Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan

Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan

by Howard Sounes

Hardcover(1 ED)

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The full, fascinating story of the life and work of Bob Dylan is revealed as never before in Down the Highway. Acclaimed biographer Howard Sounes interviewed more than 250 key people in Dylan's life -- including fellow musicians, former lovers, and family members -- and gained access to previously unseen documentary material. From this mass of exclusive information he has constructed a compelling, engagingly fast-paced, and revelatory biography, taking the reader on a journey from Dylan's childhood in a Minnesota mining town, through his rise to fame in the 1960s and the creation of the songs that have made him an American icon, to his life in the present day. It provides a remarkable insight into one of the most enigmatic figures of popular culture, and is essential reading for anybody who has ever owned a Dylan album.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802116864
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/16/2001
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 527
Product dimensions: 6.35(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.44(d)

Read an Excerpt


Yesterday Is Gone, But the Past Lives On

THE MAN'S WALK WAS WEIRDLY jaunty, like a puppet on invisible strings. His head seemed to move to its own rhythm. He wore ill-fitting clothes, which made him look out of place in a fashionable district of Manhattan, almost the garb of a homeless person. If one looked closely, however, the clothes appeared new. If one looked closer still at the sallow, half-bearded face, this slightly built, middle-aged man seemed familiar. Under the hat there was the distinctive hooked nose, the delicate features framed with wisps of beard. When he went to scratch his nose, his fingernails were very long and dirty. When he looked to cross the street, his eyes were seen to be vivid blue, bluer than robins' eggs.

"You're Bob Dylan!"

People often recognized him, yelling out excited greetings, not quite believing they were seeing a legend on the street. Bob hated it when they grabbed at him, but he was at heart a polite Midwesterner and he did not mind saying hello. When he spoke -- just to say, perhaps, "Hey, man, how are ya doin'?" -- his voice was so distinctive, with words pushed up from his diaphragm in bursts and then seemingly squeezed out through his almost comical nose, emphasizing the wrong word in a sentence and clipping other words short, it could be only Bob Dylan.

Bob came to the corner of 57th Street and Lexington Avenue and entered a small club, Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion. Tommy Makem was an old friend from the early 1960s when Bob was learning his trade, a soft-spoken Irishman who had performed traditional folk songs with The Clancy Brothers in the clubs of Greenwich Village, New York. Makem had not seen Bobby -- as he knew him -- in many years. "There was no one with him, no driver, no companion, no nothing. He was just on his own," he recalls.

Makem settled Bob at a quiet table, where he would not be seen by other patrons. Then Makem fetched his banjo and got on stage for the show. He performed the old ballads Bob loved, hearty songs like "Brennan on the Moor" and the wistful "Will You Go, Lassie, Go." There was a break before the second set and Makem went over to where Bob was having something to eat and drink. "If you feel like singing a song, let me know," he said. But Bob preferred to sit quietly alone. He was enjoying himself greatly. The Irish Pavilion reminded him of his early days in New York and the people he had met there, artists like John Lee Hooker, "Cisco" Houston, and "Big" Joe Williams. These men were monumental in his mind; they had informed and influenced his entire career.

After the audience drifted away, Makem pulled up a chair and he and Bob talked as the staff swept up around their chairs. It was the past Bob wanted to discuss -- old friends from the old clubs, people he had not seen in thirty years, and old memories like the evening he ran up to the Irishman on Sixth Avenue excited about a song he had written. "God it must have been 2:30 or 3 o'clock in the morning," says Makem. "Stopping to sing me a long murder ballad that he had written to the tune of some song he had heard Liam Clancy and myself singing. There would be twenty verses in it, and he would sing the whole lot for you. I thought, God, it's a very interesting thing this young flea's doing."

A few weeks after Bob's unexpected visit to the Irish Pavilion, in the spring of 1992, Tommy Makem received a letter from Bob's record company, Sony Music. Makem was invited to perform at a concert celebrating Bob's thirty years as a recording artist (although, in fact, he had been making records for thirty-one). Bob had not said a word about it when they met, but that was typical of him; he was never much of a talker. Makem was not sure at first what sort of show this would be. From the low-key way in which Bob padded around town on his own, dressed like a bum, one might think his days as a major star were over, and that a celebration of his career would be held in a modest theater somewhere with a few old friends. "It was extremely glamorous and much more of a huge event than I realized," says Makem. "It was gigantic."

