Questions About Bob Dylan’s Claim That He was Once a Heroin Addict

Told same interviewer he’d also been a male prostitute

May 23, 2011 11:05 AM ET
Bob Dylan in London, 1966.
Bob Dylan in London, 1966.
Cummings Archives/Redferns/Getty Images

In newly released audio from a March 1966 interview, Bob Dylan claims he kicked a heroin habit after moving to New York City. "I got very, very strung out for a while," he says in excerpts released by the BBC. "I kicked the habit. I had a $25 a day habit and I kicked it." He was speaking to New York Times writer Robert Shelton on a plane from Lincoln, Nebraska to Denver while on his legendary 1966 electric tour.

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This may sound like a huge revelation, but Dylan has been telling journalists wild lies about his past since the earliest days of his career. He was particularly prone to fabricating stories in the mid-Sixties.  In another 1966 interview with Shelton, Dylan claimed to have worked as a prostitute when he first arrived in New York. "Sometimes we would make one hundred a night, really, from four in the afternoon until three or four in the morning," he said. "Cats would pick us up and chicks would pick us up. And we would do anything you wanted, as long as it was paid...I almost got killed...I didn't come down to the Village until two months later. Nobody knew that I had been hustling uptown."

That story is obviously complete fiction, but Shelton ran it with little skepticism in his 1986 Dylan biography No Direction Home. That fact that he left out the heroin part seems to suggest that he probably found it to be even less credible.  A new edition of Shelton's book was released earlier this month to coincide with Dylan's 70th birthday.

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In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan refuted the idea that he ever had a "drug period." "I never got hooked on any drug," he said. "Not like you'd say, uh, 'Eric Clapton: his drug period.'" During the 1966 tour, by most every account, he was taking huge amounts of amphetamines. In a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, Dylan did that say it was a rough time. "I was on the road for almost five years," he said. "It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things. A lot of things just to keep going, you know? And I don't want to live that way anymore." In that same interview he was asked if drugs influenced his songs. "No, not the writing of them," he said. "But it did keep me up there to pump 'em out."

In many interviews he gave in the early Sixties, Dylan claimed to have dropped out of school at a young age to work in a traveling carnival. "I was with the carnival off and on for about six years," he told Cynthia Gooding in 1962. "I was clean-up boy. I used to be on the main line, on the Ferris wheel, uh, do just run rides. I used to do all kinds of stuff."

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Some Dylan experts feel that many of the fascinating details in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One are completely made up. "Jesus Christ, as far as I can tell almost everything in the Oh Mercy section of Chronicles is a work of fiction," Dylan biographer Clinton Helyin recently said. "I enjoy Chronicles as a work of literature, but it has a much basis in reality as [Dylan's 2003 film] Masked And Anonymous, and why shouldn't it? He's not the first guy to write a biography that's a pack of lies."

None of this proves that Dylan was lying about his heroin addiction, but the worst source of info about Dylan's past is often Dylan himself.

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