Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

Dylan Dallies With Mafia Chic: Joey Gallo Was No Hero

Whenever Bob Dylan puts out a new album, it is sure to generate a lot of talk. What is he thinking, what is he saying, what does he mean? A cynical person might respond that he releases these things, no matter how sloppy they are and no matter how long we might have to wait for something half-baked, precisely so people will keep talking about him. History is, after all, a rather gray address. It is automatically assumed that every Bob Dylan album is an event, but there are times — the Rolling Thunder tour is probably a good example — when our sense of the enterprise in question as an event eclipses whatever signifi­cance and integrity it might possess.

As for Desire, much has been made of Dylan’s support of Hurri­cane Carter’s defense, and of his return to topical songwriting in general, but I think there are grounds for questioning his mo­tives. Does Bob Dylan really care about Hurricane Carter, Joey Gallo, and, in retrospect, George Jackson, or might not our same hypothetical cynic contend that he is merely using all these people to insure his own continuing “rele­vance”? The answer can only he found in Dylan’s handling of these people in the songs which purport to convey the folk/street truth be­hind the headlines. I am not so much interested in Rubin Carter — ­and I think most listeners would have to admit that they feel the same way — as I am in whether Bob Dylan is being straight with me or not. The man does, after all, have a reputation second only to David Bowie’s for image-mongering, and second to none for mythmaking. One tends to wonder if the myths he has made, even when they deal with actual historical personages, might not devolve to an endless alienated outlaw narcissism; if he has not, in fact, been talking about himself all the way down the road. I believe that; I don’t think he is being straight with his audience anywhere on Desire, but is rather exploiting both them and the subjects of his songs to keep his own image polished.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718628″ /]

I think you can find all the evidence you need in Desire’s longest cut, the ponderous sloppy, numbingly boring 11-minute ballad “Joey,” about yet another folk hero/loser/martyr, mobster “Crazy Joey” Gallo, who was murdered by other mafiosi in Lit­tle Italy in 1972.

During the ’60s, there were five Mafia “families” dividing up the pie of various turfs and rackets in New York City, under the control of one Godfather-like “boss of bosses.” Although the modern Mafia encourages more of a “busi­nessman” image and tries to play down the bloodletting, the families are usually fighting among themselves for greater power and influ­ence, and one of the most successful families during the ’60s was the Profaci family, which later be­came the Colombo family. In in­termittent but very bloody opposition to them was the Gallo family, led by the brothers Larry, Joey, and Albert “Kid Blast” Gallo, who were never quite able to attain equivalent power even though they remained the overlords of one small section of Brooklyn. Accord­ing to a detailed analysis of mob warfare by Fred J. Cook in the June 4, 1972, New York Times, “The severe bloodletting in the Profaci-Colombo family began when the greed of the Gallo brothers set them lusting after [the former’s] power. Indeed it touched them with the kind of madness that drives a shark berserk in a blood-stained-sea,” and the Gallos tried every lethal ploy that they could think of to muscle their way into a bigger piece of the action. In October 1957, according to some reports, Joey Gallo acted on a Profaci contract and blasted the notorious Albert Anastasia, one time lord of Murder, Inc., out of his barber’s chair in a celebrated rub-out, thus paving the way for Carlo Gambino to become, and remain, boss of bosses through the ’60s and early ’70s. But the Gallos never found any more favor with Gambino than they had with his predecessors, so they embarked on an all-out war with the Profacis that lasted from 1961–63; though there were no real winners, the Gallos were no match either in numbers or tactically for the Pro­facis, and the war ended in early 1962 when Crazy Joe Gallo was sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison for extortion, and, a few months later, Joseph Profaci died of cancer.

While Joe Gallo was in prison, he read extensively, becoming a sort of jailhouse intellectual, and when he was finally released in 1970 he began to cultivate contacts in the literary and show business worlds, who welcomed him to their parties and obviously considered him an exotic amusement indeed. Jimmy Breslin’s book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, had been inspired by the legendary inepti­tude of the Gallo family in their early-’60s bids for power, and Joey developed close contacts with Jerry Orbach, who played a char­acter corresponding to him in the movie based on the book, and his wife Marta, with whom, in the last months of his life, Joey began collaborating on various autobiographical literary projects. Out of Radical Chic bloomed Mafia Chic; he became something of an above-ground social figure, and told col­umnist Earl Wilson that he was ‘”going straight.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718606″ /]

Apparently that was a lie, howev­er. While Joey was in prison, his gang languishing and awaiting his return, a new figure had arisen from the Profaci ranks to bring New York mob power to a whole new, all but avant-garde level: Joe Colombo. Colombo founded the Italian American Civil Rights League, an organization ostensibly devoted to deploring and “legiti­mately” opposing the “prejudice” which caused most Americans to link mob activities with citizens of Italian descent. Between 150,000 and 250,000 Italian-Americans ulti­mately joined the league, and the impact on politicians was consi­derable, which was how Nelson Rockefeller and Louis Lefkowitz ended up having their pictures taken with underworld toughs. Joey Gallo returned from prison with his power on his own turf intact but of course completely cut out of the Colombo empire. On June 28, 1971, Joe Colombo was gunned down by a supposedly lone and uncontracted black man in front of thousands of his horrified followers at a rally in Columbus Circle. The consensus was that Crazy Joey was behind it, espe­cially since he’d perplexed other mafiosos by hanging out with black prisoners during his stay in the joint, and ostensibly aimed to start a black mob, under his control, when he got out. According to many inside sources, there was a contract out on Gallo from the day Colombo was shot, and on April 7, 1972, as he celebrated his 43rd birthday in Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, an anonymous hit-man walked in off the street and shot Crazy Joey to death much as Joey himself claimed to have murdered Albert Anastasia. It was the end of a gang war that had lasted almost a decade and a half — a few more of their henchmen were disposed of, and the Gallo family was decimat­ed, their power gone. Mobsters in general breathed a collective sigh of relief — the Gallos had always been hungry troublemakers — and went back to business as usual.

It is out of this fairly typical tale of mob power-jostlings that Dylan has, unaccountably, woven “Joey,” which paints a picture of Joey Gallo as alienated antihero reminiscent of West Side Story’s “Gee, Officer Krupke!” lyrics — “He ain’t no delinquent, he’s misunderstood.”

Always on the outside of whatev­er side there was
When they asked him why it had to be that way
Well, the answer — just because

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

Joey Gallo was a psychopath, as his biographer, Donald Goddard, confirms, although the analyst who examined him while he was in prison diagnosed Joey’s disease as “pseudopsychopathic schizophren­ia.” Joey’s answer: “Fuck you. Things are not right or wrong anymore. Just smart or stupid. You don’t judge an act by its nature. You judge it by results. We’re all criminals now… Things exist when I feel they should exist, okay? Me. I am the world.” Toward the end of his life, his wife routinely fed him Thorazine, which he docilely took, even though it still didn’t stop him from beating the shit out of her.

Dylan then goes on to paint a romantic, sentimental picture of Joey and his brothers in the gang:

There was talk they killed their rivals
But the truth was far from that
No one ever knew for sure where they were really at.

Well, according to the DA at Joey’s early-’60s extortion trial, “In the current war taking place between the Gallo gang and es­tablished interests, there have been killings, shootings, stran­gling, kidnappings, and disappearances, all directly involving the Gallos. Interestingly enough, since the defendant’s being remanded on November 14 in this case, there have been no known offensive ac­tions taken by the Gallos in this dispute. This would give some cre­dence to the belief that Joe Gallo, is, in reality, the sparkplug and enforcer of the mob.” But who believes DAs, right? Okay, try his ofttimes enormously sympathetic biographer:

“Almost all the charges ever brought against him, even in the beginning, were dismissed. No witnesses. Once people got to know that careless talk was liable to bring Joe Gallo around to remon­strate and maybe make his point with an ice pick, witnesses in Brooklyn became as scarce as woodpeckers. Once the story got around that Joey had gripped a defaulter’s forearm by the wrist and elbow and broken it over the edge of a desk to remind him that his account was past due, the Gallos had very few cash-flow problems with their gambling, loan-sharking, and protection business.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715738″ /]

Later in the song Dylan asserts that “The police department hounded him.” Considering the number of rackets that the Gallos were involved in, nothing could be further from the truth. Goddard:

“Right from the start, relations between the Pizza Squad [NYC anti-Mafia cop team] and the Gallo gang had been imbued with a grudging professional respect, which, in certain cases, shaded into something close to affection. They played the game by the rules.” Adds a cop:

‘They’re a peculiar mob… They knew what we had to do and they weren’t going to question it. They treated us like gentlemen. That don’t make them good guys, but they had a little more savvy [than the Colombos]. It was like ‘Why stir the pot? If you’re going to be down here, let’s make it pleasant for both of us.’ It’s a game. If you get caught, you get caught.”

