The Double Life of Bob Dylan: a consideration. Part 1: Let’s ignore creativity.


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

by Tony Attwood

The Double Life of Bob Dylan by Clinton Heylin is a big book. Over 500 pages in fact, and it is only the first part of Heylin’s latest offering on Dylan.

I was given a copy for my birthday, and very grateful I was for it too, because I had been thinking in recent days, “what is the essence of Dylan?”   Or put another way, I was pondering, if I were going to write a mega-volume on Dylan, which was not an analysis song by song, what would be my core focus?

It didn’t take long to answer that – maybe five minutes, maybe less.  For I knew my theme would be Dylan’s creativity.  The creativity that has led him to create over 600 songs in a multiplicity of styles.  That is not to claim that this is the most by any songwriter, of course.  Irving Berlin wrote around 1,500 songs, including “Easter Parade”, “White Christmas”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – and that list could go on and on with famous titles.

OK so Bob is only half way there, and with great temerity when speaking of the ultimate geniuses of songwriting, I’d say a few of the now forgotten Berlin songs were, well, not very good.  And yes, I’d say pretty much the same of a few of Bob’s now largely forgotten (although reviewed on Untold Dylan) were not so good (although we did find a few lost gems).

But there is a difference beyond numbers because Irving Berlin wrote his songs, and by and large handed them over. There is no comparison between Berlin and Dylan in terms of re-working the songs into new arrangements.

And this came home to me more than ever when about six weeks ago I sat down to write another episode in the series “The Never Ending Tour Extended” in which I traced the evolution of “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” from 2001 to 2014. I’m sure you know the original version – which is how it sounded across most of those yeras, but just in case you missed my article, here’s what I made the fuss about as the song was ready to be dropped from the tour once and for all.

2014: The survivors

Now my point here is that the lyrics have not changed, but the music is so utterly different from the original that this is a new song.

This is a very rare accomplishment for any songwriter, to keep the lyrics exactly the same and yet utterly change the music so as to make a new piece.  This is a moment (among many others with Dylan) of utterly sublime creativity.

And I mention it again, not just to push this particular recording down your throat, but rather because this was one of many thoughts that came to me as I started pondering how to write a review of “The Double Life of Bob Dylan”.  For I started to think, “what is it that makes Dylan stand out above all other songwriters?”  And I thought that because it struck me that in my imaginary book on Dylan that was where I would start: the extraordinary variety of his work.  In short his astounding creativity.

For the extraordinary variety of the songs comes in terms of both lyrical themes and music, and this (often ignored by critics) amazing ability to re-write his songs in a new form.

Now I am sure my memory is playing me false at this point, but I can’t think of another singer-songwriter who has changed his own work so often as Dylan.  Which means we have the fact that he is lyricist, lyric re-writer, composer, arranger and re-arranger…

In short in terms of composition, arrangement and performance Dylan is the great creative  genius.

Which brings me to my point.  As I start reading “The Double Life” there is not a single mention of Dylan’s creativity.  And this really hit me when on page 48 there is a quote from Dylan apparently said in May 1966, “Writing is nothing, anybody can write really if they got dreams at an early age.”

Now clearly that is a challenging view – that anyone with “dreams” (which I take to be “imagination” in my vocabulary) from an early age, can write.  And yes it is probably true.  But that doesn’t actually tell us anything, except that it suggests that something in our society that knocks the ability and desire to create out of most people.

If course this didn’t happen to Dylan because in 1962 alone Bob had written

  1. Ballad for a friend
  2. Rambling Gambling Willie
  3. Standing on the highway
  4. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
  5. Let me die in my footsteps
  6. Blowing in the wind 
  7. Corrina Corrina
  8. Quit your Lowdown Ways
  9. Down the Highway
  10. Tomorrow is a long time 
  11. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
  12. Ballad of Hollis Brown
  13. John Brown
  14. Don’t think twice
  15. Paths of Victory
  16. Walking Down the Line
  17. Oxford Town
  18. Kingsport Town
  19. Hero Blues
  20. Whatcha Gonna Do? 

Now I have published that list before but I do it again to show that Bob the musician was adopting numerous musical forms in 1962 as well as developing lyrics from all sorts of subject matter.

But what Heylin in fact does at the very start of the book is spend more time debating whether Bob was in one place where he says he was, or not, while at the same time (page 49) dismissing a rival writer as a pseudo-biographer, for getting the details of a camp that Dylan went to, wrong.

For me (and here I must admit I think this point is utterly obvious) the essence of Dylan is his creativity.  Not just the phenomenal number of songs written, but also the range of his output that was being demonstrated, for even by 1962 he was writing songs covering issues such as Death, It’s up to each of us how we see the world, Leaving, Moving on, Lost love, Optimism, Racism, Right-wing politics, War, the Evolution of society, Poverty, the Blues, and Being an outsider.  

That in itself is of note, but behind it there is another enormous point: where did all this creativity come from?  How did Bob find it, how did he deal with it, how did he use it?

So maybe it is true that Dylan “found out real quick that playing and singing was a good way of impressing the girls.” (page 51)   But even if that was a prime motivation we still have not a single insight into the creativity which is what we all celebrate in Bob Dylan.

As a result we get some interesting snippets in the telling, for Heylin makes quite a bit of the fact that the way that Bob told his story, through phrases like “nothing could be further from the truth” (page 55).

Which I take as another hint at what we have got here; which is to say, early signs of what Dylan became as a writer and performer – a person who endlessly re-creates his own world including everything from his own past to his own songs.  It is a fascinating part of his creative make-up and although quite possibly in these early times he was simply lying in order to create what he took to be a new and more exciting persona, the fact is that in his lyrics this is what Dylan did throughout.  Although of course when it turns up in a song, as when it turns up in a novel, we don’t call it lying, but rather the art of the writer.

Thus I would argue that even within Heylin’s book we have the clear hints as to what the dominant force was in Bob Dylan at a young age: the inventiveness, the storytelling.  And of course, you could reply, “but all the kids do that”.  Which is true – except that most kids don’t turn it into an art form.  Yet this is the debate we don’t have, because, quite simply, Heylin doesn’t do “creativity”.

Dylan, we are told, tended to be quiet except when he performed.  It is a sign of an artist – he comes alive when involved in his art.  But Heylin, not having the time or inclination to consider such matters as performance or the aforementioned creativity, almost sees it as a failure or an oddity.

The fact is that for the creative youngster, the lack of creativity exhibited by those around him/her is often a significant issue, and it can make the creative person look like an outsider.  But one only gets to understand any of this by considering the artist’s creativity, and how the artist uses his creativity.

And I’ll continue that then in my next article on this volume, in a few days time.


  1. This is such a beautiful re-arrangement of “Tweedle Dee…”, such a different feel than the “Uncle John’s Bongos” arrangement. What’s the date of the performance?

  2. What is the actual date of the performance, though? I really like the sound of the recording & would like to track down the rest of that gig.

  3. These recordings come from the Never Ending Tour series and if the actual date is not specified there then I don’t have it. But I will drop a line to Mike Johnson who wrote the series, and alert him to your request, to see if he has that level of detail.

  4. Sorry Jesse, don’t have the date of this one on hand, but will do some digging and post it here if I can find it. Keeping track of the hundreds of recordings I used for the NET series sometimes proved beyond me. This is one is certainly a remarkable re-invention.

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