Clinton Heylin: “The accusation of sexual abuse against Dylan is ridiculous”

After four decades writing about the singer, the writer and journalist now publishes a monumental biography: “The complaint is not credible at all”

That Clinton Heylin has written many of the best books on Bob Dylan is well known to any Duluth monster fan. Author of a monumental biography, “Behind the shades” , which in its third incarnation, the twentieth anniversary and published in 2011, reached 898 pages, Heylin has also written works such as “Day by day: A life in stolen moments” , «From the Velvets to the Voidoids (A history of american punk)», «The great white wonders» or «Despite the system: Orson Welles versus the Hollywood Studios». Now, far from updating «Behind the shades», he has chosen to write, from scratch, a new dylanite biography , «The Double Life of Bob Dylan: Volume I: 1941–1966 A Restless, Hungry Feeling».It is the first and fascinating installment of a work that in its continuation will continue until today. For now, it’s time to talk to Heylin about Bob Dylan who arrives in New York hungry for fame, blues and sex, capable of agglutinating and condensing the folk movement, turning it upside down with his surreal trips, and then, in a brilliant year and a half, knocking out to the world with three electric discs never equaled.

–After eight books about Dylan, why do you return to him and why do you do it from the beginning, from scratch?

“Hopefully, the answer will become apparent after reading the book. There is a lot of new information. Obviously, Tulsa (the University to which the singer sold his archives, base of The Bob Dylan Center) has revolutionized everything. I have had fantastic access to those materials. Also, it’s been many years since I revisited “Behind the shades”. Twenty years ago you could spend a week checking a piece of information, while now you can be just a click away. And, well, my relationship with Dylan’s office is much better now than it was then. The second volume, which I am already working on, will be the same length as the last edition of “Behind the shades”. No one wanted to pick up the gauntlet, so I guess it was my turn.

–Perhaps because the Dylanite waters are threatening, there is too much information, too much greatness and too much mythomania, and you have to separate the legend from reality, and well, it is not an easy job.

I don’t envy someone who wants to start from the beginning and become an authority on Dylan in 2021. Obviously, I’m lucky to have worked in this field for a long time. In fact, we founded “Wanted man” (a fanzine about Bob Dylan) almost forty years ago. I’ve done other things, but I never left planet Dylan. If someone, right now, wanted to dedicate a biography to Dylan, and spend, I don’t know, three years, I don’t know how they could.

–The new book is full of candy. For example, he has had access to Dylan’s conversations with his musicians and producers while he was recording his classic 1960s records.

–Although it doesn’t leave Tulsa, the first volume is brimming with new information. I heard, for example, the Tony Glover tapes, which had never been released, where Dylan talks about himself at just 21 years old, without the armor that he later develops, before being a megastar. To protect himself he had to build walls, create the character, and he did it in just 12 months, but here a Dylan speaks that we will never hear again.

–Amazing to see the speed at which it grows. We have the records, anyone can see the incredible metamorphoses from 1961 to 1966, from first-time folk singer to king of the movement to Rimbaud-infused minstrel and noisy electric poet and visionary of “Like a Rolling Stone” or «I want you». But when you read about it, in such detail, you are blown away.

–The two volumes will be, in some way, night and day, or, better, day or night. Because the years up to 1966 are those of vertiginous changes, and what he achieves… if he had died on the plane that brought him back from Albert Hall in ’66, it would be enough for us to talk about one of the greatest. The speed at which this happens, and how he manages to handle it, is history. The second volume will start with the motorcycle accident…

–When the piston is supposed to go down, although for example between 1967 and 1968 he enjoyed one of his most incredible cycles as a composer, with the «Basement tapes» and «John Wesley Harding», but of course, the first ones were hidden for years and the second is Nashville, a long way from psychedelia, and it wasn’t cool anymore.

–It should be remembered that in Tulsa they barely have manuscripts prior to 1966. Now, from ’67 onwards, oh, friend, it’s tremendous; of course the “John Wesley Harding” stuff, and then all the lyrics that later appear on “Lost on the river”, etc. So with the second volume we talk about magnitudes of information, between manuscripts and recordings, gigantic, and it reaches “Tempest”. Yes, there are gaps, but what they have, ugh, about «Blood on the tracks», «Street legal», the Christian period, «Infidels», «Oh, Mercy»…

– Do we still not understand Bob Dylan?

–He is still a mysterious figure, and there are questions related to his creativity that we have not yet managed to decipher, if that is possible.

-Can the halo of mystery explain the reaction of the media to the surprising accusation of sexual abuse a few weeks ago?

–But please, how can someone believe that ridiculous accusation? It is simply inconceivable, not only because we know where he was on those days almost to the millimeter, but also psychologically unthinkable. Given everything we know about her relationships with women, which are incredibly well documented, these accusations are not credible at all. I have to add that I was very disappointed in the reaction of the press. You don’t need to have studied too much to dismiss the accusation as absurd. And although we still spend many years dedicated to delving into his work and his life, we have enough information, sources of all kinds, so that the media would have reacted differently, concluding that it is nonsense without any sense.

–Going back to the book, it is fascinating to listen to the conversations between the young Dylan and his discoverer and first producer, none other than John Hammond, who had just discovered Billie Holiday, for example, and who would also do the same with giants like Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen…

-Dylan was… how old, 19, when he recorded that first album? He was inexperienced, but he is very clear about what he is doing. When Hammond tries to box him in and box him in, to get him onto his turf, Bob knows how to break free. Dylan soon realized that he must be emancipated. His luck was that he landed with Tom Wilson, who was possibly his most complicit producer, the one who best understood who he was and knew when he should push and when not.

Wilson is a fascinating guy for several reasons.

-He was one of the first to understand that it was not necessary to sell out to the designs of the record company. In 1966 he left the almighty Columbia because he didn’t want to compromise anymore. There is correspondence that proves that Wilson was already in contact with the Velvet Underground in 1965, and that he is telling them not to sign anyone, that he plans to sign him in two months, and is doing the same thing, at the same time, with the Mothers Of Invention. , by Frank Zappa, on the West Coast. Wilson invents the folk rock sound, basically, and then recycles it on records with Simon & Garfunkel. Unfortunately his lifestyle contributed to his sad and untimely end.

–Dylan, in the years covered by this book, I was touched by the gods.

-Everything he did worked. She was trying something, and it worked. He rehearses just two days with The Band, in Toronto, and then goes on a six-month tour of the United States. You don’t go on tour for six months with two days of rehearsal, it’s crazy, especially with people with so little experience! But she works for him! It shouldn’t, but yes. When she tried something just as crazy, in 1984, she didn’t. Of course, a constant in her career is the time she works with new musicians in the studio. They are often the best players available with tons of experience. Some of them, at first, take him for a clown. Until suddenly they realize that they don’t. That this guy knew exactly what he was looking for and how to find it, and that he had a big advantage over them.

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