The venue for Bob's "Thirtieth Anniversary Concert Celebration," as it was called, was Madison Square Garden, the huge sports arena in Manhattan. When it was announced that Bob would appear with some of the most famous names in music, eighteen thousand seats sold within an hour. This was despite the fact promoters were charging between $50 and $150 a seat, record prices for a concert of its kind. When Makem arrived at the Riga Royal Hotel, where the musicians were staying, he discovered that the guest list included not only old folkies but superstars such as Eric Clapton and George Harrison, who were devoted friends of Bob. For ten days prior to the show, limousines ferried the artists between the hotel and the Kaufman Astoria Studios for rehearsals. Bob dressed down, for rehearsals, his sweatshirt hood over his head, muttering that he was not sure the concert was a good idea: "It'll be like goin' to my own funeral."

Still, there was great excitement on the evening of Friday October 16, 1992, as the lights in the Garden came up to reveal a huge stage in the shape of a Mexican hacienda. The house band, Booker T. and the M.G.s, began the show with one of Bob's songs of Christian faith, "Gotta Serve Somebody." Then, for more than three hours, they backed a succession of stars selected to represent the range of Dylan's influence, from folk artists; country artists, such as Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash; African-American stars who had covered his songs, like Stevie Wonder and the O'Jays; and younger rockers, including Eddie Vedder and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, who toured with Bob in the 1980s. All performed Bob Dylan songs.

At times the concert was a salutary reminder of how many years had passed since the salad days of Dylan and his contemporaries. Carolyn Hester -- one of the beauties of the folk revival -- now had the white hair of a grandmother. The Band, the extraordinary group Bob toured with in 1965-66, and again in 1974, had been five rugged young men with full, dark beards. In the intervening years, guitarist Robbie Robertson had become estranged from the group, and pianist Richard Manuel had killed himself. The remaining three members now appeared much changed as they walked on stage to perform the song "When I Paint My Masterpiece." The beards of drummer Levon Helm and keyboardist Garth Hudson were gray, and Helm looked frail. Rick Danko, the once skinny bass guitarist, was bloated after years of drug abuse. "It was a shock," says Joel Bernstein, who had worked for Bob and The Band in their heyday. "When the lights came up you could hear people go, 'Uh!' "

In comparison, Ritchie Havens looked much like he had years ago when he and The Band were among the stars of the original Woodstock Festival. He brought the audience to its feet with a tremendous cover of "Just Like a Woman." "I was greatly pleased to be invited and to be able to sing a song I still do on stage," he says. "Bob is one of my mental mentors -- an utterly shy person, except on stage which is what most people perceive as his mysteriousness."

True to form, Bob was secreted in his dressing room, watching the show on closed-circuit television. Numerous celebrities, including John McEnroe, Martin Scorsese, and Carly Simon, were drifting around backstage, craning their necks to catch sight of one of the few people in the world more famous than themselves. Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones passed around a 180-proof bottle of vodka. Liam Clancy took a swig. He had flown in from Ireland with his brothers to perform "When the Ship Comes In" with Tommy Makem. "Christ, if we have anymore of that we'll never sing tonight," he said.

Outside in the auditorium members of the audience were expressing themselves in a forthright way if anybody came on stage that they did not like. Singer Sophie B. Hawkins got short shrift. The president of Sony Music was booed. Kris Kristofferson nervously introduced an artist whose name, he said, was synonymous with courage. Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor, stick-thin with head shaved, stepped up to the microphone. She had recently been embroiled in controversy over a television appearance during which she denounced the Pope. There was fierce booing. Booker T. repeatedly played the opening chords of "I Believe in You," the song she had rehearsed, but she froze.

"Get off!" people shouted.

O'Connor made a cutting motion with her hand, ordered her microphone turned up, and spat out the words of the song "War." It was a genuine act of protest and, for a few moments, she silenced the hecklers. Then it dawned on the audience that she was not singing a Bob Dylan song at all. "War" was by Bob Marley. She was howled off stage; she was so upset she threw up. Artists watched her humiliation with surprise. "It was outrageous," says blues artist John Hammond Jr., son of Bob's first record producer. "I couldn't believe the New York audience would be so unopen to her view."

