Report from Tulsa: The Bob Dylan Archives. A Conversation with Clinton Heylin
“What the working notebooks show, and indeed the archive itself, is how meticulous an editor of his work Dylan is, how his literary choices are almost always spot-on”
Whenever I am asked which Dylan biography one should read (if you are only going to read one) my answer is always Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades Revisited, the 2001 revised second edition of his probing and provocative 1991 classic. Not that I don’t have my arguments with him: we all do, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Clinton Heylin is the author of over two dozen books, including studies of Orson Welles, the sonnets of Shakespeare, English balladry, biographies of Sandy Denny and Van Morrison, and a definitive history of the bootleg recording. By coincidence we found ourselves doing research for a week at the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa. At the end of the visit, Heylin agreed to sit for an hour in a local cafe where I recorded this interview.
“Look Out Kid” (early draft manuscript of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”). Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. Additional lyrics, Copyright © 2018 Special Rider Music. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.
Raymond Foye (Rail): Well here we are in Tulsa. Today when we were working in the archives I realized that everything we previously knew about Bob Dylan’s work is only about ten percent of the story. What’s contained in the archive is the actual writing process behind the songs, and it’s a remarkable thing to see the creative process and realize just how rich and layered it is.
Clinton Heylin: The weird thing is, it just keeps going. Who kept this stuff? Of course you expect somebody who is a conscious artist to have kept their notebooks, to have kept their working lyrics, but with the stuff we’ve been looking at today, you open a folder and there’s these little scraps on Marriott Hotel memo pads—and not just one page. Then you turn it over and there’s an upside down verse from another song, and you ask, “where’s he keeping this?” He’s on the road. In his guitar case? We’re not talking about one song idea. And the fantastic thing about the archive is that for every finished song there’s 25 ideas, 22 of which won’t even get off the ground.
Rail: And for every album of eight or ten songs, there’s another eight or ten songs finished that were never included, for whatever reason. One of the sad things is how many songs exist in the archive that don’t have music. Or if they did, he’s almost certainly forgotten it.
Heylin: I was saying to Mark Davidson [the Bob Dylan Archive Director] yesterday that they’ve got in their Slow Train Coming folder a song called “Ain’t Too Proud to Repent.” It’s a finished lyric, but he never recorded it for Slow Train, and it’s not on any rehearsal tapes. But there is a tape of Dylan auditioning one of the guitarists for the tour, and one of the songs is listed as “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and I’d bet my house it’s actually “Ain’t Too Proud to Repent.” The tune is there, so at some point you will be able to marry those words to this tune, and voilà, you have a lost Dylan song in its entirety.
“Chimes of Freedom” manuscript. Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music. Additional lyrics, Copyright © 2018 Special Rider Music. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.
Rail: As with all new archives there’s a big forensic job ahead. The other day I was watching the Woodstock home movies with Tiny Tim, and there’s a scene of Bob playing piano with Richard Manuel looking on, about 10 minutes long. It’s a silent movie, but I gather now that the D. A. Pennebaker tapes have arrived, I hear the soundtrack has turned up, so it will get synced. This could happen a lot.
Heylin: Another funny thing about that tape: when they sent me the information that they’d discovered it, they had no idea when it was from. And I said, “It’s from January 17th, 1967.” I didn’t actually know that 24 hours earlier, but I had been in correspondence with the guy who just did the Tiny Tim biography, and who had access to all of the Tiny Tim diaries. And sure enough, in the diary: “Went over to Bob’s place, made some music,” and an exact date. Everything happens for a reason.
Rail: The archive is very Joycean, it’s like wandering around inside of Ulysses, with all these bits of time and place and characters both real and imagined. Last night you compared it to Ezra Pound’s edit of The Waste Land, where you see the editorial process in action, leading to a gem of a finished work, but over and over again.
