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From the world's leading authority on Bob Dylan comes the definitive biography that promises to transform our understanding of the man and musician—thanks to early access to Dylan's never-before-studied archives.
In 2016 Bob Dylan sold his personal archive to the George Kaiser Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reportedly for $22 million. As the boxes started to arrive, the Foundation asked Clinton Heylin—author of the acclaimed Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades and 'perhaps the world's authority on all things Dylan' (Rolling Stone)—to assess the material they had been given. What he found in Tulsa—as well as what he gleaned from other papers he had recently been given access to by Sony and the Dylan office—so changed his understanding of the artist, especially of his creative process, that he became convinced that a whole new biography was needed. It turns out that much of what previous biographers—Dylan himself included—have said is wrong.
With fresh and revealing information on every page A Restless, Hungry Feeling tells the story of Dylan's meteoric rise to fame: his arrival in early 1961 in New York, where he is embraced by the folk scene; his elevation to spokesman of a generation whose protest songs provide the soundtrack for the burgeoning Civil Rights movement; his alleged betrayal when he 'goes electric' at Newport in 1965; his subsequent controversial world tour with a rock 'n' roll band; and the recording of his three undisputed electric masterpieces: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. At the peak of his fame in July 1966 he reportedly crashes his motorbike in Woodstock, upstate New York, and disappears from public view. When he re-emerges, he looks different, his voice sounds different, his songs are different.
Clinton Heylin's meticulously researched, all-encompassing and consistently revelatory account of these fascinating early years is the closest we will ever get to a definitive life of an artist who has been the lodestar of popular culture for six decades.
That all-important intro… 2–3–4
April 26th, 1963. With barely 5,000 album sales to his name, but evidently a prophetic sense of destiny, Dylan is sat with social commentator Studs Terkel in a Chicago radio studio, talking about writing his life story:
Bob Dylan: I’m writing a book now.
Studs Terkel: And what would the book be, an autobiography?
BD: Yeah, it’s about my first week in New York.
ST: Oh, that’s a very funny song… a talking song isn’t it, ‘New York Town’.
BD: It’s not that kind of [thing]. It’s got more to it than that… not too much music in it, except maybe a couple of chapters.
ST: This book involves what? Your observations about the Big City?
BD: No, not even about the Big City. The Big City’s got nothing to do with it. It’s just about somebody who’s come to the end of one road, and actually knows it’s the end of one road and knows there’s another road there, but doesn’t exactly know where it is. He knows he can’t go back on this one road.
ST: It’s [about] a new birth then…
BD: Yeah, sort of… it’s got all kinds of stuff in it which just doesn’t add up… thoughts in my head all about teachers and school, and all about hitch-hikers around the country, all about these friends of mine too, [and] college kids, and these are all people that I knew. Every one of them [is] sort of a symbol for all kinds of… people like that. And New York’s like a different world. I[’d] never been in New York before and I’m still carrying them memories with me, so I decided I oughta write it all down.
Thirty-six years later – to the day! – his mind turned again to chronicling his life, as he’d threatened to do in 1963 and 1971. He is in the heartlands of the old Habsburg Empire, between Salzburg and Vienna, on the banks of the Danube ‘where the willow hangs down’, a place saturated in history, as he knows well.
Linz itself is charming, and the spring tour is going well, opening the curtain on a twelfth year for the subversive construct he had himself christened the Never Ending Tour. It has been eight long (but certainly not wasted) years since the last smartass knowitall tried to tell his story. Maybe the time has come for him to cover the waterfront. To tell it like it is, as the Neville Brothers once sang.
As is his wont, the man with two names has taken some hotel stationery with him to a smalltown cafe, where he pulls out a pencil and begins to scratch out in that telltale spidery scrawl his world view, his thoughts, his dreams, in that interior voice he alone knows…
It used to irritate me when the media portrayed me as a sixties artist. I never wanted for a second to be a sixties artist but an artist for all time. If it’s not for all time, it’s not worth doing. My mind works in a timeless way, and anyway I’m not good at dates, ages, names and numbers. Everything to me is timeless. 1976 might as well be 2090 – it’s all the same to me.