Neil Young came on after the Sinéad O'Connor debacle, seeming a bit nervous. But the crowd loved him, especially when he performed "All Along the Watchtower" in the incandescent style of Jimi Hendrix, who had had a hit with it in 1968. (Curiously, many of Bob's songs were more familiar to a mass audience as cover versions than in their original recordings.) "This song's for you, Bob," shouted Young. "Thanks for Bobfest." Roger McGuinn of The Byrds also received a warm reception when he performed "Mr. Tambourine Man." The Byrds had a number-one hit with the song in the summer of 1965, and the distinctive sound of McGuinn's twelve-string guitar and his tremulous, slightly spacey vocal invoked a profound nostalgia. He sounded just like he had all those years ago. "It was joyful," he says. "I was singing to God."

When the stage was cleared, George Harrison made a long-overdue announcement. "Some of you may call him Bobby. Some of you may call him Zimmy. I call him Lucky," he said in his distinctive Liverpudlian accent, recalling their brief-lived band, The Traveling Wilburys. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome BOB DYLAN!"

The audience shrieked and whistled, straining to catch their first glimpse of the legend. A little man trotted out into the converging violet spotlights, appearing to many surprisingly short and skinny. The applause grew even louder. Dressed in a black silk suit, his white shirt done up tight, Bob looked like a disheveled waiter. He had not shaved, or maybe even slept, for several days. His skin was pale and his face was deeply lined. His once luxuriant curly hair was lank against his sweaty forehead. He moved to the microphone and began strumming his acoustic guitar with his long, nicotine-yellow fingernails. It might be a $5 million show, but he was going to perform solo, as he'd done in coffeehouses decades ago. The tune he strummed was rudimentary and he did not attempt to converse with his audience, other than to say a casual "Thanks everybody." When he started playing, though, the attention of all eighteen thousand people were locked onto this extraordinarily charismatic man. Beyond the front rows of special guests -- which were all the near-sighted singer could make out -- was a vast cavern of people, a cavern studded with the rapid flashing of camera bulbs.

He began with "Song to Woody," the first important song he wrote. It was a tribute to his first hero, Woody Guthrie, the father of American folk music. When he wrote it, Bob was nineteen, affecting a world-weariness beyond his years. At fifty-two, his battered features and weary voice betrayed a man who had been on an extraordinary journey. Woody's daughter, Nora, sat in front. She began to weep as Bob sang about her father, who died in 1967, worn away by Huntington's chorea. "If dad was on a river, there were a lot of streams and estuaries coming in and out of that river. That was a very big river that he was on," she explains. "Bob went right in and he then became captain of that same river. My father faded, and Bob took it over, and I've always felt that he's always been a pretty true captain."

After "Song to Woody," Bob ripped into "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," bending at the knees and twisting his body as he thrashed the steel strings of his guitar. Guest artists crowded around the perimeter of the stage to watch him. Ronnie Wood and drummer Anton Fig peeped from behind the drum riser. "He was just on fire," says Fig.

Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and George Harrison joined Bob for a singalong version of "My Back Pages." Then everybody crowded onto the stage for "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," recently a hit for Guns N' Roses. At the end, Bob stood center stage, applauded not only by the audience but also by the great stars clustered around him. Ronnie Wood and George Harrison sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Bob stood awkwardly, apparently not knowing quite what to do with his hands, not knowing what words to say. Carolyn Hester picked up a small spray of flowers that had been thrown on stage and, encouraged by Neil Young, gave them to Bob, hugging him quickly and pecking him on the cheek. She feared he might not like it, even though they were old friends. "I thought, I'll be thrown out for that, but nobody threw me out. I was so glad. And he smiled. He gave a little smile. Everybody was amazed." It was the first time Bob had smiled all evening.

It was clear during the planning of the event that there had to be an after-show party, somewhere Sony could entertain Bob, celebrity guests, and music-industry people. The Waldorf-Astoria hotel had been a possibility early on. But then Bob said, "I don't want to go there. I'm going to Tommy Makem's place." So plans were changed and the little folk club was hired for the night. It held only a hundred and fifty people, and first priority went to Bob's friends and notable guest stars. Fans and press watched them arrive. Then there were the band musicians, their wives and girlfriends. There was little room left for record-company executives and the remaining celebrities who wanted to get in. In fact, there was no room for anybody else. "You can't come in unless you have a ticket," Tommy Makem was told when he returned from the show.

