If you're reading reviews about "Still on the Road" it probably means you're pretty serious about Dylan's work. I am, and that's why I read Clinton Heylin's books. He does the kind of research I can't do, so I appreciate the light he throws on Dylan's work. His books are so rich that I usually read them twice to find the things I missed the first time 'round, and "Still on the Road" is no exception. There's a whole lot to value in Dylan's later work, often dismissed as inferior to his work from the mid 60's, and Clinton Heylin illuminates the gems of this period: songs like "Changing of the Guards," "Jokerman," "Blind Willie McTell," "Most of the Time," "Series of Dreams," and "Brownsville Girl." These songs, along with a big handful of others, hold their own with Dylan's greatest work on "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited," and "Blonde on Blonde." For us folks who are convinced that Dylan is one of the great writers and performers of the last half of the 20th century to the present, this book is a must.
So, why only 3 stars?
- Heylin's habit of second guessing Dylan about lyric changes, best versions of songs, and so on, is hubris. Dylan is the writer and performer, and though it is reasonable to question choices he makes, Clinton Heylin crosses over into making definitive pronouncements thereby placing himself in a superior position to Dylan. Uh ... really?
- Heylin's condescending dismissal of other writers about Dylan is irritating. For some reason he seems to feel he needs to put down these writers. What I mean is that he doesn't just disagree and present a different point of view, he insults them. What is gained by this?
- Heylin, like so many writers on Dylan, seems to think it's cool, or a mark of superior knowledge, to incorporate allusions to lines and phrases from Dylan's songs in his prose. Give it a rest. It's a bore (not to mention that it's very easy to do), and given that advertisers, editorialists, journalists and the like drop Dylan references like jelly babies at Beatles' concerts, this stylistic habit is tedious. English Composition 101 - put it in your own words.
- Why on earth Heylin spends a good portion of his discussion of "Brownsville Girl" discussing the earlier studio take "Dansville Girl" is beyond me. I assume it's because, according to Heylin, Dylan has a habit of rewriting his songs in ways that make the released versions inferior to the earlier studio takes. But most people will likely only have access to the released song, so it would seem sensible to discuss that version. This is a case where Heylin "decides" that Dylan was wrong and so takes it upon himself to substitute his preference for Dylan's. Come again? I'm familiar with both versions and I think, after maybe a hundred listens, that Dylan made the right choice by releasing "Brownsville Girl."
- The "Christian Period" ~ Heylin does an excellent job of showing, from "Street Legal" to "Modern Times," that the so called Christian Period was not a period at all. Dylan's work is soaked in Biblical imagery and reference, his sensibility has been Apocalyptic from as early as "Freewheelin'" and Dylan has always been a moralist of the prophetic type. The problem I had with Heylin's discussion of songs from "Slow Train," "Saved," and "Shot of Love" is that he goes on and on about the Biblical references in these songs. Sure, a certain amount is appropriate, but Heylin goes on at such length it seemed more like he was displaying his endless "rabbinical" knowledge of The Gospels and The Prophets. If I felt his long discursions on Biblical passages actually helped to understand the songs it would be okay, but to me it came off more as an opportunity for Heylin to display his knowledge of the Bible (I have a Ph.D. in Religious Studies). It might be worth noting that there are websites like Oremus that can search and find Biblical references quite easily. Heylin could have written all those pages with no Bible in sight. Of course I don't know if Heylin is well versed in the Bible, but the main point is that this whole section of his book was filled with long discussions that focus far more on Biblical passages than on Dylan's song. I skipped or scanned lots of this section.
Clinton Heylin's books are always a mixed bag, but at his best his work is full of valuable research and quite interesting commentary on Dylan and his work. If you are seriously into Dylan then you seriously ought to consider getting "Still on the Road," along with the earlier companion volume "Revolution in the Air."