Seeing the Real You At Last: Life and Love on the Road with Bob Dylan
By Britta Lee Shain
Jawbone Press, 280 pp., $19.95.
While hundreds of books have been written about Bob Dylan, the number authored by the Bard of Hibbing’s intimates (professional or otherwise) are surprisingly scant: Girlfriend/muse Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time; friend/gofer Victor Maymudes’s posthumous Another Side of Bob Dylan; and Larry “Ratso” Sloman and Sam Shephard’s two highly entertaining chronicles of the Rolling Thunder Revue rank at the top of that relatively short list.
But in Seeing the Real You At Last, we hear from Britta Lee Shain, who had a casual relationship with Dylan that gradually grew closer, and eventually became a romantic affair for a handful of weeks during a 1987 European tour.
Growing up, Shain was a self-described Dylan obsessive whose professional (or hoped-for professional) career included various stints in acting, writing and real estate. One day, a friend sets her up with a guy named “Ernie” — who happened to be Dylan’s road manager — and they begin living together.
Soon, Shain meets Dylan himself, “the culmination of 20-years of near worship,” and does things like keep cigarette butts he’s smoked and half-filled coffee cups he’s used.
Dylan and Shain, according to her, pass through a couple of years of flirtation and near-encounters while she's involved with Ernie: They take trips around town shopping alone, smear each other with cake and champagne at his birthday party, and have deep discussions about anything from politics to how hot her clothes make her look. All this happening in plain sight under Ernie’s nose, and seemingly even with his tacit encouragement.
She writes that they seem to get along great and have growing feelings for each other, even though both of them are involved with other people. But Dylan is a master manipulator, and at one point asks Shain if she will go to the airport, pick up one of his groupie conquests and bring her back to his home.
That she does, then sits in the living room listening to them fuck, and then goes out food shopping for the pair at Dylan's request. This incident speaks volumes, mostly about what Shain would endure to stay in Bob Dylan’s good graces.
What’s frustrating about the book is Shain’s seeming lack of self-awareness, intentional or otherwise. When organist Al Kooper flat-out calls her a groupie, she is “stunned,” yet admits she can’t come up with anything to defend herself against the label. No matter how high-mindedly she writes about appreciating Dylan’s musical “genius” or his “playful character and quirky sense of humor," she also notes, “I’ve never seen a Bob Dylan smile, except in photos or on the stage. Not the real thing.”
Of course, when Shain is invited to join Dylan in some amorphous work capacity for a two-month 1987 tour in Europe — sans their significant others — the inevitable starts to happen. Even then, Dylan seems more concerned with waiting until Jewish High Holy Days are over to make a move than with hurting his friend/employee’s feelings.
“Without even entering me, Bob Dylan is the best lover in the world…just feeling him rising and lowering on top of me, I can come a thousand times,” Shain writes. “We wrestle ardently on his bed…his eyes embrace me. His fingers find me. Even his earring softly strokes the skin on my cheek. He waits until our bodies are slip-sliding with sweat.”
Yet when it comes time to actually fuck, Shain demurs to Dylan’s unsure request. And it’s not clear when they do decide to commit – Shain talks of them being naked in bed together, then that they “technically” did not consummate their relationship, then more naked intertwining.
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She writes that they tell each other they love each other. But when Shain confesses to Ernie in order to break it off, and Ernie tells Dylan’s girlfriend, Shain is summarily dismissed from the tour with a one-way plane ticket, and the relationship is over. Just like that. And while she may be confused and upset about the turn of events, all but the most naive readers are not.
Through it all, Shain meets a variety of name musicians and actors; Graham Nash, Neil Young, Dennis Hopper, Tom Petty, Bruce Willis and Harry Dean Stanton make brief appearances in the narrative. Shain inadvertently ingests salad dressing laced with LSD at a party thrown by Timothy Leary.
So, do we get to see the “real” Dylan in this book “at last”? Of course not. The Bob Dylan who does appear in these pages is a gruff, abrupt, flirtatious narcissist who speaks in grunts and clipped sentences with questionable sincerity. It's hard to see why Shain appears to have convinced herself that Bob is the bee's knees, or maybe she just didn't express things on the page as she experienced them in her head.
From the outside, it’s not likely that this brief coupling nearly 30 years ago was the grand romantic story that Shain seems or wants to believe (if so, Dylan is the world’s least ardent and committed pursuer), but the book nonetheless has value for the Dylanologist looking for any additional piece of the puzzle that is Robert Zimmerman’s life and often mystifying behavior.