Perhaps most curiously of all, Dylan says that “They got him on conspiracy/They were never sure who with.” Funny, because everybody from Goddard to the courts and cops agree that Joey’s down­fall came when, early in May 1961, he tried to muscle in on a loan shark named Teddy Moss. Moss resisted, and, in the presence of undercover cops, Joey said “Well, if he needs some time to think it over, we’ll put him in the hospital for four or five months, and that’ll give him time.”

But how can Dylan have a mar­tyred Mafioso without an evil judge:

“What time is it?” said the judge to Joey when they met
“Five to ten,” said Joey
The judge says, “That’s exactly what you get.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718520″ /]

This is what, for want of a better phrase, must be termed poetic license. The truth is that Joey’s lawyer was as lame as his gang, and never made it up from Florida for his trial, and Joe refused to have anything to do with the two other lawyers appointed to repre­sent him, choosing to stand mute while the DA delivered a steady stream of evidence that was pretty solid in the first place and never disputed. That Joey allowed this to happen suggests, not that he was railroaded, but merely that he was incredibly stupid. Goddard:

“Readily concurring that Joey was ‘a menace to the community,’ Judge Sarafite chalked up the first victory in the attorney general’s [Robert Kennedy, who once branded Joey Public Enemy No. 1] assault on organized crime by handing down the maximum sentence of seven and one-quarter to fourteen and one-half years’ imprisonment.”

Dylan: “…10 years in Attica/Reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich.” He also read Freud, Plato, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, John Dewey, Bergson, Santayana, Herbert Spencer, William James, Voltaire, Diderot, Pascal, Locke, Spengler, Wilde, Keats, Shakespeare, Goethe, Will Durant, Oliver Crom­well, Napoleon, Adenauer, de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Clarence Darrow, and Louis Nizer, as well as taking part in a homosexual gang rape about which he bragged at a cocktail party after his release:

“He described how, with several other convicts, he had spotted a pretty young boy among a new batch of prisoners and laid in wait for him. Dragging him into the Jewish chapel, they ripped his pants off and were struggling to hold him down when one of them heard the rabbi talking in the next room. A knife was immediately put at their victim’s throat with a whispered warning not to cry out, and the rape proceeded in an or­derly fashion, each man taking his turn in order of seniority. They wanted this kid, Joey said, while his asshole was still tight.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718120″ /]

This was most likely not, howev­er, the reason that (according to Dylan) “his closest friends were black men.” It was “Cause they seemed to understand what it’s like to be in society/With a shackle on your hand.” And also, as pre­viously stated, because Joey for a while entertained dreams of launching a black Mafia when he got out. The psychoanalyst who interviewed Joey in prison voices agreement with Dylan in more clinical terms, but adds “Joey was a terrifically prejudiced guy… on a strictly, and deeply, personal level, he was a knee-jerk nigger-­hater,” and also allows that it was “entirely possible” that “I was conned by one of the greatest con artists of all times.”

After Joey is finally sprung, Dylan has him blessing both the beasts and children: “’Twas true that in his later years/He would not carry a gun.” Of course not; no Mafia chieftain ever has, unless in unusually dire fear for his life. The cops would like nothing better than to send one of these guys up on a carrying concealed weapons rap, and anyway that’s what the wall of protective muscle that accompan­ies them everywhere is for.

“ ‘I’m around too many chil­dren,’ he’d say/‘They should never know of one.’ ” Again true — mob leaders have always been scrupu­lous about keeping their wives and children universes removed from the everyday brutality of their work. Anybody who saw The Godfather knows that. But as for Joey’s magical touch with children, let his daughter, Joie, speak: “He would come home and say, ‘Make me some coffee,’ And I would say, ‘Daddy, I have home­work. Can I do it later?’ ‘No. Now.’ It was like I was refusing him, and nobody ever did that. He was the king, and I couldn’t stand it… He used to abuse Mommy terribly, and I resented him coming be­tween us. He broke her ribs once… I used to complain to Mommy about him and bug her to leave him. ‘What a man you picked,’ I’d say. ‘Who’d want to live with that maniac? You’ve got to be crazy to put up with this.’ So then I’d divorce him as my father. I’d take a piece of paper and draw a very fancy certificate that said, ‘I, Joie Gallo, hereby divorce Joey Gallo as my father.’ ”

Joey, Joey… what made them want to come and blow you away?

There are several theories in answer to that question. The most prevalent was that, since most people took it for granted that Joey was behind the shooting of Joe Colombo almost a year before, there was an open contract out on Gallo by the Colombo family, meaning that Joey had effective­ly committed suicide in having Colombo shot. Two other theories advanced by investigators ex­tremely close to the case have Gallo once again trying to muscle in on territory occupied by other, more powerful mob factions. In one case, he could have told two thugs to crack a safe for $55,000 in Ferrara’s Pastry Shop in Little Italy, a landmark frequented by Vinnie Aloi, at that time a very powerful capo in the New York Mafia. This would certainly have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to the mob bosses’ patience with Gallo’s hust­les, as would another incident reported in the June 4, 1972, New York Times:

“Three weeks prior to Gallo’s getting killed, he, Frank (Punchy) Illiano and John (Mooney) Cutrone went out to the San Susan nightclub in Mineola, L.I., in which John Franzese [another powerful capo in the Colombo family] is reported to have a hidden interest. Joey is reported to have grabbed the manager and said, ‘This joint is mine. Get out.’ In other words, he was cutting himself in. This was the first sign we had that Crazy Joe was acting up again.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718598″ /]

In any case, any of these courses of action (and Gallo may well have undertaken all three) amounted to signing his own death warrant. An interesting sidelight is that at this time Joey was broke, practically reduced to the shame of living off his bride of three weeks; his mother had already mortgaged her house and hocked her furniture to pay for bail bonds. Meanwhile, of course, he had begun to hang out with what Goddard calls “the show-biz, tablehopping cheek­-peckers’ club”: Jerry and Marta Orbach, the Ben Gazzaras, Neil Simon, David Steinberg, Joan Hackett and her husband — people that, as his bride Sina warned him, “might be exploiting him for the thrill of having a real live gangster empty their ashtrays and talk about life and art.” Marta Orbach told him Viking Press was interested in publishing whatever liter­ary collaboration he could cook up with her, so they began making daily tape recordings of his reminiscences at her house. At first it was supposed to be a black comedy about prison life, but then there was talk of an outright autobio­graphy and even a meeting with an MGM representative to discuss selling it to the movies — so there is also the remaining possibility, as a final theory, that just about any­body in the underworld, getting wind of this might be nervous enough about possible indiscre­tions to want him snuffed.

The two key points here are that (a) by this time he was totally pathetic (Goddard: “He had outgrown the old life. To allow himself to be forced back into it was unthinkable — a submission to circumstance, a confession of fail­ure. As for his new life, the pros­pect was hardly less humiliating. It entailed another kind of surren­der — to show-biz society and public opinion. His self-esteem would depend, not on his power and sover­eign will, but on how long an ex-gangster could stay in fashion. Like an ex-prizefighter, he might even be reduced someday to mak­ing yogurt commercials.”), and (b) Dylan got even the very last second of Gallo’s life wrong: “He could see it coming through the door as he lifted up his fork.” Gallo was shot from behind. So all that remains now is the question to Bob Dylan: Why? Although that is one that I doubt he is going to answer, I was able to get through to his collaborator on “Joey” and the rest of Desire, Jacques Levy, who explained the way he and Dylan had worked on the album, and had a ready defense for the lionization of Joey Gallo: “Bob liked the work I’d done with [Roger] McGuinn, said, ‘Let’s get together and see what happens.’ So we’d sit around tossing ideas back and forth until a song was finished. Bob would have an idea, or I would have an idea, and we would write the songs together, throwing lines, words, rhymes, plot schemes back and forth. It wasn’t even a case of writing every other line.

