The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling, 1941–1966

Image of The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling, 1941-1966
Release Date: 
May 18, 2021
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

“Drawing on Heylin’s many remarkable new discoveries in the Dylan Archive, The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling (1941–1966) makes phenomenally captivating reading for any Dylan devotée, revealing unseen dimensions of the mercurial Nobel laureate, and much to surprise and delight even careful readers of Heylin’s earlier work.”

In March 2020, a month crowded with the strange and unprecedented, 78-year-old Bob Dylan achieved his first-ever #1 hit single with the digital release of “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute meditation on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In a perpetually shape-shifting musical career that dates back to the beginning of the Kennedy era, Dylan has made occasional headlines over the last few years, but most of the news has been extra-musical.

In late 2020, we learned that Dylan had sold the publishing rights to his peerless and voluminous songwriting catalog for a cool $300 million. In early 2017, the most enigmatic and uncooperative voice a generation ever had belatedly accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature that the committee had conferred upon him in his absence several months earlier.

Perhaps the most intriguing news of this era for Dylan aficionados, however, arrived earlier in 2016, when the George Kaiser Foundation and the University of Tulsa announced the acquisition of the Bob Dylan Archive, a two-truckload treasure trove of 100,000 items from Dylan’s own collection spanning the breadth of his life in music. Included among the archive’s treasures are complete recordings of all of Dylan’s studio sessions, dozens of soundboard concert recordings and professionally filmed performances, correspondence with counter-culture contemporaries like poet Allen Ginsberg, and marked-up typescripts galore documenting the evolution of numerous Dylan songs.

Select researchers were approved to plumb the Dylan Archive’s depths shortly after the acquisition. Among the first to dig in was Clinton Heylin, author of 10 Dylan books, including two editions of his landmark biography, Behind the Shades.

After trawling through much of the material over ten weeks in Tulsa, Heylin concluded that the secrets the archive revealed called for much more than just revisit to Behind the Shades; indeed, an entirely new biography was in order. Drawing on Heylin’s many remarkable new discoveries in the Dylan Archive, The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling (1941–1966) makes phenomenally captivating reading for any Dylan devotée, revealing unseen dimensions of the mercurial Nobel laureate, and much to surprise and delight even careful readers of Heylin’s earlier work.

As the first installment of this new multi-volume biography, A Restless, Hungry Feeling represents a dramatic shift away from the oral history that informed Behind the Shades, and updates Heylin’s take on Dylan with more than the new material unearthed in the Dylan Archive. The new book also considers the range of Dylan scholarship, analysis, and biographical works produced in the last 20 years, and presents itself to a great degree as a corrective to faulty and misleading memories and myths made real by endless retelling.

Appropriately enough, Dylan’s 2004 memoir, the warmly received and surprisingly readable Chronicles, Vol. 1, receives the most attention. Heylin proves mostly merciless in his assessment of Dylan’s “unreliable memoir.” While occasionally acknowledging Chronicles’ undeniable charms, Heylin also takes Dylan to task for its frequent elisions of fact and myth, its many inconsistencies, its “wanton disregard for, er, chronology,” and the trickery Dylan-as-memoirist hides behinds his cleverly contrived candor mask.

Indeed, the first chapter of A Restless, Hungry Feeling delivers a gloriously cranky lit review of the last two decades of Dylan scholarship. Heylin proves predictably dismissive of Howard Sounes’ “all National Enquirer Down the Highway, and surprisingly complimentary (“head of the new class”) to David Hajdu’s underrated Positively 4th Street. The rest of Heylin’s biting assessments, such as the late Ian Bell’s “overweening” Once Upon a Time, hew closer to his characteristic shredding of Sounes. (Meanwhile he ignores the most insightful Dylan book of the last decade, Daniel Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger.) Through much of A Restless, Hungry Feeling, Heylin concerns himself with delineating too-readily-accepted myth from fact, frequently calling “poppycock” on versions or sequences of events that don’t hold water.

