The Double Life of Bob Dylan 3: Getting Noticed

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.   But despite Heylin’s eminence as a Dylan commentator, it’s a book that I think misses the point.

Clinton Heylin in his writing gets particularly spikey on the question or originality, particularly concerning the originality of certain songs, pondering whether Bob copied his music or lyrics unduly from someone else.   Heylin appears to see this not only as a point of reference (in the sense of “this song sounds very much like that song”) but also implies that Dylan was deliberately copying the music and then claiming it for his own.

In fact anyone who has deeply immersed themselves at a young age in a particular musical style will inevitably compose music that is imitative, and often not realise it.  Of course, as composers become more experienced they get deeper and deeper into their own “voice” and so the music becomes more recognisable as being in their own style – but this takes a while.

Indeed if you have never written a song that you feel might be good enough to be performed on stage, just imagine what it might feel like to have accomplished such a feat.  Then imagine what it is like if someone who has never written a song in his/her life tells you that “it sounds like you are copying Bob Dylan” (or anyone else).  It is a real downer.

Now these are important points, because when we read in Heylin (page 80) that Dylan claimed that an arrangement of, “He was a friend of mine” was his original work, and that this was unlikely to be so, it makes Dylan sound like an outright thief of creative works.  But in the early days of creativity, it is extremely hard for most artists (not matter what the art form) to distinguish between an arrangement that develops someone else’s ideas and something that is a direct copy.  Where is the borderline?

The fact is that songs can be transformed by the repeat of a verse, or the addition of a line or two, and through such a minor change can be moved from being “just another song” to being a really interesting piece of music.   But somehow Heylin will have none of this.  It is as if he has never realised that all 12 bar blues use the same chord structure, and a lot of them the same melody.

Of course I don’t know who “borrowed” what musical or lyrical phrase or arrangement from whom, but Heylin’s insistence that Dylan was deliberately copying and then hiding the fact rings untrue, given the way in which Bob developed his own songwriting subsequently.   But Heylin does quote an occasion in which Bob confessed that he couldn’t remember if he had written a piece or heard it (page 81) and takes from this to the notion that in essence Bob was free and easy with everyone’s copyright.

But the simple fact is that when one is writing constantly, one often can’t remember if a phrase or idea is an original or not.   I know school teachers and parents can, in annoyance say, “But you must know if you copied this or not,” because copying is seen as such a massive sin in schools, and most parents and teachers don’t write original work, but in my own experience this is not uncommon.  But most creative people don’t talk about “borrowing” ideas, phrases etc, simply because most non-creative people carry around with them the “it is a sin to copy” notion preached by parents and school teachers.   But in fact a lot of the time one simply doesn’t know.

I don’t know how many books I have read in my life, but I have written something like 70 books, and yes I have been told that I have copied someone else.   I can assert this is not overtly true in the sense of sitting with a book and retyping it, but I might well have retained something in my head – I’ll certainly admit that – especially as I am now in my 70s and my memory is seriously in retreat.

Indeed Heylin does go so far as to admit that, “Sometimes, it seems, Dylan genuinely did not know where a song he was playing had come from,” but the addition of that “it seems” shows how disbelieving of all this Heylin actually is.

It is my view that the complete lack of experience of Heylin as a songwriter and performer stops him from appreciating what was happening to Dylan in the early years.  As where he says that, “Incredible as this seems, the idea of putting together his own folio of songs actually predates that Columbia contract”.   And that use of “incredible” I think is telling.

Dylan was writing songs, and he felt this was his mission in life, and he felt he wanted to keep track of the songs he had written, even though none of them were as yet available on albums.  But why would he not keep such a collection of lyrics and chord structures?  Why is in “incredible”?  He is recording his own achievement.

The few songwriters I have known, have all kept copies of their songs both on paper and recordings.  And indeed yet again to bring myself, a person who writes songs as a way of relaxing after a day hammering away writing on the computer, I have a vast pile of paper containing the lyrics of numerous half written songs, plus on my computer recordings of around 250 songs I have written and actually managed to complete.  I guess maybe 10 people have heard a few of these but no more; writing them is my relaxation and fun.  Why on earth would a person with as much amazing talent as Bob Dylan not keep such a collection?

The fact is that Dylan’s songwriting became a sort of creative diary – not recording what happened to him, but a diary of where his creative thoughts were going.

But on one point Heylin does hit the nail on the head, as when he notes that these early days of listening and performing gave Bob Dylan a great level of self-belief – something which is essential to anyone who wants to make an art form the heart and soul of his/her life.   Of course not all great artists have this, but those who don’t, give themselves a real problem, given that at least at first others don’t recognise their ability.