“I suggested the Joey song to Bob; I took him to dinner with Jerry and Marta Orbach, we told him about Joey, and he became excited about the prospect of the song. I don’t think he ever read much more about Joey than what most people did; but we had all known Joey very well, and told Bob all about him. You know, Bob has always had a thing about outlaws, people on the outside of whatever side there was. Would you call John Wesley Harding [sic] a small-time hoodlum? I think calling Joey that is labeling someone unfairly, and he wasn’t a psychopath either. He was just trying to build something, to help his people and family, and I don’t mean family in the Mafia sense. Yeah, he was a victim of society — of growing up poor, and if you look at the results of the Gallo-Profaci war, say, you’ll find that it’s never been proved that the Gallos killed anybody, but plenty of Joey’s people got killed. And I don’t think he set up Joe Colombo. If there was a vicious side of Joey, I think that people like myself, the Orbachs, people who were around him for at least a year before he died, would have seen it come out.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”699472” /]

But, I interjected, Joey himself bragged that he had killed Albert Anastasia. Levy almost laughed: “That was Joey’s wise-guy side bragging about something like that is not proof of having done it. That was Joey posing as the tough guy, the Hollywood Richard Widmark–Jimmy Cagney stereo­type.”

Levy and I ended up agreeing that we would never agree on this subject. He had known Joey; all I had were the biased accounts of Donald Goddard, Joey’s ex-wife and first daughter, journalists, cops, and judges. The reader can draw his own conclusions, although I do think that Dylan can stand accused of not doing his homework. But then he’s a poet, and poets aren’t expected to do homework, right? It seems to me that the reason why Dylan’s Joey is so at variance with most ac­counts of Gallo is the same as the reason Dylan doesn’t like to do retakes of his songs — he is simply lazy. I also think Desire is an exploitation record, that the answer to the question, “What is Dylan thinking? is that he is not thinking at all, and that the only thing remaining is to suggest antihero fodder for future Dylan compositional products: Elmer Wayne Henley, William Calley, Arthur Bremer, and that kid who tried to rob a bank at 13th Street and Sixth Avenue and ended up drunkenly requesting replays of the Grateful Dead on the radio. Certainly they all qualify as alienated victims of our sick society, every bit as much on the outside as Joey Gallo.

One does wonder, however, what Gallo would have made of Dylan’s tribute to him; and one receives a possible answer in Goddard’s book, where Gallo’s ex-wife describes borrowing a hundred bucks from Joey’s father to buy records so that the Prince of Brooklyn, always a fan of contemporary music, could catch up on what had been happening in soundsville during the decade he’d been away reading Reich in the slams: “He got especially mad over a Byrds album called ‘Chestnut Mare’ that I wanted him to hear. ‘Listen to the lyrics,’ I said. ‘They’re so pretty and well done.’ ‘I don’t want to hear any fags singing about any fucking horse,’ he says — and he’s really venomous. ‘It’s not about a fucking horse,’ I said. ‘If you’ll listen, it’s about life.’ But he doesn’t want to hear about life either.… Next thing I know, he jumps out of the bathtub, snatched the record off the machine, stomps out in the hall stark-naked, and pitches it down the incinerator.”

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bob Dylan’s Pain: Flip Side of Cruelty

Riffs: Bob Dylan’s Pain — Flip Side of Cruelty
February 3, 1975

Bob Dylan has regained his courage. Blood on the Tracks has more raw power than any of his albums since Blonde on Blonde. It fuses the musical control he began to gain in John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline with lyrics that are so honest you begin to share his torment as soon as you hear them. In songs like “Shelter From the Storm” and “Tangled up in Blue” he is once again exploring his private rage and pain, rather than posing as the con­tented country squire of “New Morning.” Even his decision to recut the record with unknown Minnesota studio musicians to rely on the evocative power of his lonely voice, his harmonica and guitar, make you feel, in your pores, that this album comes from his craving to create, not from a willed decision that his career required a new album.

The message that comes through the blues, the ballads, the light, lithe country tunes, is a bleak one. At 34, with his marriage on the rocks, he is an isolated, lonely drifter once again: “I’m going out of my mind, with a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew in my heart.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

He’s still Woody Guthrie’s disciple, but his echoes of Woody’s songs evoke a deliberately desolate counterpoint to his mentor’s exuberant America (and his own past hopes). Woody saw the Grand Coulee Dam as an example of this country’s marvelous capacity to make “‘green pastures of plenty from dry desert grounds.” But for Dylan, the dam is no longer an example of benevolent engineering. It is an arid, ominous symbol. “Idiot wind, blowin’ like a circle round my skull, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capital.” The language and phrasing are Woody’s, but the spent pessimism of the lyric and the tone of voice sounds more like T.S. Eliot. Dylan, trapped in the prison of himself, is Tiresias in his dugs. America is his waste­land. The answer, my friend, is no longer blowing in the wind. Now the idiot wind is blowin’ in a circle round his skull.

In Blood on the Tracks, as in all Dylan’s great albums, pain is the flip side of his legendary cruelty. I remember my own anger at him when I first heard his masterpiece of scorn, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It was released in 1965, when Dylan was still marginally political, when people who would become part of the new left were still trying to decide whether to reach out to America or withdraw from it. That insinuating, derisive refrain — “something is hap­pening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones” — promised to become an anthem for a spoiled generation. Dylan had permitted them to view all the America that lay beyond their tight knots of long-haired dopers as a land of Mr. Joneses, a frieze of naive, contempt­ible grotesques.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715738″ /]

The irony is that his cruelty grew out of his own shyness, which seemed to intensify as he moved from anonymity in Hibbing to celeb­rity in New York. Before his motorcycle accident, everything he ob­served was material for a fresh tidal wave of the terrifying images that fill “Desolation Row” and “Mem­phis Blues Again.” There was al­ways a defensive, pained distance between himself anti what he saw, a quickness to judge new people and experiences without ever relaxing enough to enjoy them.

Judging from Blood on the Tracks, the years he celebrated in “Nash­ville Skyline” and “New Morning” were somewhat stultifying, a soap bubble of time filled with contrived joy. Now the bubble has burst open. Sometime — probably as his mar­riage began to shatter — his selfish­ness must have curdled into self-hatred. You can hear that in the unexpected ending of “Idiot Wind.” The song begins with a put-down that sounds as cruel as “Ballad of a Thin Man”, (“you’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”), but it suddenly closes with a forlorn paean to his woman’s “holiness” and “kind of love” and then with the terrible confession that, for the moment, he’s a sort of spiritual paraplegic: “We are idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

Even if part of you dislikes the singer, you have to feel unreserved admiration for the unsparing hon­esty of his songs.

But he can never connect. He’s still too eager to be the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or the handsome, mysterious Jack of Hearts (the hero of a nine­-minute ballad on Blood on the Tracks) to permit any anchors in his life. Think of his songs about his five children. He writes about them once in awhile — in “Sign in the Win­dow,” for example, where he or a patriarchal persona says he wants “a bunch of kids who’ll call me Pa,” or in “Forever Young” (as mawkish and touching as “My Boy Bill” in Carousel), where he’s conventional­ly ambitious dad exhorting his young to embody a conventional array of virtues.

But the kids are always objects. He never experiences them as Robbie Robertson, say, experienced his daughter in “A La Glory” — or (to put Dylan in the class where he belongs) as Yeats experienced the prospect of fatherhood in his lovely meditation “Prayer for My Daughter.” And, incredibly, he never sings for his children. All the new songs he’s released since the birth of his first son are filled with intimate details about his love life and his search for God. But there is not a single non­sense playsong like Woody Guthrie’s “Mama, Oh Mama, Come Smell Me Now.” There is not a single lullaby.

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552″ /]

I think that Dylan bears a very special kind of curse. He seems unable to establish warm, lasting relationships, but he’s too eager for love to make the cold decision to sacrifice his private life to his art, as Joyce or even Mailer can. Blood on the Tracks is a great album be­cause he’s writing into the head­winds of that curse, because songs like “Shelter From the Storm” and “Idiot Wind” are so plainly part of his relentless effort to find salva­tion.

The entire record is the excruciat­ing cry of a man who is tormented by his own freedom. But it is also filled with religious imagery, with hints that the wounded, weary Dylan sees “Shelter From the Storm” not as a woman’s warm home, but as the peace of God. I think that, like T.S. Eliot, Dylan longs to submit his unruly will to the ceremonies and certainties of faith — maybe Ortho­dox Judaism, maybe formal Chris­tianity. Or maybe — hopefully — some American fusion of those European forms.

