Saturday, 18 June 2011

Heylin Is Not Great

People sometimes ask why I haven’t expressed an opinion about Clinton Heylin’s biography on this blog. I suppose I was hiding behind Oscar Wilde’s dictum: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” No doubt which of these categories is appropriate for Mr H’s work. We’d forgive him much if he were a kind of rock’n’roll version of Christopher Hitchens (author of God Is Not Great) – writes like an angel, while cleaving to the Devil’s party. But Heylin doesn’t write like an angel. And now that his book has been republished, I wonder if what one might call the ‘Aesthetic’ defence is adequate. In his determination to be “forthright” (his publisher’s word), Heylin compounds his crimes against literary style by plumbing new depths of personal invective.

What we have from Omnibus Press is a straight reprint of the book originally published by Helter Skelter in 2000, complete with misprints and uncorrected factual errors and the same lacklustre set of photographs. To this has been added an opinionated and highly partial discography in which Heylin rubbishes every release of Sandy’s music since 2000, with the exception of the Saga sessions CD (the only one he was involved with himself.) This is followed by a truly bizarre five-and-a-half page tirade headed ‘An Intemperate Disquisition on the Plundering of Sandy Denny’s Musical Legacy’. Here he questions the professional integrity and motives of everyone who has been involved with issuing her music in the last ten years. These people must answer for themselves, and no doubt will. They’ll require, I daresay, at least another five pages to rebut his assertions point by point, for he makes numerous factual claims, many of which – even on the basis of information in the public domain – I know to be untrue.

For example:

He contrasts the firm control exercised by the Nick Drake estate over posthumous releases with the perceived laxity of the Denny estate: “As a result there has been no indentured hand on the rudder determined to nix material unworthy of her memory” (p275). In fact, there has been a stream of issues – Time Of No Reply, Made To Love Magic, A Treasury, Fruit Tree – designed to sate the public’s appetite for additions to Drake’s tiny recorded output. The most recent of these, Family Tree (2007), which packages up his early home demos, is prefaced by an open letter from Gabrielle Drake to her brother:

“Up till now, every decision I have taken – I have been allowed to take – on your behalf about your music has been guided by what I believe might have met with your approval… But now I am endorsing the publication of an album that I am not at all sure you would have sanctioned.”

Gabrielle’s purpose, she goes on to explain, is to dish the bootleggers.

Ah yes, bootleggers. Mr H has written a whole book about them. One of his most serious charges is that the compiler of the 19-CD Sandy boxset sourced many of the unreleased recordings from “bootlegs” (p272). The press notice issued by Universal at the time made clear that the material used came from the Island archive or from reels which were property of the estate. Indeed, much of what he says about the recent boxset – the tracklisting, the contents, the accompanying book – suggests that he has not physically laid hands on it or listened to it, or even read the 4- and 5-star reviews in the press of what he calls “the most ill-conceived anthology of the CD era” (p278). He tells us that he expected to receive a complimentary copy (p279) even when I have it privately on good authority that no recording of his was used. Besides, no one seems to have got a complimentary set; I certainly didn’t, and work of mine was used in the box.

And so on, by way of an attack on Jerry Donahue based on misinformation about the Royalty Theatre recordings and the Fotheringay 2 sessions. The accusation that Andrew Batt, who toiled for months in the Island archives to compile the recent boxset, has an “unhealthy obsession” with his subject (p278) is curious coming as it does from someone who has published over a thousand pages chronicling, via notebooks and studio logs, the evolution of every song Bob Dylan has ever recorded and putting Dylan himself right on a number of matters. As the Independent reviewer commented of this magnum opus, “Dylan might have been there – but only Heylin knows what actually happened.”

Postscript May 2012. Since I wrote the above the book has gone into a second impression. Recognising their mistake, the publishers have removed the offending 'Disquisition' from the reprint.


Hans Valk said...

On june 17th I posted a review on Amazon, Here's a slighty sortened version:

..The book has received a lot of bad publicity over the years; nobody who is considered an authority on Sandy Denny seems to think it is any good. And sure enough the book has it's faults. It offers almost everything there is to know on Denny's personal life, but her music is hardly being discussed, let alone analised.
In general, Heylin, in telling his story, does not keep enough distance in some parts, giving personal opinions where a clean representation of the facts or just sticking to quotes of witnesses would have made situations perfectly clear. He is also a little too anxious to lay the blame for Sandy's personal problems and downfall with certain people.
The book still seems to contain many of the spelling errors and crooked sentences that it did when it first appeared, which I find rather respectless to it's new readers.
The more strange it is to find that Heylin did have time to add, at the end of the book, a separate piece on all the CD's with 'previously unreleased tracks' that have appeared since the book was written. Heylin dismisses most of them as mere attempts to empty the pockets of the hardcore fans, the CD's themselves being marred by the wrong choices of song-versions and other evils.
It is especially in this part of the book that Heylin shows why some people dislike him so much. For although there is some truth in the accusation that much of the material that has appeared in recent years consists mainly of potboilers with very little new tracks of good quality, this message goes hand in hand with pretty mean accusations on a personal level.

