Still on the Road: Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2008 by Clinton Heylin

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Still on the Road: Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2008 by Clinton Heylin

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A detailed and sometimes critical analysis of and account of the story behind every song Bob Dylan is known to have written or co-written over the 34-year period in question.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 494 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Constable
ISBN: 978-1849010115

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As a long-time but objective fan of Mr Zimmerman myself, I read these 500 pages with great interest if sometimes mixed feelings. The dust jacket proudly proclaims in upper case that Clinton Heylin is the only Dylanologist worth reading, and probably the most distinguished writer on Dylan in the world. Could this book live up to the hype? (Apropos the jacket, in the acknowledgements he apologises to US purchasers for, to use his words, the utterly sh*** cover you’ve been saddled with. Biting the hand that feeds you?)

Heylin is also obviously a fan, a very knowledgeable and obsessive one to boot. He has never met or directly interviewed his subject (who is known to guard his privacy quite fiercely most of the time), but his research materials include official recording sessionographies and interviews conducted by others. All this is naturally invaluable information for his analysis and history of all the 600-plus songs the man is known to have written or co-written from 1974 to almost the present day. In terms of his discography, that spans the albums from ‘Blood on the Tracks’, released in 1975 and commonly regarded as probably his best post-1960s set, to ‘Together Through Life’, which appeared in 2009.

It is interesting to consider that all, or nearly all, the Dylan songs which a casual listener would readily recognise belong to the earlier era. Since 1974 he has only had one British Top 20 single, 'Baby Stop Crying', in the summer of 1978 when his profile was boosted no end by a series of very well-received British concert dates. (I’ve never heard it on the radio since then). The last of his compositions to be covered by several other artists, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, is just outside the scope of this book. Maybe it points to a greater sophistication in his work, making it more difficult for others to perform. (Or not as good? – no, I’ll leave that for others to argue).

The amount of attention given to each song varies wildly. Some may only get half a dozen lines, others a page of more, and a select few – for example ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ (from ‘Blood On The Tracks’), ‘Changing Of The Guards’ (from ‘Street Legal’), and ‘Dignity’ (which was about six years old when it finally surfaced on the ‘Greatest Hits Volume 3’ compilation) around eight pages each. Regarding these, and many others, he has much to say on how the song came about, as well as how often or how little the songs may have been played in concert. Where there is a story to be told, as in ‘Hurricane’, the lengthy saga of a boxer framed for a murder of which he was almost certainly innocent, or ‘Joey’, about the gangster Joey Gallo, he goes into full detail on the events which inspired Dylan to write – or co-write.

Yes, perhaps it is significant that until the mid-70s, he hardly ever collaborated. Since then, he has worked with other writers including Jacques Levy, Helena Springs, Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead – and, most successfully of all, the fellow stars whom he joined in the Traveling Wilburys for two albums, in 1988 and 1990. It comes as a surprise to read Heylin’s almost savage comments about the second of these projects, and his suggestions that Dylan made a major contribution to several of the songs, only for fellow-Wilburys George Harrison and Jeff Lynne to reduce his contributions accordingly in the studio afterwards, on the grounds that they thought he had dominated the album too much.

There are plenty of interesting insights into Dylan’s songwriting methods. Perhaps it is inevitable that somebody who has often come up with tunes containing so many verses that they last well in excess of seven or eight minutes (one 1997 track, ‘Highlands’, clocks in at over sixteen) was forever altering numbers in the studio while recording, deciding after one take that he wanted to write a couple more verses – and would instantly reel off another five or six.

Mixed feelings? Just occasionally I get the feeling of a sense of superiority when Heylin discusses other writers on his hero, and the odd rather irritating little in-joke. Yet for all that, this was a fascinating book. We all know that Dylan has his detractors, those who can’t take his voice at any price and think he is little more than a very clever magpie. Anyone who has achieved that level of success will always attract critics longing to pull him off the pedestal for one reason or another. I’ve never been one of them, and I enjoyed reading this cover to cover. It will sit comfortably on my music reference shelves, and I can see myself eagerly pulling it out again whenever I have time to listen to one of the albums or CDs from my collection.

Our thanks to Constable for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoyed this, why not also try Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer; or the children’s book based on one of his earlier songs, Forever Young by Bob Dylan.

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Buy Still on the Road: Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2008 by Clinton Heylin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Still on the Road: Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2008 by Clinton Heylin at Amazon.com.

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