For fans of the freewheelin’ king of counterculture, it is the supreme irony. Bob Dylan, who wrote perhaps the ultimate protest song in Blowin’ In The Wind, has sold out to the Establishment.
In one of the biggest music publishing deals in history, he has agreed to hand over the rights to his music to Universal Music for £225 million. As a Mail headline-writer put it yesterday, playing on the title of one of his best-known singles, ‘Pay Lady Pay’.
For the music giant, it makes perfect sense. The singer-songwriter, who terms himself a poet-musician, has released more than 600 songs over six decades and they have proved a fount of money.
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, for instance, made £112,000 last year in streaming revenues alone in the U.S.
Bob Dylan (pictured with his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo in September 1961 in New York), who wrote perhaps the ultimate protest song in Blowin’ In The Wind, has sold out to the Establishment
Universal will be paid every time Dylan or anyone else performs his music, streams it, plays it on the radio or uses it in a film or advert. But what about the deal from Bob’s point of view?
Now 79, with his landmark birthday coming up in May, he was worth £150 million or so before this deal, so he really doesn’t need the money.
And although he owns a dozen properties, his lifestyle is hardly glitzy — some say he doesn’t change his clothes much or brush his teeth, and he reportedly lives largely in just one room of the giant ranch house he built in California in the 1970s. This is a huge circular space, topped by a copper dome.
He shares his home mostly with just housekeeping and security staff.
Once, when a lover asked why they couldn’t cohabit, he replied: ‘Because I can barely live with myself.’
Indeed, his rootlessness has led him to spend most of the past 31 years almost permanently on tour. Only Covid has stopped the enigmatic, cantankerous singer from touring over the past year.
Perhaps that gave him time to think things over. His biographer Howard Sounes says the move is by way of ‘clearing the house’ before he dies.
Sounes, who has spoken to dozens of Dylan’s friends and associates, and whose biography Down The Highway will be updated next year, said: ‘This is about getting his affairs in order. The first step came last year when he sold his archive — all his letters, poetry and lyrics — to the University of Tulsa for $20 million.
‘They will open a Bob Dylan museum next year. That was clearing out all the written material and this is the big one, where he deals with the music.
‘He has a very large family he is very close to. The question is whether he wants to leave them with the task of running his song catalogue, which is a business with hundreds of decisions to be made.
Bob Dylan pictured with his wife Sara and two of his four children
‘Selling to Universal allows him to release a huge amount of capital, then simply pass it on to his family rather than giving them a headache.
‘Now they are set up for life. He has at least five children and is a grandfather many times over.’
Indeed, Dylan has a complicated set of family relationships and may have several more secret children in addition to the grown-up daughter whose existence was uncovered only a decade ago.
Some believe he has as many as nine offspring, conceived with five women over a 25-year period, and that some of them may be unaware of the others.
But Dylan also has a poet’s sense of his own mortality. In a rare interview with the New York Times in June this year, he said he believed coronavirus was ‘a forerunner of something else to come . . . maybe we are on the eve of destruction.’
He also said: ‘I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient.’
Yet despite such musings, Dylan also has a shrewd sense of how to make money.
He extricated himself from an early publishing deal which allowed a manager to claim some of his song rights. As Sounes says: ‘It’s a misapprehension that he’s a hippie who doesn’t like money. He is pragmatic and business-minded and . . . he’s just very smart.’
That is just as well — because from his early years, Dylan’s love life has been chaotic, with so many affairs, that there have been several large payouts to disgruntled ex-lovers.
Dylan is notorious for glamorising aspects of his past. Born Robert Zimmerman into a Jewish family in Minnesota in 1941, he took the name Bob Dylan in homage to the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.
Bob Dylan pictured with his second wife Carolyn Dennis (bottom right) and his other backing singers
When he arrived on New York’s folk scene in 1961, he told some people he was a runaway orphan who had escaped from foster care, others he was a truant from a travelling carnival. In fact, he had grown up in a perfectly nice home (his father owned an electrical appliances shop) before dropping out of university.
His stories must have sounded convincing to Joan Baez, the folk singer who helped launch his career by inviting him to appear on stage with her.
Their passionate relationship began in April 1961. Dylan had previously seen her on TV, claiming he couldn’t stop looking at her and later adding: ‘It seemed like she’d come down to earth from a meteorite.’
Baez, who was by far the bigger star, said she was ‘crazy’ about Dylan. They became one of the most talked-about young couples of the Sixties as Dylan followed her example to become a voice of radical political protest in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War.
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She took him on tour with her, allegedly causing his existing girlfriend Suze Rotolo — whom he had described when he met her as ‘the most erotic thing I’d ever seen’ — to try to gas herself in her flat. The relationship with Baez ended painfully during his British tour in 1965, when he refused to allow her on stage and introduce her to his British fans.
