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30 June 2021

The darker side of Bob Dylan

How the songwriter’s duplicitous behaviour and his visionary music were bound together

By Jon Savage

On 22 May 1966, the day after a fractious show in Newcastle, Bob Dylan flew into Paris for a concert at the Olympia Music Hall on his 25th birthday, two days later. At Le Bourget airport, he was accosted by some young Parisians. Dylan could be playful, even skittish with his fans, but when he was asked whether he thought he’d find it hard to transcend the language barrier, Dylan snapped, “What do I care? We don’t play English music or French music or Russian music. We play American music.”

This ill temper continued at the official press conference the next afternoon, held in the basement of the George V hotel. Dylan had brought his own double – a ventriloquist’s puppet found in a Parisian flea market. The photographer Barry Feinstein was on hand to watch the circus: “Every time one of the journalists asked him a question, he put his ear to the puppet’s mouth and pretended to listen to the answer. Then he would tell the press. It drove them nuts.”

By 1966, Bob Dylan had become a mass media event. He insisted on accuracy and engagement in his interactions with the press, but many of the reporters present were either news journalists or writers still stuck in the protest period that he had long left behind. Irritated beyond measure, Dylan turned to his interpreter in Paris and said, “I don’t mind them asking questions about anything, but I mind them asking questions about my music, because they don’t know anything about my music.”

The problem for Dylan was that, as far as the media and many fans were concerned, it wasn’t just about the songs. As he told an Irish journalist earlier that month: “It’s weird, this saviour business… the evangelist stardom.” He wasn’t just a singer and a successful musician – a pop star – he was the “Voice of a Generation”, the leader of a new youth culture that, since it was incomprehensible to many adults, needed explanation and elucidation, neither of which Dylan was prepared to offer.

Boosted by amphetamines, Dylan was moving faster than almost anyone in the culture during this period, and as he reached warp speed, he became more confounding, more obtuse, more splenetic. Confronted by a writer in Paris who admitted he wasn’t familiar with his albums, Dylan delivered a full-on truth attack: “You’re one writer, I’ve never seen anything you’ve written. You don’t know how to write. You can’t write.”

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This might be expected in the canon of entitled pop star behaviour today – partly because Dylan helped to set the template – but in 1966 it was shocking. At the same time, Dylan offered moments of extreme clarity, as in his response to the Parisian press: “I don’t belong to any movement. I’ve only got some ideas in my head and I tell them.” Or, as he told another reporter: “I’m a rock ’n’ roll singer, man… I find myself in this accidental position. I’m fortunate because I make a lot of money and it’s all I really wanna do. No hobbies, no outside interests.”

The Olympia show in Paris was the third from last in a gruelling transcontinental tour. Visiting him that day, the sublime singer Françoise Hardy had “this bad feeling about him. He was so thin. He was very frail. He really seemed to be sick. He wasn’t well in himself. I honestly thought he was at death’s door.” But Dylan didn’t die. Indeed, it was his Rimbaldian escape from terminal teenage velocity that laid the foundation for the subsequent 55 years of his life, work and public engagement.

***

Spanning the years 1941 to 1966, The Double Life of Bob Dylan weighs in at 500 pages and is obviously intended as the definitive account of that period. It is but one entrant in the publishing bonanza triggered by Dylan’s 80th birthday on 24 May this year: others include revisions of existing biographies by Howard Sounes and Robert Shelton, new books by Paul Morley, Chris Gregory and Michael Gray, and a volume of academic essays edited by Sean Latham.

Dylan’s relevance today is based on a continual reinvention that has gathered pace since the late 1990s. Musical elements include the Bootleg Series albums – a thorough examination of his back catalogue now running to more than 15 volumes – and a sequence of new albums culminating in 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, an engrossing record that went to number one in the UK.

Dylan has also received major institutional honours: a Presidential Medal of Freedom given by Barack Obama in 2012, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. He has pursued creative work in other fields: there have been exhibitions of his paintings in the Gagosian Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Denmark. In 2013, the Halcyon Gallery in London exhibited “Mood Swings”, which featured seven wrought iron gates welded by Dylan – a direct harking back to his roots in America’s “iron ore country”.

[See also: Who is Bob Dylan?]

The other field in which he has been active is business: adverts for cars and Pepsi; the sale of his entire song catalogue to Universal Music Publishing Group in 2020 for more than $300m, and of his extensive archive to the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa for $15m-$20m. It is this material – formerly unavailable to the public – that Clinton Heylin has studied in order to revise and update his 1991 Dylan biography Bob Dylan Behind The Shades.

***

Once you get past the introduction – of which, more later – Heylin’s book obviously benefits from this access. The profusion of tapes, letters and unseen film material further illuminate a familiar story: the driven teenager who exploded out of nowhere – Hibbing, Minnesota – to imprint his thoughts, his words and his melodies deep into the psyches of successive generations, before disappearing, as if in a cloud of smoke, at the very zenith of his pop stardom in the summer of 1966.

