs. Which is as it should be: Dylan's music is far more fitting a subject for a book than his tawdry private life. And if Behind the Shades doesn't quite make a gripping read for the occasional listener, every serious Dylan fan should find space for it on their shelves.

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