Who will get to write the last word on Bob Dylan? A number of men compete for the honour of world authority – Michael Gray, Howard Sounes, Greil Marcus, Robert Shelton, Clinton Heylin – and relations aren’t always good. In his introduction to volume one of this humungous book (published in 2021), Heylin said that Sounes wrote depressingly well-trundled semi-literate strolls. Sounes pointed out how overlong and baggy Heylin’s Dylan books are (he’s written 13): “All he knows is how to tell me what Visions of Johanna means in his mind.”
Rock completism, as dry, competitive and cerebral as it appears to be, is driven by a fierce, possessive love. Heylin has loved Dylan since he was 12 years old: he is now 63. In a mysterious dedication he pays tribute to a Peter Heylyn, born in 1599: a church historian “who was unfriended” by his contemporary Thomas Fuller “for Telling It Right Like It Is”. The first volume of The Double Life… stretched from Dylan’s youth – famously fictionalised by the artist himself, with those months in the carnival – to the transformative 1966 motorcycle crash. The second volume covers the rest: Nashville Skyline, the wild Rolling Thunder tour, the religious albums, the Traveling Wilburys, the low points, the comebacks, the Christmas album, the Nobel prize.
There is a fascinating account of his 1981 trip to London zoo disguised in a hoodie: he was eventually moved on by a keeper at closing time
It’s a strange business, trying to write the definitive account of the ultimate unreliable narrator, and Heylin captures Dylan the curmudgeon very well. You begin to understand his obfuscation as the behaviour of someone tormented by other people’s attempts to dissect him. There is a fascinating account of his 1981 trip to London zoo disguised in a hoodie: he was eventually moved on by a keeper at closing time. In subsequent years he started to cut people off, then randomly hooked up with old flames, telling one he thought he had seven or eight children out there. In the 1990s he isolated himself from fellow musicians: those who toured as his support act might not be allowed to approach him in a hotel corridor. He feared an unflattering memoir his mother might read.
In his 60s, Dylan announced that modern music sounded “atrocious… like static”. At a charity event in 2015 – Heylin is great at pulling together sources like this – he gave a speech he’d taken two weeks to prepare: “Critics have been giving me a hard time since day one,” he said. “Critics say, I can’t sing… Why don’t critics say the same thing about Tom Waits?” It is hard to believe that someone who felt that way would really not give a toss about winning the Nobel prize, which Dylan got Patti Smith to pick up on his behalf in 2016 in return for dinner. He wrote a reasonably serious acceptance speech, which he delivered in Sweden the following year, taking care to point out that his words were intended to be sung, not read, like Shakespeare was meant to be acted.
Heylin’s greatest problem is a kind of penetrating emotional bias. He has been known to write as Dylan, channelling him like a medium, as he did in the strange final chapter of 2010’s Still on the Road. Whenever Dylan is down the critical dumper, Heylin is his defender, and the reverse is true: this can skew the reading experience, minimising the important moments in Dylan’s career and interfering with the storytelling. Heylin remains minimalist on the merits of the comeback records (why accept that a comeback was necessary for someone he loved all along?) and is extremely harsh on universally loved albums such as Time Out of Mind, while taking time to defend a critically dismissed LP such as Under the Red Sky as only a mega-fan could. Of the 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, beloved by non-Dylan obsessives, reviews praised the consistency of its songwriting. “Arrant nonsense,” spits Heylin. “The album shuffled between 12-bar dreck and five-star Dylan and the ongoing inability of the seventysomething genius to edit himself.”
Like a fierce mother, Heylin is the only person allowed to criticise Dylan – and when he does, he really puts the boot in – but no one else can say a bad word. In 2017 a woman came forward alleging that the singer had assaulted her at the age of 12, in 1965. Heylin observes that Dylan was in a position to throw a lot of money at the case, “which was presumably the motivation of his accuser… forlornly hoping that other teary-eyed tramps might come forth to corroborate his predatory paedophilia. Fat chance.” The case came to nothing, but the description of the claimant is a shocker. I wondered, at that point, whether the book had an editor, or whether it was just so long, they’d simply skipped over the page. Elsewhere, women are seen as possessions: Dylan’s wife Sara, the Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, is described as a “radiant jewel of a wife”. Heylin’s more controversial phrases are often picked apart by Dylan fans on social media; in a previous book, he pictured the African American musicians Arthur Crudup and Charley Patton “spinning in their cottonpickin’ graves”.
Heylin has never spoken to Dylan, and in a 2021 interview with the Guardian he said that he wouldn’t want to
The book ends abruptly, with a chapter called How Much Longer, a reference to the witchy 1978 song New Pony. Of Dylan, Heylin assumes: “He’d still prefer the immortality of not dying to that of his work living on after him, but he knows f’sure that the sands of time are running out.” Of himself, he says there aren’t many books left in him. What is the future of Dylanology? The singer once complained that his scholars “wish to see every scrap of paper he has written on or hear every studio outtake he has rejected”. He sold his personal archive to the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Foundation for $22m in 2016, and now everyone has access to the Post-it notes, the napkins covered in lyrics, the delicious primary sources that are the food of life for biographers such as Heylin.
He has never spoken to Dylan, and in a 2021 interview with the Guardian he said that he wouldn’t want to: “There’s no point unless he wants to talk to me like a human being and get rid of the Bob Dylan persona, and be just Bob.” You wonder if he thinks he knows who that person is now, and whether writing books of such extraordinary detail has got him any closer to finding out.
• The Double Life of Bob Dylan Volume 2: 1966-2021 by Clinton Heylin is published by Bodley Head (£35). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply