Bob Dylan and then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo on the cover his second record, 1963's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."Record cover
Today, it seems every rock musician regardless of talent or time in the spotlight has either a biography or autobiography on them. Sometimes several. But when New York Post journalist Anthony Scaduto—who covered both the Mafia and pop music beats—published Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography in 1972, it was a watershed.
Sure, Serious Rock Journalism already existed. But it was mostly in magazines like Rolling Stone, Circus, Creem and Crawdaddy!Bob Dylan is usually cited at the first non-fan-fawning, investigative book-length look at a single artist. That Scaduto did his research and spoke with many who knew Dylan personally early in his career meant it wouldn’t be a clip job.
Since Scaduto’s original book appeared there have been hundreds of books on Bob Dylan. And not just bios but memoirs and fanzines and analyses with detail that even some ancient civilizations don’t warrant. And they can get minute. Like, say, entire tomes on a single concert (Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric!), or even a song (Greil Marcus’ Like a Rolling Stone). Scaduto even updated his own work several times.
But Scaduto was there first and talked to many sources when memories were fresh when Bob Dylan wasn’t “Bob Dylan,” and his chameleon-like artistic transformations were far fewer than they are today. And that gives Scaduto’s book an immediacy in time that could never be replicated.
Just before Scaduto passed in 2017, he surprisingly unearthed some 36 hours of his original taped interviews for the book, found in the basement of the home he shared with longtime wife, Stephanie Trudeau. She edits this work of those collected and transcribed talks, The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, and Lovers Talkin’ Early Bob Dylan (424 pp., $29.95, University of Minnesota Press).
These full-length transcripts are extra manna and include many things which didn’t make it to the book. And true to the title, elicit memories, stories and opinions from names familiar to the Dylanologist.
They include former girlfriends like Echo “Girl from the North Country” Helstrom, Suze Rotolo from the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cover and folk queen Joan Baez. There are also early supporters (Izzy Young, Mike Porco, John Hammond, Sr.), fellow singers (Dave Van Ronk, Carolyn Hester), rivals (Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) and others.
Because Scaduto conducted many of these interviews in the same time period while working on the book, he often asks the same questions of each subject. But rather than be boring and repetitive, there’s sort of a Rashômon effect in that each person adds a different piece of the story. And they don’t always agree.
What’s interesting is that most of those interviews were in awe of the songwriter, but not necessarily the person. At his worst, Dylan is alternately remembered as ambitious, peevish, a user, a copier, a maker and then abandoner of friends once he became famous and discovered speed (the drug and the rate of lifestyle).
And a storyteller who created fantastical tales of his pre-landing in New York life—which many not only bought, but repeated. Working as carny in the southwest? Being a hobo riding the rails? Living as an orphan? The latter something that came across as a shock to then very-much-alive Abram and Beatty Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota.
Most importantly, it’s further detail of how much Robert Zimmerman invented the character of “Bob Dylan” outside of the music.
In the book’s final chapter, Scaduto finally sits down with Dylan himself, who reluctantly agrees to meet with the author, provided he gets to see the manuscript for the unauthorized bio in advance. That gives the reader a sometimes-tense give-and-take. Though not as tense as Scaduto’s talk with Suze Rotolo, who for most of her life remained tight-lipped about her relationship with Dylan until publishing her own memoir in 2009, passing away two years later. The Dylan encounter brings the whole book full circle.
The life and music of the now 80-year-old Bob Dylan has been analyzed, dissected, dug into, debated, argued about and postulated on perhaps more than any other musical artist. But what The Dylan Tapes has that most of them don’t are the raw and then-relatively recent thoughts and memories of those where there, and early on in the journey.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.