Anthony Scaduto, Edited by Stephanie Trudeau. The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, Lovers Talking Early Bob Dylan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. xi+407 pp
REVIEW BY Ronald D. Cohen, Indiana University Northwest
Anthony Scaduto (1932-2017) published his groundbreaking Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography on January 1, 1971. A seasoned journalist, having worked for the New York Post since the mid-1950s, he eagerly launched his research in the later sixties on the highly elusive, hardly candid Dylan. Scaduto had a nose for capturing detailed, intimate, revealing interviews, hopefully uncovering more of Dylan’s shadowy, often fictional, past. Many of those he interviewed provided highly personal information, although with often shaky memories. Therefore, before publication, he asked Dylan to read his manuscript and venture any comments. Dylan responded: “Like I say, I read the entire book and closed it! And frankly it didn’t make a dent. You see? I don’t care if the book is out or not” (394). Actually he was a bit more explicit than this, but not by much: “You see, my thing has to do with feelings, not politics, organized religion, or social activity. My thing is a feeling thing. Those other things will blow away” (402). That’s actually a pretty good way to understand Dylan’s sixty-plus decades of musicianship and creativity, but hardly one that has appealed to many, including Scaduto.
Stephanie Trudeau, Scaduto’s widow – they had met in 1972 – notes in the book’s Introduction that just “before he died, he discovered all his interview tapes in our basement” (xi): thirty-six hours of conversations with twenty-five of his friends, ending with that “vague kind of guy,” as Dylan described himself (402). “Why did Tony open a dusty box in our basement,” she wonders. “He found a treasure . . . . This discovery came toward the end of his life, and when he died the task of completing his project . . . was left to me” (407). When the tapes are finally open to others, they will continue Scaduto’s explorations into Dylan’s life and artistic creations, although in the 1973 and 2008 editions of his biography he added some additional information. Of course, so much more is now known and interpreted in the dozens of Dylan biographies as well as the mountain of more focused studies. But can there ever be enough? Certainly not, particularly with access to the Bob Dylan Archive, the expanding trove of collections from numerous private collectors, and the May 2022 opening of the Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
While much of what Scaduto learned from his interviews might now seem common knowledge, it was fresh and revealing in the late 1960s. The book proceeds in rough chronological fashion, beginning with Echo Helstrom, Dylan’s high school girlfriend, then her mother Martha, although unfortunately few of the interviews are dated. Let us assume that the chapters are not in the order of the interviews, but we do not know. There are no interviews with family members (not even a mention of his younger brother David), nor with his first wife Sara. For Echo, who spent much time at the Dylan house, Bob remained somewhat of a mystery, while her mother recalled he was “very pleasant – we thought so anyway . . . . [H]e wasn’t loud at all, or insulting, like some kids are” (35-36). Next are a couple of Dylan’s friends in Minneapolis, where he briefly lived, including the blues performer Spider John Koerner (later a member of the popular trio Koerner, Ray, and Glover).
When Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in early 1961, he quickly became enmeshed in the local folk scene. Naturally, Scaduto’s interviews focused on a selection of his various friends, contacts, and assorted others, beginning with Mike Porco, the owner of Gerde’s Folk City, one of the local clubs that actually paid the performers (Dylan had started at the basket houses, where the only pay came from contributions from the audience). Certainly not shy, he talked Porco into letting him perform: “For me it was nothing impressive really, but look, it was good enough that he could come back” (840). And come back he did, until Robert Shelton gave him a rave review in the New York Times in September 1961, which sparked his career. There is much on Gerde’s early history in Robbie Woliver, Bringing It All Back Home (1986), and considerably more on the broader music scene in Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (2015) (for Dylan 255-289). Naturally Dylan soon met Dave Van Ronk, one of the Village’s most influential, and outspoken, musicians. At first he “was pretty much the same as everybody else in the scene,” Van Ronk recalled. “In a month or two I discovered he was a pathological liar. . . . We accepted him not because of the things he said he had done but because we respected him as a performer” (94). Van Ronk has a great deal to say about their complex relationship in his colorful, highly informative autobiography (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (2005).
While Van Ronk, despite his leftwing politics, was not active in the local topical song movement, Dylan quickly connected with Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen, who began distributing their mimeographed magazine Broadside. Initially subtitled “A handful of songs about our times,” the first issue came out in February 1962. While various performers gathered at Sis and Gordon’s cramped apartment on West 103 St., Scaduto’s interviews barely mention Broadside. This is an odd oversight, particularly since Dylan’s “`Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” appeared in the inaugural issue, with other songs to follow. “Bob Dylan came to these monthly meetings for well over a year. Gil Turner, emcee at Gerde’s Folk City, brought him to the first one,” Sis and Gordon recalled in Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography (1999). “Dylan was quite shy” (276). They were happy to nurture the newcomer, later feeling that “the success of these early Dylan songs was a main source of inspiration for the whole topical song movement” (295). “Blowing in the Wind” appeared in Broadside in May 1962. Perhaps Scaduto had little interest in topical songs, since he did not interview Sis or Gordon, although by the time of their interview, Dylan had moved away from the protest genre.
