His Bootheels Were A-wanderin’

From the Orlando Sentinel, April 22, 2001

There’s been an assload of Bob Dylan biographies over the years and you have to wonder why: he’s still alive and so active . . .  how can a biographer get a good fix on the life of such a moving target?

In Down the Highway, Howard Sounes does the best job a writer could do with this fascinating and exasperating man.

So what’s new? What do we learn about Dylan that we didn’t learn in other books?

Well . . . lots of stuff. Sounes credits himself with “painstaking new research” in his preface, setting himself up for some hoo-haw from critical readers. But he acquits himself amazingly well.

Sounes makes you appreciate Dylan’s amazing feat with regard to his personal life – that he has spent his career in the public eye but has managed to keep so much about himself secret. He’s been hiding in plain sight.

Lots of readers, including people who have written books about Bob Dylan – and there are lots of them; hell, I even wrote one – were surprised a few years ago when Dylan was hit with a palimony suit from a woman named Ruth Tyrangiel, who claimed she’d had a common-law marriage with Dylan for 20 years and that they had a child. So many of us so-called “Dylan experts” were flabbergasted. We’d never heard of her.

Sounes deals with that relationship, but his big surprise is that Dylan was married a second time – the paperwork hidden in a morass of aliases and paid-off court workers – to backing singer Carolyn Dennis and that they had a child together. This from the man who growled, “Ya only get married once,” after breaking up his 13-year marriage with Sara Lownds in 1978.

There’s no doubt that Dylan is a genius writer and performer. Somehow, though, you have to think his greatest achievement has been managing his bizarre private life. He’s been known to have a half dozen serious committed relationships at once. How does he do that?

But don’t get the idea that Down the Highway is all gossip. Sounes is well-versed in Dylan’s art and writes of his work with the intelligence and appreciation of a true believer. This doesn’t mean His Bobness can do no wrong. Like a scorned fan who knows what his subject is capable of, Sounes is harsh when he feels that Dylan didn’t deliver and deals frankly with his mid-career slumps. He therefore appreciates the magnificence of Dylan’s recent work as he rages against the dying of the light from a hundred concert stages a year.

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The book is most fascinating to fans for the insights it offers to Dylan at work – as a recording artist and as a performer. All of the major characters in the Dylan saga were re-interviewed for this book, with, of course, the exception of Dylan. (Bob don’t talk to no writers.) Nonetheless, the portrait drawn in Down the Highway is mesmerizing, as we watch the trajectory of Dylan’s life from young upstart to Grand Old Man of rock’n’roll.

Dylan turns 60 this month and there will, no doubt, be newspaper columns full of tributes. Maybe he can’t be fully understood or appreciated until after his death, but this book makes us realize now, while he’s still with us, how valuable he has been to our culture these last 40 years.