But the real excitement and joy of this book emerges from Heylin’s discussion and analysis of copious party tapes, bootlegs, between-takes conversations and outbursts, combative and occasionally revealing interviews, contracts and related documents, and hand-scrawled manuscript revisions that he weaves into a fresh and engaging narrative. This portion of the Dylan story stretches from young Bobby Zimmerman’s adventures at north country Jewish summer camps and teenage forays into ’50s rock and roll through his many cycles of self-reinvention and past-rejection.

The narrative picks up speed as it moves Dylan through the Minneapolis and Greenwich Village folk scenes to the blistering, drug-fueled 1966 rock tour of Europe that sparked angry clashes with traditionalist fans and took Dylan to the fraying end of his personal tether, culminating in the motorcycle accident that ushered in a prolonged retreat from public life.

Early on, Heylin scoffs at those who habitually refer to “Shakespeare scholars” and “Dylan obsessives.” As a “scholar of both,” Heylin reserves the right to take exceptiion. In a sense, with A Restless, Hungry Feeling, Heylin positions himself as the diametric opposite of one of Dylan’s first—and arguably his worst—biographer, the nutcase “Dylanologist/Garbologist” A. J. Weberman, who spent much of the late 1960s and early ’70s digging through Dylan’s garbage in search of clues to the deep dark secrets the singer was presumably hiding from the public. If Weberman went looking for answers in what Dylan threw away—and mostly came up empty—Heylin has devoted much of the last half decade to studying and reconsidering what Dylan saved. And by all appearances he’s hit the mother lode.

Heylin’s Behind the Shades research relied largely on the fading recollections of Dylan’s contemporaries to build its narrative. But it also drew on some of the “party” and “living room” tapes Dylan recorded in Minneapolis and New York in the early years, when he was rapidly absorbing new songs and styles, trying on new personas, and eager to show friends the songs he was learning (and sometimes writing) and to distance himself from the skins he was shedding.

The sheer number of these tapes now available—some of them not just including songs, but stories, jokes, debates, and knock-down, drag-out arguments about the folk tradition and topical songwriting with the likes of Minneapolis-based purists and Little Sandy Review editors Paul Nelson and Jon Pankake—reveal much about the artist as a young man still open to revealing his evolving abilities, beliefs, and ambitions, even as he piled lies upon lies about his identity and origins.

Dylan’s interactions with friends, fans, toadies, hangers-on, reporters, and lovers and ex-lovers in subsequent years show him fashioning not just self-aggrandizing myths but self-isolating barricades. At a certain point the intimate party tapes cease altogether, as Dylan’s evident genius becomes ever more guarded and proprietary, and its owner increasingly paranoid about what the world desires and demands of him. (Heylin astutely theorizes that the relaxed, low-key “Basement Tapes” recordings made with members of the Band in their Big Pink Catskills clubhouse during Dylan’s retreat from the public in 1967 represent an attempt to recapture the spirit of those before-the-fame party tapes.)

Numerous explanations for Dylan’s growing paranoia and antipathy toward fans and the press emerge, not least among them his exploding popularity, and his audience’s intense identification with perceptions of him that can’t possibly keep pace with his constant artistic growth; his growing reliance on drugs and alcohol, especially on tour; and the influence of his manager, the ferociously protective and exploitative hipster menace Albert Grossman, who famously brawled in the dirt with legendarily folklorist Alan Lomax at the Newport Folk Festival over Lomax’s lukewarm introduction of one of his clients. (At one of A Restless, Hungry Feeling’s most humorous moments, friends of Dylan and friends of Grossman speculate on which man brought out the other’s dark side.)

Perhaps the most surprising stories in the book concern Dylan’s relationships with other musicians, and the near impossibility of recording effectively with him for any but the most professional and imperturbable. The Dylan Archive includes not just complete sets of recorded takes for Dylan sessions—as some recently released Bootleg Series box sets do—but all of the conversations and arguments taped between the takes. It’s not entirely clear when this happened, but at some point, Dylan, like Nixon, insisted on rolling tape nonstop.