But if the man who is Bob Dylan only when he has to be thinks he is painting over an abiding public image of himself ‘as a sixties artist’, he is going about it in the most lateral of ways. The following night he will perform an energetic sixteen-song set to the well-fed Austrian burghers, ten of which will be culled from the sixties; all from his pre-accident canon. From the two dozen albums between Blonde On Blonde in 1966 and 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, he will exhume just ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, and even that song consciously evokes a time when there was ‘music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air’. Try as he might, maybe he just can’t connect the dots any more…
Both sides of the biographical coin were flipped in 2001, the year of ‘Love And Theft’, Dylan’s first studio album in four years, and the year he told Mikal Gilmore, ‘My story [by] myself would have to be more interesting than [by] anybody else that could look at it from the outside, right?’
Already that year this smartass knowitall had dramatically revised the most factually reliable of Dylan biographies – Behind The Shades – perhaps just in time. And a former tabloid reporter aka professional dirtdigger, name of Howard Sounes, had decided to out-Scaduto Spitz and go all National Enquirer on the man called Alias. The result: a depressingly well-trundled, semi-literate stroll Down The Highway.
Dylan, though, was going to take his time. Not until October 5th, 2004 would Simon & Schuster publish Chronicles Vol. 1, the sixth Bob Dylan biography, and the least reliable when it came to ‘dates, ages, names and numbers’. This bestselling volume – like the sincerer scribblings of Scaduto, Shelton, Spitz and Sounes before – largely concerned itself with events from 1960 to 1969.
Yet the evidence of a mind which ‘works in a timeless way’ was writ large across the slim volume,1 as it jumped backwards and forwards, skipping lightly around the more contentious areas of a life well lived, never once settling down long enough to lay the foundations for a broader narrative or a concerted explication of a body of work that indisputably made its author ‘an artist for all time’.
Instead, this endlessly mercurial artist slipped through this invested reader’s fingers every time he turned a page. The multitude of personalities Robert Allen Zimmerman first developed as a defence mechanism in his Minnesotan youth remained steadfastly behind closed doors. Even the self-analytical persona dredged up by his psyche down by the Austrian river would be only a fleeting contributor to the final product.
Whether consciously or not, Dylan had elected to emulate the late Graham Chapman, Monty Python’s premier pisshead, penning his own Liar’s Autobiography in the teeth of two biographical portraits foisted on the public in the interregnum between that original righteous thought in Linz and its ultimate expression. Perhaps that was always his plan. As far back as 1971, he’d expressed an intention to play fast and loose with the facts, telling Tony Glover, ‘I got a story to tell – but I don’t want to tell it the old cornball way. A real writer knows to hold it all up – he can then place his facts wherever he feels like it.’
What Dylan made of his most recent chroniclers he wasn’t about to say, save by embroidering a couple of the more outlandish stories in Sounes’s skim-read till they collapsed ’neath the cumulative weight of his and his biographer’s disinformation. But it is possible these other biographies’ very existence shaped the tenor and tone of the book he was now (re)writing with renewed urgency, having sealed a seven-figure advance for world rights from the capacious coffers of Simon & Schuster. He implied as much in that detailed 2001 conversation with Mikal Gilmore, ‘Because I’m a public figure… I can mention all kinds of things that have been written about already, but I [can] bring a different resonance to it.’
However, something shifted his autobiographical axis between Linz and Kenosha, the birthplace of Orson Welles, where Dylan came to play in October 2004 just as Chronicles was entering the bestseller lists around the world.2 Though Dylan had yet to publicly endorse Welles’s late period mockumentary, F For Fake, on his 2007 radio show, he had chosen to reflect an insight the great composer Bernard Herrmann once offered about Welles as a raison d’être for his own memoir, ‘Anyone who believes he has caught him in a fantastic lie is apt to find that the fantastic story is the truth. And some unimportant statement, like just having bought an evening paper a half-hour ago, is the lie.’
