Monday 19 March 2018

Bob Dylan: The secret life and loves of a musical icon

Bob Dylan plays Dublin next month as part of his marathon Never Ending Tour. Liadan Hynes traces his complicated love life, the secret wife, broken marriage and teenage sweetheart

Bob Dylan with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at a civil rights rally in Washington DC
Bob Dylan with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at a civil rights rally in Washington DC
Bob Dylan in London in 1966
Bob Dylan on stage in 2010
Bob Dylan performing at the Grammy Awards in 2011

It was just over 50 years ago this summer that Bob Dylan famously suffered a serious motorbike accident in the back roads around Woodstock, New York, and disappeared from public sight. Having exploded on to the scene as a youth protest folk singer who would go on to become the world's biggest musical icon, Dylan was on his way home on July 29, 1966, when he crashed his beloved Triumph.

By all accounts, Dylan was exhausted. He had just completed a relentless, apparently drug-fuelled, tour. Closer to home, the then 25-year-old was plagued by obsessive fans - stalkers who broke into his home in an artist colony in upstate New York. He had become so unnerved that he had allegedly taken to sleeping with a gun, after a rifle had been recovered from one persistent fan.

As with so much in the enigmatic singer's life (as the man himself no doubt prefers), to this day mystery surrounds the accident. No ambulance was called, he didn't visit a hospital, and there is no police record of the accident. His wife was driving behind him and it is said he was taken to a nearby home where he was tended to by a doctor. Rumours abounded. Was it a hoax? An excuse to take time off? Had the injuries been more serious than reported? Was Dylan secretly desperately incapacitated? Maybe permanently? Or was it a cover up to conceal a drugs scandal?

In fact, Dylan would later reveal that the crash left him with a cracked vertebra and serious cuts and bruises. For the singer, it presented an almost life-saving chance to escape the pressures of his world, to disappear into the bosom of family life, exchanging his brutal schedule of constant album releases, studio time, press duties, tours and fan attention, for time with his wife Sara Lownds and their children. In his memoir Chronicles he wrote: "I had been in a motorcycle accident and I'd been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses."

Bob Dylan in London in 1966
Bob Dylan in London in 1966

Although Dylan would play the occasional concert and still record, it would be eight years before he would tour properly again.

Dylan had married Lownds, a former Playboy bunny and model in November 1965. A quiet, reserved type with no interest in celebrity or the trappings of fame, Sara presented a chance for calm domesticity, the absolute opposite of anything Dylan had so far known in his adult life.

The pair were both in relationships when they met in 1964; Sara married, Dylan tied to folk singer Joan Baez. In his autobiography, he wrote that when he first saw folk singer Baez on television, "I couldn't stop looking at her, didn't want to blink." When they actually met in the early 1960s she became a huge supporter, insisting they duet onstage, despite occasional protests from her fans, who objected to Dylan's nasal twang. Dylan would become first the voice of a generation, and then arugably the most important singer/song-writer of the last century. With songs like Blowin' in the Wind he became the consummate protest singer. By the mid 1960s, he was playing up to 200 concerts a year. To date, Dylan, who last year made history as the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has sold over 40 million albums.

As he went on to eclipse Baez in terms of career stature, Dylan did not return the favour. When he invited her on his 1965 tour of Europe, and then rescinded upon his promises to bring her out on stage, his behaviour was nothing short of caddish. Years later, in a documentary about Baez, Dylan would, in his own way, apologise, saying he felt "very bad" about how the relationship with "Joanie" ended.

Dylan had not been alone when he allegedly got together with Baez. Some of the women who have been most important in Dylan's life, long-term lovers, mothers of children, have never been publicly acknowledged. In contrast, early girlfriend Suze Rotolo was immortalised on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the album he released in 1963. The pair had begun dating in 1961, shortly after Dylan arrived in New York. At the time she was just 17, and is said to be the inspiration for many early love songs, including Don't Think Twice, It's Alright, in which he wrote: "I once loved a woman, a child I am told, I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul."

In his autobiography, Dylan remembers first meeting Rotolo backstage at a concert. "Right from the start I couldn't take my eyes off her," he wrote. "She was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blooded Italian. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid's arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard." For her part, Rotolo later described him as "funny, engaging, intense and... persistent". He was, she later revealed, mercurial; funny and affectionate one minute, but capable of total withdrawal to the point of cruelty the next. It wasn't long before the pair moved in together.

Bob Dylan on stage in 2010
Bob Dylan on stage in 2010

Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, Dylan's parents were European Jews who fled to America.

Never one to shy away from some self-mythologising, he reached New York in 1961 full of tall tales about his upbringing; he was a runaway orphan, escapee of foster care, a truant from a travelling carnival.

Rotolo was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and is credited with Dylan's political awakening. Dylan's increasing success proved difficult on the relationship. "I could no longer cope with all the pressure, gossip, truth and lies that living with Bob entailed," Suze later wrote in her biography. The relationship eventually foundered over rumours that Dylan and Baez had become more than professional colleagues.

