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Byron reborn - Bob Dylan's relationships, yes it's complicated...

Bob Dylan turns 79 today. Recently, he released his first new songs in eight years, full of classic Dylan riffs on secrets and lies, death, and the forgiveness of former lovers. Barry Egan examines the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s complex relationship with the women in his life

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Bob Dylan in 1986

Bob Dylan in 1986

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The singer and his girlfriend Suz Rotolo pose for a portrait in September, 1961 in New York. She later refused his proposal of marriage

The singer and his girlfriend Suz Rotolo pose for a portrait in September, 1961 in New York. She later refused his proposal of marriage

Dylan and his first wife Sara Lownds, for whom he wrote the song 'Sara' which is on the album 'Desire'

Dylan and his first wife Sara Lownds, for whom he wrote the song 'Sara' which is on the album 'Desire'

American folk singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in London in 1965

American folk singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in London in 1965

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Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party on his first visit to Britain in 1962

Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party on his first visit to Britain in 1962

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Marianne Faithful at Aston Studios during the filming of 'Thank Your Luck Stars' TV show in May, 1965 in Birmingham. That same year she neglected Dylan's advances.

Marianne Faithful at Aston Studios during the filming of 'Thank Your Luck Stars' TV show in May, 1965 in Birmingham. That same year she neglected Dylan's advances.

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Artist Andy Warhol and his muse Edie Sedgwick, who was rumoured to have had an affair with Dylan

Artist Andy Warhol and his muse Edie Sedgwick, who was rumoured to have had an affair with Dylan

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Bob Dylan in 1986

Bob Dylan turns 79 today. His songs are like buses now: He hadn't released an original song in eight years, then, in the last three months, three new ones have come along in quick succession. First, Murder Most Foul, a 17-minute opus addressing the assassination of JFK. Then the Anne Frank-referencing I Contain Multitudes, followed by False Prophet. All are masterpieces in their own way, and they have been received with almost universal acclaim. It is the septuagenarian Sultan of Sulk singing of secrets and lies, death, and forgiveness of former lovers - his usual fare.

On I Contain Multitudes, he sings that he is "a man of many moods" who has "skeletons in the walls of people you know".

On False Prophet, he sings: "I opened my heart to the world - and the world came in".

With his last album of original material, 2012's Tempest, Bob Dylan put us all on notice: "I ain't dead yet. My bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings". The proof that the mercurial anti-hero ain't dead yet creatively, is that the Rough And Rowdy Ways album will see the light of day on June 19; his last album, maybe, to finish the artistic revival he started way back on 1997's Time out of Mind. Indeed, Richard F Thomas, a classics professor at Harvard, noted in his book, Why Dylan Matters, that the Bard, "wrote the best civil rights song, Blowin' In The Wind, and the best anti-war song, Masters of War - and all before he was 23 or 24 years old".

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Dylan and his first wife Sara Lownds, for whom he wrote the song 'Sara' which is on the album 'Desire'

Dylan and his first wife Sara Lownds, for whom he wrote the song 'Sara' which is on the album 'Desire'

Dylan and his first wife Sara Lownds, for whom he wrote the song 'Sara' which is on the album 'Desire'

Whether you side with Harvard professors or Joni Mitchell (who seethed in 2010: "Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist. Everything about Bob is a deception"), we are all fascinated at some profound level with Mr Dylan, with who he is ("he has become Odysseus," said one critic) and what he represents. You won't find more powerful writing this year than Dylan's Murder Most Foul:

Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63

A day that will live on in infamy

President Kennedy was a-ridin' high

Good day to be livin' and a good day to die

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb

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American folk singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in London in 1965

American folk singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in London in 1965

Bettmann Archive

American folk singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in London in 1965

He said, "Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?"

Like President John F Kennedy before him, Bob Dylan has sometimes been accused, not always unfairly, of having a woman problem - one of his problems has certainly been the attention paid to his relationships.

In 1967, Ellen Willis wrote in The New Yorker magazine that Dylan's view of women - gleaned from listening to their portrayal in his music - was that they were either, "child-women, bitchy, unreliable, sometimes vulnerable, usually one step ahead" or, "goddesses like Johanna and the mercury-mouthed, silken-fleshed Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Beatrices of pop who shed not merely light but kaleidoscopic images".

Maybe he was mollycoddled too much as a child in Hibbing, Minnesota? His mother, Beatty Zimmerman, in a rare 1968 interview, said: "He was a gorgeous child who just exuded personality. He had very blond hair. I put ribbons in his hair up to a year old. I used to say to him, 'Bobby, you should have been a girl'."

Freud would have had a field day with that comment. Not that Dylan would have cared, as he said in 1985: "I never read Freud. I've never been attracted to anything he has said, and I think he's started a lot of nonsense with psychiatry and that business. I don't think psychiatry can help or has helped anybody. I think it's a big fraud on the public. Billions of dollars have changed hands that could be used for far better purposes."

