Still On The Road

Still On The Road – The Songs of Bob Dylan
Vol. 2: 1974-2008
By Clinton Heylin
Constable – £20.00

Just like the subject upon whom Clinton Heylin so authoritatively and painstakingly waxes lyrical, Still On The Road – The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2: 1974-2008 is as equally complex, charged, involved, in depth, loaded, thrilling, provocative and mesmerising – and that’s before even having reached the eighties!

Following on from where Revolution In The Air left off, this totally engrossing tomb is the essential, if not quintessential thesis (for that is what it fundamentally is) on the mastery of Bob Dylan. It’s everything any serious Dylan fan could ever wish for. It’s also the perfect reference for all musicologists, Dylanologists, and those of an academic persuasion.

As John Somners (RIP), an old Irish friend of mine used to say in relation Samuel Beckett: ‘’you don’t enjoy Samuel Beckett, you study him’ – so too might the same just as readily apply to yer man Zimmerman. But where the Irish playwright was a nerve-rackingly cryptic contender, who simultaneously admitted yet (forever) refused to ever step down from his high wire of literary existentialism, Dylan, as recently as last year, professed: ‘’I’m not a playwright. The people in my songs are all me.’’

Indeed they are, which makes them almost as interesting as the man himself. Hence his simultaneous donning of numerous, questionable hats: from that of Christian proselytizer to radio DJ, jealous lover to tempestuous troubadour, sage like sociologist to unnerving minstrel, musical and historical archivist to whom Allan Ginsberg once referred as ‘’the greatest ever poet.’’

Like the songs themselves, all the aforesaid Dylans and a whole more besides, are wrought and written about in this book, in such a way as to be applauded at the nigh turn of each and every page.

For instance, commenting upon 1974’s ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ Heylin writes: ‘’He later informed Ron Rosenbaum, ‘I haven’t come to the place that Rimbaud came to when he decided to stop writing and run guns in Africa.’ Which is not what he says in ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ – and I’d rather trust the tale than the artist. The couplet ‘’Then he started into dealing with slaves/And something inside of him died’’ explicitly equates Dylan’s Woodstock period with Rimbaud gun-running in Abyssinia.’’

That the author admits in writing, that he’d sooner ‘trust the tale than the artist,’ is in itself, as defiant a statement as (m)any ever made by Dylan. Although the songwriter coming clean in reference, to not having reached such a pronounced precipice of change as that of the revered French poet, is as equally defiant as it is defensive and perhaps didactic in the extreme.

Similarly, Heylin homes in on Dylan being as equally defiant and didactic some eight years later (shortly after the space shuttle disaster of January 1986) when in Australia, he both defends and prefaces ‘License To Kill’ with: ‘’Here’s something I wrote a while back; it’s all about the space program. I suppose you heard about this [recent] tragedy, right? I don’t need to tell you it really was a tragedy… You see, these people had no business going up there. Like, there’s not enough problems on Earth to solve? So I wanna dedicate this song to all those poor people, who were fooled into going up there.’’

I didn’t know Dylan had ‘’a bee in his bonnet about the space programme, and […] had decided it was time to start waving his arms and banging his drum.’’

Did you? Did anyone?

Perhaps the so-called ‘corny’ couplet: ‘’Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon,’’ ought to have been the give away. But then Dylan refers and name checks so many people and places, themes and things, and the variant perplexities of history. So much so, that on many an occasion, his song writing can prove to be something of a smokescreen dalliance, especially when one chooses to take Dylan at his every word, diversion, sub-text and subliminal trajectory.

In a way, the author hints at this, when he later writes: ‘’’License To Kill’ is one eighties work that successfully demonstrates Dylan’s maxim: ‘Songs need a structure, stratagems, codes and stability, and then you hang lyrics on them… [but it is only] when we transfer all that to the stage… [that] all those elements come into play.’ In performance, time and time again, Dylan has transformed this righteous rant into a message-song that compels its audience to sit up and take notice (if not actually adhere to its edicts). And he began its transformation with its first live outing, on Late Night with David Letterman, when he plugged into the song with a conviction last seen when he still carried the Good Book on stage with him.’’

The vast variance, depth and sheer complexity of Dylan’s huge body of work, is, to a certain degree, anchored to that of a somewhat straight-laced, linear and profound understanding when placed in the mercurial hands of Clinton Heylin. In fact, his last two books, strongly suggest that he understands Dylan more than Dylan does himself; which, from an objective and philosophical perspective of standing on the outside looking in – might not be that far removed the centrifugal (literary) truth of the matter.

As such, Still on the Road is an absolutely outstanding and imperative work.

David Marx


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