Heylin: People are going to have to come to terms with the idea that the unfinished works—not only are they revealing, but also some of them are truly wonderful in their own right. The fact that they’re unfinished isn’t a hindrance, nor should it be. So he didn’t finish “You Were Good to Me,” which is a song that became “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” So what? It’s still a beautiful work.
“Chimes of Freedom” manuscript. Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music. Additional lyrics, Copyright © 2018 Special Rider Music. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.
Rail: One of the tensions in Dylan’s career has been fans who have not wanted to allow their definition of this artist to be determined by the commercial entity that represents him, i.e. Columbia Records. He was too interesting and varied an artist for the fans to just sit back and only take official releases, so they followed him around like they did Charlie Parker…
Heylin: When you think about it, in 1973, Columbia finally lost Bob Dylan to Asylum Records and Columbia owned everything that Dylan had recorded up to 1966 and most of what he’d recorded between 1966 and 1973, and what did they issue? They issued Dylan. If that doesn’t tell you these people shouldn’t be trusted with the archive, nothing will. The bootleggers on the other hand had the consideration to issue Royal Albert Hall and Stealin’ and Seems Like a Freeze Out and Talkin’ Bear Mountain Massacre Picnic Blues,albums that changed people’s lives. The first Bob Dylan album I ever bought was Talkin’ Bear Mountain Massacre Picnic Blues. And Bob’s done okay from me on the official releases over the years, you know? I mean, of course one should respect an artist’s copyright, but at the same time, part of what he is and what he became is built around people documenting what he did—official and unofficial.
Rail: Not to mention that starting in the 1980s Dylan’s career as a performing artist actually becomes a lot more vital and interesting than his career as a recording artist, for years at a time. And so having all those lives tapes is an important part of one’s understanding of him as an artist. It’s amazing to think that from the 1970s onward virtually every live show was taped either by an audience member, and/or his crew.
Heylin: Frustratingly, out of all the live shows the one we missed was Salt Lake City in 1976 and so did the bloody soundman. And that’s the only live performance of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.”
Rail: In the time you’ve spent at the Dylan Archives on the last couple of visits, how can you sum up what you’ve seen? How has it changed your thinking about this artist?
Heylin: Well, it changes everything, absolutely, because as you say, you suddenly see the working artist. You’ve only ever had fragments of ideas of what he might be as a conscious artist. But now you can draw the line. By which I mean, if you’re lucky enough to have seen the Another Side [of Bob Dylan] manuscript, or one of the Blood on the Tracks notebooks, that gave you an idea, but what you could not do was draw a line between the two. You can’t go, The Basement Tapes here, Tempest here, and draw a straight line. Well, that’s what the archive does. Certainly from New Morning on, you’re pretty much on a free run in terms of what’s there. I mean what’s missing from that point on seems to be five, ten percent of what there would have been. It’s astoundingly complete, and for anyone who knows anything about archives, that’s extraordinary.
Rail: Also you really get a sense of this man living his life. All those stacks of letters, the faxes, the fan mail and the correspondence, all the unexpected things that we discovered today, the letters from George Harrison, the letters from Allen Ginsberg, his notes on the back of a fax, those jottings on the back of a bank deposit slip. You get a real sense of—
Heylin: A restless mind.
Rail: And not a man to waste time. . . One thing that I realized looking at these manuscripts is themes that I thought were specific to certain periods or certain albums are actually active concerns 10 years before, or ten years after — whether it’s Biblical concerns, aspects of folk tradition, just certain ideas that he brings to fruition in a song. He’s sometimes working with an idea, and in some cases actual lines, for 10 years.
Heylin: Certainly. In the John Wesley Harding notebook, there are all these Bible chapters and verses, literally things he’s referencing in the songs.
Rail: I got the feeling those were as much there for the cadence as the meaning.
