It’s a testament to the incalculable influence of Bob Dylan that even the names on the periphery of his life and career are well known by his fans and, in some cases, the casual listener. Over the years, these individuals have appeared in countless books, articles, and documentaries about one of the most important songwriters of the 20th-century. These characters are given plenty of space to tell their story in The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, & Lovers Talkin’ Early Bob Dylan, a new book that acts as the raw material that became the first comprehensive and serious study of Dylan in book form, Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography in 1971.
Scaduto’s career began as a copyboy for the New York Post where he quickly moved up to police reporter, covering the Brooklyn crime beat. On a suggestion by journalist and filmmaker Nora Ephron, the New York Post promoted him to feature writer, where he covered the Mafia mainly because, as his widow Stephanie Trudeau – who is the editor for The Dylan Tapes – writes in her introduction, “He grew up in an Italian neighborhood and his last name ended in a vowel.” He was awarded the nickname, “Tough Tony” for his mob coverage.
Scaduto also had a strong love of music, eventually writing a paperback on the Beatles, which led to a publisher asking for a serious book on a big-name pop figure. Scaduto decided “the only subject worth considering was Bob Dylan.”
Thus began the tracking down of an impressive array of Dylan’s friends and girlfriends from high school, including “Girl From the North Country” inspiration, Echo Helstrom; fellow musicians, from Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Joan Baez; and mentors aplenty, from the Folklore Center’s Izzy Young to the legendary John Hammond, Sr., proving that no man is truly self-made, and the former Robert Zimmerman is no exception.
Over the years, the resulting biography has been expanded and translated to several languages, and even influenced a young Bruce Springsteen, who told journalist and The New Yorker editor David Remnick on a 2016 podcast that “there was so much about John Hammond, Sr. in the book, I knew I had to get an audition with Hammond.” Did Scaduto’s biography lead to Springsteen signing his own contract with Columbia Records? It’s an arguable assumption.
Scaduto died in 2017, but shortly before, he found a dusty box of reel-to-reel tapes in his basement. It contained the full, unedited interviews that comprised his Dylan biography. After his death, Trudeau (who first met Scaduto a year after the book’s publication, and became his research assistant and his wife from 1978 until his death) took up the cause, editing and arranging all that raw material into The Dylan Tapes.
The result is the equivalent of peeking inside a time capsule that was buried over 50 years ago. We get to visit with those who knew Dylan as intimately as anyone ever could. We read about how he shoveled snow to pay bills while trying to make his way as a folk singer. We develop a better understanding, somewhat, about his desire and need to craft his own story, his history, to others.
We also get a fuller picture of his devotion to his ultimate mentor, Woody Guthrie, in the fascinating interview with Sid and Bob Gleason, who hosted Guthrie on weekends for two years at their New Jersey home at the allowance of Greystone Hospital. Because of this, their home “became a center of folk activity filled with a loose crowd who came to spend time with the greatest figure in folk music.” This crowd included Pete Seeger, Jack Elliott, Cisco Houston, and 19-year-old Dylan. In the interview, the Gleasons revealed Guthrie’s observation that Seeger was merely a “singer of folk songs” where, in contrast, he believed Dylan to be a genuine “folk singer”.
The Dylan Tapes reaches its climax, naturally, when Scaduto interviews the man himself. As to why Dylan decided to grant him an interview, infamous self-described “Dylanologist” and “garbologist” AJ Weberman – who infamously rummaged through the songwriter’s garbage leading to words and, ultimately, a fistfight with him – told Dylan, “You think the things I say about you are rough. Wait and see what Scaduto wrote about you.” Reportedly, Dylan phoned Scaduto the next morning. When asked why he volunteered to sit for an interview, Dylan told Scaduto, “Because you wrote a good book and I want to help make it better.”
While the original Scaduto biography still holds up as a landmark moment in the world of rock journalism, The Dylan Tapes acts not as a replacement for it, but as a fascinating peek behind the curtain on how the sausage is made. The Dylan Tapes is rich with unfiltered and unedited conversations with a cast of characters that assisted Dylan, in one way or another, along his path from his Minnesota beginnings and his crafting of his own mystery and persona, to his days on the Greenwich Village folk scene and beyond. Dylan was only 30 years old when Scaduto’s Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography was first published, but his legend had been secured for several years by then.
As with everything written about, or even by, Bob Dylan, nothing is truly revealed, yet The Dylan Tapes is still an engrossing journey into the research process of one gifted writer as he profiled another.