In 1971, Marion Meade in The New York Times wrote: "There's no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs than Dylan's Just Like a Woman, in which he defines woman's natural traits as greed, hypocrisy, whining, and hysteria."

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Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party on his first visit to Britain in 1962

Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party on his first visit to Britain in 1962

Redferns

Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party on his first visit to Britain in 1962

Years later, the song - generally assumed to be about either Joan Baez or Andy Warhol's ill-fated muse Edie Sedgwick - had Carrie Fisher in hysterics of laughter for different reasons. In her 2008 book, Wishful Drinking, Fisher wrote that Dylan rang her when a company asked him to endorse a new aftershave called Just Like a Woman. He wasn't impressed with the name and asked her for suggestions. Dylan, apparently, liked her somewhat jokey, even outright sarcastic options, which included, Ambivalence: for the scent of confusion, and Arbitrary: for the man who doesn't gave a shit how he smells, and, most ridiculously of all, Empathy: feel like them and smell like this.

Dylan also mentioned that he was thinking of opening a beauty salon. To which the one-time Princess Leia of Star Wars suggested: "Tangled Up And Blown".

Which pretty much described Mr Dylan's bizarre love life. It is perhaps unlucky for him that one or two of his girlfriends - like his hero Elvis Presley's girlfriends before him - wrote their own accounts of the relationships.

In Britta Lee Shain's 2016 book, Seeing the Real You at Last: Life and Love on the Road with Bob Dylan, she recounts an affair on tour in 1985 with the superstar, while her boyfriend (who worked for Dylan) and Dylan's girlfriend were away.

"There must be a hundred ways to do it," he apparently told her. "Would you like to learn them all with me?" On that same tour, Britta - who was by then "inseparable" from Dylan, discovered that he had "flown in a bimbo", as Britta put it.

She writes that she "hits the ceiling", leading to a tragic-comic scene of Dylan and the "bimbo" lying on Dylan's bed "him holding me, her fuming". But not before Dylan could ask, "What about all three of us?" Not long after, Dylan ended the relationship, telling Britta, "Sometimes I do bad things". Nearly as bad, it transpired, was Britta's prose: "Without even entering me, Bob Dylan is the best lover in the world..."

Years later, Britta was at a 12-step meeting. Apropos of the meeting's discussion about love, an unknown woman chipped in that it was unwise to date anyone famous, because if it goes bad, you see reminders everywhere.

Britta agreed, and said she had had her heart broken by Bob Dylan. She asked the woman who it was that had broken her heart. "Dylan" was the answer.

Pre-heartbreak, Britta also wrote in her memoir about a meal with Dylan when he "swoops up a [large] slice [of cake], circles the table, then plasters the gooey dessert in my face". When Britta threw some cake back at him, he "picks up the Champagne bottle and pours it over my head".

It's a frat-house Dylan utterly at odds with the deity Dylan of myth; the messianic prophet saving the world.

It's not always women gunning for him. In 2006 in The Nation, Richard Goldstein wrote that Dylan was "a keeper of the patriarchal flame: he's the holy writ in a phallic rite".

Goldstein added that "suspicion of worldly women" is a theme, and "hostility to women" a "recurring motif" in Dylan's songs" - from Like a Rolling Stone to Idiot Wind - while Dylan's love songs "bask in feminine submission".

He cited Sweetheart Like You from the 1983 album Infidels, in which Dylan asks, "What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?" and then answers, "You know a woman like you should be at home/That's where you belong/Watching out for someone who loves you true/Who would never do you wrong".

And yet American feminist Camille Paglia believes that Dylan's 11-minute Desolation Row from 1965's Highway 61 Revisited "is the most important poem in English since Allen Ginsberg's Howl".

The Norwegian writer Ellen Sofie Lauritzen has said that she is frightened to think of "what many feminists would make of some of my formative influences - Bob Dylan vengefully dissing an ex in Idiot Wind or Positively Fourth Street".

Female artists have covered so many of his songs over the years: everyone from PJ Harvey with Highway 61 Revisited to Emmylou Harris with Every Grain of Sand; Nina Simone with The Ballad Of Hollis Brown; Adele with Make You Feel My Love; Tracy Chapman with The Times They Are A Changin'; Nico with I'll Keep it with Mine, and Chrissie Hynde with I Shall Be Released.

When Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, Suzanne Vega told The Observer that her mother "always thought that Dylan was somewhat misogynistic, but I don't see that. I see a whole range of female characters in his music from goddesses and queens and women revered and then also women used, abused".

Seventeen-year-old Suze Rotolo fell in love with 21-year-old Bob Dylan in 1961. They were photographed together for the cover of his Freewheelin' album in February 1963, on a snow-covered street near their $60-a-month apartment on the top floor of 161 West Fourth Street. Rotolo came from a communist New York family.

