Behind The Shades
The 20th Anniversary Edition
By Clinton Heylin
Faber and Faber – £20.00
This 20th Anniversary Edition of Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades is a terrific, and at times, mesmerizing read; which ought hardly be surprising considering the author is recognised throughout much of the western world, as perhaps being the leading authority on Bob Dylan He was after all, co-founder of Wanted Man – the British magazine devoted to studying the songwriter’s life, times and work – while for a number for a years, he also edited the news section of its quarterly magazine, The Telegraph. He has also written two exceptionally comprehensive books on artist’s huge collection of work: Revolution in the Air (Vol. 1) and Still on the Road (Vol.2) both of which, really do stand alone amid the ever-increasing pantheon of publications on Dylan.
In other words, the author knows his subject.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton Heylin knows things about Bob that Dylan himself doesn’t even know. A conspirational intrigue that may partially explain why this book succeeds in taking the reader on a thought provoking and undeniably complex journey; a journey best described as Dylan’s vast, colourful and seemingly endless career.
Having just turned seventy, the artist still shows no sign of letting up or slowing down. He recently played shows in Vietnam and China for the first time in his career, both of which garnered as much praise as they did controversy. The latter of which is absolutely nothing new in a career crammed with some form of provocation and altercation.
He is after all, the archetypal song and dance man with something to say.
And boy, doesn’t he say it. With the exception of John Lennon, Dylan says it like no one else ever has. Nor is capable. Of Blood on the Tracks – a veritable masterpiece, my favourite ever Dylan recording and perhaps one of the finest albums ever released, Heylin writes (in the chapter ‘Spring Turns Slowly To Autumn’): ‘’Blood on the Tracks remains not only the central pivot of Dylan’s career but of the rock aesthetic itself. With this album, the man shifted axis. Ten years after he turned the rock & roll brand of pop into rock, a self-conscious, albeit populist, art form, he renewed its legitimacy as a form capable of containing the work of a mature artist. He also gave it a new self-consciousness, just as the linchpins of first-generation rock were coming to the end of their respective streaks of inspiration. The Rolling Stones would never top their four albums from Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main Street, 1968 through 1972; neither Lennon nor McCartney would come close to the quality of Revolver, The White Album, or Abbey Road; Pete Townshend was rock-operaed out after 1973’s Quadrophenia; even David Bowie had concluded his early seventies trilogy of consecutive rock classics.’’
Naturally, not everyone would agree with such sentiment, but Heylin’s words are rather hard to argue with. Depending on viewpoint, Dylan was, and to a degree, still is, somewhat relentless in relation to the quality control of his official recording output. And this from an artist, renowned for not ever wanting to record more than three takes of any particular song.
Moreover, the author goes on to substantiate the above when he writes: ‘’Only Dylan, whose mid-sixties canon was more daunting than all of the above, succeeded in producing an album that stoked up his genius quotient nearly ten years after he was thought to have left it by the roadside. And he had done it by reinventing his whole approach to language. Gone were the surrealistic turns of phrase on Blonde on Blonde, gone was the ‘wild mercury sound’ surrounding those mystical words. In their place was a uniformity of mood, a coherence of sound, and an unmistakable maturity to the voice – as if he had had to make Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning to assimilate those aspects of his voice into a stronger whole. He had never sung better.’’
Again, it’s difficult to disagree with what Heylin has to say here. For a start, the singer really hadn’t sung better. Even today, hearing Dylan sing ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ or ’Idiot Wind’ from said album, still transports me to a place way beyond the ether of artistic evaluation.
Suffice to say, there is so much more to read in Behind the Shades that is of equally candid and considered importance. It truth, it doesn’t get any better (nor captivating nor comprehensive) than this. This book is simply brilliant.