Book of the week: The Double Life of Bob Dylan
Clinton Heylin’s 528-page tome – which only takes us as far as 1966 – proves the singer to be a ‘fibber’
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It’s odd that a man regarded as the greatest truth-teller of his generation should have been such a “fibber”, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. But as Clinton Heylin’s detailed new biography shows, little that Bob Dylan has ever said about himself is true. He didn’t run away from home aged 12 and live as a hobo; nor did he attend a reform school. “He was brought up by nice, middle-class parents in a comfortable home in Hibbing, Minnesota.” Years later, when he played Carnegie Hall for the first time, he told a reporter he’d lost contact with his parents – when in fact they were “sitting proudly in the audience”. The truth is that the “wistful, yearning loving narrator of many of his songs” bears little relation to the actual person, who was “ruthless in his romantic life”, and surrounded himself with sycophants. But while Heylin’s undercutting of Dylan’s mythology is interesting, “his galumphing prose tends to suck the life out of his material”.
Most musicians of note get a biography or two written about them, said Will Hodgkinson in The Times. Only Dylan, however, has the “Dylanologists” – an army of obsessives dedicated to poring over every recording he produced. Heylin is the “most extreme example of this bizarre academic subset”: he is the author of 11 previous Dylan-related books, and his latest 528-page tome only takes the story as far as 1966. Heylin’s justification for writing it is the large “personal archive” that Dylan sold in 2016 for a reported $20m, to which he was “granted exclusive access”. His trawl through this material has unearthed “some fascinating revelations”: the section on Like a Rolling Stone traces its genesis to a party at the Savoy in London at which the drinks were laced with LSD. But the book is marred by its annoying and self-aggrandising tone. In the introduction, Heylin even compares his own book to a “Renaissance masterpiece”.
I myself found Heylin’s style a fitting match for its subject, said Andrew Motion in The Spectator. He is perceptive on Dylan’s talent for secrecy – which he suggests was linked to his genius for assimilating other people’s ideas – and he maintains an impressively “steady tone” when discussing Dylan’s controversial decision to “go electric” in 1965. The book ends in July 1966, with Dylan going “for a spin” on his cherished Triumph motorbike. Heylin’s next volume will “remind us how that worked out” – but in the meantime we should be grateful for this “indispensable account” of Dylan’s early years.
Bodley Head 528pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)
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