Heylin: John Wesley Harding absolutely has the cadence of the King James Bible, which makes perfect sense for Dylan, because the three seminal texts of the English language at the absolute peak of its Golden Age, the Jacobean era, are Shakespeare’s First Folio, the King James Bible, and the Child Ballads. Even though Francis Child collects those ballads in the late nineteenth century, the language is that of the King James Bible. By that point Dylan knew the five volumes of Child Ballads inside out, but he only starts reading Shakespeare closely after the accident. He starts grappling with that material, and the King James Bible he would already have known. So all of those seminal sources crunch into John Wesley Harding, “If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any”—you could place that aphorism in any of those three. You could put it in a ballad, as he does. You could put it in a Shakespeare soliloquy. You could put it in the Bible.
Rail: And then another aspect of this archive is the audio-visual component. Today I was listening to the first take of “Most of the Time.” It’s 20 minutes long, and Bob is running through it word by word, line by line, chord by chord, tailoring the lines, fitting the words, trying out chords, working on what they call enjambment. He’s playing guitar with Daniel Lanois, and Lanois plays a chord Dylan says, “No, that’s too fancy. Don’t play that.” And he’s commenting all the way through, “No, I don’t see that.” “No, I’m not feeling this.” It’s 20 minutes of this guy working with all the elements of song, and you realize how hard he’s struggling to keep it simple. It’s an extraordinary document.
Heylin: Only now that I can listen to complete session tapes do I realize you need to hear the complete session to hear what exactly is going on. Sure, I can hear an outtake of a song and say, “Well, I wonder why he didn’t pick that version?” But if you hear the process, you might not agree with the final outcome, but you can see how he gets there. The point is that in going forward from Oh Mercy in 1989, Dylan had to reinvent the way that he worked in the studio, because everything he’d done up to that point had stopped working. The way that he’d been recording in the ’70s had worked. Whatever their flaws, he made a lot of great records in the ’70s, he put out a lot of great music. Even the album that people would probably consider the worst recorded of his ’70s work, Street-Legal, still stands up. But in the ’80s almost everything falls down, because of what’s happening in the studio, and he couldn’t go on. When he’s working on Oh Mercy, he knows, I have to change the way that I make music in the studio. And he figures that out over what are very laborious sessions. That is the way forward, with the exception of the two albums he made with Debbie Gold—Good as I been to You and World Gone Wrong. And one of the interesting things about his work in the studio from Oh Mercy onwards, is that he becomes deliberately and consciously intolerant. He no longer puts up with shit from his producers.
Rail: Debbie told me Bob once said to her, “I want a producer who’s going to stand out in the hallway, and they’re always trying to push their way into the living room.” What’s an instance of something where you’ve heard the whole session?
Heylin: “Caribbean Wind.” Next week I fully intend to go through all the manuscripts. At that point, if I wanted to, and if the world wanted it, I could write a 150 page book about one song. It would be that song.
Rail: There’s a lot of songs in the archive you could write a 150 page book about.
Heylin: There’s certainly 20 or 30songs where you could do that. “Idiot Wind” is worthy of a Waste Land facsimile, or a Howl facsimile treatment. One, because of its greatness, but two, because the process is laid bare, and you see Dylan improve the artistry and hide the nakedness simultaneously. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
Rail: There’s a tendency throughout for him to begin a lyric in highly personal terms and then slowly write the personal details out of the song.
Heylin: That’s exactly it. I think that’s true of many artists. That’s a process. Of course, the ultimate objective is to produce something that is worthy of being immortalized, not like reading somebody else’s mail, as somebody once described “Ballad in Plain D.”
Rail: That’s one of the rare false notes in Dylan’s career for me, emotionally.
Heylin: Well, he’s just too close to something. Actually, I’m a fan of “Ballad in Plain D,” but he knows he’s made a mistake. I mean simply that the song fails in what it attempts to do.
Rail: Which is lack of transformation of the subject matter.
