Clinton Heylin. The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling (1941-1966). Little, Brown and Company, 528 pp. Paperback. 978-0-316-53521-2.
REVIEW by Thomas M. Kitts, St. John’s University, NY.
In 2016, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa announced the acquisition of the Bob Dylan Archive, a vast collection of over 100,000 items spanning Dylan’s career. With recordings of studio sessions, live performances, private and professional films, outtakes, letters, drafts of songs, and more, the archive has already advanced Dylan studies and challenged previous conclusions. Clinton Heylin, “the world’s foremost Dylan scholar” according to Rolling Stone (Greene), buried himself in the archive for ten weeks as he researched The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling (1941-1966), an exhaustive, extraordinarily detailed, and energetic text that illuminates the early Dylan. The book ends just prior to July 29, 1966, the date of Dylan’s motorcycle accident.
This reviewer, for one, appreciates Heylin’s obsession with getting the Dylan story right. The labyrinthine journey for Heylin is complicated by his subject, who is notorious for his lies, exaggerations, and self-mythologizing not only in interviews but also in the “unreliable” Chronicles, Vol. One, “the liar’s autobiography” (155, 308). Dylan, for example, never toured as a pianist with Bobby Vee, as he claimed. He played one gig with Vee before the singer decided he did not need a piano player. Nor did Dylan learn his “way of singing,” as he said, from farmhands and others while living in Kansas and South Dakota, places he never actually lived (110); he learned from records, friends, and books. Nor did masterpieces like “Mr. Tambourine Man” burst from his imagination in fifteen minutes—a “concoction” (246) exposed by the various draft manuscripts of the song in Tulsa. Great songs, like “Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” resulted from Dylan’s fairly regular writing process: the lyrics were “typed first, probably typed again (and again), and only then hand-corrected” (336). Dylan worked hard to construct a narrative of his life, even demanding that, in 1963, his parents give no further interviews after being quoted in Newsweek and subverting one of his tales.
Heylin’s title suggests the binaries that Dylan lives, unites, and transcends. In many ways, The Double Life reveals the immense contradiction, the immense polarity that is Dylan. (I’m thinking of Emerson in “Compensation” who wrote, “Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature . . . in male and female . . . in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the undulations of fluids and of sound” .) Dylan, as publicist Anthea Joseph once wrote, may have had a public and private self (see Heylin 312), but the future Nobel Laureate was much more complicated than that. Like the excellent chess and poker player he was, Dylan could be manipulative and calculating—Heylin speculates that the non-appearance on the May 1963 Ed Sullivan Show may have been planned, with Dylan believing his walk off would generate more publicity than his performance. But Dylan would often unveil quick “mood swings,” which became “harder and harder to control” (409), and he could be rash to the detriment of his career—signing three bad contracts without professional consultation within a year. Similarly, as Joan Baez reports, “occasionally [Dylan] would exhibit a sudden concern for another outlaw, hitch-hiker, or bum” (265), but rarely was he kind to those near him. Sooner or later, friends would fall victim to his “hatchet mouth” (282) and “verbal bayonet” (430). As journalist and sometime friend Al Aronowitz put it, “To be the constant targets of digs from Bob was the price each of us paid for hanging out with him” (364). To other contemporary artists, Dylan could be haughty and intimidating, humiliating Donovan and Phil Ochs, and making Paul McCartney wait for an audience with him. I’m reminded of what Ray Davies said of John Lennon: “Lennon wasn’t [competitive]. . . . He just thought everyone else was shit” (qtd. in Kitts 104). It is no coincidence that Lennon was the Beatle with whom Dylan got along best, at least during those initial meetings. However, with his heroes, like Woody Guthrie and the Rev. Gary Davis, the generally stingy and arrogant Dylan could be deferential and humble. Once, while sharing the bill with Davis, Dylan was alarmed to hear the minister was earning only $75 for the gig. Dylan promptly gave Davis half his $50 fee, proclaiming that Davis should never earn less than $100 for a performance (88).