"A lot of what I gave him was a look at how the other half lived - left-wing things that he didn't know," she told writer David Hajdu in his book, Positively 4th Street.

"He knew about Woody [Guthrie] and Pete Seeger, but I was working for Core [Congress of Racial Equality] and went on youth marches for civil rights, and all that was new to him."

Dylan wrote Don't Think Twice, It's all Right, Boots of Spanish Leather and Tomorrow is a Long Time about Suze. But when folk singer Joan Baez arrived on the scene in the summer of that year, Bob began seeing her behind Suze's back. In August of 1963, Suze moved into her sister Carla's flat. "For her parasite sister, I had no respect", Dylan sang on the plainly vicious Ballad in Plain D in 1964. "I could no longer cope with all the pressure, gossip, truth and lies that living with Bob entailed," Suze said, years later. "I was on quicksand and very vulnerable." She discovered she was pregnant, turned down his marriage proposal, then had an illegal abortion.

Inevitably, they broke up.

Suze - who died in 2011 of lung cancer - wrote in her memoir, A Freewheelin' Time, that when she read Francoise Gilot's Life with Picasso, it shocked her, because she "felt I was reading a book of revelations, lessons, warnings. Even though Picasso was a much older man than Bob and had experienced a lot more, their personalities were so similar that it was astounding".

She added that Dylan was "a beacon, a lighthouse. He was also a black hole. He required committed back-up and protection I was unable to provide consistently, probably because I needed them myself".

As the aforementioned Richard Goldstein in The Nation noted, Dylan's lyrics were "read like the entrails of a certain sacred bird". Still, it would be plausible, even nice, to think that Dylan wrote I Threw it all Away from 1967's Nashville Skyline album about Suze:

I once held her in my arms

She said that she'd always stay

But I was cruel

I treated her like a fool

I threw it all away

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand

And rivers that ran through every day

I must have been mad

I never knew what I had

I threw it all away

Bob would, of course, throw it all away too with his wife - "lovely, luscious Sara Lownds" as Harper's Bazaar described her.

Dylan was still romantically involved with Joan Baez when he and Sara (whose marriage to photographer Hans Lownds was, by then, effectively over) met at the wedding of Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, to Sara's friend Sally on January 25, 1964.

Joan only discovered her boyfriend had a new girlfriend when she went to visit him on tour in London and Sara answered the door. "That's how I found out there was a Sara," Baez later said, adding that it was "the most demoralising experience in my life". In a 2009 documentary, Dylan would offer this as form of apology to Baez: "I was just trying to deal with the madness that had become my career. Unfortunately, she got swept along and I felt very bad about it."

Sara and Dylan were married in November 1965 in Long Island, under an oak tree. In the early 1970s, cracks in their marriage began to emerge. On Dirge from 1974's Planet Waves album, Dylan sang with near contempt, "I hate myself for lovin' you, but I'll soon get over that".

He was seeing Columbia Records executive Ellen Bernstein. And there were others. In 1995, actress Ruth Tyrangiel alleged in court (the charges were dismissed) that Dylan had a 19-year affair with her. She also claimed in court (she sued Dylan for palimony; the charges were dismissed) that Dylan had pledged to leave Sara for her.

On 1976's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Sara was alleged to have been suffering from nervous exhaustion. Joan Baez - who was also on the tour - recounted how Sara appeared at one show "looking like a madwoman, carrying baskets of wrinkled clothes, her hair wild and dark rings around her eyes".

Rather than the cheating killing his marriage to Sara, Bob later claimed that it was after he took up art classes with the painter Norman Raeben that their marriage was changed forever. "I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. She never knew what I was talking about. And I couldn't possibly explain it," he said

He and Sara first separated in May 1974, and Dylan started work on Blood On The Tracks, which includes Idiot Wind, the lyrics of which can be read as pure poison spat at the mother of his children: "You're an idiot, babe/It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe".

Glenn Berger, one of the engineers on the Blood On The Tracks sessions in 1974, remembers Dylan recording a take of Idiot Wind: "He is just spitting this mean, angry, hurtful song, and it's so incredibly intense and vulnerable and real. And then he turns to us in the control room and says, 'Was that sincere enough?' I think it was such an intense emotion that he had to make some distance from it, by making that funny remark."

Post Blood On The Tracks, Dylan and Sara made an attempt to put their marriage back together. On May 24, 1975, Dylan was in the south of France, celebrating his 34th birthday. He begged Sara to fly over. She refused. The painter David Oppenheim (who painted the mural on the back cover of Blood On The Tracks, and with whom Dylan was staying in the Cote d'Azur ) said that Dylan obsessively called Sara, becoming "completely despairing, isolated, lost".