Heylin: Exactly. And he works on the song a lot, but in an incredibly short period, and that’s the problem. Thankfully, we can actually look at the manuscripts and listen to the recordings. We know that the process occurred over a very short period, about two weeks. Whereas “Idiot Wind,” the first reference in the notebook is probably December, ’73. So, his line that Blood on the Tracks took him ten years to live and two years to write, is actually true, unlike most of his such comments.
Rail: Today when we were looking over some of these lyric sheets for “Changing of the Guards,” I got a strong hit of his ruthlessness as an artist, the way Picasso was ruthless in that film where you see him painting on glass, and he creates literally 200 astounding paintings and destroys every one except the last. Dylan has that quality, doesn’t he?
Heylin: Yes, and he certainly knows how to cover his tracks. And the fact that he kept this stuff means he has some sense of his own importance, and some sense of the need to preserve the process. With something like “Changing of the Guards,” part of what makes the Street-Legal material extraordinary is the incredibly long gestation period. For Dylan to write something and then hold it back for a year was extremely rare, although it’s more common now.
Rail: The throwaway lines that any lyricist would kill for.
Heylin: It reminds me of that Orson Welles line, “A great filmmaker is defined by what he leaves out.” And that’s Bob. That’s any great writer. If you’re too in love with the great line, if you’re too in love with the great verse to realize that it’s all got to be in service of the whole song, then you’re never going to be that writer. What the working notebooks show, and indeed the archive itself, is how meticulous an editor of his work Dylan is, how his literary choices are almost always spot-on. So unlike in the studio, where he’s notorious for picking the wrong take, picking the version that everyone else would not have picked, when it comes to his judgment about lyrics, it’s much more “wow.” Almost every time, you go, “That’s an improvement. That’s a better version. That’s a great edit.” The way that Dylan works in the studio and the way that Dylan works as a songwriter are two completely separate things.
Rail: And then a propos Street-Legal, after you read the manuscripts, you go and listen to all the piano demos, and you get to see the writing develop in all sorts of extraordinary ways. And at every stage, something vital, something important is lost. And that’s part of the act of creating a work of art. There’s a gambler’s instinct, where he’s always pushing it a little further, but then there’s that ruthless side where he has to throw so much away. Isn’t it interesting what a fine editor of his writing he is in the studio?
Heylin: Yeah, I’ve said that before. He is an extraordinarily good editor of his work in general, both on the page and in the studio. The thing that people don’t understand is, you can disagree with his choices—I have quite a lot of them—but the fundamental point is you need to understand what it is he thinks he’s trying to do. When Dylan makes those judgment calls and he doesn’t get where he wants to go, he pulls the plug. And he pulls the plug not because it’s not great, not because it doesn’t work, but because it isn’t what he wants. And that is a fundamental point.
Rail: It’s extraordinary when you consider everything he’s had to contend with: after all that work writing the songs then comes the struggle with the musicians.
Heylin: Right, you hear the whole struggle of Dylan wanting their first instincts, and that’s what the musicians balk at. They want to be able to work it over till the song is dead in its tracks, until they’ve got their part right, and Bob won’t let them.
Rail: The studio really is death in many ways for music, isn’t it?
Heylin: Of course. And particularly so now, where you don’t even record the damn thing live.
Rail: That’s one thing I think Dylan always realized—that a record is just that: a record of a performance.
Heylin: Well, he said it, and repeatedly. Because if it’s not a record of performance, what exactly is it?
Rail: The exciting thing for me about this archive is that it’s not the public face we all know so well—it’s the private Dylan. He’s writing purely for himself. Even Chronicles is not an honest work in that way.
Heylin: Chronicles is a complete load of lies. But that is absolutely beside the point. It’s still incredibly revealing. The fact that he’s telling lies doesn’t make it unrevealing. In fact, people who lie usually tell you more about themselves than people who tell the truth. And it’s interesting that Bob feels that he doesn’t need to disguise the stories, that people will take it at face value anyway. What’s fascinating is that people read that particular book and used words like “honest” and “forthright” and clearly you have to be a blithering idiot and know nothing about Dylan if you believe what you just read. Whether you find it interesting or well-written or all those things is not the issue. But I agree, the writings in the archive are entirely—unguarded.
