Review: Talkin’ about Early Bob Dylan, The Dylan Tapes

Bob Dylan is having a bit of a late-career cultural moment. His most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was released in June 2019, and the featured single, “Murder Most Foul,” shot to the top of the Billboard charts—surprisingly, for the first time in his long career. On May 10, 2022, the Bob Dylan Center opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the Tony Award ceremonies on June 12, 2022, Mare Winningham performed a mesmerizing rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” from the Broadway musical Girl from the North Country, directed by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson. As we speak, the man himself continues to work, work, work on his Rough and Rowdy Ways Worldwide Tour 2021–2024, even as he turned 81 on May 24.

Decades ago, in 1971, journalist Anthony Scaduto published Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography. By that time, Dylan had already released such iconic albums as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Scaduto’s book, considered the first serious Dylan biography, contained a great deal of material but there was plenty more he did not or could not include.

The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, & Lovers Talkin’ Early Bob Dylan,
by Anthony Scaduto. Edited by Stephanie Trudeau
University of Minnesota Press

Before his death in 2017, Scaduto found his long-forgotten original interview tapes—his “basement tapes”—that consisted of more than 36 hours of interviews with Dylan’s fellow musicians, friends, and lovers. Scaduto’s wife, the actor, singer, and writer Stephanie Trudeau, edited the raw material and interviews to create the perfectly named The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, & Lovers Talkin’ Early Bob Dylan (University of Minnesota Press). Trudeau met Scaduto, a former New York Post police reporter and feature writer, on a blind date in 1972. Interestingly, she wasn’t a Dylan fan at all—her “heart and soul” belonged to John Lennon, she admits in the book’s introduction. But when she finally read the book, she was “blown away” by Scaduto’s hard work and was especially impressed that he could so accurately capture the zeitgeist of the era.

The Dylan Tapes is not only a fascinating journey into the singer’s earliest days but also a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a classic biography. What’s more, it provides glimpses into and shares opinions with the people who knew him. Some are gone. Some are still with us. They include Suze Rotolo, his ex-girlfriend who appeared on the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; Echo Helstrom, who some say is the original “Girl from the North Country”; and musicians Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Clancy Brothers, and Joan Baez. Others were important figures in his life even though they are not household names such as Mike Porco, the owner of Gerde’s Folk City, an influential Greenwich Village folk club, and Izzy Young, owner of the Folklore Center, also in the Village.

What makes The Dylan Tapes especially engaging is that it is so full of small but significant details about the young Dylan: his unpredictable moods and behavior, his arrogance but also his various insecurities and vulnerabilities. For example, Mikki Isaacson, one of several substitute mothers who fed and took care of him and who allowed the young Dylan to crash at her apartment on Sheridan Square in the Village, once asked him to spell his name. “Is it D-y-l-a-n as in Dylan Thomas?” she asked. He said, “No. It’s D-y-l-a-n as in Bob Dylan.” She remembers him as being “inarticulate socially. He did not know how to carry on a conversation or argument or a discussion. And he didn’t want to be drawn into any because he knew he wasn’t good at it.” But despite his flaws, Dylan inspired loyalty. Isaacson admitted to Scaduto that she was “a fan of Bobby’s before Bobby had fans.” When Scaduto asked Hellstrom whether she and Dylan ever discussed poetry, she answers with a definitive “No. It was just music.” Although, she adds, he did read all of John Steinbeck’s books.

Dave Van Ronk recalls the first time he met Dylan. It was not a good first impression. “He dressed in army surplus, cheap work-style clothes,” he says. Van Ronk calls him a pathological liar. “Here was another middle-class Jewish kid with an identity crisis.” Similarly, Van Ronk’s former wife and manager, Terri Thal, remembers that Dylan didn’t relate to people very well. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott calls him “a very shy kid.” On the other hand, others took his stories at face value. New Jerseyites Bob and Sid Gleason helped Dylan out when he first arrived in New York. They knew about his reputation for telling tall tales. “We’re not here to judge people,” Bob Gleason told Scaduto. “If he wants to lie to us, that’s his problem.”

Dylan was notoriously closemouthed—about his past, about his identity, and especially about the meaning of his songs. He never talked about his songs and hated when people tried to analyze them. He felt the songs should speak for themselves. Another character trait of the young Dylan was his apparent casual cruelty. Observed Carla Rotolo, the sister of his girlfriend Suze Rotolo and the target of Dylan’s brutal song “Ballad in Plain D” on Another Side of Bob Dylan: “He decided he would pick out your weakness and then suddenly grab it and use it on you. Which is what he did with everybody. Find their vulnerable spot…”

Joan Baez laments that “Bobby has a falling-out with everyone.”

It took a great deal of patience, doggedness, and persistence—a herculean effort—for Scaduto to get the singer to sit down with him. Dylan had read Scaduto’s bio when it was in manuscript form, made factual corrections, and only then agreed to an interview, which took place at the musician’s Village studio. During the interview we learn that Dylan wore blue denims, a wool pullover shirt under a denim jacket, boots, and a hunter’s hat that he did not remove during the entire conversation. Scaduto found him soft-spoken, gentle, warm—and very talkative. He spoke about his life and career as well as his fears and his feeling of being alienated from the world. Although he had some disagreements with the book, ultimately he told Scaduto, “I like your book. That’s the weird thing about it.” He also discussed his various upcoming projects with him. At the time of the interview with Scaduto, Dylan was living in a brownstone on MacDougal Street in the Village, his children enrolled in the progressive private school, the Little Red School House, a short walk away.

Scaduto talked to Dylan for 3½ hours. Despite the initial open-hearted reaction, Dylan wasn’t always happy with what he read. In fact, he sometimes felt wounded. “And this thing you wrote about my manipulating others—why can’t you say I’ve been used as much as I’ve used others? Why don’t you show how much I’ve been used by other people?” he asked.

Anyone with an interest in the early Dylan will find a lot to savor here. But don’t expect to learn what made—what makes—the artist tick. Dylan then as now remains forever inscrutable; a private man who chose for his own personal reasons to live a very public life. Or as Dylan once told Scaduto, “I have no answers and no truths.”

The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, & Lovers Talkin’ Early Bob Dylan, is available at bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

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June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.