The Double Life of Bob Dylan

by Clinton Heylin

It’s been a long time since I read a Dylan biography. However, a few days ago I happened across Clinton Heylin’s The Double Life of Bob Dylan on the “New Books” shelf at the public library. I picked it up.

I suppose many of you know of Heylin. He’s written much about Dylan: Recording Sessions, Behind the Shades, Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry. I read them long ago. The Secret History, which tells the story of the bootleg industry, was particularly interesting.

It seems there are two types of people in this world. Let’s call the first type the Literals. They like facts, dates, timelines. They tend to be tidy and precise. Their world is mostly black and white.

The other type – the Figuratives – are less hung-up on facts and more interested in significance. They want the meaning, the why, the wherefore. Their world is misty gray.

Heylin definitely falls into the former camp. He is highly interested in getting the often convoluted history of Bob Dylan nailed down. And having access to the Bob Dylan Center and other resources, he’s in a good position to get the facts straight, or at least straight as they’re going to get. I can’t really judge how successful he is, but I’d assume he’s got a pretty good handle on the situation.

So if you’re interested in stuff like who rode with Dylan from Madison to NYC in 1961, Double-Life is the book for you. Heylin provides many, many pages of such facts. He also provides this information with an unseemly degree of arrogance and haughtiness, always ready wit a putdown of the work of other scholars or contemporaries of Dylan. Even if he’s right, it’s wrong.

Personally, I think a little of the “just the facts” approach goes a long way. I’ve never been super interested in how many takes Dylan did of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat on December 25, 1995. I’m mildly interested in knowing who played the trumpet part on Most Likely, but not knowing isn’t going to keep me up at night.[1]According to Heylin, Dylan insisted on recording most of Blonde on Blonde live, with no over-dubbing. In the absence of a horn player at the session, Charlie McCoy played both the trumpet and the … Continue reading

I can’t say it was an enjoyable read, it was a bit of a slough. It’s long. The writing style is clear, but not lively. Furthermore, Heylin doesn’t attempt to provide a lot of insight into Dylan’s work. I find – just to pick two authors at random – the work of Michael Gray and Paul Williams – much more insightful. Yes, these two probably sometimes have their facts wrong, but they have more to say about the significance of the work, which is more important to me.

But judge for yourself if Double Life is for you. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it might be yours. Reading it will definitely help you win a game of Dylan trivia.

References

References
1 According to Heylin, Dylan insisted on recording most of Blonde on Blonde live, with no over-dubbing. In the absence of a horn player at the session, Charlie McCoy played both the trumpet and the bass part. At the same time!

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