Rail: When I requisitioned materials before I came out here, I thought, OK, I want to see Planet Waves. I want to see Street-Legal. I want to see Infidels. I chose periods that are for me personally interesting in terms of the writing, wanting to see the manuscripts and the process, and I ended up realizing I wasn t going to get through one-tenth of this material. I spent an enormous amount of time on Planet Waves, and I never realized what a dark album that was. I always thought of that album as being rather jaunty and upbeat. Of course “Dirge” is a dark song, but when you read all the notebooks you realize the whole album comes out of a grim apocalyptic vision of America, remarkably similar to Allen Ginsberg’s book The Fall of America (1973), which is an exactly contemporaneous work. For me, the fundamental character of that album has completely changed.
Heylin: As a researcher and a biographer, you’re always interested in the roads that you don’t go down, that you almost went down. Some of Dylan’s greatest work is like that. The Basement Tapes being another great example: there’s a road that he went down, stopped, reversed, and made John Wesley Harding instead. And never went back, never touched it again. That’s why I’ve compared The Basement Tapes to The Winter’s Tale, a play that has no peer in Shakespeare’s work before or after. You don’t know where it comes from, you don’t know where it fits, it doesn’t make any sense in relation to all the work that’s going on around it, and yet it’s genius. There is a period between Street-Legal and Dylan’s conversion when he’s heading in one direction, and then somebody literally puts the car in reverse, hands him a King James Bible, and everything goes out the window. Street-Legal is such a productive direction—even though it’s not a successful recording operation. There’s more than one album there, and there’s more than one direction there. Then next is this very dogmatic record, where the lyrics have almost been written for him. Well, they have been written for him—they’re written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Rail: Was Street-Legal too personal? Was it too close to the divorce? What do you think was going on?
Heylin: Well he’s certainly wrestling with two very strong core themes in his life. One is salvation. He turns to a particular version of that at the end of that road. And the other is a worrying misogyny. You can see that as being a byproduct of the divorce, but it’s not just that. And he’s very playful with it. He knows that he shouldn’t have these feelings, but he does, and he’s playing with it.
Rail: He’s kind of gotten off a little easy on that topic.
Heylin: Not anymore.
Rail: A lot of people have brought it up over the years. He’s never going to understand the mystery of women: they truly are the other.
Heylin: Well he’s hardly alone in that. Renaldo and Clara is very much about this, and much of it seems to come from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, making her the virgin, the whore, the wife, the layer-out of the man when he dies. They’re archetypes, not stereotypes, and if you don’t know the difference between an archetype and a stereotype please don’t become an academic and pontificate as if you know what you’re talking about.
Rail: I want to talk a little bit about your most recent book, No One Else Could Play That Tune, about the New York Blood on the Tracks sessions. Listening to the box set, I feel that is the closest one gets to Dylan, emotionally.
Heylin: I think you’ve got to be wary of that. Of course he’s experiencing a level of pain that he hasn’t experienced in a long time, but the album isn’t about that. That’s part of why I think the Minneapolis recordings pale against the New York recordings, because in a sense he lets the darker side of himself get the better of him in those sessions, which he doesn’t in New York. “Idiot Wind,” the only song really that is full of recrimination of others, he only does twice in New York, and each time there’s incredible sorrow, regret, guilt, all the things that are missing from the later version. I don’t think it’s an album of sorrow per se, I think it’s more an album of que sera, sera. I’m talking about the New York album.
Rail: And how do you see Renaldo and Clara in relation to Blood on the Tracks?
