Beyond his poetic genius and his status as one of the greatest artists of late-20th century popular music, you’ve got to hand it to Bob Dylan for keeping his personal life out of the glare of the celeb-obsessed press. It turns out Dylan was better at maintaining his privacy than anyone imagined, hiding a second marriage — and sixth child — from public knowledge. That mystery matrimony is the most startling revelation in London-based journalist Howard Sounes’ extensively researched, respectful bio of the musician, “Down the Highway,” whose release is timed to coincide with Dylan’s 60th birthday on May 24.
As Sounes lays out the events, it’s easy to understand why Dylan guards his personal life so fiercely; intrusions on his privacy have been rife. But for the most part, he’s dealt with trespassers — including the hippie couple he found in his bed on his Woodstock, N.Y., property — with remarkable equanimity and good humor.
One of the most telling incidents in the book concerns Dylan’s first jolt of national fame. When a November 1963 Newsweek article disclosed that the singer-songwriter was not the orphaned vagabond he claimed, but middle-class Bobby Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., Dylan was outraged that his family had cooperated with the reporter. As Sounes suggests, Dylan’s anger apparently made a profound impression, for none of his family has since spoken at length to journalists.
Dylan’s first wife, Sara Lownds, maintains her silence, although there’s ample testimony to the couple’s idyllic early years, and to the bitter dissolution of their marriage. (By the time he was 30, Dylan had fathered four children with Sara and adopted her daughter Maria.)
Sara Dylan is one of the few people from Dylan’s life, besides Bob himself, not represented in the more than 250 interviews Sounes conducted, with everyone from musicians to former girlfriends to William Zantzinger, the real-life villain of Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
Carolyn Dennis, the backup singer who married Dylan in 1986 after giving birth to their daughter, contributes a brief, businesslike statement, referring to her ex as “Mr. Dylan.” Other than the fact of its existence, the six-year marriage remains veiled in secrecy.
But Sounes does proffer the intriguing idea that Dylan’s romantic involvement with Dennis and several other of his backup singers, most of them church-going African-Americans, played a key role in his controversial “conversion” to Christianity in 1979.
Sounes’s spare, flat prose is at first a disappointment, given the poetic force of its subject. But in a relatively brief number of pages, as Bob tomes go, the author sketches a straight-ahead portrait, his interviews often reaping indelible anecdotes or quotes. The fast-paced book has a fine, never heavy-handed interest in details, interweaving stories of Dylan’s domestic life with a chronicle of his prodigious output of 40-plus recordings, including his groundbreaking sessions in Nashville and seminal work with the Band.
Rich with the observations of new witnesses, “Highway” takes the reader through largely familiar terrain: the Minnesota teen incited to the stage by Hank Williams, Little Richard and Elvis; his ascent in the New York folk-club scene; emergence as a major star.
Newsweek article aside, Dylan had invented himself: symbolist poet as pop icon. His songs fused biblical imagery with Beat sensibility and irreverent humor, folk-blues urgency with the electric exultation and complaint of rock ‘n’ roll, all delivered with his signature antiheroic croon.
“Down the Highway” is particularly strong covering the Rolling Thunder Revue; Sounes has interviewed nearly every member of the ragtag caravan that shook 1975 New England. The six-week road trip through the Northeast was an incredible undertaking for an artist of Dylan’s stature, a romantic gypsy fantasia seemingly conceived and realized spontaneously.
Except for several spells of seclusion (notably, his recuperation from the mythologized 1966 motorcycle accident, the facts of which are clearer here than ever before), the road has been Dylan’s lifeblood and solace.
T-Bone Burnett calls him a “shape-shifter,” others see him as a prophet, and Dylan has characterized himself as a “channel” for the “gift” of his creative output. All of these are true, but the image that emerges strongest here is that of a modern-day troubadour, a lifelong student of the blues who, despite his wealth and real estate and reclusiveness, opts again and again for the life of an itinerant musician, committed to the Never Ending Tour.
The cost of his second divorce may have been a factor in Dylan’s newfound devotion to touring, but it’s hard to believe it was the only reason. Rather than simply pounding out greatest-hit sets, he continues to reinvent his recorded songs in performance — fueling the underground market that makes him the most pirated of American recording artists.
His recent work, some of the darkest of his long career, is also some of his most compelling. After 1997’s “comeback” album “Time Out of Mind,” a triple-Grammy winner, Dylan topped himself with the brooding gem “Things Have Changed.” Written for “Wonder Boys,” the song brought Dylan his first Oscar in March, two months before his birthday. Dylan and his band performed the song, a searing glimpse of middle-aged rue, with a rough-edged intensity, live via satellite from Australia — where Dylan was, what else, on the road.