Bobbing, Weaving

From “Hurricane” to his sort-of-secret boxing gym in Santa Monica, Bob Dylan has a longtime obsession with the sweet science.


For all of Bob Dylan’s celebrity — and for all the hoopla over his Nobel Prize for Literature last year — there’s a lot that people don’t know about him.

He tours constantly but stays in out-of-the-way hotels or even motels, where he can bring his dogs in and open a window or two. His first wife Sara was his muse for a decade, and their divorce famously fueled the anger in “Blood on the Tracks,” but few of his fans know he was married for a second time — to one of his gospel-era backup singers back in the 1980s — and had a child with her.

Also under the radar: The fact that the man who wrote the song “Hurricane,” about imprisoned middleweight Ruben Carter, has a thing for boxing.

Dylan’s interest in the sport goes back decades. He grew up following the fighters of 1950s and 1960s, including Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston. Early in his career, Dylan often performed a strident boxing tale, “Who Killed Davy Moore.” It was the true story of a 1960s featherweight champ who collapsed in his dressing room after a fight in Dodger Stadium. In the song, Dylan went after everyone around the fighter — managers, promoters and fans — who disavowed responsibility for his death.

And of course “Hurricane,” from his 1976 album “Desire,” was a scorching narrative about the questionable imprisonment of Carter. It brought international attention to the fighter’s case, and Carter was eventually freed. Dylan even got in the ring with Paul Simon’s (highly metaphorical) “The Boxer” on his unloved “Self-Portrait” album.

Biographers tell us Dylan took up the sport himself at some point. Sometimes he brought a sparring partner with him on tour. (The singer has spent a great part of the last three decades out on the road.) “He had no reach,” writes Dennis McDougal in “Dylan,” “but danced and dodged and coiled a decent left hook when he sensed an opening. … Of course, no sparring partner ever decked him. He was Bob Dylan.”

His interest extends to owning his own personal boxing club since the mid-1990s. Dylan owns a good chunk of a city block on Broadway in Santa Monica. The street is fronted by a coffee house and a synagogue. Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman in a Jewish family, famously declared himself an evangelical Christian in the late 1970s, but in the years since he appeared to have gained more interest in his Jewish roots — until he released an album of Christmas songs in 2009.

To the rear of the complex is a large building that serves as the singer’s private boxing gym. Dylan spars and hangs out there with a select group of friends, who as a matter of course don’t talk about it — Fight Club rules.

Probably the best-researched book on Dylan’s life is “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” by British writer Howard Sounes. He was the first to reveal that Dylan had taken to buying real estate — in California and around the world. The Santa Monica complex was part of that activity. One of the clues Sounes noticed: A large sample of Dylan’s artwork prominently displayed in the coffee shop.

Says Sounes in a recent email: “There was a little hatch behind the counter so Bob could peer in from the gym behind and see who was in the cafe, and whether it was all right to come in. When I wrote about the gym and the café, it was the first time, to my knowledge, it had been revealed that Bob owned the complex. It was a little exclusive dropped into the book, though few people noticed it right away.

“When celebrities buy restaurants they usually shout about it from the rooftops,” Sounes says. “It is typical of Bob that he opened a little coffee shop on a back street in Santa Monica, put his own jukebox in it and original art, and told nobody about it.”

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio. 
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Dispatches