Like many people, I was touched to learn of William Arena’s (a/k/a Will DeVogue) story of the search for his dad. I learned of his story from WJAR NBC 10’s RJ Heim, who did a piece on DeVogue.
William Arena/DeVogue thought Bob Dylan was his father and had a garrulous conjecture along with a few serendipitous details about why he surmised these elements united to confirm his theory. A fan and amateur Dylan scholar, I reached out to him and we had a few heartfelt discussions about adoption and foster care, characteristics that we share since I grew up in DCYF care myself and didn’t have a particularly pleasant experience.
I’m also a fan of Bob Dylan’s music and think that he’s had a profound impact on the arts, music, and society – perhaps the most profound impact of the 20th century. I found it to be tremendously interesting to get involved with what could be a great discovery. I was hoping that everything was exactly the way that it seemed.
William explained how he had made a few queries to Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen. I helped to facilitate some communication with my connections at Harvard University. I involved lawyers, scholars, musicians, even Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, to try to find some veracity to this theory that William’s mother Tina DeVogue (also known as Anita Voyes) knew Bob Dylan — not even yet piercing the veil of whether or not Dylan could conceivably be Arena’s father.
He was told that his father was Gene Michaels, another Greenwich Village folksinger. But a DNA test with a half-sibling refuted that speculation.
Because I, like so many, were captivated by Arena’s story, I invested personal resources and money in trying to get some sort of documentary-type production off the ground to at least find out the truth. I remember bringing him to the Rhode Island Department of Health to spend the $25 or so to obtain his birth certificate — just to see who was listed in the “father” box. It was Michaels.
A big part of me wanted Dylan to be his dad because, admittedly, that would be a rather fascinating addition to the citizenry of Rhode Island; a man who was the posterity of the greatest singer and songwriter to have lived. It would also add to Dylan’s numerous and riveting Rhode Island connections.
I assembled my friends and colleagues, including website developers, attorneys, journalists, writers, Harvard-affiliated sound engineers and Cambridge cinematographers.
We rented and paid for a conference room at The Liberty Hotel and a suite for William DeVogue / William Arena, his kids, and his girlfriend. The team of experts met to get things moving so we could get the project off the ground as soon as possible.
I had a meeting, coincidentally on the day of of Dylan’s September 11, 2012 release of Tempest, at the Massachusetts State House with a legal team to discuss tax credits and assess the legal parameters for making a film that would put the potential posterity of an amazing poet in the limelight. I even mentioned DeVogue and the project during a personal appearance on WPRO’s The Buddy Cianci Show.
But with every passing day, Will’s demands became insurmountable. Nothing was ever enough. He was penurious, to say the least, and his odd jobs as a house painter around Portsmouth and the East Bay were making it difficult for him to survive.
I felt sad for Will. But there was very little I could do to ameliorate his circumstance. I never expect to discover why Will was so intent on proving why Dylan is his dad, and nor do I care. I have my suspicions. But I know what his mother said, and I have proof of that conversation.
I know who his father might be. I suppose the principal intention in writing this essay is to process the impact that he had on me as a wearisome Pierrot peddling a half-baked assumption. If it was a personal issue, why go public at all? I began very quickly to regret being involved.
After a while, I stopped taking his calls. I shut him off completely. He was very overwhelming and demanding. He acted with such an air of entitlement that it was incredibly arduous to cope with his rigorous demands. I was doing this pro bono. I was running a full time media campaign against DCYF for what I had suffered as a youth.
I was in the middle of two federal lawsuits. DeVogue’s obsessive insistence on absorbing every minute of my time was intolerable. Will’s unhealthy obsession with attempting to prove that Dylan might be his father was a catastrophic cadger in his life. It was quickly becoming a similar plight for me. I had to snuff out his swarthy overtone and savage attitude.
It was a healthy decision to part with Will and The DeVogue Project. He finally got the hint. He even wished me well.
What follows below is a 2012 Providence Journal article by my longtime friend Bob Kerr.
A twist of fate in search for dad
By Bob Kerr
In trying to put the story of his earliest days together, William Arena turns the pages of a book of iconic photographs from Life magazine. There is, as there has to be, a photo of Bob Dylan, walking a New York street with a girlfriend. That was a recurring image in the ’60s — Dylan, slightly hunched, leaning close to his sweetie on a city street.
Arena looks to one side of the photo by famed photographer Jim Marshall. He looks at another woman walking nearby. He’s pretty sure the woman is his mother, whom he met for the first time in February 2010. That photo is one small piece of a fascinating story of a man’s search for his identity — and a trail that leads back to one of the most famous men in the world.
It is a story that Arena is hoping to turn into a film and a book.
Arena was adopted when he was 3 1/2 from a foster home in Woonsocket. He does not have fond memories of his childhood. His adoptive father turned down his requests for guitar and piano lessons.
Like others adopted in Rhode Island, he went to Family Court and put his name on the list of those who want to connect with their birth parents. No one got in touch.
He tried for years to find his mother on the Internet. He had found her name by doing some detective work with some basic documents, including a baptismal record, provided by his adoptive parents. But he could get no further.
“I was at my wits’ end. I couldn’t find her.”
Then he made a connection on Facebook that led him to the Department of Vital Statistics in Boston, that led him to a three-decker in Jamaica Plain.
“I came back to Portsmouth, took a shower, then did everything the experts say you shouldn’t do.”
He went to the house, walked up to the third floor and knocked on the door.
“It was a shock,” says Tina DeVogue, who lives with her husband in Jamaica Plain.
She says she had tried to find her son but couldn’t. Now, he makes the 90-minute drive from Portsmouth to talk with his mother and fill in his life. He says he has started the legal process to change his name to DeVogue, and has worked and written under that name for the last two years.
Tina DeVogue was a folksinger in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s.
“It was pretty wild,” she says of those times, when the times were definitely a-changin’.
In one of their first conversations, Arena asked her who she knew back then, and he says the first person she mentioned was Bob Dylan. Richie Havens was around then, and Peter Tork, who was wondering if he should become a Monkee.
Arena also asked his mother the most important question of all — who was his father. She told him it was a singer named Gene Michaels, who has since died.
But Arena says he contacted Michaels’ daughter, did a DNA test and there was not a match.
It’s a mystery, he says, and it’s compelling. His mother isn’t sure if that is her in the photograph.
Arena is 48, a former Marine who lives in Portsmouth and used to make a good living in the sub-prime mortgage business before sub-prime mortgages went south. Now, he devotes his time trying to solve the mystery.
“I was writing a short film, and I want to get the film done. I want to make it a tribute to my mother, focus on her struggles.”
He and a friend, Nicholas Alahverdian, are trying to raise money for the film, using the online fundraising site Kickstarter.
It was Nicholas Alahverdian who provided Arena with a first-time experience several weeks ago. He took him to a Dylan concert at Mohegan Sun. But Arena wants to do more than hear the music. He wants to talk to Dylan. In his conversations with his mother, Dylan is always in the mix.
So far, he has received a second-hand response from Dylan’s manager that Dylan does not recollect Tina DeVogue.
“I don’t want anything from him,” Arena says. “I just want to know.”