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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bob Dylan Approximately

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Another book on Bob Dylan? Clinton Heylin could justify Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973 (Chicago Review Press) by showing that so many previous books have been so bad. One motif running through Heylin's song-by-song assessment of the '60s bard is how little is really known about him and his muses. The puzzle is compounded by the bad reporting and spurious analysis of Heylin's predecessors, plus the faulty memory of eyewitnesses and Dylan's tendency to cover the blood on his own tracks with false leads into blind alleys. Dylan may have been the Joker in several of his songs, a trickster upending the carefully laid logic of the thin men who stalked him. Or maybe he saw added value in wrapping the enigma of his lyrics in riddles? Both?

Unlike some "Dylanologists" who tuned out the wider world circa 1970, Heylin understands how his subject continued to live in popular culture. The line between "Queen Jane Approximately" from Highway 61 Revisited to Bowie's "Queen Bitch" runs through Andy Warhol, whose sycophants Dylan viewed with disdain. As author of books on Shakespeare and Orson Welles as well as the rise of punk and grunge, Heylin is intellectually well positioned for his task. His sense of humor is sharp as piano wire as he cuts through the pretensions of other writers on Dylan and even the songwriter himself, whose topical ballads ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Hurricane") are spiked with credulous tabloid errors. Of course, Dylan may have been more interested in the myths generated by the news than the hard facts.

One of Heylin's contributions is to demonstrate Dylan's deep roots in the Anglo-American folk tradition. Many of his melodies sprang from centuries-old tunes. Antique couplets turn up recast in the lyrics of "Masters of War" and many other songs. From at least his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), he was creatively synthesizing influences from all over, from the Bible to the blues, and making something new of them. Soon, his words "tore at the borderline between poetry and song."

Dylan wrote so many songs from high school juvenilia through Planet Waves that Heylin's exegesis fills a sizable book. Heylin's sequel, starting with Blood on the Tracks and running into the present century, is on the way.

On a local note, to honor the release of Dylan's newest album, Milwaukee musicians Union Pulse, Soggy Flats and Martin Jack Rosenblum will perform Dylan songs starting 5 p.m. Friday, April 17 at the Exclusive Company on Farwell Avenue.