Phil Ochs joined the Broadside songsters, long remaining close to Sis and Gordon while developing a fraught relationship with Dylan. “I think he basically was a very human person and wanted to keep human relationships going and I think he felt that slipping away because of his fame,” he explained to Scaduto, but these remarks came some time after their split (138). While Ochs had become a prolific songwriter with a loyal following, he was no match for Dylan’s creative powers and international renown. Besides, Dylan had no room for a continuing friendship with Ochs, with their clashing personalities. The older Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who had traveled with Woody Guthrie and helped spread his songs in the 1950s, had a harder time than Ochs appreciating Dylan, particularly as a rival. “I didn’t imagine that somebody would come along like Bob Dylan and take Woody’s style and write stuff about today,” he explained to Scaduto (152). He added, “I think he’s a little bit too paranoid about me. But he’s a very paranoid kid, and I understand that, and I know it, because I’ve seen him be that way all along. I thought, you know, he’s got it, it’s in the bag” (159). Elliott did not mention his Jewish background, but he and Dylan were often compared because of their similar identity transformations. (While Ochs and many other folk performers were Jewish, few others appeared to mask their backgrounds like Dylan and Elliott.)
Among Dylan’s early Village friendships, perhaps none was more important or well known than with Suze Rotolo, particularly since their photo appeared on the cover of his influential second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. She was not eager to talk to Scaduto, so her responses were guarded and brief: “A lot of times I just wanted out, period. For no other reason that it was, this isn’t working. It was too, we weren’t getting on. . . . I wanted out” (179). When asked if she was being difficult, she responded: “No, I get this feeling that you’re wanting this to fall into a line of what you already have. If it doesn’t, then you turn it” (183). She would later publish A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (2008), where she is much more forthcoming (and her album cover photo with Dylan is used for her book jacket): “We discovered we had much in common, including a mutual need for a comfortable place away from the chaos of life. We found in each other a kind of safe haven, yet trouble between us slowly grew out of his facility for not telling the truth” (95). Her older sister, Carla, was more open with Scaduto, probably because she had avoided the public glare. When asked about Bob’s personality she responded: “But when he was first in the city, he was a very sweet kid. Just not too articulate. But I think that’s probably why he did hang on to Suze, for that sweetness.” Then he changed. “He decided he would pick out your weakness and then suddenly grab it and use it on you” (188). Scaduto seemed more interested in Dylan’s personal transformations – certainly remarkable – than in his creative developments.
Dylan had first met Carolyn Hester and her husband Richard Fariña at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1961. He was soon in Columbia Studios, backing Hester on harmonica for her next album. She introduced Dylan around, and would then divorce Fariña, who next married Mimi Baez, Joan’s sister. This developing folk world, with Dylan increasingly at the center, has been well captured in David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina (2001). Perhaps Dylan was interested in Hester after her divorce, but as she admitted to Scaduto: “Yeah, I was, you know, four years older, and I did feel that I shouldn’t get involved with someone that – I felt like his sister” (252). Another key member of the inner circle was the musician and artist Eric von Schmidt, who discussed with Scaduto Dylan’s controversial appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival: “We’re getting to the crux of the von Schmidt theory, that the whole thing was a mistake, that people were not putting Bobby down for playing electric. It was that we couldn’t hear him. The [sound] balance was fucked up” (276). It would take a talented musician such as von Schmidt to candidly discuss Dylan’s developing creative abilities. The controversy over the audience’s reaction still continues, while von Schmidt’s version has been generally upheld, although many at that time could not accept an electrified Dylan. The best overview is presented in Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties (2015).
In 1957, Israel “Izzy” Young opened the Folklore Center, filled with instruments, records, magazines, and a tiny performance space, in the heart of Greenwich Village. Two years later he launched his Sing Out! column “Frets and Fails,” full of news and especially gossip about the local as well as national folk scene. Dylan quickly headed to Izzy’s when arriving in the city, and the two became longtime friends. In Chronicles (2004), Dylan recalls: “The place was a crossroads junction for all folk activity you could name and you might at any time see real hard-line folksingers in there” (19). In early 1962 Dylan expressed his feelings in “Talking Folklore Center,” which he never recorded; however, the proud Young quickly printed and circulated the lyrics. Scaduto’s lengthy interview with Izzy represents his complex relationship with Dylan. “I had a store on MacDougal Street and he came into the store in ’61. And he almost immediately took over,” Izzy began; “Well, he would come in with songs every day, singing new songs. And singing the old songs then. . . . [E]verybody accepted him completely, especially myself, as something that fell out of the sky” (306). Izzy was so charmed that he organized Dylan’s first concert appearance, at the small mid-town Carnegie Chapter Hall, on November 4, 1961, rather than his usual performances in a Village coffee house or folk club. The small turnout discouraged neither Dylan nor Izzy; a few months later he first mentioned Dylan in his Sing Out! column. All of his prolific writings, including numerous Dylan references, appear in Scott Barrett, ed., The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel “Izzy” Young (2013). Particularly fascinating is his daughter Philomène Grandin’s Don’t Forget Me: A Gripping Farewell to a Remarkable Father (2022), in which she recalls attending the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, missing Dylan but accompanied by her ailing father. Young moved to Stockholm in 1973 and they always kept in contact. Indeed, for many, Young appeared to represent Dylan in Europe.
Joan Baez shared with Scaduto now legendary stories of her fraught relationship with Dylan. Yet she concluded: “I think it’s hard not to love somebody like Bobby. I’m really drawn to people who are exceptional” (377).
Scaduto published the first in a tidal wave of serious Dylan studies. We are now able to study his raw research, always useful with the opening of the Archive and now the Bob Dylan Center and as Dylan celebrates his many decades as a creative genius and international celebrity. What more can we ask? As for the author, he would go on to write biographies of Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy. But none would have the influence of his Bob Dylan!