A middle-age man’s quixotic quest to find his birth parents leads to an ailing septuagenarian woman and a world-renowned rock star—but the answer, it seems, is blowin’ in the wind.
For Bob Dylan, it was just another stop on his Never-Ending Tour. Maybe a little glitzier than the city parks and college auditoriums the singer often plays: His September 8, 2012 show was booked into Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena, the 10,000-seat facility inside one of the country’s largest casinos.
Ticket-holders filtered into the venue after the dinner hour, past the clattering slot machines, the bright high-end boutiques, and the unsettling stuffed wolves serving as décor. When he took the stage without comment, the inscrutable slit-eyed singer opened with a rambling version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”:
Whoo-ee, ride me high / Tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come.
For Dylan fans, the show was more or less what they’ve come to expect in recent years: a superb, agile band; rough, noncommittal singing; a mix of enduring favorites and recent album tracks. But for the forty-eight-year-old man in the corduroy jacket in section 25, row D, stage right, the concert dredged up an uneasy swirl of emotions. He’d never seen Dylan perform before. And he thinks the singer could be his father.
* * *
A few months before the show, Will DeVogue — an on-again, off-again banking industry employee working odd jobs around Portsmouth, Rhode Island — had created a small stir on the Internet, claiming he could be the illegitimate first son of the voice of the sixties. He spoke with a reporter from Minneapolis’s City Pages, and a few outlets picked up the curious item.
But the claim soon fizzled. Given Dylan’s world-renowned reticence to engage with the press and his public, most reporters and editors looked the other way, and Will DeVogue found little traction for his story.
He had no intention of letting it go. Two decades into his search for his biological parents, several years after he’d first pieced together the notion that Dylan could be his father, he sat in the arena, staring for the first time at the weathered old poet in person.
Long before Will tracked his mother down — long before he heard the first words about her ties to the Greenwich Village folk scene — he walked into a barbershop one day and the woman behind the chair exclaimed, “You look just like Bob Dylan!”
He does, in fact, resemble the singer if you’re looking for it, especially around his eyes, which are perpetually wary.
Will DeVogue is that. Given up for adoption as a child, by his own admission he has wandered through life. He has sold mortgages but hates the work; he’d rather be painting houses. His marriage, through which he has two young children, failed.
When he was a boy, his adopted family in Rhode Island gave him a bag containing a lock of hair and a baby picture. Reaching adulthood, Will — then still using his legal last name, Arena — set out on a search for his biological heritage. After obtaining a copy of his baptism certificate, he tracked down a man living in northern California whose parents had been listed as his baptism sponsors.
The man, Gene Michaels, told him that he wasn’t his father. He said he knew Will’s mother — her full name was Anita Grace DeVogue Voyes, although to most she is just “Tina” — but not her whereabouts.
It took more than a decade for Will to find Tina. As it has for countless other adoptees, the Internet created a new dimension of research possibilities. He posted about his dilemma on Facebook and eventually heard from someone who had once known Tina.
“Try in Boston,” the guy wrote.
A few hours in the city archives turned up a marriage certificate for Tina and a man named Paul Cohen. Will quickly found a current address for them in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
One day in 2009, he parked his car on a dead-end street, climbed the stairs to a shabby triple-decker, took a deep breath and knocked. Cohen, a hefty man in dire need of some dental work, answered.
“Does Tina DeVogue live here?” Will asked.
“You must be William,” Cohen replied.
* * *
Three years later, sitting in the half-light of Tina’s bedroom, the DeVogues recalled their reunion.
“I was in total shock,” said Tina, now in her seventies, speaking in the slow, measured voice of the heavily medicated. “I never thought it would happen.”
Will began visiting Tina as often as he could, and he started identifying himself by his mother’s maiden name. Over the course of their visits, Will pieced together her story. She was born in Flushing, Queens, herself the daughter of an illegitimate affair. Her father, a businessman who made frequent trips to Cuba, had impregnated a woman whose husband was serving during wartime, and he’d assumed custody of the baby. Tina was adopted by the woman her father later married.
Though they lived in comfort — according to Tina, their big house in the Forest Hills neighborhood would later be owned by the comedian Alan King — Tina did not get along with her stepmother. With the folk revival beginning to attract a scene in the Village, she headed into Manhattan.