For him, perhaps, the faith he is seeking is the only escape from his swirling emotions, the only alterna­tive to madness or suicide.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Paranoid Notes on the Strange Death of Bruce Lee

The gray-haired judge presiding in Arraignment Room No. 2A had spent the better part of the morning listening to the same old story about how this defendant put a voodoo spell on that plaintiff’s gypsy cab, thereby causing the vehicle to lose its steering column while making a 40-mile an hour U-turn on the FDR Drive. The stuff was pretty routine for the gray-haired judge.

Now, however, he was up against something really tough. The plaintiff, Alan J. Weberman — aka A.J., well-known garbologist, as­sassinationologist, and semi-leader of the Youth International Party (YIP) — was charging that defendant William H. Depperman — former YIP fellow traveler, now leader and close-to-only member of the Assassination Information Committee (AIC) — had menaced him with a six-inch blade on Bleecker Street.

The pulling of a shiv was well within the gray-haired judge’s frame of reference. The reasons for the alleged crime, however, were somewhat baffling. According to Weberman’s statement, Depperman is in the midst of waging “a one-man counterinsurgency campaign against the Yippies because he claims we’re not Communistic enough.” Depperman, a hairy hulk of frazzled nerves, dismissed these allegations as impossible since Weberman is no “legitimate leftist” but rather “a CIA agent.” Depperman countercharged that it is actually Weberman who plans violent action. As proof, Depperman waved a WANTED — ­DEAD OR ALIVE, WILLIAM H. DEPPERMAN, AKA THE DIAPERMAN poster in front of the judge, a poster supposedly distributed by Weberman and his Yippie cohorts. The text of the WANTED poster depicts Depperman as a “rat-faced, asshole, scum­faced NAZI pig Narc.” It goes on to charge that Depperman is nothing more or less than an “FBI informer.”

With each new assertion by Depperman that it was really Weber­man, not he, who worked for the intelligence arm of the United States government, the gray-haired judge rolled his eyes. He had been cast as arbitrator in a War of the Paranoids, and he was not too happy about it.

My interest in this case is many-fold. First of all, paranoia, the leftover sixties variety, is news this week, and I always make an effort to stay current. I also have a deep-running passion for paranoids, an obsession which began to creep one Early Show afternoon following a Hebrew school class on the Holocaust as I watched Ralph Meeker open a black box full of seething uranium. Since then I have come to take a religious view of paranoia and its adherents. The belief that nothing in the universe happens by chance strikes me as essentially theological. Trilateral Committee, Rockefeller, God, Satan, Reverend Moon — it’s all the same kettle of Prime Movers to me.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717345″ /]

During my paranoia research I have run across some good one­-liners. Jackie Mason, the noted paranoid who once gave Ed Sullivan the finger on national television, has said he doesn’t like to go to football games because when the players huddle he’s positive they’re talking about him. Michael Corleone was famous for not wanting to “wipe out everybody, just my enemies.” Personally, I can pass on the more dangerous paranoids like Corleone and Jim Jones. I prefer to stick with less harmful types like Weberman and Depperman. After all, it was A.J. who voiced the true credo of the slightly gone: “Just because you don’t think they’re out to get you doesn’t mean they’re not.”

But it was not my appreciation of Weberman’s stand-up style that attracted me to his case against Depperman. It was my consuming interest in the strange death of Bruce Lee.

I first became aware of the awesome cross-cultural power of Bruce E. Lee while watching Enter the Dragon at the Lyric Theatre on Forty-­second Street. The vengeful Bruce was on the verge of killing a bad white boy who earlier in the film had tried to rape a Lee sister, causing the woman to commit suicide. Now, however, the hoodlum was staggering on one edge of the Cinemascope screen, while on the other Bruce was winding himself into a corkscrew of death. Then Lee flung himself, feet first, toward the bad guy. Bruce slow-motioned through the air for what seemed an eternity. Just before Bruce planted his dynamite feet into the white guy’s soon-to-be-demolished rib cage, a cry came from a black wino sitting behind me. “Don’t hurt him so bad, Bruce. Kill the motherfucker. But don’t hurt him so bad.” All movie long the wino had been rooting for all the whiteys to get dead, so his show of mercy for the chief bad white guy puzzled me. The only conclusion was that somewhere down deep the wino had connected with the notion that Bruce Lee possessed within his seemingly slight body a cosmic force far more terrible than a battery of M-16s. Even a Forty-second Street wino doesn’t want to be eyeball to eyeball with that kind of power.

This incident occurred soon before the fall of Nam. I coupled the calendar reference with the fact that audiences for Bruce Lee movies have always been almost exclusively black and Puerto Rican — even when the films were only playing down in Chinatown — and came up with the Third World Alliance Theory. The theory postulates that blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York were giant Bruce Lee fans because the United States lost the Vietnam War. Sense could be made of it: For years blacks and Puerto Ricans hadn’t been getting squat in the city due to a heavy white boot heel. Now they were checking the Daily News and seeing little guys, a bunch of egg-roll makers, kicking whitey’s butt in Nam. Kicking whitey’s technological butt. But how were they managing it? What secret weapon did they have? The answer was clear to anyone watching The Chinese Connection or Fists of Fury.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718092″ /]

To any student of paranoia (those with some instinct for pop culture, that is) the Third World Alliance Theory had to seem tenable. After all, times were changing. The Nam War exposed the folly of blindly relying on a computerized military. Balances were turned upside down. No longer could the Anderson family sleep soundly snuggled beneath the thick metal sheets of vaunted American technol­ogy. Jimmy Stewart and the SAC were not up there ready to ward off real and imagined cascades of plague. If they were, they were cooping. It was every man for himself — I mean, how capable are you with your hands and feet, buddy? To the student of cross-cultural paranoia, this situation was fascinating. Kung fu could be the ultimate weapon of these new times, and Bruce Lee its Messiah. And before Lee was finished preaching in the drive-in and sleaze Temples of the Inner City, Western civilization could go down the tube in a flurry of sidekicks and nunchakas. Would the CIA allow a menace to exist? Obviously, something had to be done.

Perhaps that something was done back in 1973 when Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong under distinctly mysterious circumstances. The first report of Lee’s death said he succumbed to “marijuana poisoning.” This had to be the most laughable cover story ever invented. Later the cause of death shifted to “water on the brain,” whatever that is. I decided to do some checking. I went to Aaron Banks’s New York Karate Academy, then and now located above a male burlesque house and Spanish-language theater on Seventh Avenue. Banks, who looks like Dracula and once claimed to have held the record for the most boards broken within a given space of time, turned out to be a valuable source. He said, “quite confidentially,” that Lee had died of the Iron Fist. “An ancient martial arts ritual,” Banks intoned as he shoved several monthly fees into his pocket.

Banks’s story went as follows: Several of the elder Manchu Dynasty martial arts teachers were worried about Bruce Lee. Having watched several of his films, they decreed Lee — who was no fake, but rather a kung fu genius who developed his own style of jeet june do — was giving away too many of the ancient Oriental secrets. The Masters acquired some box-office figures from Variety and saw that Lee’s movies were cleaning up in America. This was terrible, the Masters decided, since Americans are inferior, potentially mindlessly violent people, and thus not to be trusted with these secrets to ultimate power. Then, according to Banks, the Masters dispatched an emissary to reason with Lee. Bruce, however, was already as big as Valentino in Hong Kong, and arrogant to boot. He would not agree to stop making films. So the emissary, a Great Master, simply laid his hand on Bruce’s shoulder for a moment. This, Banks said, was the Iron Fist, a martial arts technique only the Great Masters, with their consummate knowledge of brain-­and-body waves, can apply.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717934″ /]

Weeks later, as if a slow-working poison were pushing through him, Lee’s body functions began to ebb. Eventually, they stopped dead. That was why, Banks said, the doctors could never successfully determine the cause of Lee’s death. This sounded a little odd to me, but a quick check of dojo around the city indicated that, almost to a man, martial arts students believed in the Great Masters’ Theory. Surprising, too, was the fact most students believed the Masters’ findings. They believed they were unworthy of such great knowledge.

This Great Masters’ Theory sounded morally logical on the surface. But natural paranoia told me not to accept it wholesale. Someone, I suspected — probably Rockefeller — had to savvy the significance of the Third World Alliance Lee was forging through his films. The fact that Lee died while making Game of Death, in which he co-starred with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a pairing that would have cemented the Alliance — added to my suspicions. I figured the Great Masters were paid off to off Bruce Lee, assuming Great Masters can be bought.

