Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bob Dylan: A Biography Bob Dylan: A Biography by Anthony Scaduto

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is one of the better Bob bios on the market, the best being Bob’s self-penned Chronicles: Vol. 1.
Originally published in 1972 this could be said to be quite behind the times, ending as it does just after Bob’s 1971 New Morning LP. However having less of a time-period to cover than most bios means it can focus with much more depth on Bob’s youth and the first ten years of his career.
Scaduto’s bio is unique in having been vetted and approved by Dylan whilst still in the manuscript stage, something he didn’t normally do – reading books about yourself written by other people would feel understandably and decidedly weird after a while no doubt. Bob was moved to cooperate with Scaduto by fears (supposedly implanted by infamous Dylanologist and Garbologist AJ Weberman) that Scaduto would concentrate on the rumours floating around the Village in the early 70s that Bob was a heroin addict. He wasn’t, claims Scaduto.
Bob met with Scaduto at his recording studio after reading the manuscript and argued over it, while later filling in gaps in the story so graciously that Scaduto admits he became suspicious of Bob’s motives - afraid he was trying to seduce him into a white-wash. Scaduto stood up for himself however – this is man that has written books on the Mafia after all, a point that apparently impressed Dylan.
Most importantly Bob for the first time analysed his lyrical content, something he always claimed impossible when attempted by others. He paid particular attention to the violently surreal lyrics from Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde.
A few years before meeting Scaduto, and while recovering from the motorbike accident that almost killed him at his Woodstock home, Bob had an epiphany that all those bitter tirades against folkniks and fallen women were actually the author subconsciously aiming his superbly sarcastic blade at his own cynical self. He says his [at that stage three:] later albums are also about himself but that at least by then he knew he was doing it. He feels he is now a more whole and less fearful person, and hence free to less cynically celebrate his life and his young family with albums like Nashville Skyline.
Most interesting for Australian readers is the revelation that Bob worked on songs for the Blonde On Blonde album whilst on tour here, in particular whilst stuck in a hotel room in Perth, accompanied by Robbie Robertson from The Band and a woman who is only described as a ‘prominent Australian actress’ of the time whom he befriended through their mutual friend the Melbourne poet Adrian Rawlings. This mysterious actress (whose identity I am determined to discover) was hired by an un-named national publication to do a piece on Bob, but at Bob’s request she went off the idea - although she happily spills the beans for Scaduto under the condition of anonymity. This gets to the root of why this book works, and no doubt why Bob himself says,
“I like your book. That’s the weird thing about it.”
People really open up to Scaduto. Joan Baez talks very honestly and openly for a whole chapter, and old school friends tell tales such as how when a young Bob would get drunk at parties back in Hibbing, Minnesota they would trick him by saying,
“Hey Bobby, Woody Guthrie’s outside, he says he wants to me you.”
Little Bobby Zimmerman would then run out into the snow looking for his hero, calling his name and catching pneumonia while his friends chortled at the window.
Scaduto also talks to the Manhattan musicians Bob put on his manager Albert Grossman’s payroll then piled into a car to drive across America with him – playing shows to itinerant labourers, Dallas university students (two months after JFK’s assassination) and bemused elderly poets whose addresses he’d tracked down, it all ending in a dope fueled mess in a pre-psychedelic San Francisco – and all the time with a jar labelled Marijuana on the dashboard refilled by picking up certain packages at post offices along the way.
Bob himself talks extensively to Scaduto. This being less than a decade since he had been frightened by mobs calling him a messiah and then a Judas in quick succession, both of which he found equally terrifying – as he puts it, (to paraphrase) ‘Jesus was a messiah and look what they did to him!’ Hence Bob explain how he just wants people to realise he’s just a musician, and even if he was some kind of pop-cultural superhero then there’s no reason to follow him, constantly reiterating what he feels is his most important lyrical message,
“Don’t follow leaders,
and watch the parking meters.”

Benito Di Fonzo
21 Jan. 2010

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AJ Weberman said...

