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.
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.