Examples in Chronicles are manifold, but I’ll cite just a single instance: the story of how the nineteen-year-old Dylan first came to hear the blues giant, Robert Johnson, and specifically the King Of The Delta Blues album. It is a tale worth deconstructing. On page 280 of Chronicles, Dylan claims John Hammond Sr gave him ‘a thick acetate’ of this seminal record – which was ‘not yet available to the public’ – the day that he was offered a five-year recording contract with Columbia (to which Dylan alleges he took one look and said, ‘Where do I sign?’).
There are enough documented facts herein which can be checked. And when one does, they don’t add up. King Of The Delta Blues was released on September 11th, 1961 (forty years to the day before Dylan released ‘Love And Theft’ and a bunch of jihadists flew into the World Trade Center, killing upward of 3,000 innocent people). Dylan wouldn’t sign his Columbia contract until six weeks later, on October 26th, the day after he had been given a first draft, which he asked be amended and extended. Hammond would hardly have given him an acetate at this late date.
Even before I was able to marshal these annoying little facts – which required the resources of Sony Music and Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum – I found it hard to believe Dylan heard Johnson this early, though I accept he was probably the beneficiary of said album courtesy of Hammond. But any such event must have occured in late December 1961 or early January 1962. Why am I so sure? Because there is not a note of influence audible on the twenty-six-song Minneapolis Hotel Tape from December 22nd, but by January 5th he had written his first pastiche of Johnson, ‘Standing On The Highway’, and four weeks later he was telling Izzy Young he intended to write a song called ‘The Death Of Robert Johnson’. The fact that Dylan goes on to describe the impact Johnson had on him in luminescent words, making for one of the best passages in Chronicles, in no way abnegates such a wanton disregard for, er, chronology.
Caveat Emptor might have been a better, certainly a more apposite, title for a book in which the song and dance man consciously plays the joker time after time. This alone should have warranted a challenger who respected history a little more, and mythology a little less. But fifteen years on, we’re still waiting. Despite bookshelves the world over continuing to groan ’neath a never-ending onslaught of tomes on or about the man and/or his work, Dylan remains an elusive figure in the world of (the rock) biography; even more now that his position in the pantheon is secure and his creative output has slowed to a trickle.
It seems remarkable – to me, anyway – that only five proper (i.e. researched) biographies of the man have been published to date, three of which appeared between 1986 and 1991, the absolute commercial nadir of Dylan’s six decades of stardom; only one of which was not written in Tabloidese. To put this in context, this is fewer than Janis Joplin, who made just four albums (in four years) and wrote barely a handful of songs before succumbing to one of the manifold ways she found to numb the pain of daily existence. It is as if seventeenth-century controversialist Peter Heylyn were deemed more worthy of biographical study than his near-contemporary, William Shakspeare.3
It seems that the advent of the Internet really has had a deleterious effect on people’s intellectual curiosity. It certainly appears as if an avalanche of ‘new’ information about Dylan (life, the universe and everything) has dissuaded people from making sense of this rich pageant, even as the cataloguing of his every endeavour multiplies daily, thanks primarily to the extraordinary resource that is Expecting Rain. Meanwhile, misinformation contiguously feeds every other Dylan-related website – from Olof Björner’s ostensibly reliable About Bob Dylan on down.
This online dystopia, with its search engines and ‘egalitarian’ dispensation of information and misinformation, unfiltered by anything save who pays to advertise, has spawned a new kind of pseudo-historical work: the bedsit biography, of which the most overweening example must be Ian Bell’s two-volume account of Dylan’s milieu, Once Upon A Time (2012) and Time Out Of Mind (2014) – though Spencer Leigh’s Outlaw Blues (2020) runs the late Bell awfully close.
Go to the Amazon website and key in Once Upon A Time – as I just did – and one finds vox-pop ‘reviews’ like this one: ‘His level of research and depth of insight is breathtaking.’ It certainly takes my breath away. Never in the history of biography has someone done less research for more poundage. Producing nearly 1,500 pages on Dylan without studying more than the five existing biographies and Dylan’s own Chronicles, and surfing the Web for the odd aside, does not a researcher make, let alone a biographer. It would barely qualify as sufficient for a college freshman’s first essay on pop culture.4
This shiny new digital resource – the big bang to Gutenberg’s galaxy – surely should be producing something more balanced, more nuanced, more measured by now; as opposed to giving maladroit theories credence while myopically chained to the kind of insidious resource Alexander Pope could not have foreseen when he opined, ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.’