In A Restless, Hungry Feeling, these tapes prove indispensable to the story Heylin tells. Dylan’s chronic impatience and unpredictability, his refusal to maintain the same tempo from one take to the next, his bizarre aversion to punch-ins, and his haphazard hopscotching from song to song result in one unproductive session after another. In-studio frustrations abound even with musicians as talented and sympatico as Chicago blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield and the backing group Dylan would rock and enrage the world with, Levon and the Hawks, later known as the Band. Only the “A-Team” Nashville pros enlisted for the Blonde on Blonde sessions—after some fruitless false starts with the Hawks in New York—seem equipped to absorb Dylan’s recording eccentricities and reproduce the sound he hears in his head.

Daryl Sanders wrote the definitive account of the largely successful, if extremely unorthodox Blonde on Blonde sessions in 2018’s That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde (though Heylin doesn’t appear to think much of that book, either). Heylin also goes deep into earlier sessions when the sound Dylan imagined but generally failed to articulate proved more elusive, and earth-shaking classics like “Like a Rolling Stone” came to fruition as lucky accidents outnumbered by frustration and failure.

Part of the problem seems to have been Dylan’s poor communication, and part of it was his obliviousness to the limitations of his sidemen. Heylin’s assessment of the Hawks at the time Dylan first encountered them in 1965—again, years before they emerged as roots-rock icons acclaimed for the subtlety, versatility, and originality of their playing and songwriting on Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969)—is both surprising and perceptive. “A lot of the time The Hawks were playing blind, lacking many of the same reference points as their new leader,” Heylin writes. “Listening to a 1965 Levon and The Hawks set was like hearing a band in cryogenic storage since BBI (Before the British Invasion).”

Heylin also takes advantages of his access to miles of unused footage from the two D. A. Pennebaker-shot documentaries of Dylan’s 1965 and ’66 tours, Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document, respectively. Unlike the Beatles’ Let it Be, soon to be exposed as a too-uniformly-dour take on the group’s early 1969 recording sessions by Peter Jackson’s forthcoming Get Back (by all reports a much happier film cut from the same footage), the cinema verité classic Don’t Look Back appears to have been right on target in its portrayal of Dylan’s last acoustic solo tour, going through the motions onstage for an audience that’s two albums behind, and otherwise preoccupied with putting on, belittling, and browbeating the insufficiently hip.

However accurate its portrayal of that tour, Heylin reminds us that even Don’t Look Back was a relic of a bygone era by the time of its 1967 release, two years after Dylan “went electric” to the chagrin of many traditionalists at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, a year after his unbridled and embattled world tour with The Hawks, and well into his self-imposed hibernation in bucolic Woodstock.

But Heylin’s analysis of the largely unseen footage from the ’66 tour reveals much more. Even Martin Scorcese’s well-received 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, which focuses on that tour and makes effective use of some of the footage, doesn’t so much try to explore what really happened on that tour as to mine the drama of young British fans shelling out precious pounds just to heckle their faithless prophet and his wicked messengers.

By relying on contemporary accounts (including filmed fan exit polls and local newspaper stories), Heylin reveals that the prevailing narrative of a singer pushing the boundaries and a fan base pushing back en masse was never based in fact. Rather, it was deliberately constructed at the time by journalists who weren’t half-listening and found Dylan as personally distasteful as he found them.

What “really” happened during Dylan’s battles with the press and public in the year between his controversial electric set at the Newport ’65 and the moment a distressed British folkie hollered “Judas!” from the audience at England’s Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 might just be the most done-to-death debate in Dylanology, if not the history of rock music itself. And in focusing so much of A Restless, Hungry Feeling on the period following Dylan’s ugly divorce with the folk scene (if not folk music itself), Heylin is, in one sense, betraying the mission of Behind the Shades, which was to reveal the full story of the man by refusing to belabor this one relatively short segment of his long life and career as most other biographers have done. Yet here he is bringing his new book nearly to its dramatic climax as the embittered cry of “Judas!” rings out in Manchester. 

But even after countless Dylan biographies—two of the best of them by Heylin himself—in A Restless, Hungry Feeling, the journey through Dylan’s back pages to these familiar moments reads like a story untold.