Seeing the Real You at Last: Life and Love on the Road with Bob Dylan
by Britta Lee Shain
reviewed by Christopher Klim
“How could he embarrass his children this way? How could he embarrass himself?”
Shain’s tale of her brief affair with Bob Dylan takes us from her college days, through early trials and successes, and the struggle to find love and relevance as an artist. It eventually peaks at her star-crossed intersection with Bob Dylan. Along the way, we get glimpses of a Dylan at work and play, as well as the infamous number of masks that guard him from the public. When Shain ultimately unveils him, we discover the portrait of an atypical artist trapped inside an ordinary drunk and womanizer.
The travelogue aspects of this book really shine, especially during a mid-80s tour through Europe when Shain and Dylan finally hook-up. Dylan’s album releases form signposts throughout the story, where the author draws life parallels if only at times a loose association. Even prior to meeting Dylan, Shain makes personal connections to his lyrics and interjects them throughout the book. You never have to have met Dylan to graft to his lyrics. His art is truly brilliant in that way.
The book takes a while to get started. It is intent on mapping every nuance of the heart, and its narrative arc runs long, delivering tedious personal details and a fair amount of name-dropping. It takes two hundred pages for Shain and Dylan to consummate their relationship. Within that run-up, there are on balance only moderate appearances by and little unique insight to the famous songwriter. However, there is a larger tale of life, which builds within the context of the entire story. For in tragedy, this story becomes real.
Shain grew up the child of alcoholic/mentally ill parents who may or may not have been drinking to self-medicate. The legacy of an alcoholic’s child is that of an adult searcher who desires to fill the missing spaces of the past. Often the result, or at least one stop in the journey, is to find another drinker in the hope of resolving childhood pain. Dylan fills this role with gusto for Shain. He is charming, smart, and willing to focus his considerable attention on her, and he can drink a lake of booze and remain on his feet. While Shain is a searcher, Dylan is a hunter, perhaps using women to improvise love inside the bubble of fame. The past will not be repaired for her at this stop. When Dylan’s wife learns of their affair, it becomes a threat to Dylan’s comfort level, and Shain is banned from his inner circle, debasing their genuine physical and emotional intimacy. She is heartbroken and must become realistic about her expectations and the aftermath of what she’s done.
This is a tale that has been scripted by the privileged throughout the centuries, and in another time, Shain might have been cast on the roadside to die. An alcoholic does not consider his sins, unless sober when his conscience can become so weighty that he quickly returns to the drink to erase the guilt. Dylan, for all his unique and transcending artistic abilities, lives a cliché life. Polished up to glittering effect by celebrity, he appears to be surrounded by adoring enablers who allow him to outrun the consequences of his actions for as long as he can. He gets what he wants and moves on, and Shain ends up being just another of the musician’s dalliances—many of whom will never be known. It would have been interesting if Shain had unearthed Dylan’s motivation for living this way, but that’s a different nut to crack. If his latter music is any indication, he has since given up the bottle and at the very least reinvigorated his art if not his life.
Shain will undoubtedly receive a backlash from Dylan fans for this betrayal of the secretive songwriter’s confidence, and she will be cast as a groupie with gossip. An honest assessment says, that she was a casual friend who leapt starry-eyed into his self-destructive path. Furthermore, she is an unpublished novelist, and her book with Dylan’s name attached will likely form her best attempt at literary relevance. However, it’s enough that Shain has unwittingly given voice to the many women Dylan has left in his wake, more specifically his lesser known conquests who apparently include many backup singers and female acquaintances. Shain does not lay blame, and there is nary a trace of bitterness. She takes responsibility for her part in the affair and reflects inwardly upon the damage to herself, his wife, and his children. She admits that her ideal image of Dylan ran headlong into a very human Dylan, and while she’ll forever be charmed by him, she has pulled herself together and moved along her search to better places.
Dylan could write a song about their meeting, but he will likely never glance at this book. Instead, his behavior is repeated by thousands of others each day across the globe. Like many iconic figures, Dylan has always taken advantage of the fact that what he does in his personal life just doesn’t matter to the public. We only want the songs, while we fantasize about the songwriter. Shain reminds us that our notion of the songwriter is just that—a complete fantasy.