Seeing The Real You At Last: Life And Love On The Road With Bob Dylan
Britta Lee Shain
Tell-all confessionals are problematic. On one hand, they can offer us a glimpse into the lives of others, especially if said tales involve those who are purposefully secretive, mysterious, or shady. However, said books are often heavily subjective, prone to exaggerations and distortions (if not outright lies), and are often heavily one-sided. Sex sells, scandal sells, and these types of affairs are often geared towards the lowest common denominator. And yet, for all of these negatives, one cannot deny the fun side of tell-alls. Like sneaking into your sibling’s room and reading their diary, these types of books offer the reader forbidden fruit, the guilty pleasure of gossip. It doesn’t matter that they’re often unreliable; the thrill is in the story, true or not.
Britta Lee Shain was a lifelong Bob Dylan fan who, in the mid 1980s, briefly dated Dylan assistant and road manager Gary Shafner. As one might expect, this sort of close proximity could prove to be a recipe for disaster, and guess what? What one expects would happen indeed does happen. Though Dylan is initially quite guarded about new people coming into his inner circle, Shain is quickly accepted into his group, though one suspects not for any other reason than potential sexual gratification. Her exit from his world comes almost instantaneously after he gets what he wants, leaving her reeling, heartbroken, and confused. When the world nearly lost Dylan in 1997, she dealt with the news by sitting down and writing her account of her experience, but it went unpublished until this year.
That being said, Seeing The Real You At Last is a tough read. It’s not that it’s a bad read; Shain is a fine writer; in the text, she relates that she has written numerous books, but none found publishers. Her style is vivid, even though it is sometimes scattershot. Written like a diary, occasionally the stories become hard to follow. Something that happened over the period of a few hours might last two or three pages, while the next section may call back to something seemingly important that happened in the previous section, but was no more than a brief comment. For instance, near the end of the book, she discusses bonding with her boyfriend over each other’s grief about losing a spouse. Yet her first husband’s death is mentioned only in passing; so briefly is it referenced, one could easily miss it the first time around. Nor does it help that Shain doesn’t seem to have the insight enough to realize that when she refers to the other women that come into his circles as “bimbos,” that Dylan doesn’t think any higher of her, either. After the split, in a fight with Shafner, when she declares that Dylan called her “baby,” her ex dryly states that Dylan calls all of his conquests “baby,” so he doesn’t get them confused. Painful, but not as painful as the post-affair run-in with Dylan at a Roy Orbison tribute show, where Dylan’s son—whom Shain had spent time with when in Dylan’s employ—brushes her off, and Dylan doesn’t recognize her when she asks for an autograph.
More troublesome is the feeling of a woman obsessed, not necessarily with Dylan himself, but of the past. While Dylan’s womanizing is well-known—even she knew about it—that she was so blinded by his charm and charisma and mystique is simply sad. Their affair lasted a mere week, and Shain’s admission of guilt to a man who loved her dearly—but for whom she always seems to have a snide comment—soon found her excised from Dylan’s world and cost Shafner his friendship as well. That Shain extends Seeing The Real You At Last by describing her fandom over the next thirty years and her feelings about seeing Dylan performances over on television doesn’t help; if anything, it only adds to the general sense of pathos the book evokes. Sadder still is the nagging feeling that Dylan only slept with her to get rid of both her and Shafner in a passive-aggressive move that would satiate his sexual urges and spare him the ignominy that comes with simply firing a friend or shutting out a person for seemingly no cause.
And yet, in spite of Shain’s unflattering portrayal of Dylan as a drunken, scruffy middle-aged schlub, one still doesn’t feel they’ve seen the real Dylan at last. He’s too complex for such a portrayal–even an unflattering one such as this. Furthermore, it’s books and personal betrayals like this that cause Dylan to be reclusive, mysterious, and aloof in the first place. Seeing The Real You At Last is a book to be taken with a hefty grain of salt, even if it does offer up a compelling and sometimes funny look at the man behind the curtain.