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Sifting Through the Myth of a Modern-Day Homer

Clinton Heylin
Summit Books
498 pages
ISBN 0-671-73894

"Delightful comic verse," they find,
And say, "It's perfect of its kind."
And yet, despite the critic's snort,
I'd give a lot to write that sort.

"Though vivid is the verse, and bright
As anybody now can write,
These tricky lines are easily done."
...I'd sell my soul to think of one.

          ---Franklin P. Adams

Why Another Dylan Book?

Author Clinton Heylin is a true Dylanophile. His frequent flyer miles have been amassed following Bob Dylan, né Robert Allen Zimmerman, to most all of his concerts, and writing about this American should-be Poet Laureate in his part-owned journal, The Telegraph.

He gives credit and critique of the biographers that portrayed Dylan. Starting with Anthony Scaduto's 1971 work, and a Dylan confidante, Robert Shelton, Heylin bemoans that not much was written about the years after Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident. And Bob Spitz's 1989 book, as well as other sources, has facts that conflict with others.

Of course, much Dylan fable comes from the singer-songwriter's own mouth, his cryptic revisionist sarcasm making the author work for his money. Additional interviews and other sources of quotes are inter-dispersed throughout the chronology, to paint a more accurate picture of what happened during and behind the scenes.

The issue of Dylan's musical and personal metamorphosis is intertwined with another strong aspect of this wunderkind: his perseverance in spite of adversity. That Dylan redirected himself even after becoming a full-fledged Bible-thumper in the mid-Seventies, is examined carefully, in spite of the inscrutable mind, and hermit-like behavior of the artist.

Sibling from Hibbing

We learn of Robert A. Zimmerman's formative years in an aptly named chapter, "Busy Being Born." Of course those are lifted from Dylan's "It's Alright Ma," but he doesn't always use lyrics for the rest of the book, but several plays on words alluding to them.

Starting the chapter with a 1963 Dylan poetic autobiographical bucolic and nostalgic quote he relays the common information that Robert was born in Duluth on May 24, 1941, and moved to Hibbing 6 years later. We are reminded of Dylan's first High School "Girl from the North Country Far," with Echo Helstrom, one of many acquaintances who recall him. (Later girlfriend Bonnie Beecher would have that role.) But Heylin challenges the notion that Dylan reinvented himself to break away from his Jewish roots, but that, in fact, he was more distancing himself from the small-town mentality.

the bands

A clash with Dylan's memory (in 1984) with reality comes out concerning his supposedly playing guitar since he was twelve years old. He started out (struggling) on piano (his parents had a piano for brother Robert's successful lessons), and while a teenager in 1956 he left his High School band to form his own, the Shadow Blasters. With his second band, the Golden Chords, towards the end of that year he learned guitar from Monte Edwardson. His music with his band followed in the footsteps of Hank Williams, Elvis, and James Dean, albeit on the rough and rowdy side.

By the time 1958 rolled around, the young Zimmerman was, at any chance he could, leaving Hibbing and his girlfriend Echo, for forays to Duluth and Minneapolis. Somewhere around that summer we learn that persona Elston Gunn (and the Rock Boppers) whose third Hibbing band was booed at the County fair, and there was further setbacks when he was jilted by Bobby Vee. He did not want to have a pianist with a cumbersome instrument to cart around, and Dylan, disgusted, but not dismayed simply became more folk-oriented -- abandoning rock -- at least for a while. Meanwhile Papa Zimmerman, not happy with the "Rebel" with an escape clause, sent him to a stricter school in Pennsylvania. A time that is one of those "Lost Years" of Dylan, though the more famous ones would be later.

Tellin' me love's all kinds 'a people
---Bob Dylan

One learns that despite many rejections, Dylan persisted with his own unique dream. And when he was big, he was a sometimes grouchy megalomaniac, but still a sensitive genius. We are assisted by the quotes from a huge assortment of people: from Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper, John Hammond, Phil Ochs, Kris Kristofferson, and George Harrison, including many others in the hundred and sixty people reminiscing a musical giant.

I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now...

---Bob Dylan

But, with Dylan's own words, and an angst-filled ride sharing this author's love of the truth, we also lie vicariously in this bed of roses with many thorns where fame fluctuates like flickering flame from fickle followers.

Shooting Star, Falling Star, Shining Star

In 1960 Robert Zimmerman officially became Bob Dylan when he performed as such at the University of Minnesota area's Ten O'clock Scholar coffeehouse. He eventually made friends with various Folk enthusiasts, like Ellen Baker, Dave Whitaker, and Robert Shelton who shared their collections and criticisms with him while he began his musical love affair with Woody Guthrie.

By the next year he was in New York learning that his eclectic style of folk-blues might cause some animosity with the purists. But, with the John Hammond connection, CBS puts Dylan on the map, even though his first release would be known as "Hammond's Folly."

In 1962, Dylan was already a Village standout, and his songs of topicality that he called "finger pointing songs" for folk music Broadside magazine magazine when sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary put him on the national map. By 1964 he was saying:

From now on, I want to write from inside me, and to do that I'm going to have to get back to writing like I used to when I was ten---having everything come out naturally. The way I like to write is for it to come out the way I walk or talk.

