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Personal myths elude Dylan biographer

Thursday, May 24, 2001

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

It's clear from the start of "Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan" (Grove Press) that Howard Sounes did his homework when, recounting the singer-songwriter's early life, the author tells us what kind of furnace was used to warm the Dylan family household.

The British biographer understood, in venturing into this well-trodden territory, that these are the kinds of details Dylan fans, while feeling a mite guilty about it, would want. And so Sounes dug. And dug. And through 250 interviews and numerous legal searches, he found small things and big ones, such as, voila, a 15-year-old daughter we never knew about.

Such is Dylan's ability to keep his personal life out of the fray.

As we see in "Down the Highway," the legend was bitten by the press as a rising star and he managed either to elude or baffle the media from that point on.

Sounes, who previously chronicled the life of Charles Bukowski, cuts through the smoke screen and gives us a well-rounded portrait of Dylan that balances his personal life with an appreciation of his work.

In an interview from London, Sounes says he spent three years researching a subject whose life has often been shrouded in myth.

"Certainly I am a fan and I love the music and I think he's a great man," Sounes says. "There's certainly no antagonism, and I didn't want to tear Bob Dylan down, unduly, but I'm a newspaper journalist by training and I wanted to get at the truth. ... One of the things that was a myth was how many times has Bob Dylan been married. Well, it seems like a simple enough thing to find out. Normally, it wouldn't be a mystery, but in the weird world of Bob Dylan, it is a mystery."

Before the book was even released, it made headlines for unearthing Dylan's secret 15-year marriage to backup singer Carolyn Dennis and their daughter, Desiree. Dennis released a statement denying that Dylan's Never-Ending Tour in the '90s was waged to pay off a substantial divorce settlement. It left Sounes confused.

"I knew this would be picked up and it would become a story," Sounes says. "For me, that serves me well. It's good publicity for the book. But the way in which it was reported isn't the way it was in the book. Then Carolyn Dennis gave a statement, responding. When I read her statement, it seemed she was responding to the newspaper reports, rather than the book itself. ... The book doesn't say that."

According to Sounes, members of Dylan's family were all cordial to him during the writing process. Although he tried every way, he never got access to the man himself. The closest he got was a letter from Dylan's lawyers saying that Dylan did not want this to be an authorized biography. For Sounes, having Dylan read his manuscript would have been an unacceptable trade-off for an interview.

"I never thought he would do it," Sounes says. "But I had to try, because he is such an interesting man, and everything he says is interesting; even when he makes a passing comment, it's fascinating."

Sounes, who scoured all the previous Dylan books, says he was driven to tell his whole story in a journalistic way.

"The book is meant to be the life of Bob Dylan. None of the previous books have told the story of this man, and it's a terrific story. ... I don't want to give the reader a whole page about what I think 'Like a Rolling Stone' means, because who the hell cares what I think? I assume readers already know what they think. They don't have the facts of this man's life. That's what I can give them."

Even after digging through all his back pages, Sounes says Dylan remains an "absolute hero" to the author. He says that nothing in the book "reflects badly upon him. Of all the many girlfriends I spoke to, none of them had a bad word to say about him."

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