Heylin: If you’re as huge a fan of Blood on the Tracks as I am, one absolutely has to go back to Renaldo and Clara, because he’s using a similar methodology, and clearly with the same intent. So forget what the critics said—Renaldo and Clara is, if anything, the key to understanding Blood on the Tracks. It’s the longest sustained piece of work Dylan has ever done on anything, including his autobiography. The four-hour version was released to scathing reviews by film critics who basically had been dying to get their teeth into Dylan for years and frankly had championed some truly awful foreign filmmakers for the same period of time and just wanted to say that Dylan is not a serious auteur—pretty insulting. The film itself is a much misjudged and misconceived piece of work. As to whether you can get it anymore, I have no idea. There are plenty of bad bootleg DVDs of it, but hopefully one of these days someone will come up with a decent, nice stereo print of it that can be screened, because that’s the way to see it. Incredible live footage.
Rail: Can you give an encapsulated description of your new book, No One Else Could Play That Tune: The Making and Unmaking of Bob Dylan’s 1974 Masterpiece. What was your intention in writing it?
Heylin: Essentially, I decided I would not write a full blown book. It’s a monograph, an extended essay about how you create a masterpiece and how you dismantle a masterpiece. It happens to be Blood on the Tracks, because I feel comfortable writing about Blood on the Tracks, but it could really be any masterpiece you feel like dismantling.
Rail: What is the dismantling side? Who is dismantling it?
Heylin: Dylan. He’s dismantling it because once he’s made the masterpiece, he doesn’t feel the need to release it. Nor does he. He does everything he possibly can to create the most perfect record possible, and then he starts second guessing himself. And part of that is asking himself: Is it as good as I think it is? Is it too austere? Is it too non-commercial? People get offended by the idea that Dylan would have a commercial bone in his body. He’s always wanted to sell records. Why would you make records and not want to sell them? He’s not Nick Drake. So he starts to second guess himself. And he deliberately allows himself to be distanced from all of the experiences of making that record, and that includes writing the songs and playing it to people in intimate settings and recording them, and in each one of those instances he has a shadow, the 24 year old Ellen Bernstein, his A&R person at Columbia, with whom he’s having a romance. So the fact that he deliberately distances himself from Ellen and starts to second guess himself is not disconnected. And he’s playing the acetates for people that he has time for, Robbie Robertson, George Harrison, Stephen Stills, Phil Ramone—people that he absolutely respects. Every single one of them tells him it’s a masterpiece. Still, he does the exact opposite.
Rail: What’s behind that impulse, and how in the end does it work out in his favor if it does?
Heylin: I don’t think you can rationalize it, nor can he. I think every artist has the desire to destroy perfection. They’re terrified of perfection.
Rail: Destruction is also a part of creation.
Heylin: Absolutely. And Blood on the Tracks is certainly an album which is about burning bridges. That’s what the album is about.
Rail: And killing the past.
Heylin: “Me—I’m still on the road, heading for another joint.” Was there ever a truer Dylan line?
Rail: Do you ever feel like you may have come to the end of your interest in Dylan in terms of writing about him?
Heylin: When I start a project like the latest, I’m always hoping it’s the last thing I’m ever going to write about Bob Dylan, but something always drags me back. It’s like the Godfather. I never feel I’ve completed my work. And if, as appears to be the case now, I’m going to tackle Behind the Shades again, everyone says to me, “What? You’ve already written THE biography.” But I know I haven’t. I’m not alone in that feeling—that I haven’t done quite what I need to do.
Rail: Who are his artistic peers, in your view?
Heylin: Today, or ever?
Rail: Today or ever.
Heylin: Well, you know it’s hard. It’s hard to think of people in the same—
Rail: It’s a comparison, so it’s odious.
Heylin: It’s not that it’s odious. The problem is that the people who are closest to what he does are the people that are his contemporaries, just as the people who are closest to Shakespeare are Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and Beaumont & Fletcher. Of course they are, because they were people he knew personally, they were people he worked with, and they were people who were his rivals. None of them were close to him creatively. Well, Dylan’s the same. You know, the people you really need to compare Dylan with are Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson. All in their own way are extraordinary talents, bordering on genius occasionally, but none of them are Dylan. And as we were talking about yesterday with Leonard, that part of the empathy that Dylan has with Leonard is that he’s so unlike him. Whereas some of those other people who I’ve just named are much closer to Dylan and in that sense are patently inferior, you know, through no fault of their own. It doesn’t make them bad artists.
