Dylan Did Drugs? We’re Shocked to Hear It!

By Dirk Hanson 05/24/11

So far as we know, Bob has never been rehabbed or treated for anything other than a deadly chest infection.

Dylan in 1966.
Photo via seattlemet

It’s Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday today, and we wish him many more. We pause for a moment in honor of America’s Walt Whitman, the contemporary world’s William Blake. While many of the musician's talented contemporaries Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrissin couldn’t manage to make it out of their 20s, went on to create a musical oeuvre unparalleled in modern music. So naturally the BBC decided to celebrate this momentous event by revealing that—gasp!—Bob Dylan used to take drugs. No! Heaven forfend! Somebody tell us we’re dreaming! The man who allegedly turned the Beatles onto pot has been revealed to have been, at one time or another, a dabbler in amphetamine, pot, acid, and alcohol. We've heard enough—we’re going to pile all of our Dylan records in the backyard and make a bonfire.

Many early Dylan shows were marred by amphetamine, many later shows by excessive alcohol. Bob doesn’t hide from any of this; neither does he make a big deal out of it. Accusing a rock star of having dabbled in drugs is a bit like complaining that the water in the lake is wet. So far as we know, he’s never been rehabbed or treated for anything except a deadly chest infection. But the BBC feels you should know that Bob might have once dabbled in… heroin! Now there’s a headline—if the story behind it wasn’t already mossy with age. In the following days we will be hearing a lot about Dylan “battling heroin addiction” back in the 60s. Here is the pertinent passage from a previously unpublished segment of the Robert Shelton Dylan interviews from back in 1966: “After [girlfriend] Suzy moved out of the house, I got very, very strung out for awhile. I mean really, very strung out. And I kicked the habit. I had about a $25 a day habit and I kicked it.”

We’ll leave aside the fact that Bob was an inveterate liar back then, having inventing a folk mythology for himself that had him riding boxcars with hoboes and working as a migrant field hand. Being, albeit briefly, a junkie in New York City might fit right into this scheme. On the other hand, he probably did some heroin at some point, like half the other musicians in Greenwich Village. So there it is. How long he used, we do not know. And naturally, this being Dylan, there was a subcontext for his remarks even then. As Neil McCormick writes in the U.K. Telegraph, Dylan went on to explain that “it’s not going to catch me and pull me, ‘cos I’ve been through it once already. I’ve been through people. A lot of the time you get strung out with people. They are just like junk. The same thing, no more, no less. They kill you the same way. They rot you the same way.”

As McCormick sums it up: “All we have really learned from the sensationalist reporting of remarks from 45 years ago, is that a young beatnik-influenced musician in New York in the 1960s, recovering from a broken heart, briefly dabbled in a widely prevalent narcotic substance, then moved on. We should move along too. There’s nothing to see here.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]