On the plus side, at least Bell chose to clash with the dish-the-dirt school of biography, a decade after Howard Sounes produced his protean biographical ‘exposé’, unlocking even fewer doors of perception than Shelton or Spitz. In that period, the few good books on Dylan came at him from an original angle or focused on one intense period of activity and contextualized it.
Head of the new class was David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, a well-received ‘dual biography’ of Richard Fariña and Bob Dylan in the lead-up to their 1966 motorcycle accidents – which the latter survived, the former did not. Appearing the same year as Down The Highway, it was its very antithesis; well researched, well written and with ‘a different point of view’ – even if Hajdu distorts the closeness of the connection between Dylan and Fariña, using their joint fascination with both Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi, as the hook on which to hang a somewhat tendentious thesis.
Fifteen years later, Barney Hoskyns refracted Dylan through the prism of Woodstock and his ultimately fraught relationship with the Grossmans in Small Town Talk. Again, original research vied with head-on myth-demolition as Hoskyns tried to explain why Woodstock became a haven for some, hell for others. In doing so, he tackled a period in Dylan’s life others largely skirted over.
Neither Hoskyns nor Hajdu – both accredited biographers before they took on our man – felt like tackling the whole life. Who can blame them? They would have been swimming against a veritable tsunami of first-person rock memoirs, specifically the almost seasonal publication of someone’s book-length recollection of time spent with some former rock icon – sometimes penned as the Reaper waved his Scythe – which for a period seemed to swamp publishers’ lists.
Despite most publishing houses’ penchant for deep discounting and the abandonment of backlists, the modern (auto)biography industry was for a while thriving, in no small measure due to Dylan’s own unreliable memoir. As so often, where Dylan trod, legions soon followed. An unholy alliance of commissioning editors, beady agents and rock stars with axes to grind filled the pre-Christmas shelves with ghosted recollections of hapless high jinks on their inexorable way to the remainder bins.
Thus, for a decade after Chronicles, the rock memoir flared up like an Independence Day firework display, leaving almost as little to show for it. And while Dylan spent the time fending off enquiries about Chronicles Vol. 2, at least three key figures from the pre-accident era carped the diem, scooping up pieces of silver to spill the beans – in the case of Victor Maymudes, Dylan’s skirt-chasing bodyguard and occasional drug mule, from beyond the grave and the other side of a lawsuit.
Another Side Of Bob Dylan (2014) was compiled by Victor’s son from a sketchy book proposal his father wrote and twenty cassette tapes of his father reminiscing, even though said patriarch had barely known his own flesh and blood. That a mainstream publisher like St Martin’s Press would countenance publishing such thin gruel suggested just how fevered this fools’ gold rush had become.
If Maymudes’ ghost-rider only fitfully recollected a misspent youth convincingly, the memoirs of Dylan’s great teen-love, Suze Rotolo (A Freewheelin’ Time, 2008), and Band leader Robbie Robertson (Testimony, 2016), were at least penned by the name on the spine. Each painted a portrait of Dylan which reaffirmed the astuteness of Woodstock cafe owner, Bernard Paturel, who observed of his once-regular customer, ‘He’s got so many sides, he’s round.’
An older, wiser, freer Rotolo – who already knew her days were numbered when the book deal was struck – came across as a modern pushmi-pullyu, caught between an overprotective, uptight mother (the one Dylan famously accused of using ‘strings of guilt’ to bind her younger daughter) and her spinning dervish of a boyfriend. Throughout it all, her youthful political fervour shines through, suggesting Dylan’s determination to detach himself from ‘The Cause’ by the end of 1963 might have played a role in what tore them apart.