"I own this pub," Makem informed the security man. But he still had to find his ticket.

Inside, Bob was ensconced like a gypsy king at a long rectangular table in a corner of the Irish Pavilion, a glass of white wine in front of him. Around him, at smaller tables, sat his courtiers -- close friends including George Harrison, who was drinking tea, Ronnie Wood, and Eric Clapton, who was learning to play the Irish tin whistle. Others were escorted to Bob's table one at a time to pay their respects. "Bob Dylan, King of Rock 'n' Roll, was what was going on that night," says Carolyn Hester. "He would summon various ones of us."

When Liam Clancy came up to thank Bob for inviting The Clancy Brothers to perform, Bob asked him to sit awhile. Clancy said he and his brothers were thinking of making an album of Bob's songs, in traditional Irish folk style. It would be a way of giving the songs back to him. "Man, would you do that? Would you?" asked Bob.

"Would you object?"

"Liam, you don't realize, do you, man?" asked Bob, who had relaxed a good deal. He was alternating white wine with Guinness, and was drinking steadily. "You're my fucking hero, man." Bob's acceptance by the folk artists he looked up to when he first came to New York from Minnesota was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and he beamed at the portly, fifty-six-year-old Irishman. "He ceased being the star and he was the insecure little boy I first knew," says Clancy. "He was looking for affirmation then, and he was still looking after all these years, after all the stardom and acclaim and everything.... I thought it was lovely that, at that stage of his life, he could admit it."

Clancy told Bob he had not looked comfortable on stage. He had heard persistent rumors that Bob had a drug problem. Bob's strange behavior in recent years -- performing in hooded sweatshirts and hats that hid his face, and singing songs in ways that made them almost unrecognizable -- seemed to indicate something was wrong. But his reply was surprising. "Hey, man, I suffer from claustrophobia," he said. "I just wanted to be out of there. I can't stand that much time indoors anymore."

"You were breaking out in a cold sweat."

"I don't want to be in that situation anymore, but I have to do it."

Clancy then plucked up the courage to ask a question that had bothered him for years. When they were young men in Greenwich Village, the Irishman had a girlfriend named Cathy. He suspected Cathy had had an affair with Bob, who had always been an incorrigible womanizer. "Bobby, were you screwing Cathy?" he asked.

Bob looked at him and Clancy knew he was going to get the truth at last. "Man, she loved you," he replied, apparently unable to tell a lie. "But she was so lonesome. I gotta admit, man, I did comfort her."

Clancy was hurt. It was painful to think that the love letters Cathy had sent him when he was on the road with his brothers were written when she was snuggled up in New York with baby-faced Bobby Dylan. But they were both too old to fight. Instead, Clancy picked up a guitar and thrust it at Bob, reminding him that in the old days, at the Lion's Head or the White Horse Tavern, they always passed a guitar at the end of an evening. "Come on, here's a guitar. Sing me a song."

"I can't do that anymore, man."

"Are you too big a fucking star for that? Don't pull that shit with me, Bobby. Sing a fuckin' song now, because that's what we've done, always."

Reluctantly, Bob took the guitar and began singing "Roddy McCorley," a traditional song he had learned from The Clancy Brothers. But when it came to his friend's turn to sing a verse, he dried. "Jesus, would you believe it, I was so drunk I couldn't remember it?" From the other end of the table, Ronnie Wood piped up:

Up the narrow street he stepped
Up the narrow street he stepped
Smiling, proud and young
The guitar was passed to George Harrison who sang the next verse. Keyboard player Ian McLagan, who toured with Bob in 1984, jerked awake and contributed a lewd ditty he had learned from Steve Marriott, of The Faces, when they were playing pubs in London:
I love the hole she pisses through
I love my wife
I love her dearly
I love the hole she pisses through
Before long, everybody was laughing, singing songs, reciting snatches of poetry, and slapping one another on the back. "Drink is a great leveler and we all had our arms around each other, and we were in a huddle, like we were when we were young," says Clancy. "We could have been a rugby team at the end of the evening." They drank until morning light came through the windows. At seven a.m. Tommy Makem's sons announced it was time they were all off home to their beds. Fans and press were gone. So were the limousines, the chauffeurs sent home hours ago. They would have to get taxis.