Having said that: the book is not as badly written as some people say. It grabbed my attention from the first page and I could not stop reading until I finished it. That may have something to do with my fascination for Denny, but the book has a straightforward structure and does not take any diversions that strain the attention span too much.
Earlier reviews already mention that it's also depressing. I agree: it is. But the numerous quotes of people who knew her give the book a documentary value that can't be dismissed. It seems some of those witnesses now regret to have ever talked to Heylin. But what did they expect? Sandy's life wasn't a story with a happy end. Do we really need to know, in every detail, how unhappy the end was? I don't know. I do know that knowing it makes listening to her music an experience that means even more to me then when I bought her records in the seventies. She has come to life in my mind. I've known her qualities as a singer for almost forty years. I'm not worse for having learned, only recently, she was a human being with all the up- and downsides that can be part of the human condition.

Dave Leeke said...

Despite Hans Valk's valid comments, I personally would keep away from anything Heylin has had anything to do with. I haven't read the book and have no intention of reading it.

We live in an age where every nook and cranny is being trawled for any home demo by all sorts of artists. In reality, we do not really need these. However, I must admit that I personally like the new "North Sea Gasman and the Ravers" as RT used to call it. The previously unreleased instrumental backing for "Lord Bateman" is a bit of a gem for me.

I, like many fans, cannot justify the price for the box set but hopefully many of the decent ones will find their way onto re-releases. At least iTunes has them to download.

Philip Ward said...

Thanks for sharing your comments, Hans. I agree with a lot of what you say, although I’d argue (and have argued here and elsewhere) that the recent issues amount to much more than “potboilers”.

I’m sure you have the right attitude to Mr H, Dave. After his latest diatribe, it’s hard to know who he’s writing for. He disses the lady at Universal as a “self-proclaimed Sandy fan”, but what other sort of fan is there? Do we have to be proclaimed by Mr H? The ‘Bateman’ backing track is of interest, I agree, especially if you run it before or after the guide vocal and speculate on where they were going with the arrangement.

Anonymous said...

As i am the person that recieves the most criticism in Heylins book, i am at pains to point out how inaccurate almost all his statements are- indeed i am taking legal action to stop it. Heylins book goes far beyond opinion, and actually passes judgement on me and others with 'facts' that are simply untrue. Hans, please do not allow yourself to be swayed by the assertions Heylin makes in his book; I can assure you i never released anything of Sandys on the boxset that was not worthy of her name; in particular if you like Sandys demo performances you will find some rich rewards. Some of these demos are available on the new deluxe North star edition and are worthy of serious consideration as valuable additions to Sandys legacy. best Andrew

Hans Valk said...

@ Andrew: No worries. I have no reason to doubt your personal intentions.
Some of the material that has come to light over the last few years has made a real difference in how I see Sandy's talent today, compared to what I thought about it 35 years ago. Sandy should have been recorded live and solo much more than she was. Her most beautiful performances are the ones where we hear just her and her piano or guitar. When I first listened to her records, I didn't know what intensity she could muster completely alone on stage. Fighting her nerves before and after playing, but soaring to great heights in between.
You were one of the people that brought that home to me. So thank you!

On the other hand I still think there is some truth in the 'potboiler-thought'.
Most of what has appeared in the last few years was aimed at the completists among us. I don't think anybody with only a fleeting interest in Sandy has bought the 19 CD-set. The same goes for the luxe edition of 'North Star Grassman'. When the 19 CD-set appeared, it was announced as a limited and once-in-a-lifetime release. And for some months and most of the tracks it was, respectively still is. But now a (small) part of what was unique to the 19 CD-set, has appeared again on the the luxe edition of 'North Star Grassman', with the addition of 1 (one) track that wasn't on the 19 CD-set.
I'm sure some people who bought the 19 CD-set must have thought themselves a little fooled, thinking they had something that was a real collectors item. Is it Universal's intention to repeat this operation for Sandy's other albums and the demo's and other obscure tracks that can be associated with them?
I'll be honest: this does not bother me personally. I did not buy the 19 CD-set, for reasons I stated here earlier. I also think the separate release of 'special' material, associated with a certain period in Sandy's career, is a much better idea than the 19 CD-set was. But if this continuous, some 3000 people will be pretty disgruntled.
And then again: why weren't those 'special' tracks presented to us without all the regular albums, which everybody interested in Sandy already has? The remasters released in 2005 were okay. Why force us to buy them again to get the stuff we don't have?

Robinbrevard said...

I posted some comments and prompted some interesting feedback on Heylin's "Nothing More?" essay at the Sandy Yahoo group.

Wish I'd read this post & comments first. Thanks for your helpful and much more "temperate" comments, Philip.