In July, Dylan was putting the finishing touches to the Desire album at New York's Columbia studio when Sara appeared. "Bob obviously wanted to surprise her with it," someone who was in the studio that day told biographer Bob Spitz. "He hadn't told anyone he intended to record it, not even the band who were expected to follow him. Those of us sitting in the control room stopped talking and froze. Nobody moved, not a word was said.

"Bob had the lights dimmed more than usual, but as the music started, he turned and sang the song [titled Sara] directly at Sara, who sat through it all with an impervious look on her face. It was as if she had put on an expressionless mask. The rest of us were blown away, embarrassed to be listening in front of them. He was really pouring out his heart to her. It seemed as if he was trying to reach her, but it was obvious she was unmoved."

There is an apocryphal tale that a Dylan groupie in the studio at that precise moment turned to Dylan's wife and, unaware of who she was, said: "I don't know who this Sara chick [in the song] is. But she better hurry up before she's six feet under."

Jacques Levy (who collaborated on the lyrics on Desire) told Howard Sounes in his Dylan book, Down The Highway: "She was absolutely stunned by the song Sara. And I think it was a turning point… It did work. The two of them really did get back together".

Sara gave it another go, possibly knowing it was doomed to fail. On February 13, 1977, the final straw came when she came down for breakfast at their Malibu home to find Dylan already having breakfast with another woman (a poet named Malka) and their children. The divorce was finalised on June 30, 1977.

In her book, Britta Lee Shain wrote that Dylan told her that his Christian phase (1979's Slow Train Coming, 1980's Saved and 1981's Shot Of Love albums) had been "inspired by his divorce from Sara".

"Marriage was a failure," he told a journalist in 1978. "Husband and wife was a failure, but father and mother wasn't a failure. I wasn't a very good husband... I don't know what a good husband is. I figured it would last forever." There were rumours the couple rekindled their romance, briefly, in 1983.

Dylan married again, secretly, in 1986, to his back-up singer, Carolyn Dennis. That marriage ended in 1992, and was only revealed in a book about him in 2001.

During his legendary stay at the Savoy hotel in London in 1965, Dylan had a number of visitors, among them Marianne Faithfull. There is a video online of Marianne sitting serenely in a chair in the corner of the room while Dylan bashes something out on his portable typewriter (and Joan Baez sings Percy's Song). The question is: what was the great poet typing? The answer might come from the quiet girl in the corner.

In her 1994 autobiography, Faithfull recounts that Dylan was "at that moment in time, nothing less than the hippest person on earth. The zeitgeist streamed through him like electricity. He was my existential hero, the gangling Rimbaud of rock, and I wanted to meet him more than any other living being. I wasn't simply a fan; I worshipped him... One minute I was walking down Oxford Street and the next I was knocking somewhat trepidatiously on a mysterious blue door. Of course, with Dylan, you are drawn willy-nilly into his world of encoded messages. Doors are no longer doors; they take on Kafkaesque significance. There are answers behind them... Behind the blue door there was a room full of hipsters, hustlers, pop stars, swallow-tailed waiters, folkers, Fleet Street hacks, managers, beatniks, blondes".

Marianne stirred something within Dylan. She wrote that he was "interested" in her, adding: "It's true what they say: you regret the things you don't do the most. Apparently Bob Dylan spent days and days writing a poem for me in 1964 and I think it was understood in his circle that I would go to bed with him.

"I mean, I presume that's the intention when you're a very pretty girl and you go to a big star's bedroom, isn't it? But I didn't realise this at the time because I was just a silly teenager and it was all a bit much.

"I very much wanted to go to bed with him, but I was pregnant and about to get married," Marianne wrote, referring to her first husband John Dunbar. "At the time, I told Dylan all this and he was furious and ripped the poem up in front of me. We are still very fond of each other and still talk about that night. I'll always say to him, 'But Bob, I was only 17', and he always says, 'Yeah, but I was only 22 myself!'

"The saddest thing for me was not that we didn't go to bed together, but that I never got to see that poem."

So, what or who is Bob Dylan, the man who once told one of his many girlfriends, when she asked why she couldn't live with him: "I can't even live with myself".

"Mary Magdalene, that's my definition of hot," Dylan told Spin magazine in 1985.

"I'll drink to the man that shares your bed", he sings on I Contain Multitudes. It is likely Dylan has driven this woman into another man's bed. He's a fateful blend of romantic and hard-eyed realist. Initially, it seems he can't stop himself from idealising women, believing they will be, finally, what he's been looking for, and when they aren't, he's bitterly disappointed, even cruel. His idealism is his downfall.

Would he get away with behaving like that now, in the world of MeToo? Probably, yes. All the world loves a lover, and if a man positions himself as a great lover, a mythological lover, he'll get away with almost anything because a great lover isn't just a sleazy pick-up artist, he's a poet, a romantic, an icon - he's Bob Dylan.

Byron reborn.

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