However for Heylin this self-belief is suddenly noteworthy after the first 100 pages or so in which it is not mentioned at all.  But I think that to make sense of Bob’s development through his early performances and songwriting, we have to take this self-belief into account.   And indeed it is that self-belief that helps us understand his earlier somewhat self-centred behaviour.

But less we think that as the book continues Heylin stops suggesting that Dylan has made up his own history, this is not the case, for Heylin spends page after page following Dylan’s assertions that he met this or that record producer etc and then pointing out that he didn’t.     Although to be fair, when it comes to working with John Hammond Heylin admits that happened.

In essence, in one telling phrase, Heylin calls Dylan “a myth maker”.   It is a put-down phrase of course – you don’t call someone a “myth maker” if you are praising that person.  But even if the incident that leads to this accusation is true, then so what?    That is how most of the folk, pop, rock industry works.  Indeed it is how any industry in which there are more wanna-be people than there are vacancies actually works.  Try getting a job as an actor and saying that you have not worked before!  Indeed it is the way all the arts work, not just because the artists themselves talk themselves up, but because people who know the artists talk them up in order to get some of the reflected glory.

And this is the sort of point that Heylin always misses.   Dylan was in his early days trying to push his way into an over-crowded business, in which many people of talent are often ignored or lost.   So maybe he did become a mythmaker.   But so did many others, and if Bob had not have done that, maybe he would never have got his first recording contract, (and then this blog would never have existed).

Thus while Heylin criticises Bob’s way of forcing his way into the folk music world, I remain rather pleased that he did this.

The series will continue shortly….

5 Comments

  1. From a longer piece:

    It might be argued that this mask-wearing was the case from the outset, Dylan the young middle class Jewish intellectual inventing himself as a Woody Guthrie clone and telling wild tales about his background and biography. In a sense, of course, he was also doing what many great artists do, finding a voice, a mode or manner by trying out others’, experimenting, as it were, on the way to finding one of their own. The artist finds a model, works a way into it and, eventually, beyond it, having absorbed and made their own the influences that they no longer depend on. In Dylan’s case simply comparing the first album with the second makes the point: we’ve moved swiftly on from confident mimicry (even stealing another’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’) to brilliant invention, not adopting a mask or a pose but adapting, re-inventing: ‘A Hard Rain’, for example, re-works the traditional ‘Lord Randall’, transforming it into a work of extraordinary luminosity.
    In ‘The Music of Poetry’ TS Eliot talks about the young writer’s learning through immersion in the writing of others: ‘It is not from rules, or by cold-blooded imitation of style, that we learn to write: we learn by imitation indeed, but by a deeper imitation than is achieved by analysis of style.’. A lesser writer rarely gets beyond that, or learns little from it; others – Eliot himself talks about the influence of French poets on his own earlier writing – absorb and move on. What might begin, then, as something close to pastiche, develops into a version of uniqueness.
    The voice that emerges on ‘Freewheeling’ and continues to develop as it absorbs and makes its own other influences (TS Eliot included – plus ‘Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac… and all the rest’) triumphs in the 1965-66 trio of albums that sound like no-one else (though they had – and still have – plenty of imitators).

  2. It’s time to play pin the donkey tail on the Dylan analysist.

    Heylin, in ‘Revolution In The Air’criticizes Dylan analyst Christopher Ricks’ examination of Bob’s lyrics because Ricks relies too much on the “unreliable” revisions of old songs by Arthur Quiller-Couch (“Book of Ballads”); Tony criticizes Heylin for “always missing” Dylan’s musical innovations because Heylin does not play any instruments.

    Seems the real point of this game is to elevate one’s own position as critic over that of another.

  3. Excellent analysis of the committed creative. I agree that creative people do not always know where their ideas came from. As a writer I’ve found things in my notebooks that I’d forgotten ever having written…
    I especially like your summing up. “Making it” in a crowded field is exceptionally challenging. As you note, “Thus while Heylin criticises Bob’s way of forcing his way into the folk music world, I remain rather pleased that he did this.” Me, too.

    PS: Always appreciate reading your stuff.

  4. Ed Thank you for your very kind comments. Very, very much appreciated at this end.

  5. LKarry there is a difference between commenting upon lyrics and music. My view, as expressed for example thorugh the “Lyrics and the Music” article is that to appreciate Dylan fully one needs to consider both aspects of the songs, and that Heylin doesn’t do that. That’s ok of course, but it would be helpful if he more often admitted that he is only considering the lyrics.

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