Of course, Dylan’s songs reflect his immense polarity. He could be sensitive, tender, and vulnerable as in “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” both about Suze Rotolo, but he may have also written some of the most insensitive, mean-spirited songs in existence. What Heylin calls his “put-down” (141) or “finger-pointing” (233) songs were brutal, like “It Ain’t’ Me, Babe,” also about Suze, or “Ballad in Plain D,” about Suze’s “parasite” sister and mother, “both suffering from the failures of their day.” (Dylan admitted to being “a real schmuck” for writing the latter song .) Similarly, Dylan would appear nonchalant and even uncaring in performance, only to ask eagerly what others thought. As the subtitle proclaims, the young Dylan was “restless” and “hungry.” The constant tapping of his foot or shaking of his leg signaled his restlessness. Izzy Young, owner of the Folklore Center, only saw Dylan motionless after he gave the young star a less than flattering comment after a performance. (The quivering leg was observed well before amphetamines became part of the singer’s steady diet.)
Before he was twenty, Dylan, ambitious and hungry for stardom, arrived in New York City. He may not have been sure whether he wanted to be Woody or Elvis, a poet or a rock ’n’ roller, but he had a vast imagination, a powerful intellect, and an epic memory. A number of those close to Dylan noted how he “soaked up everything” (Liam Clancy, 83) like “a sponge and a half” (Eric von Schmidt, 91), and friend Victor Maymudes called him “an electrical condenser, a capacitor filling up with information and ultimately exploding on paper with songs” (124). Robbie Robertson, echoing many others, said, “Bob probably knew more songs than anybody walking the earth” (433). In the early years, Dylan imitated his musical heroes, Guthrie, Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, among others, but by spring 1963, he was imitating no one, and shortly after he united Woody and Elvis, poetry and rock ’n’ roll—sometimes with the same song. Consider his acoustic version of the traditional folk song “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” to which he added verses, followed a few years later by his thunderous and wailing live rendition.
Songs burst out of Dylan at a frenetic pace in these early years. Many were surprised by the number of words, the number of lines in a Dylan song. Like Whitman, who a century earlier had liberated poetry from the constrictions of meter and vocabulary, Dylan liberated the pop song from restrictions on musical and lyrical length. A defining moment for Dylan may have come a day after Christmas in 1963 when he met Allen Ginsberg, one of Whitman’s poetic sons. His own fiercest critic, Dylan pushed himself at a torrid pace to create something that not only matched Ginsberg and Whitman, but “something that [could stand] alongside Rembrandt’s paintings” (123). So many lines and songs were coming to Dylan that he would often forget them as soon as he wrote them down. In a crowded room, he might isolate himself to write, sometimes leaving behind scraps of paper. Some of these scraps or drafts have found their way to Tulsa and some have been lost forever. Referring to the 1965-66 period during which Dylan wrote and recorded Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, Heylin laments that these lost scraps, this “detritus . . . could connect the dots on surely the greatest creative burst in the history of popular song” (289).
Heylin approaches Dylan’s life with all the attention of a detective—as when he traces the manuscript trail of “Like a Rolling Stone” and refers to the “worrying incongruity” of the song’s appearance on the stationery of the Roger Smith Hotel (336). Yet his painstaking investigation never grows tedious as his energetic and lucid prose keeps the text moving and the reader focused. Never is Heylin livelier than when he is sarcastic, even snarky: he attacks fellow Dylan biographers like Howard Sounes, a “professional dirtdigger,” and those who failed to recognize his subject’s greatness, like the “tin-eared” Mike Porso (96), owner of Gerdes Folk City, who did not grant Dylan immediate headlining status. Most importantly, the text provides a detailed account of Dylan’s early development and creative genius. Double Life is indispensable to Dylan scholars, a game changer in Dylan studies. I anxiously await future volumes of Heylin’s prodigious biography.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Compensation.” The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Brooks Atkinson, Modern Library, pp 154-71.
Greene, Andy. “Clinton Heylin Wrote Eight Bob Dylan Books. Then He Realized He Needed to Start All Over.” Rolling Stone, 11 May 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/bob-dylan-biographer-clinton-heylin-interview-double-life-book-1166784/. Accessed 15 Oct. 2021.
Kitts, Thomas M. Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else. Routledge, 2008.