She first bumped into Gene Michaels, an aspiring performer, in the clubs and coffeehouses a few times before he made a proposal. “I was walking down the street and he came up in back of me, and he gave me this dress with a paisley print,” Tina recalled. He asked where she was going: to see a guy who worked in a bar.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you just stay with me?’ And I said ‘fine.’”
Soon the couple was appearing together as Gene and Tina Michaels in the “basket houses” — folkie coffee shops in which the performers were paid by passing around a basket. In those days Tina was, by all accounts, a looker.
“A woman passing the basket gets more money,” she explained.
“They were a hip couple on that scene,” confirms Paul Siebel, a songwriter who caught his break some years after the Village folksingers had all moved on. Siebel’s 1970 song “Louise” has been covered by Bonnie Raitt and Leo Kottke, among others.
Tina has said she was friendly with Peter Thorkelson — better known as the future Monkee Peter Tork — and that she lived for a time in an apartment rented by Peter LaFarge, whose “Ballad of Ira Hayes” would become a hit for Johnny Cash. The singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie stayed there too, Tina said.
In the early days of the Village folk scene, the performers freely traded their knowledge of traditional songs and borrowed lyrics and chord progressions from one another. Michaels was one of the guitarists who introduced others to “the hardcore blues,” Siebel recalls.
“We were looking for what we called ‘the real stuff,’ and Gene was at the epicenter of that,” Siebel said.
The late Richie Havens, in his memoir They Can’t Hide Us Anymore, wrote about learning a song called “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from Michaels. It’s one of the few places Michaels’s name appears in written records of the folk years.
After Havens played it in one of the coffeehouses, a tearful young man approached him in the stairwell to congratulate him. Then Dave Van Ronk, the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” — the folk-singing ringleader whose life was fictionalized in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis — explained to Havens that the shaggy urchin he’d just spoken to was Bob Dylan, the writer of the song.
“I thought Gene Michaels wrote it,” Havens said.
Michaels “was always trying to pass off Dylan’s stuff as his,” said Siebel in an interview. “Like a lot of people, he was sucked into the whole Dylan vortex.”
Michaels and Dylan apparently knew each other reasonably well. They were both regulars in Micki Isaacson’s fourth-floor apartment at One Sheridan Square. The Café Society nightclub was on the ground floor, and Suze Rotolo — Dylan’s soon-to-be girlfriend — lived with her sister one floor below Isaacson’s “permanent crash pad.” According to Gene Michaels’s ex-wife, Barbara, he and Dylan both stayed there often.
“Gene always said they shared socks,” Barbara Michaels recalled in a recent phone conversation.
But while Dylan and others were on their way to the big time, Gene and Tina found minimal success as performers. What little money there was dried up by 1963, when the Village scene was already starting to splinter. They left for Buffalo; Gene figured they could get some work on the folk scene there. Soon Gene — by then a heavy drug user, according to several fellow performers — abandoned Tina to go back to the Village, then came back to collect her. They moved next to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where Gene’s parents lived. He took a job in a shoe factory.
Soon enough, Gene was gone again, leaving Tina behind to give birth to the baby she was carrying. Her son, William, was born May 12, 1964.
Will grimaces each time he hears his mother recount a fading memory. Her life has been the hard life of an addict. He says he’s glad to have found her, but visits to her dark room are gloomy.
After Will reunited with Tina in 2009, she tried to tell him Gene was his father. But Michaels, who’d died the year before in Santa Barbara, had told Will long ago he wasn’t his father. To Will, she seemed to be withholding a secret.
Reluctantly, Tina told Will about a tryst she’d had in Buffalo. Needing money in Gene’s absence, she’d prostituted herself to a man with whom she’d hitched a ride. It was cold out, she said.
“When did you move to Buffalo?” Will asked.
“After Kennedy died,” she replied. November, 1963. Too late to conceive a baby born at full term in May, 1964.
For more confirmation, Will contacted Gene’s ex-wife, Barbara. The singer had married her in Buffalo after leaving Tina for the last time. Together they had one daughter, Lana, before Barbara left Gene after the police caught him hiding a brick of marijuana in the basement.
“I thought he was straight,” Barbara recalled recently. “I wasn’t into drugs. I was teaching.”
Will asked Lana if she would agree to take a DNA test to determine whether Gene could have been his father. There was no match. Lana and Will are not related.
So Will confronted Tina on his next visit to the triple-decker in Jamaica Plain. He pointed out that he must have been conceived around August, 1963, when Gene and Tina were still living in the Village, not in the dead of winter. Gene was not the father, and neither was the mystery man she had met in Buffalo.