Dylan's quotes are almost always down-homey sounding. He especially is defensive when it came to criticism, or explaining why some of his other projects, like his book and movie failed.

Boos, but no Boo Hoos

By the time the 1965 Newport Folk Festival rolled around, which author Heylin states "...may well be the most written-about performance in the history of rock and roll," Dylan had Bringing it All Back Home out with his big hit, "Like a Rolling Stone" and wondered why the ensuing controversy embroiled when the electric set was unveiled. Heylin, by way of the witnesses own words, reveals a picture different from the common perception that Dylan was booed because he "plugged in." Other theories were that the sound was garbled (Seeger), or that there were only three songs (Kooper.)

His other masterpiece had also been released of which the author lauds:

Highway 61 Revisited reinvented rock and roll in a way perhaps only half a dozen albums have done in the forty-year history of the art. Next to Highway 61 Revisited, side one of Bringing it All Back Home sounds like no more than a demo. No one had ever written lyrics like these for a rock and roll album.

Motor Psycho Blues

The truth comes out about Dylan's famous 1966 motorcycle accident, that some say changed his career forever. Supposedly he exaggerated it's severity. He'd already been almost burned out completely from drugs and touring. This was the time he was hanging out with the Band at Big Pink, with his huge Bible on a stand. The successful 1968 John Wesley Harding, in which music was written in those convalescent years was a harbinger of future 'evangelical' type oeuvres.

By the Time I Already Lived in Woodstock;
California Dreamin'

Dylan ironically did not attend the famous 1969 Woodstock, not liking big crowds, (he had to move around because of groupies) and chose wrongly the Isle of Wight Festival which still had almost a quarter of a million attending. His career went from Nashville to Hollywood, and after moving to Malibu, he splashed us with Planet Waves. In 1974 he released his second number one album, Blood on the Tracks significantly Heylin comments:
With this album Dylan moved the posts. Instead of having to stand against Blond on Blond, as had all the albums from John Wesley Harding to Planet Waves, his subsequent albums have been up against Blood on the Tracks. The renaissance also, of course, allowed critics to talk about a new decline, as he bound to "let them down" again.

But Blood on the Tracks is more than just an affirmation of his genius. For here Dylan had released an album at least the equal of his masterpieces from the mid-sixties. No other artist in white rock and roll can be said to have done that.

1975 he launched the Rolling Thunder Review, which was an improvement over the year's before. Where there's thunder, however, there's lightning.

If At First

The "recording on the run" style that Dylan had, not liking rehearsing, changing songs all the time, sometimes had more deleterious results artistically and financially. His life was further hampered by his divorce to Sara, like a Rolling Stone, he played around and stayed around the wrong places too long. Street-Legal results from this era.

Road to New Damascus

You gotta serve somebody, it maybe the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.
---Bob Dylan

In a Tucson hotel, Dylan must have seen those "Wheels on Fire" as he is quoted:

There was a presence in the room that couldn't have been anybody but Jesus. ... I truly had a born-again experience, if you want to call it that. ... Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me sown and picked me up.

The follow-up by back-up singer Helena Springs for Dylan to pray was instrumental in his conversion. His first gig after that showed him sporting a silver cross around his neck.

I always thought Dylan was baptized in Pat Boone's swimming pool, and went to Jack Hayford's church, but the truth was Vineyard Pastor Bill Dwyer performed it at his home. Their teaching influenced Dylan's early fundamentalist flavor, and the tone of his recollections of his epiphany in Tuscon.

His three blatantly conservative Christian albums were done from 1979 to 1981, Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. His more subtle release in this genre was 1983's Infidels, while by the next year he was secular again with Empire Burlesque. No one is really sure what Dylan's religion is now, did he even return to Judaism? But that is addressed as keeping the traditions for his children. The author also explains:

Though Dylan's apocalyptic conceit has driven most of his finest post-conversion songs, his millennial fervor now seems out of step with his audience's view of world affairs. In the sixties the process of change was so imbued with the overthrow of existing structures that Dylan's anthems of doom were freely adopted.

True Confessions to Never Ending Tour

Dylan played with so many different people, naturally there is no room for them all here, but he toured with the Grateful Dead, The Wilburys (Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Tom Petty). After his last big tours of 1986 and '87, he was itching even more for the road, though his last albums were not turning the world upside down. This would become the Never Ending Tour, which by the end of the book was still going strong. The idea of a legend who seemed to be now struggling muse is summarized by Heylin:

The irony is that whatever commercial success Dylan has enjoyed (and certainly his sales do not start to compare with his fellow sixties' "icons," the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), and whatever degree of adulation has been expended on other rock and roll stars, it is perhaps only Dylan who has been perceived as a seer, even a messiah. That Dylan should thus shrink from the expectations of his audience is perhaps not surprising. Indeed it almost represents a modus operandi for much of his work.

To Read: Recommendation?


Tell me not in cadenced numbers
Life is but a rosy dream,
For the bard is dead who slumbers,
And things are just what they seem.

Life is false, and life is phony,
And the grave is near at hand;
Rhyme and metre are baloney
In a liberty-loving land.

       ---Franklin P. Adams

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