Robertson’s memoir is far more of a curate’s egg. In his own special way, Robertson chose to be as economical with the truth as the Chronicler, his assumption that the reader would take him as a sympathetic, credible narrator of his own life story only holding true if said reader knows nothing about The Band other than their albums.
Which brings us semi-seamlessly back to Dylan, who in 2004 – before rock-memoir fatigue set in – was relying on reviewers taking his book at face value ‘as a sympathetic, credible narrator of his own life story’,5 even as he littered Chronicles with more than enough of what comic genius Peter Cook liked to call ‘a thin tissue of lies’ to cast doubt on every event described, every feeling recalled.
Witness Dylan’s excruciating sign-off to Rotolo at the end of the volume: ‘The alliance between Suze and me didn’t turn out exactly to be a holiday in the woods. Eventually fate flagged it down and it came to a full stop.’ Contrast such overwrought platitudes with Suze’s devastating comment at the time, to mutual friend and journalist, Al Aronowitz, ‘We keep wearing each other down like pencils’, and remind me again which of the two was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In fairness, Dylan had previously evoked the end of that fateful relationship in words that really did burn like molten coal: ‘I still believe she was my twin / But she was born in spring and I was born too late’, using a medium he made his own: the song lyric.6
He did it again when he penned another of his instantly evocative lines, ‘I’m trying to get as far away from myself as I can’, within months (or even weeks) of starting to write a memoir of his life, in 1999. This suggests a central paradox at the very heart of the man and his art; one that will serve as a counterpoint to my own narrative, a wholly unauthorised version of the self-same life.7
It is a thread other astute critics of the man have noticed in his more recent work; not just his twenty-first-century music, but in his underappreciated 2003 movie, Masked and Anonymous – written at the same time as Chronicles – which ex-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, for one, recognized as ‘revelatory, in the paradoxical sense that it allows Dylan to say some important things out loud, and [yet] keep the silences, and retain the elements of mystery, which are essential to his genius’.
Fast-forward sixteen years to the latest celluloid deconstruction of the Dylan myth, Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), and we find Dylan continuing to strew enough clues that anything he says in the twenty-first century about what happened in the twentieth should be taken with a truckload of salt. As he revisits the last critical lambasting he received for daring to make a movie about man and myth (1978’s Renaldo & Clara), he cites the famous Oscar Wilde aphorism ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ Could he be trying to tell us to trust the tale, not the artist?
Even Bell grasped the fact that the 2004 memoir, Chronicles, ‘burns most strongly when he is reaching through the veil of years in the always-doomed effort to touch the lost geography of his childhood and youth’. It just never seems to occur to him that Dylan might be making a conscious choice not to tear apart the veil; that maybe that ‘effort’ is not so much doomed as damned-if-he-will.
On a whole other level, the myth has been enveloping Dylan for so long now that it provides warmth and comfort. Even as he has ventured further and further into his own labyrinthine imagination for emotional succour, so he has left a trail which allows those of us who have followed to reconstruct a way in (and out) of the ongoing odyssey (and I write this as Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, just topped charts both sides of the pond, reaffirming his enduring relevance).
He continues to take the savvy view that most folk wish to venture only far enough to say they have been there – not to forge into the unknowable region both he and Rimbaud came to inhabit fleetingly, at a cost to their sanity and their health. Yet there is another contradiction the returning biographer is required to address. Even as Dylan seems determined to blow smoke and hold up cracked mirrors to his own work, past and present, he has allowed his working methods in song and word to be laid bare in a series of approved archival digs.
What no one saw coming two decades ago – least of all yours truly – was Dylan agreeing to release hours and hours of musical discards from a career replete with wrong turns (and yes, I still subscribe to the view some New York Times book reviewer castigated me for back in 1991, that I’d have done a better job selecting and sequencing his albums). A brand-new Sony contract in 2012 committed him, and his archivally minded manager Jeff Rosen, to ten annual, multi-volume instalments in The Bootleg Series, a till-then occasional excavation of largely oft-bootlegged out-takes and near-legendary concert performances.
