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The Dylan Tapes

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Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 book Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography was one of the first comprehensive biographies of a major figure in rock. Many subsequent books and much subsequent research has filled in tons of details he didn’t find, but it was an admirable job in establishing a foundation for what Dylan had done. This equally lengthy book has transcripts of interviews he did with a couple dozen of Dylan’s associates, ranging from his high school girlfriend Echo Holstrom to Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, and John Hammond Sr., as well as conversations he had with Dylan himself after most of his research was done.  

Like some similar books, this brings home how a finished product that selectively quotes from and contextualizes interviews is a better read than the relatively raw information. However, serious Dylan historians will appreciate being able to read the original interviews, although maybe not so much for additional facts as for insight into the personalities of some of these people from how they talk and react. There isn’t too much in the way of prime stuff that didn’t make the cut, though there are some such bits, like Elliott filling in more details as to how he ended up singing on the original 1964 outtake version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and why that wasn’t used; Carolyn Hester discussing the mixed effects of many folkies’ boycott of the Hootenanny TV show (due to the show’s refusal to book Pete Seeger), which she thinks cost the whole scene a lot of exposure; and Dylan telling Izzy Young that Peter Stampfel was one of his favorite singers. There’s also Eric von Schmidt dismissing Phil Ochs’s verdict of Highway 61 Revisited as the best album ever made with the words “Phil Ochs judging, you know, a total musical thing is, is like me judging, you know, a kind of tea-drinking contest. I don’t think Phil Ochs knows that much about music.”

It’s also interesting to see how much was still unknown about some basics of Dylan’s life and career only about ten years after he turned professional. Numerous interviewees get basic facts about what happened when wrong or don’t remember, even though only five to ten years had passed in most cases. Scaduto also missed talking to many figures who’d speak about Dylan in the 1960s in years to come, especially musicians and producers who worked with him after he moved from folk to rock. But Dylan scholars now have more to chew on with the publication of these transcripts, though Scaduto’s finished book remains of significantly greater value.
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An important addendum to the biographical works of Anthony Scaduto developing the threads of Dylan’s life and career from previous interviews with those closest to Dylan. An interesting insight into the artists psyche and his determination to succeed whatever the personal cost to others.
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This book is a gem. First, a little background. Huge numbers of books have been written about Bob Dylan and his work. He attracts authors like moths to a flame. Some of those books are good, many of them are  indifferent, but one thing these authors struggle with is that Dylan himself is hard to get hold of, and hard to interview for those who do manage to spend some time with him. Dylan is a myth maker; he enjoys playing with truth, he enjoys the slipperiness of truth in some contexts; he is impatient with the wrong kinds of question (which is most kinds); he is also protective of his privacy.

Anthony Scaduto was a journalist who worked at the New York Post in the 50s and 60s. He was an expert on the Mafia, but also loved music. He had written a brief book on the Beatles. A publisher (Grosset and Dunlap) commissioned him to write a detailed biography of Bob Dylan, and Scaduto rose to the challenge, treating it like a big, properly researched feature story. He interviewed numerous people, from Dylan's first girlfriend Echo Helstrom (and her mother), to his friends Sid and Bob Gleason in the folk community, to first record producer John Hammond, to Joan Baez, and many others, and finally Dylan himself. The contact with Dylan emerged in the best possible way, organically. Dylan came to hear of Scaduto's many interviews, was intrigued, and offered an interview in return for an early look at the book manuscript and a chance to suggest corrections.

The book, simply called Bob Dylan, was published in 1971 and remains the best biography for the years which it covers. Scaduto died in 2017 but not before he rediscovered all his interview tapes in his basement. He and his wife Stephanie Trudeau came up with the idea of simply transcribing all these interviews and publishing them. This book is the result, and it is a gripping read for Dylan enthusiasts, total immersion in his world and the best insight yet into what it was like to be around him. If I am counting right, there are 25 interviews and I enjoyed every one of them. 

Getting access to people is only the start for a writer; you also have to ask the write questions. Scaduto does; he is a skilled interviewer, polite, well informed about his subject, and knows how to get people to communicate. He also plays things straight, his questions are direct and to the point, he follows up where needed, with a "like what?" or "explain how?", and he stands his ground. So when Dylan says to him about one matter, "that's not true. You shouldn't put that in the book 'cause it's just not true," Scaduto responds, "That's what I got from all the people I talked to – people who were around and seemed to know." Matter of fact, not aggressive, but not giving in either. The interviews are not presented simply as question and answer but have introductions, concise but illuminating. There is also an afterword where Trudeau reflects on Dylan and remarks, "listen to Dylan's Nobel Prize speech because it is one of  his best performances ever." 

There is just one thing that made me uncomfortable, which is that on occasion some of the women talking about their relationship with Dylan say things which they ask not to be published. Here we are over 50 years later, but still in the lifetime of Dylan and many of his associates, and I feel those wishes should be respected unless specifically withdrawn. Perhaps permission was sought, perhaps those things will not be in the final version, I have no idea.

That said, there is nothing here that is scandalous or diminishes the people involved. It is actually a warm book, very human and honest, and in the context of Dylan the myth maker, that is a rare delight.
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The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, and Lovers Talkin' Early Bob Dylan is a collection of transcribed recorded interviews Anthony Scaduto had from his landmark biography of Dylan.

My rating is not about the readability of this as a single book so much as a valuation of it as a wonderful source of information as well as a wonderful example of how to interview people. Most of the interviews do make good reading, so I guess you could view this in a similar way to how you view a collection of themed essays or stories.

What I really found intriguing was how much of each interviewee's personality came through. I found myself not particularly liking a couple, liking some, and for the most part feeling like I was right there for the interview.

For the Dylan fan this offers even more insight into who he was in his youth and early years. It has been decades since I read Scaduto's biography but I think it would be interesting to see how much made it into the book and how much didn't.

While definitely a great read for Dylan fans I would also imagine that aspiring journalists and writers could learn a lot from how these interviews went. I found them engaging and it seemed like the interviewees were mostly put at ease, though someone in the field may well find things that maybe aren't recommended when interviewing. But the results presented here are phenomenal.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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