The material on Dylan’s Hibbing years – when he was fascinated by Hank Williams, Elvis, Little Richard and Buddy Holly (whom he saw three days before his death) – is enhanced by accounts of his Jewish summer camp (Camp Herzl) and his friendship with the ill-fated Larry Kegan, crippled by an accident at the age of 16. Heylin carefully unpicks the erasure of Dylan’s roots as he reinvented himself in 1960 and 1961, as well as the contractual shenanigans that marked his early relationship with Columbia Records, further complicated in 1962 by the entrance of hustler/manager Albert Grossman.

The stages by which the Woody Guthrie acolyte became the questioning balladeer, the voice of protest, the transcendent visionary and the pop star-cum-scourge of false consciousness are also well  mapped. Although many have covered this ground, there is enough new material in the archives to make much of this seem fresh: in particular the stages of stardom that began to build with a concert at Carnegie Hall in October 1963 and first manifested with the behaviour of “crazed fans” in England during May 1964.

There are gems such as the combative taped encounter between Dylan and his Minneapolis friend and peer, Tony Glover, from July 1963, an illuminating typed interview with a Cambridge student in May 1965 that was left in Dylan’s hotel room, and transcripts of the chaotic footage shot by DA Pennebaker and Howard Alk in May 1966. There is plentiful material about Dylan’s off/on, often duplicitous relationships with Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez, who both recorded that, the more successful Dylan was, the nastier he became: Rotolo thought he “succumbed to his demons”, while Baez found him “unbelievably unmanageable”.

But therein lies the rub. Heylin’s myth-busting approach is perhaps a natural consequence of the many false trails that Dylan made from the start to erase Robert Zimmerman: his double life. Unpicking the facts is a biographer’s job, but it leads Heylin to over-emphasise his subject’s poor behaviour. There is a plethora of quotes about what a liar and a shit Dylan undoubtedly was at times, but not so much about the music, not so much about the fact that during this period he was writing the expansive, visionary songs that shaped another reality.

[See also: Return of the long player]

This is another kind of double life. Dylan was always obsessed by the power of literature – Kerouac, Rimbaud et al – and the transformational quality of myth. From the off, he sought to propel himself into a wider consciousness beyond his own ego. He was always hard to read, always instinctive, and totally committed to an uncompromising, often harsh vision that, by late 1965, had taken him to a very strange place: as he told Allen Ginsberg, “I don’t know what the fuck it is I do. I didn’t set out to do this, I can tell you that. But… the songs aren’t bullshit songs.”

It was Dylan’s instinctive ability to be in tune with his times that propelled him to fame just at the moment teenage culture was ready for more than functional dance music or the quiddities of romance. Dylan fully arrived with such force in 1965 that he pulled much of white pop along in his wake, while also intriguing soul singers such as Solomon Burke (who covered “Maggie’s Farm) and Otis Redding.

***

Dylan’s transcendent quality generally eludes Heylin, who appears to think he knows better than his subject (at one point he egregiously states that he’d have done “a better job selecting and sequencing his albums”). This might be a case of over-familiarity, but it illuminates one of the book’s biggest problems: Heylin himself. He has unpleasant ideas about Allen Ginsberg and the singer Paul Clayton – whom he respectively calls a “notorious homosexual” and a “pederast” – and elsewhere rails against “absurd ‘misogyny hunters’”.

Heylin’s habit of quoting Dylan lyrics in his own prose is also grating and jejune, but worst of all is his extreme competitiveness towards other Dylan writers. In the introduction, he insults biographers including Howard Sounes and Ian Bell, and dismisses memoirists such as Victor Maymudes. It is a great mistake for a biographer to over- identify with their subject, and at times, Heylin seems to think he owns Dylan. But nobody owns Dylan, not even Robert Zimmerman himself, who began to talk about Bob Dylan in the third person – un autre – as far back as 1964.

The story of Bob Dylan’s high Sixties is riveting and still relevant, all the more so because much, if not all, of his subsequent career and life has been a reaction to the infernal pressures of 1965 and 1966. It is a great pop story that ties in with the founding James Dean myth of flaring, doomed youth, but by this stage readers might want to focus on the subsequent 55 years, especially Dylan’s extraordinary productiveness during the 21st century – as the bard of teenage expansiveness becomes an avatar of reflective old age.

The Double Life of Bob Dylan is a serious work straining to get out from underneath its author. Careful editing might have reined in Heylin’s worst impulses, but it is lacking: that this introduction was allowed to go to print is a dereliction of duty. This is a shame for, despite all the deep-dive research and the new information, Heylin’s would-be definitive opus is vitiated by the author’s lack of generosity and flaring egocentricity: it remains a hostage to his barely controlled personality quirks. 

Jon Savage’s books include “1966: The Year the Decade Exploded” (Faber & Faber)

The Double Life of Bob Dylan Vol 1: A Restless Hungry Feeling: 1941-1966
Clinton Heylin
Bodley Head, 528pp, £30