So, you can dig my surprise and all-consuming interest when I first came upon the slew of wall posters currently plastered all around downtown claiming BRUCE LEE WAS MURDERED BY HONG KONG AND WORLDWIDE FILM KING, MULTI*NATIONAL CAPITALIST* BANKER RUN RUN SHAW.

The poster goes on, at great length and copious detail and in minute type, to outline how Bruce, once a low-wage contract employee for the Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong cinema combine, broke away and formed his own production corporation. This new company, spearheaded by Lee’s own fabulous box-office appeal, soon was on the verge of eclipsing Shaw’s empire. Shaw, according to the wall poster, “a monopoly capitalist like the Rockefellers, Mellons, Duponts, and Rothschilds,” had no choice but to destroy Lee. Shaw had no compunction about murder, the poster says, once being responsible for blowing up “a planeload of Cathay Productions executives over Taiwan.” Shaw contacted one Betty Ting Pei, a girlfriend of Lee, and a Dr. Chu-Pro-hywe (described as a “contract killer”). Together these two cooked up an elaborate poisoning scheme that succeeded in killing Lee on July 20, 1973.

As outlandish as these charges appear to be, I made it an interesting document. While the poster does not take into account the cross-­cultural significance or postulate paranoia by right-wing factions over the potential Third World Alliance, it refuted the accepted Great Masters’ Theory. At the very least, the poster was the equal of much of the recent graffiti around town, including the WORSHIP GOD scrawl on every pay phone from here to Sheepshead Bay, SAMO, and the BECOME A CATHOLIC legend on the majority of abandoned buildings in Harlem. Besides, wall posters, too, are in the news this week.

A small sidebar on the poster said it was the work of a group called “The Assassination Information Committee.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

The AIC described itself as “originally a government counterin­surgency group that ‘formed’ after a Mark Lane talk at NYU in the spring of 1975. The AIC was taken over democratically on October 23, 1975, when members voted by secret ballot to present the Dealey Plaza ‘tramp’ photographs and Watergate ‘burglars’ photo-overlays [positive transparencies which line up the ear cartilages on Frank Fiorini Sturgis and E. Howard Hunt] at a talk again to be given by Mark Lane, but sponsored by the NY AIC. Lane refused. Government people… ran off with the keys, mailing list, and checkbook of this supposed ‘grass­roots’ organization, but by doing so they lost control, and discredited themselves and their methods. Consequently, the AIC of NY is probably the only legitimate assassination research group in this country.”

I read the above and couldn’t make head or tail of it. But then, recognizing telltale paranoia phrases like “counterinsurgency,” I re-read it with a more informed (i.e., paranoid) headset. After which I concluded I was most likely dealing with a termite left group convinced that Mark Lane is a government plant attempting to divert “real” investigation into the John F. Kennedy assassination. I was not far wrong. After glancing at other wall posters under the AIC banner, including LARRY FLYNT SHOOTING IS LATEST CIA PUBLICITY STUNT, I spied a more revealing one. This said: Total Media Blackout… with trumped-up charges. Capitalist state harassing William H. Depperman, coordinator of the Assassination Information Committee of New York… First Assassination Researcher Arrested.” Then I dug that if I was to get information on the Great Masters’ and Third World Alliance theories, I would have to deal with this Depperman.

At the outset I knew nothing of Depperman other than he sometimes gave out leaflets in Washington Square and was rumored to have once broken Bob Fass’s (late of WBAI) nose with a short right. But, being an auteurist, I was determined to ferret out the possible role of Raymond Chow, the director of Enter the Dragon, in Lee’s death. So I went to ten East Sixteenth Street, the address given on the AIC posters. The place, a gray apartment house nestled amongst ware­houses, turned out to be Depperman’s home. I rang the bell under his mailbox and was buzzed in. After an unpleasant ride in a cattlecar elevator, I knocked on Depperman’s door. Nobody answered. I assumed the guy was paranoid so didn’t blame him for not opening the door for someone he didn’t know. I slipped a note under the door describing who I was and my interest in the wall posters.

The next day I got a call from Depperrnan. Before he even let me say word one about the Third World Alliance Theory, Depperman commandeered the conversation. In a voice that had all the resonance of feeding time in Iowa, he said, “Don’t tell me you’re interested in Bruce Lee. I know who you are. I’ve checked you out. You work with Weberman. You are straight from Central Intelligence. If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to put up money, big money. Five thousand dollars. Maybe ten thousand dollars. You might not have the money, but your boss does. So, listen, you agent, pay. Cash. No checks.” He hung up.

This was the first time I had ever been accused of being a CIA agent. It was no fun. Sure, I knew calling other people government agents is common among assassination researchers. Once Mae Brussell, who calls everyone an agent, said I.F. Stone was a CIA operative at the Elgin Theater. That just about killed her credibility amongst the old-line leftists, and Brussell’s career suffered afterward. Still, I was only after a few scraps of information and did not like being called an agent of any government — especially since I was not drawing a check for my supposed services. I was certainly not “with Weber­man.” Once when I marched in a Yippie Smoke-In Parade up Fifth Avenue a Yip reached over the picket fence surrounding the sidewalk cafe of the St. Moritz Hotel, thrust his greasy hand into a Madison Avenue lady’s spinach salad, gobbled a fistful of leaves, and then stuck his green-specked tongue out, saying, “Your lifestyle stinks.” But I wouldn’t exactly call this being “with Weberman.” Who was this idiot Depperman to call me a CIA agent?

[related_posts post_id_1=”717255″ /]

I decided to find out. Discounting talking to Depperman directly, inasmuch as I doubted Rupert Murdoch’s people would look too kindly on an expense report listed “talking to paranoid, $10,000,” I called Joel Meyers. I got Meyers’s name from a Depperman poster entitled TAKEOVER FROM WITHIN OF ASSASSINATION INFORMA­TION COMMITTEE BY COMMUNIST-CADRE “MARXIST” IS DEFEATED. In this poster Depperman accuses Meyers, an old-line Trot whose group was the only one to support Lin Paio at the recent City Center Mao rally, of being the leader of a “government group designed to pace, contain, manipulate, sabotage, and neutralize the Assassination Information Committee of New York.”

Meyers responded by painting Depperman as a right-wing son of a “rock-ribbed Republican family” in a counter-poster affixed to the blue formica wall of Whalen’s at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. He said Depperman, somewhere in his middle thirties, had gone to medical school in Kentucky but allegedly was thrown out for smoking pot. Meyers said Depperman’s left-wing activity was new, and that he “voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon twice, in 1968 and 1972.” According to the poster, Depperman previously had worked in a “united front” with Meyers’s group, but split after a tactical dispute over an incident with police in Washington Square Park. The poster goes on to say the Assassination Information Committee “consists of only Depperman and one dogged follower,” the teenaged Brian Huber “whom Depperman calls Brainless.”

On the phone Meyers had a somewhat more charitable view of Depperman. “Well,” he said, “I have no evidence that he is hopelessly psychotic as of yet. We have hopes of making a Bolshevik out of him yet. Trouble is, Depperman has a conspiratorial theory of history. He thinks everyone is an agent until proven otherwise. But we’ll keep trying to bring him to his senses. Small groups tend to be desperate for members. We will spend huge amounts of time trying to win over a very few people.”

About the Bruce Lee material, Meyers thought, “It’s something out of the ordinary for Depperman. He probably read some kung fu magazines and made the rest up.” This was not encouraging news.

