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Why Bob Dylan Beats His Biographers

Not that Dylan himself is easy to drive. His rampant dating, excessive drinking, moral double standards and habitual obfuscations are laid bare in irreverent fashion. Above all, his artistic judgment is constantly questioned, as Heylin flips through old notebooks and rehearsal tapes to reconfigure famous verses or reassemble discarded songs, proposing discarded passages and lost takes as “Heylin-approved” improvements. Ironically, he makes such judgments in sentences so convoluted that one wonders whether Heylin himself ever accepted editorial advice.

There’s something particularly heavy about his obsession with searching for clues to Dylan’s personal life in songs of extravagant poetic language and mystical, metaphorical scope. He devotes pages to theorizing about the real woman who might have inspired a trio of extraordinary early ’80s offshoots (Caribbean Wind, Angelina and The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar), released after the fact in the 1985 Biograph box set. “This is pure speculation, the kind Dylan doesn’t like at all,” Heylin admits of his investigation’s findings, then adds: “Which, frankly, is bad luck.”

The faults of this overloaded and eccentric work are so obvious and manifold that it is easy to overlook its virtues. But let me be fair to Heylin: I devoured his epic work with considerable pleasure. It’s full of interesting stories, highlights unexpected aspects of Dylan’s creativity, and extracts fascinating excerpts from lost works – although it’s often easy to understand why Dylan made the choices he did. I’m not convinced that the lusty blues of 1978’s New Pony would have been improved by including: “You scramble my brain like an egg / You could make a millionaire get on his knees and beg.” »

Heylin is a prosaic thinker who doesn’t offer particularly illuminating insights into Dylan’s work, but he does provide an excess of detail that readers can bring back into their own listening experience. Any notion that The Double Life is a definitive biography evaporates in its manic energy, its unraveling threads, its fallacious theories, its undefined characters, its vague contexts, and its multiple dead ends.

One difficulty with any authoritative account of Dylan’s life is that Dylan positions himself as an artist who “contains multitudes”, positively reveling in notions of self-fictionalization. In particular, he takes steps to avoid being cornered by obsessive fans, with the result that biographers are reduced to looking for clues in the wrong places, such as the famous 1970s Dylanologist AJ Weberman, who delved into his hero’s trash. Heylin may be the most dedicated and forensic Dylanologist, but he is ultimately defeated by the scale, abundance, and genius of Dylan’s work. There are so many versions of Dylan on display here that in the end, one can only put down the out-of-print book – and return to the music.

The Double Life of Bob Dylan, Vol 2: 1966-2021: Far From Myself is published by Bodley Head at £35. To order your copy for £30, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books


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