Bob Dylan is the greatest musician in popular music (I'm a huge fan, as you may know from my reviews of his music and books about him, and by my frequent references to his lyrics in other book reviews). Millions of words have been spilled about his songs, his lyrics, his life, his politics, from every possible angle. Heylin takes on the task of documenting every Dylan recording studio session up to 1993 "World Gone Wrong" album.
Good on Heylin for tackling such a thankless task, which involved lots of research in studio and record company vaults poring over old session charts, raw tape, mix-downs, and bootlegs. The collected mass of the data documents Dylan's strength and weaknesses as a studio musician. The first half of his career he was famous for recording half-finished or undocumented songs in single takes with studio musicians trying to keep up with the (undocumented and constantly changing) chord and lyric changes. When the system works, it results in great live performances captured to tape. Heylin documents the ups and downs of the processes, including Dylan's begrudging transition to multi-track recording, overdubbing, and professional record producers beginning in the 1980s. This track record of live sessions and frequent last-minute changes helps explain the intense popularity and size of the cottage industry of Dylan bootleg recordings from those sessions not officially released.
However, I can only give Heylin's work a middling rating for two reasons: First the topic is so specialized that only the core of the Dylan fan base will find it worth the time working through the arcania here. Casual fans will nod off along the way. Second, while this is essentially a reference work, that demands the dispassionate collation of data, Heylin takes a polemic approach, making bold statements and sharp retorts to other critics with whom he disagrees, which are most. When it comes to Dylan, everyone's a critic, so it is hard to be too hard on Heylin, except that this work especially calls for dispassion. The reader, responding emotionally to Heylin's polemics, may be distracted from the information he is trying to present.
Also, as a reference work, while Heylin lists the musicians at each session, he fails to include an index of musicians so they can easily be found. He includes some reproductions of session charts, but not all. He does include indexes of song titles for both Dylan songs and covers.
For now, if you really love Dylan and want to know more about his approach to studio recording, scan Heylin to see if you can tolerate the opinionated delivery.
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