Still, I pressed on for insight into the Depperman character, talking to John Zirinsky, a lawyer, and David White, a union official. According to his wall posters, Depperman has been “the target of a coordinated attack by many arms of the state,” as well as “twenty-four­-hour telephone harassment and a mail cover.” Part of this harassment, Depperman says, was his recent arrest on criminal mischief charges for allegedly stenciling the Washington Square arch with slogans to the effect that the Moonies and Yippies are government agents. Depper­man claims the “endless series of pretrial hearings (ten to fifteen) are… one of its [the govt.’s] prime ways of neutralizing legitimate leftists.” He further charges he has been sabotaged in much more elaborate and nefarious ways, saying, “On every court date a demon­stration was planned and on every court date it rained!” Then Depperman adds, in parenthesis, “USA admitted to increasing the monsoon rainfall on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552” /]

In any event, John Zirinsky, legal aid lawyer and member of the Lawyers’ Guild who has often been identified with left causes, was assigned to represent Depperman in this case. Zirinsky says he did his best, but all sorts of arguments arose with his client. “Soon,” Zirinsky says, “the guy was plastering the entire courthouse area with posters attacking me as a government plant. And all during that time he was pleading with me to continue with his defense. Everyone was asking me what was going on.” Zirinsky, a sober type, did not see the humor in this situation. He says, “Besides, it was clear to me the guy didn’t have even the rudiments of leftist thought.” Eventually, Zirinsky withdrew from the case, prompting a triumphant Depperman wall poster saying, “Zirinsky’s withdrawal reflects the failure of the state and the Rock­efeller family strategy against Depperman…”

Woe is the Dep. A few months ago, he was fired from his job as a cardiopulmonary technician at the Hospital for Joint Disease. Depper­man says it was for his “political activities,” primarily his drive to organize R.N.’s at the institution. The management claims Depperman “falsified records” to avoid getting caught for coming in late. Depper­man has described the case in two lengthy wall posters, one entitled DEPPERMAN CASE GOES TO ARBITRATION, MANAGE­MENT LOSES AT 1ST HEARING, and another explained WHY THE CIA IS LIKELY TO BE BEHIND MANAGEMENT’S NEW STRATEGY. Both of these posters were signed by the “Save the Jobs Unity Coalition,” not the AIC.

As of now, Depperman has yet to be rehired. David White, of the medical services union No. 1199, represented Depperman at his arbitration hearing. In the wall posters, Depperman implies that White was acting in collusion with management. White says, “He thinks I was working with management? Oh, boy. I don’t know. I’ll tell you, there was no reason we should have lost that case. Management really didn’t have a thing on Depperman. He said he filled in the wrong time because his watch was slow. That’s not grounds for firing someone. But during the hearing, Depperman just wouldn’t shut up. I had to stop the proceedings a dozen times to tell him to quiet down. He kept jumping up and calling the arbitrator a tool of the oppressors.” White agrees that most likely management was “just trying to get rid of Depper­man.” But not because Dep was union-organizing. “Are you kidding?” White says. “He almost killed our drive. He was going around talking about general strikes and preparing the workers for revolution. You can’t talk to workers like that.”

With each new piece of info I picked up on Depperman, I became more convinced a freshly slivered section of the Dep medulla sold to an independent laboratory might fetch a handsome price. For sure the cat was going into the Paranoia Hall of Fame on the first ballot. I was beginning to give up on ever getting any intelligence out of this guy on either the Great Masters’ or the Third World Alliance theory.

But the most damaging anti-Depperman testimony was yet to come. It was provided by Depperman’s arch-enemies, the Yippies. In his wall poster campaign, Depperman regularly derides the Yips as a govern­ment-funded group attempting to “sidetrack people on drugs and counterculture,” thereby leading the masses “back into the fold of the Republican party.” The most recurring and bizarre Depperman charge, however, is that A.J. Weberman, the Yippie theoretician, is “suppressing his own book.”

The book, Coup d’État in America, written by Weberman and Michael Canfield, details how the CIA allegedly seized control of the United States government on November 22, 1963. Depperman claims Coup d’État, which contains the famous “tramp” pictures and photo-overlays that supposedly prove Frank Sturgis and Howard Hunt were on the scene that day in Dallas, is an example of “controlled release” of assassination material. He says A.J. “must be” a CIA agent to gain access to the overlays in the first place, and that since “exposing” the evidence Weberman has done much “to make the information contra­dictory,” thereby confusing real assassination researchers.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717766″ /]

Now I must admit, I am somewhat biased in this particular matter, since A.J. Weberman, while without a doubt a world-class paranoid, is also one of the most entertaining and hamisha guys I know. And knowing A.J. as I do, I could see that these book “suppression” charges were really getting under his skin. Going into one of his hour-­long stare rages, Weberman barked, “What a Daffyman the Depper­monster is! Why would I fucking suppress my own book? I worked months on that book. It’s the hardest thing I ever did. Harder than a garbology project. Suppress my own book? Only a moron with a low rate of metabolism like the Daffymonster would think that.”

Then A.J. discussed Depperman from the historical perspective, saying “he first came around in 1974, around there. He said he wanted to help put out the Yipster Times. You know, he’d do any shit work. Dana [Beale] was suspicious of him, but I was taken in. I went by his pad and he had all the Dylan records and the Dylan bootlegs, I thought he was cool. It was a moment of weakness. But after the book came out, he started acting suspicious. He put out stickers for the book everywhere. He was overzealous. He put stickers all over the book­stores and they started calling me saying they wouldn’t stock the book anymore. I didn’t know what was happening, then I find out it’s Depperman. We told him to stop, but then he gets his own stickers printed up. Then we realized he was waging some kind of campaign against us. He was spreading all kinds of disinformation. Then he started beating up Yippies. He broke Fass’s nose. He gave Aaron [Kay, the Yippie pie-thrower] a black eye. He’s tough, he’s a fucking powerful guy. We knew he couldn’t be a Yippie, he’s too crazy to be a Yippie. We had to investigate him.”

Then A.J. pulled out part of his FBI file. A.J. obtained the file under the Freedom of Information Act, a statute he makes use of quite often. FBI files supposedly contain most of what the government has on you, but the names of the “informants” and anything you really want to know is blacked out with magic marker. The Yippies have spent many evenings over a piece of hash the size of a deflated football attempting to remember if it was really Sally from Madison or Jim from California who was present on the nights described in the file. On this particular page, however, A.J. claims, the “informer’s” name was insufficiently disguised. “Look,” he said, pointing to a Xeroxed smudge, “you can see the D and the top of an E, also, look, there’s the two Ls. It’s Depperman, no doubt about it. He’s an informer sent to infiltrate us. Probably got into it after he got kicked out of medical school. The reason the FBI sent us this file with the name not completely blacked out is even they couldn’t stand the Deppermouth anymore. The Deppermonster is too obnoxious even for the feds!”

Try as I might, however, I could only distinguish half an L, no D or E. I smoked two more joints, after which I did spot another L, which was not enough to convince me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was actually Depperman’s name beneath the blur. I did, however, agree with Weberman that Depperman’s Yippie-beating activities were to be scorned. And I also promised to show up a few days later when A.J. said Depperman would have to be in court to answer charges of knife-wielding.

[related_posts post_id_1=”421903″ /]

I left the Yipster mansion thinking it was kind of ironic that Depperman, in his unwavering bleat that A.J. has “suppressed” his own book, had, more or less, taken over the role in Weberman’s life that A.J. himself once played in Bob Dylan’s. Back in the days when the Dylan Liberation Front assembled on MacDougal Street screaming “Hey, Bob, crawl out your window,” A.J. stole the singer’s garbage as a “people’s act.” Dylan always yelled at Weberman to “stop hassling me, man,” and eventually beat A.J. to a Greenwich Village sidewalk with karate blows. Thinking about this left one question unanswered: If Depperman is Weberman’s Weberman, who is Depperman’s Weber­man? Someone, I figured, always has to be around to keep you honest.

In spite of it all, I felt a little sorry for Depperman. My heart goes out to anyone who sincerely feels the government is manipulating the weather just to harass him. After all, Depperman really was being “persecuted” for politics, whatever they may be. I decided to attempt to open the dialogue with Depperman again, affording him a chance to tell his side of the story and possibly giving me a shot at obtaining his Bruce Lee information. After learning from a reliable source that Depperman had once been approached as a potential mensa member, I wrote him a closely reasoned letter asking him to give free press a chance. I was, however, still smarting from Depperman’s accusations about me, so, just to be a bastard, I crossed out several passages in the letter and did a cut-paste job. I figured, being the paranoid he is, Depperman would spend a few anxious minutes holding the letter to a naked light bulb, attempting to see what was missing. I taped the letter to Depperman’s mailbox.

This was Sunday. Monday I stayed by my phone hoping Depper­man would give a civil call. He did not. Tuesday was the hearing date, so I trudged over to the Tombs at 9:30 A.M. Near the second floor DAT intake room, I ran into Aaron Kay. Aaron pointed out two guys standing below, leaning on the circular first-floor information desk. “It’s Daffyman and Brainless,” Aaron said. Depperman looked pretty much as I expected except that he was wearing a paisley tie and seemed to have not slept in a month. Brian Huber, or “Brainless,” could have passed for a Tex Watson double.