“It was like I busted her,” he recalled.
Up to this point, he says Tina had mentioned Dylan often during their visits together. She liked to say she “had access” to him through Gene.
At first, Will knew little about the man, and he had no particular feeling for his music.
“She was mentioning Dylan all the time. I came across some photos [of the folk scene], and I went, ‘Uh, holy cow.’” When he told her he had an idea who his real father might be, “that’s when she shut up and stopped talking about Dylan.”
The more he thought about it, the more he became obsessed with the idea. His biological mother seemed to have something to hide; the man she tried to pass off as his father had been friendly with Dylan; strangers told him he looked like Dylan.
He claims he asked Tina during one of their phone calls whether she would be surprised if he could obtain DNA proof that Dylan could be his father.
“No,” she said. Or at least that’s the way Will remembers it.
On a visit to her apartment with a reporter in tow, however, Tina mentioned Dylan just once, recalling seeing him in a Village restaurant: “One night I walked in, and Dylan was sitting at a table by himself,” she said. “He had a napkin and a pen and he was writing a song.” Hardly the sort of intimate detail her son was looking for.
When pressed, she repeated her alibi about “that gentleman” in Buffalo. Will reminded her that he could not have been conceived in winter.
“William, you’ve got to get this other thing out of your head,” she said.
Exasperated, Will sat back and stopped talking. To fill the silence, Tina spoke about her health troubles.
“I’ve got to go see about a liver,” she said. “I’ve got a swollen spleen. It gets in the way, like I’m pregnant.”
The son she’d given up for adoption, who’d been quietly fighting back tears, blew his nose.
* * *
For years, Will felt an urge to tell his story. With the help of a few friends in Rhode Island, he made plans to cut a documentary about, he says, finding his mother. He calls the would-be film Not Forgetting Tina. He has created a website with the title as the URL, featuring a four-and-a-half-minute trailer created for a failed Kickstarter campaign.
Yet there’s little question that he has become consumed by the nagging notion that Dylan could be his father. Michaels is not the one. Will doesn’t believe Tina’s tale about meeting the mysterious man in Buffalo. And the fact that Michaels was, however briefly, friendly with Dylan, and both he and Tina seemed to be withholding some deep, dark secret, gnaws at him every day. He has no real evidence. He knows it sounds far-fetched. Yet with no alternative version to the story, he can’t stop thinking about it.
The trailer ends with a brief addendum, a reference to Dylan’s famous video sequence in the documentary Don’t Look Back, in which Dylan dispensed hand-lettered cue cards one by one.
“Father?” reads Will’s first cue card. “The answers … My friend … Not blowin’ … In the … Wind.”
He’d gone to the show at Mohegan Sun on the invitation of a young Dylan fanatic who’d contacted him online, claiming he was intrigued by Will’s intention to make a documentary.
The new acquaintance paid for the tickets and talked effusively after the show, sitting at a table in the casino and discussing how he could help line up funding for the film.
A few months later, Will cut the guy off. Not the first Dylan junkie to stick his foot in the door, and he surely wouldn’t be the last.
“He was just acting very weird,” Will wrote in an email, “and I felt that I was losing control of the path I want to go down.”
* * *
There are hundreds of books about Dylan and his music. The latest, Dylan: The Biography, by veteran entertainment reporter Dennis McDougal, devotes a few pages to Will’s suspicions about his parentage.
The book quotes an email reply sent to Will after he contacted Dylan’s longtime manager, Jeff Rosen. Will claimed, as he does whenever he’s asked, that he doesn’t want money — he just wants to know who his father is.
“I ran the particulars you mentioned by Mr. Dylan again,” Rosen wrote. “He has no recollection of any of the events or people that you describe.”
Rosen did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
In mid-2012, William DeVogue was contacted by a California woman who claims Dylan is her illegitimate father. They took DNA tests to compare. The probability of their being brother and sister came out low: only nine percent.
“It means one or both of us are probably not his,” Will told McDougal. “But I’m not going to give up.”
When Tina asked him why he couldn’t let go of the idea that Bob Dylan is his father, Will replied, “I didn’t give up finding you.”
“That’s a different thing,” she said.
“It is not,” he countered. “I’m trying to find the other half of my puzzle.”
* * *
James Sullivan is the author of four books and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.
Penina Gal is an illustrator and cartoonist living in Bloomington, Indiana.