Dylan first met Sara Lownds in 1964. By the time they married in late 1965, she was pregnant with their first child. Tour manager Victor Maymudes was shocked when they married. "I asked him, 'Why Sara?'" his posthumous biography revealed. "'Why not Joan Baez?' Dylan responded: 'Because Sara will be there when I want her to be home, she'll be there when I want her to be there, she'll do it when I want to do it. Joan won't be there when I want her. She won't do it when I want to do it.'" This is a rather passive depiction of Lownds, who was responsible for Dylan completely overhauling his way of life. "Until Sara, I thought it was just a question of time until he died," his personal assistant at the time once commented. "But later I had never met a more dedicated family man." He would walk the children to school, spend time writing or painting, visiting nearby friends. Life had become more important than art, he later explained, he had lost his hunger. Dylan wrote: "I wasn't going deeper into the darkness for anybody... my family was my light, and I was going to protect that light at all costs."

For almost a decade, Bob the artist was tamped down, in favour of Bob the family man. After several years in Woodstock, the family moved back to Greenwich Village but privacy was limited. They tried Mexico, but as Sara said to Dylan, "What the hell are we doing here?"

In 1973 the Dylans moved to California. As unlikely as it seems, the marriage seems to have foundered over the most prosaic of affairs, a household renovation. What started as the addition of a bedroom became a rebuild of the entire house that included a new fireplace which was, legend has it, ripped out on an almost weekly basis. Suddenly the couple that had never rowed were at each other's throats over house fittings. Dylan took off on a tour leaving Sara behind. It wasn't long before he was drinking and smoking heavily, and cheating on his wife.

Blood on the Tracks, the record that famously depicts the demise of the marriage, was released in 1975. The final straw came in February 1977; Sara went down to breakfast at their Malibu home to find Dylan and a girlfriend sitting down to breakfast with her children. She snapped, and the two had a raging row. She later claimed he hit her in the jaw. The marriage was over.

In total, Dylan has acknowledged one marriage, and never denied the existence of a second, to backing singer Carolyn Dennis. That marriage took place in 1986 six months after the birth of the couple's daughter, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. Amazingly, the entire thing, marriage and child, was kept a secret for years. When Dylan let go of his backing singers, she returned home, and Dylan, by then embarked on the so called Never Ending Tour, is said to have rarely visited. Bob and Carolyn were never photographed together, and she filed for divorce after four years of marriage. By the time a biographer broke the story in 2001, the couple had been apart for almost a decade.

In response to reports that Dylan was in some way lacking as a father, Carolyn once commented: "To portray Bob as hiding his daughter is just malicious and ridiculous. Bob has been a wonderful, active father to Desiree... Bob and I kept our marriage secret for a simple reason - to give our daughter a normal childhood." Lownds and Dennis are the only wives of whom official record has been confirmed, but there is speculation of more, secret marriages and unacknowledged children.

In the early 1990s, Ruth Tyrangiel was declared a common law wife as the two had been in a relationship from 1974 to 1991, apparently overlapping his marriage to Dennis, and Dylan was forced to pay alimony. In the later 1990s, Susan Ross, a former girlfriend who later described him as a useless lover and recovering alcoholic, wrote a biography about the singer in which she claimed there were further unacknowledged marriages, including one to backing singer Clydie King, whom she claimed Dylan had secretly married and had two unacknowledged children with. Ross herself had only been admitted to his Malibu home after the pair dated for five years.

Dylan may not have been much of a safe bet as a husband or partner, but as a father, it seems it was a different matter. Jakob Dylan, musician and the youngest of his children with Sara Lownds, once revealed in an interview that Dylan was a loving father. "If people want to talk about Bob Dylan, I can talk about that," he told a journalist, as usual reluctant to reveal anything personal. "But my dad belongs to me and four other people exclusively. I'm very protective of that." Then he relented, revealing: "Yes, he was affectionate. When I was a kid, he was a god to me for all the right reasons. Other people have put that tag on him in some otherworldly sense. I say it as any kid who admired his dad and had a great relationship with him. He never missed a single Little League game I had. He's collected every home-run ball I ever hit. And he's still affectionate to me... maybe he doesn't want people to know that," he finished with a smile. Dylan, in his own way after all, a family man.

Bob Dylan plays Dublin's 3Arena on Thursday, May 11

'I once loved a woman...'

* The mother Beatty Zimmerman was a warm, loving woman with a close relationship to her son. At his birth she declared him so beautiful he should have been a girl.

* The political Suze Rotolo was Bob's first girlfriend when he moved to New York. She was famously featured on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and introduced him to the civil rights movement.

* The singer Joan Baez was hugely supportive in the early days of his career.

* The wife Sara Lownds, with whom Bob had four children.

* The secret wife Carolyn Dennis, his backing singer - the pair had divorced by the time the story of their marriage and daughter broke.

'The Times They Are A-Changin'...'

* Folk hero Dylan first came to musical prominence as the voice of a generation in the early 1960s.

* 'Judas' In 1965 Dylan played electric for the first time. The crowd was outraged and he stormed off the stage.

* Family Man In the late 1960s, Dylan disappeared to rear a family. He would not tour again for almost a decade.

* Born Again In the late 1970s/early 1980s there was a religious period where he was reawakened as an evangelical Christian and took to preaching on stage about Jesus.

n The comeback kid The mid-1990s' MTV Unplugged album followed by 1997's Time Out of Mind saw a return to form.

* Never Ending As well as, among other things, releasing a Christmas album, hosting a radio show, and releasing albums once a year since 2015, Dylan has been engaged in the Never Ending Tour since the late 1980s.

* NOBEL Last year Dylan was awarded the Prize in Literature. Having not attended the original ceremony, he recently attended a private ceremony in Sweden.

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