Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clinton Heylin’s new Dylan book: challenging… essential

Clinton Heylin’s challenging new book, Revolution In The Air, is a welcome addition to the burgeoning Dylan library.

The first volume of a pair, Revolution In The Air covers Dylan’s songs from the juvenilia of 1957’s Song to Brigit to the grown-up angst of Planet Waves’ Wedding Song. A second volume, Still On The Road, bringing the story up to 2006, is promised for next year.

Covering 300 songs – in the order they were written, thus imposing narrative and context – the book is a potted history of each title, focusing on composition, recording and/or performance. It eschews in-depth analysis of either lyrics or music and evaluates the songs’ quality only in passing.

Heylin adopts a scholarly approach to his mammoth task. His sources include recording logs, manuscripts, performance set lists, published works and other utterances by Dylan, the testimony of collaborators and eye-witnesses, and a handful of favoured websites.

Heylin’s strengths are the depth of his expertise, based on half a lifetime of heavy-duty research, and a lively, literate writing style.

Weaknesses? Not many. You need to be a dedicated fan to welcome the level of detail here, but the book is targeted at precisely such readers. And there’s bound to be an element of speculation in such a work, though Heylin’s musings are worth your attention.

Revolution In The Air: Bob Dylan’s Songs is, according to the publishers, “informative, opinionated, packed with new insights and revelations….”

Pretty fair summary, I’d say – it’s an essential purchase; volume two is eagerly awaited.

Heylin’s legacy now includes three key Dylan books, the new volume standing proudly alongside Behind The Shades (biography) and Behind Closed Doors (recording sessions). He’s a nuanced guide to Dylan and his peerless art.

Revolution In The Air: The Songs Of Bob Dylan vol. 1: 1957-73, by Clinton Heylin, Constable, 2009, 482pp, £20.


Gerry Smith