The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan heroin tapes: More media bullsh*t

Happy birthday, Bob Dylan, from your friends in the world of “respectable journalism.”

A “never before heard interview” Bob Dylan did with biographer Robert Shelton is being touted as “a revelation,” and “extraordinary.” (Hear via the BBC at this link — and thanks very much to reader Jay for that.)

On the tapes, recorded in 1966, Dylan claims to have had a $25 dollar a day heroin habit at one time, and also claims to have kicked it. He also talks about how he would consider killing himself by shooting himself in the head or jumping out a window.

We are told that there is already a plan to make a film based on these tapes. Unbelievable!

There’s one small problem with this story: Virtually all of this stuff (minus the sensationalist presentation) was already in the Robert Shelton bio of Dylan, “No Direction Home,” which was originally released in 1986. I have a dog-eared, falling-to-pieces paperback of that myself. A new edition has just been released, and it was in research for that that these tapes were found. Robert Shelton himself, who did the talking to Dylan and made the recording, died in 1995, so he should not be blamed for the nonsense going on today — except to the extent that failed to realize how those who came after him would try to make a quick buck by exploiting the tapes in a disingenuous way.

The interview as it appears in the book took place when Shelton joined Dylan on tour in March of 1966. Most of it took place actually on Dylan’s plane, flying between Lincoln, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado. In Robert Shelton’s book, in the context of everything else, it’s clear enough what we’re dealing with here. Bob Dylan is 25 years old. [Correction: It being in March, he’s actually 24.] Think about that. Due to the volcanic nature of his talent, he’d blown people’s minds in several different directions, and he was now wilting under the pressure of the labels people were putting on him, the expectations they had of him, the crimes of which he was being accused, all magnified by the sheer physical and mental stress of being on the road. And he’s 25 24 years-old, in case I failed to mention that.

Early in the interview, he says this (via the Shelton book):

It takes a lot of medicine to keep up this pace. It’s very hard, man. A concert tour like this has almost killed me. It’s been like this since October … It really drove me out of my mind … I’m really going to cut down.

Lest we forget, there’s a reason why Dylan had a motorcycle accident later that year and got off the roller coaster to death he was on. Whether he did it deliberately or God intervened, it was clearly an event that saved him from the fate of so many other meteoric figures in popular music.

As for the supposedly shocking elements of the interview — Shelton in his book quotes Dylan like this:

“After Suze moved out of the house … I got very, very strung out for a while. I mean, really, very strung out.” But he told me he’d survived. “I can do anything, knowing in front that it’s not going to catch me and pull me … ’cause I’ve been through it once already. I’ve been through people. A lot of times you get strung out with people. They are just like junk.”

There, without using the world “heroin,” or including the “$25 dollar a day” tidbit, Shelton leaves the distinct impression that Dylan is confessing (or bragging?) to doing heroin and then kicking it. Shelton leaves out the barefaced statement itself because he realizes it’s not necessary, and he has some class. (Class is the very thing lacking in the people who are now exploiting his archives.)

And then there is this segment:

Later, I asked if he wanted to leave all this despair on the record. He said, “I haven’t explained those things I said against myself … A lot of people think that I shoot heroin. But that’s baby talk … I do a lot of things. Hey, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you … and make you wonder about all the things I do. I do a lot of things, man, which help me … And I’m smart enough to know that I don’t depend on them for my existence, you know, and that’s all.”

Again, is he confessing or bragging? What’s true and what’s not? You be the judge. Listen to the tape and Dylan sounds somewhat drugged or drunk even as he’s speaking. He’s fed up to the limit with the trap he feels himself in, and he’s venting in the relatively safe context of this interview with a journalist — but also a friend — named Bob Shelton. Shelton can understand what’s going on, and offers this characterization of it:

Dylan’s strangely defiant mood seemed to stress his most unappealing, antiheroic side, daring me, it seemed, to take at face value all his negative thinking or self-destructive patterns. I think that he wanted it understood that behind all the applause there was a lot of pain.


Or put it a little less generously, even: He’s a 25 year-old kid under enormous pressure, on a plane at night flying to another gig, allowing himself to let go and have a tantrum — saying things that he thinks will shock and puncture all the expectations in one go. He’s allowing himself to act a little like a baby.

The same thing with the suicide remarks. Shelton asks Dylan what he thought would make him happy.

I’m happy, you know. I’m happy to just be able to come across things. I don’t need to be happy. Happiness is a kind of cheap word. Let’s face it, I’m not the kind of cat that’s going to cut off an ear if I can’t do something. I would commit suicide. I would shoot myself in the brain if things got bad. I would jump from a window.

Etc. Big bloody deal. The British music journalist Mick Brown said this about the tapes to the BBC: “What’s so extraordinary is to hear Dylan say these things himself! This is going to be fuel for the Dylan academic industry for years to come!”

What’s really so extraordinary is how ignorant so many music journalists are about Dylan, after all these years, and all these books, and all this BS. They still can be stimulated into a knee-jerk reaction by a little hyped-up garbage about one solitary interview with Dylan on a plane in 1966 when he was obviously stretched to the limit and playing to shock, rather than giving a considered and sober account of himself. Shelton got it. May he rest in peace. As for the rest of them … well, I try to keep this publication safe for all the family, and I’ve already pushed it.

6 thoughts on “Bob Dylan heroin tapes: More media bullsh*t

  1. Kudos for the quick dissection. It’s a news story without any news, but smart timing for the people with the tapes.

  2. When you are a public figure the machine that makes you is just as likely to eat you. It’s curious to hear Dylan’s voice – exhausted and stressed, it seems to me – say things that were probably true, and I think less to shock than just to say. Confession is good for the soul, and sometimes we confess in unlikely ways. Fortunately for those of us not in the public eye, it doesn’t come back to bite us in a public way – but outside the booth, or maybe the AA meeting, the potential for its coming back is always there. You’re right, Dylan was young, tired, angry – emotionally drained, and he let his guard down. That it has come back is a shame, but it’s a consequence of fame. I hope Dylan burns all the personal stuff before he dies, because the vultures will be circling.

  3. Nice article.
    I’ve heard the tape.
    I’ve used amphetamines.
    You may be the only one to recognize he was flying on the plane.

  4. Sean Curnyn is absolutely right in noting that there is nothing new or revelatory in the tapes. I believe Dylan himself has already documented the matter in question in the song ‘Sara’, in the verse that goes: “I’d taken the cure and just gotten through/Staying up for days in the Chelsea hotel…”

  5. Bravo! To add to the litany of pressures Dylan was facing – the interview was for an “authorised biography” (of a 24 year old). Just a few weeks later he was expressing doubts about the whole idea of a biography at that time, that it was premature, and feeling weighed down by it, along with everything else. You’re absolutely right that Shelton had the class, and the nous, to filter the often dubious information he was being fed.

Comments are closed.