Rail: It’s funny throughout the archives how he’s always kind of tracking Leonard Cohen, where he is and what he’s doing.
Heylin: Totally. And not just Leonard.
Rail: Allen Ginsberg. He’s another figure he’s paying attention to.
Heylin: One whole thing which I find absolutely fascinating of him is this writing out words to songs—cover songs—that he knows so well, but he still writes them out. It’s like a mnemonic thing with him. To remind yourself how to write a song. But if you write out the lyrics, as I discovered today because they don’t allow photography or xeroxing, is if you write out the lyrics to “Long Black Veil” it’s a way of reminding yourself how great a song it is.
Rail: It would be interesting to take all the cover versions of songs and song titles in his notebooks, and put them all together as an anthology and see what you have.
Heylin: One of the great ambitions which we don’t yet have in the archive would be to see Bob’s library. It would just be a fantastic thing to see what he works with. And also, does he annotate his books? Does he mark things up?
Rail: Because marginalia is certainly very important to him in his own work. These manuscripts are full of marginalia.
Heylin: Yeah, and I’m guessing he’s a marginalia kind of guy. Most of us are, but you never know. I’m guessing he doesn’t respect books in quite the way I would. I suspect he trashes them. He kind of strikes me as one of those guys, you give him a $300 book and they’re cracking the spine, writing in bits, pulling the corner of the page off. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know.
Rail: In the later writings, let’s say the past 10 years, something new is happening. There are suddenly dozens of typescript drafts, 50 or 75 in some cases. He seems to be much more involved with the writing process, and also much less willing to let go of a song. Sometimes the lyrics don’t even go up on his web site until a year or two after the record is released, and those versions are of course the official ones, not the ones on the recordings. What do you think is going on?
Heylin: One aspect we should not discount is the simple fact that the post-Time Out of Mind material has probably been better preserved than the earlier periods. There are gaps—sometimes glaring—in the post-accident record, no matter how extensive the archive in Tulsa. But there is also a sense that Dylan has discovered the art of the interchangeable verse since his 1997 album, something found repeatedly in traditional songs. So, on a song like “Someday Baby,” the vast differences between the Modern Times version and the Tell-Tale Signs version were about making choices, not about rewriting. And that has also bled into the live set, where, say, “Workingman Blues” has been thoroughly overhauled but not necessarily because of a rewrite. And of course the Tulsa archive has some of Dylan’s latter day rewrites of some of his classic songs, like the 1984 “Simple Twist of Fate,” which pops up—slightly out of place—in the new More Blood, More Tracks booklet. As such, I’m inclined to think that the post-Time Out of Mind lyrics demand a complete rethink not only in Dylan’s methodology but in the mind of Dylan scholars as well.
Rail: One of the things I’ve always loved about Dylan is that every album is a very different aesthetic experience. No two albums were even remotely the same, until you reach Love and Theft and Modern Times, which I think of as a pair. You would buy the record and take it home and listen to it, and you would sit there looking at the portrait on the album cover, and you’d see what stage he was at in his life. But that person was completely different at every stage, and that led the question, “Who is this guy? Is there even a real Bob Dylan?” Or is he just a creature void of form? Buddhism teaches there is no fixed identity, and clearly this was a guy who was not hung up on any fixed identity.
Heylin: Yeah. He’s a shapeshifter. I mean, John Baldy, his unpublished manuscript was called “The Chameleon Poet,” and he was right. That’s a good way of looking at it. He really is that. He’s a shapeshifter. The closer you get to him, the further away he seems to be. So yeah, I guess if he’s Moby Dick, I’m captain Ahab.