At the same time, changes in copyright law in Europe forced sixties rock icons to consider issuing limited edition ‘copyright collections’ of unreleased recordings that would soon be more than fifty years old, and would therefore fall into the public domain unless protected in this way. These copyright collections and The Bootleg Series now account for just about every Dylan studio recording of note from 1961 through 1970 – including six CDs’ worth of basement tapes – even if historical context is sometimes in short supply.
However, even these expansive collections haven’t always included those moments before or after songs – what went on not so much behind the shades as Between the Takes, making it essential that I secured access to the extant session tapes. When I did I uncovered a narrative still being airbrushed by the powers that be; witness the omission of any reference to, or comment by, Dylan’s girlfriend and muse Ellen Bernstein during the supposedly complete release of the New York Blood On The Tracks sessions, More Blood, More Tracks (2018), a rewriting of history which would have made Shakspeare and Holinshed blush.
Instead, the sleeve notes to said Sony set relied primarily on the testimony of an assistant engineer at just two of the four sessions, Glenn Berger, a generous and loquacious man, whose published account of those sessions does not get a single material fact right. Whatever his insights – and he has some – they could hardly be a replacement for Ellen’s, who not only attended all four sessions and the subsequent mixing sessions but was just about the only sounding board to whom Dylan paid any attention at A&R, and whose memory remains fiercely intact.
The main problem for any would-be biographer of a septuagenarian rock star is that memories as good as Ellen’s are very much the exception. Not only are Dylan and his contemporaries getting on, their memories are like-as-not shot, whatever their preferred poison back in the day.8 Time is not on any true chronicler’s side.
This was the fundamental obstacle confronting the likes of Kevin Odegard, Elijah Wald, and Daryl Sanders when they were contracted to tackle, in tome form, those musical landmarks: the Blood On The Tracks sessions, the Newport Folk Festival and the Blonde On Blonde sessions, from a thirty-, fifty- and fifty-two-year perspective, respectively.9
Odegard came closest to enhancing the historical record simply because a) he was actually there himself, at the December 1974 Minneapolis sessions; b) thanks to his many contacts, he managed to interview just about everybody involved musically, including chief engineers Phil Ramone and Paul Martinson, cross-cutting contradictory accounts; and c) there’s a quantifiable difference between most folk’s memories of past events at fifty and seventy.
Whereas Wald and Sanders set themselves the Sisyphean challenge to slice and dice recollections of historical events which occurred fully half a century earlier, and in Sanders’ case from some of Nashville’s most notorious bullshitters. (Having read many comments producer Bob Johnston made about working with Dylan, I’m not sure I’d have trusted him to tell the time of day.)
As Dylan himself states at the outset to Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue, when asked for his memories of that legendary 1975 tour, ‘I can’t remember a damn thing,’ the first and last true statement he offers in that misguided mockumentary.
Tapes, on the other hand, do not lie. And what comes across in those between-take moments at the seminal sessions to Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks (both now officially released in their musical entirety) is first and foremost the self-assurance of Dylan in the studio. Right from day one – November 20th, 1961, Columbia Studio A – he knew what he wanted and what mattered even as older, stuffier heads remained stuck in their ways and/or congenitally clueless.
If there was an auteur theory which held good for popular music, here would be the smoking gun. It certainly helps explain Dylan’s choice of producers post-Wilson (i.e. from Highway 61 Revisited
- “So, you want to know more about Bob Dylan? Read Clinton Heylin’s new book. You’ll get all you need.”—Graham Nash
- “Whether you’ve read one book on Bob Dylan or one hundred, this is the one you want to read and refer to from this day forward. It leaps a couple light-years ahead with much newly revealed material and deep scholarship. If somebody’s got to tell the tale, we can all thank our holy electric pickups and mystical typewriter keys that it was up to Clinton Heylin.”—Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth
- “If you really want to know the story of Bob Dylan (and everybody should), this is where you must start.”—Robert Hillburn, author of Johnny Cash
“Impressively researched, this deep look at Dylan’s early career and initial stardom is …an enjoyable ride.”—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- May 18, 2021
- Page Count
- 704 pages
- Little, Brown and Company