To the extent Clinton Heylin’s writing is a bit too florid for its own good during more than a little of Trouble In Mind, he undermines an otherwise erudite, scholarly tone. But even if his style somewhat camouflages his sharp, insightful observations and analysis regarding Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years, a phrase from the very intro to this book-‘trenchant tract’- ultimately encapsulates What Really Happened over the course of three-hundred plus pages.
Much more often than not, the author’s the choice of words is akin to the spotlight that shines on a musician during a particularly dramatic solo, bringing attention to a moment that deserves it. A phase gauged by most accounts (but notably not Heylin’s) between 1979 and 1981, this period stands as the most enervating and confounding phase of Dylan’s history. And while this biographer of Bob isn’t out to necessarily dispel all the misperceptions that have arisen over the years, he is committed to ascertaining the true level of creativity of the iconic songwriter and performer attained during this interval. In doing so, he is as successful as the object of his near-obsession.
Clinton Heylin contends, and rightly so, that Bob Dylan was as artistically as personally charged at this time of his life, well past, but still reeling from, a harrowing divorce. It’s a line of thought supported, though not wholly supplanted by, the archive release issued around publication time which shares its main title with this hardcover, The Bootleg Series Volume 13 1979/1981. In fact, the multi-disc ‘Deluxe Edition’ of Trouble In Mind reaffirms the level of ingenuity in play with Dylan’s composing and arranging a plethora of original material during this time, not to mention the intensity of his concerts, eventually including an expanse of vintage material.
This man who’s written extensively on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in some of Bruce Springsteen’s studio endeavors also (re)introduces what is by now a well-established school of skepticism about the wisdom of The Bard’s choices for a release of the finished product. The ‘voice of a generation’ had long before taken a deceptively casual approach to his records—as Ed Ward’s The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero attests, Michael Bloomfield bio took great pains to arrange and prep the musicians for Highway 61 Revisited—but there was little readily accessible hard evidence exactly how this iconic artist had so seriously undermined his own best interests; as if to point out the disparity, Heylin takes great pains to document how producer Jerry Wexler and, to a lesser extent, Muscle Shoals session veteran Barry Beckett safeguarded the professionalism of Slow Train Coming, the initial component of a triptych including the subsequent titles, Saved and Shot of Love.
It is somewhat curious that, although he acknowledges the curators of the archive, Clinton Heylin doesn’t more often and more specifically reference that similarly-titled vault release. Such seeming oversight is especially noteworthy, not so much due to this writer’s scathing self-reproach about his book devoted to Dylan circa 1966, JUDAS! (out in fall of 2016 coincidental with the comprehensive release of the concert recordings from that time), but in light of what is perhaps the most discerning comment he offers here concerning live performances taking place when Bob began to interweave older material with the newly-composed songs of a deeply spiritual nature: “Dylan (was) rising to the occasion…with a gusto that had as much to do with the joy of making music as the fervor of faith…”
Such is the revelatory nature of that insight that anyone still skeptical of Dylan’s work around this time should take serious note. Verbatim accounts of Dylan’s sermons on the stage, included as if this writer wanted to test his readers as the artist did his audiences, moves quickly into a deeply tedious realm, glaringly so when the contrast appears so obvious with breezy background accounts of the man’s post 1979-80 touring activities, including vacation, then preparation for the next phase of performing and recording.
No doubt a mere summary of that latter process, as fitful as it was contentious (between Dylan and producer Chuck Plotkin) would not stand up to scrutiny, so the play-by-play here is an absolute necessity. But, as continued in his description of the subsequent, ill-rehearsed tour of Europe and America, at this juncture roughly four-fifths of the way through the book, Heylin’s tone becomes abruptly informal to a fault: his thinly-veiled sniping at Dylanologist peers, repeated and as progressively catty as they are, undermines a stalwart credibility he otherwise upholds with the painstaking detail he applies elsewhere in Trouble In Mind.
That overly emotional stance also serves to obfuscate what the author certainly sees as the correlation between Dylan’s confrontational move from folk to rock and Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years. He might do well to emphasize that perspective more here and, in doing so, perhaps elaborate further on Bob’s rejuvenated physical appearance and the generally far more upbeat, congenial demeanor he evinced at this turn of the decades (compared to earlier years just prior in the late Seventies); such observations would be especially illuminating if tied to direct references to Jennifer LeBeau’s film of the same name as (included in) the expansive edition of the aforementioned archive title.
The short recapitulation titled “Outro: After the Flood” might well have been a bit more detailed in summarizing What Really Happened during this much-debated interim of Bob Dylan’s career. Yet, as with the bulk of Clinton Heylin’s writing here, it is nevertheless a sharp reflection of his subject’s very own attitudes, the clearly-delineated capture of which, whether deliberate or unconscious arising from his longstanding study of the man. is no small accomplishment indeed.