Most recent bio of Bob Dylan, including one aired on educational television admit that Herr Zimmermann had a drug problem back then. I was just ahead of my time.

Joe Gannet said...

The identity of the actress has long been wel known - Rosemary Gerrette

Anonymous said...

This biography among true Dylan circles is known to be absolutely useless, full of gossip and juice just to sell the book. Research it online and you'll find lie after lie. If you need a real biography about Dylan's early years I would suggest Robert Shelton's book, as for a full spectrum analysis I would suggest "Absolutely Dylan" by the late John Bauldie and Patrick Humphries. Rating this with so many stars tells me either you've not read most of the bios, or you're just not that interested in the truths.

Anonymous said...

Even Shelton's book collapsed after 1970. As Dylan said himself its all in the music. You want to know where Dylan is at, play his albums.

Benito Di Fonzo said...

AJ I would never attempt to joust with you on knowledge of the Zimmerman, I just said Scaduto "claims" he wasn't.

Thank you Joe, I didn't know that - not as big an Aussie actress as I was assuming actually.

Anonymous - OUch! You Bocats can be harsh on a simple fellow. I just found this one of the most readable and interesting - writing style wise - and of course they've all lost some currency since Chronicles came out anywho haven't they. However, I think you're being a bit harsh on Scaduto, and Di Fonzo for that matter. He did get Bob to verify the contents, and the books is decribed in Lawrence J. Epstein's (Author of "Political Folk Music in America From Its Origins to Bob Dylan") bibliography of the best Dylan books (in his humble opinion) as,
"...the first important Dylan biography. It provided the basic story on which all future biographies built."

Nonetheless I take all your points on board, and of course bow to your studies in particular Dr. Weberman.

Benito Di Fonzo said...

"You want to know where Dylan is at, play his albums."

I do agree one-hundred per-cent with you on this Anonymous, I just needed something to do with my hands since I gave up smoking to change my vox.

(Although if you're gonna rip into us like that you could at least lose your anonymity, no?)

redhairanomaly said...

I love to read comments and opinions since Anthony Scaduto is my great uncle. It's wise to read more than one biography to get the picture of the person of interest.

Unknown said...

I have maybe looked briefly at three of the Dylan biographies with bits about Perth over the years, apart from Tony Scaduto's. It was coincidence I read the blog with your good critique of Scaduto's book today. I was looking up a story I wrote for the Athens News and your critique of Scaduto's book came up with your commentary about Perth and an experience I had with Dylan. I'm always puzzled by the emotionality with which some biographers wrote about my motive for talking with him about Dylan, like I had somehow betrayed the Sacred One. After all this time, I feel I must say something to correct a few things. This is minor, but irking. It must be a worse for those who really had a significant relationship with Dylan and knew damn well what happened.

FYI, I haven't been an actor since 1973 when I went back to university and got a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley then an MFA from UCLA Film school while having kids. I have been married to the same person, American, since 1969. No chance to become "as big an Aussie actress" as you were assuming. Yet at 22 when I met Dylan, I was certainly on my way. Spending a year in repertory at the Perth National Theatre having just played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet for the International Festival of Perth and with a number of leads in plays on the east coast behind me.

I've written a piece correcting some info about the incidence described by Tony Scaduto. As one Australian to another, and as the very good writer you are, I think you might like to read it. The only problem is I don't know how to get it to you. White pages?

Benito Di Fonzo said...

Rosemary, great for you to get in contact with me. You can email me at

PS: the comment about not "as big an Aussie actress" as I'd assumed was meant in no way to disparage you or your achievements. And I apologise unreservedly if it came out that way, my bad. It emerged from my discovering the Perth connection and having visions of Bob with possibilities ranging from Rowena Wallace to Abigail from... Look forward to hearing from you and happy to help you correct the record in any way I can. BDF

Benito Di Fonzo said...

Would still love to hear from you Rosemary, but my email changed about a year ago to benitodifonzo[at]gmail[dot]com or you can contact me via