I went downstairs to engage the pair in conversation. Depperman was in the midst of abusing Huber. Soon as I identified myself, however, he recoiled and clutched his tan attaché case as if it was doll stuffed with money. “Get away from me, you government, government pig,” he said as he edged around the circumference of the information desk. Huber followed Depperman. “I just want to ask you a couple of questions,” I said, trailing both of them. We must have went around that desk three times with Depperman shouting “Stop harassing me. Beat it. Stop harassing me,” before I gave up the ghost.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

Soon the courtroom drama, which I have given you the gist of at the top of this tome, ensued. Depperman, demanding to defend himself and using some legal terms lifted out of Perry Mason, did most of the talking. A.J. was content to play the injured citizen. And, sure enough, Depperman hung himself, getting close to a contempt citation on more than one occasion. The judge told Depperman, “Look, the court is not your adversary.” To which Depperman raised his eyes as if to say, “You expect me to fall for that?” The judge held the case over until next month, prompting Depperman to quote loudly and extensively from a book called The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove. These quotes threw the West Indian court officers into giggling fits.

There will, however, be quite a bit more court in Depperman’s immediate future. After this case was adjourned, the Yippies, who were afraid to stare at Depperman during the proceedings, unfurled their sneak attack in the person of one Detective Guariello of the Sixth Precinct. Guariello was waiting in the hallway outside AR 2A to arrest Depperman on charges that he assaulted Yippie electrician Robert Druskin. Upon having the cuffs snapped on his wrist and told he was “under arrest,” Depperman screamed, “By whom, by whom?”

Then he yelled, “It’s more harassment, it’s more harassment of legitimate leftists,” as Guariello hauled him into the DAT intake room. Just before disappearing, Depperman shouted in panic to Huber, “Brian, Brian, my briefcase.” Huber, who seemed stunned by this turn of events, was slow to react, prompting Depperman to a more frenzied plea. Finally, Huber picked up the case. As he did, one of the court officers pointed to Depperman’s head and then to the briefcase, intoning, “Tick, tick, tick.”

Moments later, Depperman was gone, except for a few muffled protests emanating from the other side of the door. He would spend that night in the can. Huber waited a few moments, then split aimlessly with Depperman’s briefcase. The kid looked like Renfield lost a master. The Yippies left, too, celebrating their victory. And I figured what a drag it all was. Dealing with paranoids is a thankless task. Depperman saw me talking to Guariello before the pinch and probably, knowing his mania, thinks I was in on the arrest. Plus, who knows, we may never find out who killed Bruce Lee.

Categories
Bars From The Archives From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Wonderful World of the White Horse

West Village I: The Wonderful World of the White Horse
June 22, 1961

The young man fresh out of Dartmouth College left the $8-a-week room he’d just moved into on Greenwich Street and ventured into the oppressively muggy late afternoon. Although a newcomer to the West Village in that summer of 1951, he made tracks to the White Horse Tavern like an old-timer. People at Dartmouth had told him about the “The Horse.” Traditional watering-place for writers, longshoremen, Bohemians, pub crawlers, socialists, and just-plain-drunks, it was the kind of scene he’d dreamed of.

“Dartmouth” looked around at the West Village as he marched along, taking in the grimy streets, the weary brownstones, and tenements, the massive brick warehouses. There was something backwaterish about the neighborhood, tired. Looking on down 11th Street past the NY Central elevated line, then the elevated West Side Highway, he spied the ramshackle docks. They seemed lifeless too. The whole scene reminded him of the arid, yellowish-brown desolation of a 1930s Depression painting. But it was quiet. And quiet — plus cheaper rents — was why he’d chosen the neighborhood over the rest of the Village.

As a matter of fact, that quiet was symptomatic of what had happened to the West Village since its raucous, teeming Irish immigration days. By 1951, those dozen or so historic blocks extending from Hudson Street to the North River, and from Leroy up to Gansevoort, were so much at ebb tide the city had long before marked them as a blighted area. Not that they really were slums. But the city makes strange distinctions, and though Dartmouth didn’t know it, the redevelopment axe hung heavy over his new home as he walked along that day.

[related_posts post_id_1=”559880″ /]

Summer Commandoes

On the corner, the afternoon picked up. Three neighborhood Irish kids in ragged clothes and 25-cent haircuts popped up like summer commandoes from behind a line of rusty garbage cans. They took one look at Dartmouth’s Brooks jacket, his button-down shirt and rep tie, and squawked, “Hey, faggot, why don’cha go back to Ha’vard!”

Dartmouth winced. But he never looked back as a shower of stones whistled demonically past his ears.

And then he fronted the White Horse on Hudson and 11th. Multicolored with checkered trim, ship-shape square, it emitted a low drone of talk from its open door. This was Dartmouth’s big moment. He was landing on Bohemia’s shores after four dry years in New Hampshire. Man!

Inside, the Horse was gloomy but cool. Dark was the ornate wood paneling, with saloon-Victorian lamps, decorated by tiny horse heads hanging down from the ceiling. An English pub, no less! The heavy, old-fashioned bar was crowded with men, most of them in sweaty work clothes with ILA buttons on their caps. In the adjacent backroom a few other people, including a man with a Smith Brothers beard, poked at chessboards.

A Navy Vet

The men were making one hell of a noise. An elderly man they called “Ernie,” with a great white towel around his expansive midriff, shoved beer at them by the gallon. Timidly Dartmouth joined the men, feeling conspicuous in his Brooks clothes. He was. A stocky, red-faced type, with shirt sleeves rolled over his knotty, proletarian arms, frowned and muttered something as the young man nudged by him. Dartmouth felt uneasy. But what the hell, 18 months in the Navy had put some muscle on him too (it was tough in Philly in ’46 mothballing those destroyers and inventorying 3 million bars of soap).

He ordered what the longshoremen were drinking — half-light, half-dark beer — and drained his thick white mug. The frowning man was looking him up and down. Only the frown had pulled down to a scowl of gale force 10. Dartmouth belted another ’alf and ’alf. Courage, as it does occasionally to all men, came to him. The scowler tacked unsteadily alongside, his breath that of a hundred hop-fat breweries. “Hey,” he said.

Dartmouth refused to acknowledge the battered face glowing there in Heinz-tomato ripeness.

“Hey. Hey you, necktie,” the sodden voice persisted.

Slowly Dartmouth turned to his antagonist.

“You wanna know sumpin? Used to be guys like you never come in here. Now you’re on the joint like flies. You’re ruinin’ the place. Why don’t you go back uptown?”

Dartmouth was getting mad. Which was unfortunate.

“Hey,” the scowler persisted. “I’m the kinna guy belongs here. I belong in this part of Green-witch Village, not you.” Suddenly his face beamed with pride. “You know why? I’m a sailor. A ship’s engineer.”

“A ship’s engineer,” Dartmouth grinned coldly. “Well, where’s your engine?”

Goodnight, Sweet Dartmouth. When flights of 6th Precinct cops have borne you to your rest at St. Vincent’s you will be glad to learn the jaw was not broken — only badly bent.

[related_posts post_id_1=”575262″ /]

No Outsiders

Those were the breaks in 1951. The West Village could still brawl once in a while, and the longshoremen, truck drivers, or white collar folk (many of Irish descent) whose families had lived around there since the 1870s and ’80s, just didn’t take to outsiders. The ship’s engineer who clobbered Dartmouth was an extreme, of course, and his aggressive kind were usually kept in line by Ernie Wohlleben, the man who ran the Horse for nearly five decades. But once in a while things did get out of hand.

The Horse had already gone through whole phases of West Village history — even by 1951. And because it was such a durable pub, it reflected those changes about as readily as any popular neighborhood bar does. A longshore hangout since the ’80s, it survived the roughest days of what was known as the American Ward, when the Hudson Dusters gang used to pick fights with its customers and occasionally break the windows. Another indication of how solid a part of the community the Horse was by the end of World War I was the effect Prohibition had on it — that is, damn little effect!

In the late ’30s, the Horse again reflected changing times, but entertaining left-wingers in its backroom. Singing of radical songs became a nightly procedure back then, and though Ernie was a patient man, when the lyrics got around to bomb-tossing and unfettering of chains he got annoyed. “Listen,” he said to the radicals one night, “can’t you sing those songs as much as possible in some foreign language?”