With his custom-made stage suit crumpled and smelling of beer and cigarettes, Bob looked relaxed, much happier than the embarrassed figure on stage at the Garden. When the cabs came, he hugged his friends, thanked them for coming, and allowed himself to be guided to a car. He was smiling broadly as he was driven away into the early morning traffic.

He would sleep until late afternoon. When he woke, in the dusk of a missed day, he would have to turn his mind back to his tour, the so-called Never-Ending Tour of a hundred or so shows a year. He was due to give a concert at the University of Delaware in a couple of days. After that, there were concerts booked until Christmas. They were mostly small theaters, and the people who came to see him probably would not buy his new album; nowadays people came to the shows, like they visited museums, to experience history. His personal life was in ruins. He was getting divorced for the second time, from a marriage he had managed to keep hidden. He was concerned for the future of the daughter he had fathered by his secret, second wife, and mindful of the large sums of money he would have to hand over for the settlement. The show at the Garden would help, but there was a massive overhead and he was not sure how the CD and video spin-offs would sell. Judging by the performance of his recent albums, they might sink without a trace. Maybe it would help if he could talk about his problems, but he was an inward man, with no confidants. Having been famous all his adult life, he felt he could trust only himself.

These were the peculiar pressures of being Bob Dylan. Yet for one night he had been Bobby again, the carefree boy who had come out of the Midwest to make his fortune in New York, the boy who had hung out in the Village with Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy, and Carolyn Hester. He had been happy then, as happy as he has ever been. "A very lonely man," says Clancy, of his old friend. "So few people left in the world, I suppose, that he can talk to."

Table of Contents

Author's Note and Acknowledgmentsix
Prologue: Yesterday Is Gone, But the Past Lives On1
Chapter 1North Country Childhood12
Chapter 2Bound for Glory43
Chapter 3City of Dreams73
Chapter 4Apotheosis124
Chapter 5Full Power177
Chapter 6Country Ways219
Chapter 7On the Road Again255
Chapter 8Faith306
Chapter 9Glimpses352
Chapter 10Not Dark Yet399
Source Notes449

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Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
jmatson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well written and researched bio of Bob Dylan.Surprising in many ways.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was by far the most superb Dylan book that I've ever picked up. I am a massive Dylan fan and I really enjoyed this book. It is honest, and informative.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This exemplary biography manages to get the balance between Bob Dylan's life and his art right, and I found it highly entertaining with much that is new and surprising.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was excited to start this book. I am a fan of Mr. Dylan's music and was interested in learning some about his life, but MAN was this book DULL! I had to force myself to finish it and then I kept finding my mind wandering and couldn't even remember what I had just read. I love reading music bio's but this one was just...ugh!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first Bob Dylan biography that I have ever read. It presents the subject very thoroughly, although at times the writing seems to stumble as if it was written by a teenage girl in extreme awe of every and all things Dylan (i.e., 'and then Bob did this, while wearing this. Isn't that great?'). Those occasions are few and far between, however, and do not hinder the reading process too badly. Other than that, tremendous coverage of the sixties and up until the mid- to late-seventies. After that , the book seems to just hop from album to album to, finally, Time Out of Mind. Not grand detail during this part, but not bad. All in all an excellent read for any Dylan fan.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Now this book is good reading and of course we all know that until Bob writes his own biography,this book and many others to come are to be taken as pure entertainment. Louis
Guest More than 1 year ago
No literary pretentions; just good journalism (provided it's accurate, of course). Sounes writes as if you didn't know much about Dylan to begin with. Which fine. I already knew some of the material, but not nearly all of it. A writer can't guess what all we know and what we don't. Some may accuse Sounes of a pro-Dylan bias. I'd agree, but I don't find it overwhelming or distracting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed it. I thought Dylan came across as likeable and charismatic, and particularly enjoyed relating the writing of the songs to the episodes in his life...even though he claims the songs are already there and he just writes them down. :)
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was really well-done, but I doubt the credibility of the author. Certainly he has done his research, but I think his interviews were with some biased people. Overall, the book is well done, but I believe that nothing should be taken as a truth.