Things only worsened when she found another woman answering the door of his hotel room — Playboy Bunny Sara Lownds.
Baez called the London trip the ‘most demoralising experience’ of her life, leaving many with the impression that she was simply no further use to Dylan once he had made his name.
Dylan married Sara that year, when she was heavily pregnant with their son Jesse. But it was a marriage undermined in the end by his drug-taking and womanising.
The final straw came one morning in 1977 when Sara went down to breakfast at their home in upstate New York and found her husband sitting at the table with their children and a woman called Malka, a poetess, who had evidently spent the night with him.
In the argument that followed, Sara claimed he hit her and told her to leave the house.
Sara got custody of the five children but Dylan retaliated by having an affair with Faridi McFree, a therapist she had hired to help the children cope with the upheaval of the divorce.
Sara received £27 million in their divorce settlement and has never spoken about him.
Dylan then became infatuated with Mary Alice Artes, a black actress who was involved with a group of Californian Christian fundamentalists — so much so that he converted to Christianity to help seduce her. At the same time he was romancing backing singer Helena Springs.
Overlapping affairs became part of a pattern. Singer Carolyn Dennis, who later became his second wife, was romanced at the same time as actress Ruth Tyrangiel.
Ruth’s relationship with Dylan went on for so long — from 1974 to 1991 — that she was considered his common-law wife and he ended up paying her palimony reputed to be £1 million. Meanwhile, he went on to have a child with Carolyn and married her — only to divorce her in 1992.
He set her and their child Gabby up in a modest Los Angeles suburban home and visited so secretly few were aware of the romance.
When Gabby, a singer, married her partner in Long Beach, California, Dylan did not attend the wedding and was not mentioned during the nuptials.
Were Carolyn and Gabby bitter? Certainly, that was the experience of Susan Ross, a former road manager whom he romanced for 12 years from 1985. She said in an interview that he was emotionally parsimonious, a rotten lover and recovering alcoholic who never seemed to understand how much she cared for him.
She also claimed that among the many women he wooed while he was with her, there was another he married — a backing singer, named Clydie King. ‘She had two of his kids,’ she said.
There was a romance, too, with another backing singer, Carol Woods, whom Ross claimed had yet another Dylan child.
There is talk of a more recent romance and possibly another child but nobody has been able to crack that mystery — yet.
Of Dylan’s insatiable appetite, Sounes said: ‘There have been a string of dalliances, for sure.
‘He had affairs with three of them pretty much at the same time as Carolyn Dennis. He is a bit of a womaniser.’
His old friend Liam Clancy, a musician, says Dylan is actually ‘a very lonely man’ with ‘so few people left in the world that he can talk to’.
Others take a more jaundiced view. Victor Maymudes, who worked for Dylan from 1988 and knew him from 1964, told Sounes he was ‘an ***hole’, describing him as ‘a cold man wrapped up in himself’ with few friends, and an eccentric who had been bent out of shape by the experience of huge fame in his 20s.
Maymudes claimed Dylan was plagued by sycophants and stalkers and had retreated into a jealously guarded privacy.
He added: ‘He’s a very rude, obnoxious guy. He doesn’t take his clothes off when he goes to sleep . . . and the guy doesn’t clean his teeth.Horrible breath!’
Dylan’s main house is a 6,000 sq ft home with six bedrooms near Malibu, where he spends about a month in the summer and part of his Christmas break.
Visitors seeking him are routinely told they are at the wrong address. ‘Like all famous people, I’d like to be left alone,’ he once sighed.
Inside, he has one of his first cars suspended in the living room. There are 11 rooms but he lives in only one of them. Former lover Susan Ross says the decor is rather like that of a ski chalet.
It is guarded 24 hours a day by a security team and a pack of mastiff dogs. When Ross went there for the one permitted visit of their relationship, Dylan would not allow her to sleep with him and sent her to a guest room instead.
Over the years, Dylan has bought plots of land around the home to further increase his privacy.
He also has a large farm in Minnesota on the River Crow, about 100 miles from where he was born. His brother David lives on the farm next door.
There are homes in New York and Arizona where he drops in from time to time.
When touring, he lives in a £1.5 million tour bus. The other band members live in another, and they roll from town to town.
He once told an interviewer that touring was ‘his destiny’, the result of a pact he had made ‘with the chief commander on this earth and in the world we can’t see’.
His performances garner mixed reviews. Famously, Dylan doesn’t greet or chat to the audience between numbers and will generally bid a brief and mostly unsmiling goodbye. His set list includes many of his most famous songs but he appears to take a perverse pleasure in playing them so they are almost unrecognisable.
He certainly feels the call of the road, though. Sounes says: ‘He spends more than half his year on it. He must feel completely adrift — his musicians have been his closest friends.
‘This period has given him time to focus on his legacy and he has taken this step to protect his family.’
How extensive that family turns out to be is the big question.