Literature Moves In

After the Second World War, the Horse stated going literary. And it was Dylan Thomas, of course, who gave the joint such poetic class. Thomas used to stop while on U.S. lecture tours, bringing a whole coterie of admirers with him. It is often said he took his last drink there, before dying in late 1953. But the Horse was still no intellectual spa. A day or so after Thomas died, somebody passed the hat for his widow.

“Thomas. Who’s he?” a longshoreman wanted to know.

“Some drunk who used to ball it up in here,” his companion enlightened him.

Around the same time, a series of Sunday afternoon literary-political discussions started in the backroom. Norman Mailer, Calder Willingham, Oscar Williams, Vance Bourjaily — these were a few who held forth, sometimes by the hour. But the discussion tended to wander, the afternoons to get longer, and finally the whole thing fizzled out. “We wanted to transplant ideas, but we picked the wrong hothouse,” a participant said later.

So the White Horse changed. As more and more people like Dartmouth discovered the West Village, so the balance of population shifted from the Gaelic. The area was removed from the slum map in 1954 and renovations started. Rent went up. Dartmouth, by the way, had made it into a $110-a-month two-room garden job by 1955. But there were certain old-time elements in those blocks who resented this invasion. Some had good reason too, for they were losing their apartments to renovators. When property started getting scarce, a longshoreman earning $5,000 a year is hard put to compete for space with a copywriter pulling down $8,000.

[related_posts post_id_1=”417832″ /]

McCarthy Evenings

Politics reared its ghoulish head too. That was during the McCarthy hearings. Some patriotic West Villagers who approved of “good old Joe” decided the people who congregated at the White Horse must be Communists, atheists, or fags. They were different, weren’t they? So fights started in the streets. Then one night a bunch of these stalwarts invaded the Horse smashing beer mugs over peoples heads and kicking in the front windows. Minor variations of this took place all through that time. Diplomatic Ernie tried smoothing things over, but only when the draft grabbed the McCarthyites and directed their hostility toward North Koreans did the tensions ease off.

Other Voices, Other Bars

To return to friend Dartmouth. By the late ’50s, he was a big man in the Horse. Everybody called him by his first name, and the owners let him keep a tab. But ingrate that he was, he took to wandering to other pubs for variety. Up to El Faro on Greenwich and Horatio, he drank and played Lola Florez records on the jukebox. Back down on Greenwich and Perry, it was the poetry readings at the International Bar that caught his attention for awhile. Sitting alongside longshoremen, writers, and anyone else who drifted in, he listened to Bridget Murnaghan and the others by the hour. The International, too, had its hour of poetry before lapsing into somnolence.

Sometimes Dartmouth missed sitting and having a drink with the Irish. They’d been vanishing slowly from the Horse (some of them from the West Village altogether). He found them still, in the Cathedral Bar on Christopher, or in the waterfront Foc’s’cle with its sailors from Norway, truckers from Tulsa, and its star character, Popeye. Popeye, who loves the hop, gets so full of it he takes to directing traffic on West Street. He has three whistles for his work — a giant blaster for trucks, and average tweeter for cars, and a tiny peeper for jeeps and scooters. “I’m a federal traffic expert,” Popeye hollers as a truck driver in a 10-ton semi glares down at him. “President Kennedy just gave me sleeping privileges in the Red Ball trucks.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”714448” /]

‘Horse’ Today

And what of Dartmouth’s Horse today? Although many of the longshoremen have gone, writers, painters, editors still gravitate there. The poet in residence is Delmore Schwarz. But college kids literally pack the place on weekends, and its nearly impossible to find a place to sit down. In the backroom, Socialists, like Mike Harrington, discuss the world but don’t cut loose with the radical songs anymore. They folksinging crowd which had come in over the the past few years makes all the racket now. The indomitable Clancy Brothers, Logan English, and others sing of their ethnic backgrounds until the little room rocks. They have displaced politics.

Dartmouth can’t stand the singing. He can’t stand the outsiders either, or the weekend crowds. “It isn’t the same,” you can hear him griping, “you should have seen it 10 years ago. Real people then!” And he’s become a loyal West Villager too. With the people once again thinking of redeveloping the neighborhood (it has improved tremendously in 10 years), he’s ready to man the barricades against the Planning Commission. Just ask him the next time you’re in the Horse. He’ll grab you by the shirt, back you against the old grandfather clock, and tell you what a great place his neighborhood is by the hour.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Bob Dylan: Positively Main Street

Part 1: A Good Family Boy

Bob Dylan’s babysitter! With a real name, Don Mckenzie, right there on the next bar stool! Longish gray hair, fisherman’s knit T-shirt, stylishly snug black slacks tapered to … elf-toed monk strap slip-ons? In Hibbing, Minnesota? Population 17,731 in the summer, when the mines are working… The mines! Hibbing, Minnesota, hometown of the old scruffy-necked, blue-jeaned Bob Dylan, site of the largest open pit iron ore mine in the world, “the town of 60 saloons”… and, Bob Dylan’s babysitter?

This bar, all English pubby and deep cushioned Howard Johnson’s in the brand-new Kahler Inn Towne Motel, filled with freshly coiffed mid-cycle women with balding guys in graveyard worsteds and shiny white shirts, all laughing, warbling “Tiny bubbles…” around a piano bar, an upright with one of those fake flowing Steinway bodies and the padded elbow rests, plus the words to all your favorite songs mimeographed. The bartender, a moonlighting third grade teacher from Chisholm, is pouring Don Mckenzie and me another drink. Don’s saying:

“Must be 20 years now since I last took care of Bob for Abe and Beatty. He was a real quiet boy, even at that age. His brother David hadn’t finished breaking in his first pair of diapers and already you could tell that he was going to be the extrovert of the two. Bobby stayed quiet, friendly, but, well, kind of slinky the whole time he was growing up. Used to write poems… don’t know if he still does or not. But whenever Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or somebody’s birthday rolled around, Bob would have a poem ready. ’Course that was a long time before he’d ever thought of becoming Bobby Die-lan… ”

“Bobby Die-lan?”

“Sure, that’s just the name he took so people back East wouldn’t know his real name was Zimmerman. Seems a pity too, good Jewish family name like that… and Bob was always a good Jewish boy. Went to synagogue regularly, listened to his mother and dad… but why shouldn’t he, his family had more money than most. Zimmerman’s Furniture and Appliance. Good business… But you got to hand it to the Jews, they’re first class money makers, always have been I guess, and in a small town, they stick together… but nobody holds that against them in Hibbing, I know I don’t. And the Jews own a lot of the businesses, the movie theatres, Feldman’s Department Store…”

“The movie theatres? What about Bob’s movie, was it shown here in Hibbing?”

“Bob’s movie? Didn’t know he’d made one. Funny, you’d think that if it’s played anywhere it would have played here. Especially seeing as how Bob’s uncle owns the two theatres.”

“Really? Well…”

“Old Max Edelstein.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715738″ /]

Don Mckenzie’s voice drops a few thousand decibels, and he turns toward me with a quarter stool swivel and a nose bridged handcup:

“Now there’s an example of how the Jews in this town take care of their own. I don’t know what Bob’s movie was like, but you can bet more than likely something about it wasn’t exactly… well, Kosher — or it’d been running at both theatres 24 hours a day, for a year.”

“There was some profanity, but…”

“You see! Now in a big town like Washington or New York or Duluth, that sort of thing wouldn’t hardly scrunch ’em down in their seats. But here in Hibbing, a hometown boy like Bob, in the movies, with his family still living in town — except for poor dad, bless him, as nice a fellow as you’d ever want to meet — passed away last May — and I saw Bobby at the wake as a matter of fact…”

“Bob was back in May?”

“Sure he was back, think he’d miss his father’s funeral? He loved that man more… actually the funeral itself wasn’t held in Hibbing… the Jews don’t bury their dead in the cemetery here… have their own over in Duluth… but there was a wake right over at Dougherty’s and practically everyone in town… Bob loves the whole family, don’t get me wrong. He was home for just the funeral this time though, ’cause his wife was expecting their third back in New York. Named him after his father too. Seth Abraham Isaac Dylan. Told Beatty they decided to put the Isaac in ’cause he didn’t want the kid’s initials to be S.A.D. Yeah, Bob was just home for a couple of days this trip. But that didn’t stop him from findin’ time to fix his mother up with a brand-new Cadillac and his brother David with a Buick. Those stories you read about Bob and his family… Couldn’t be farther from the truth. Why Beatty’s always showing off some new gift Bob’s sent her, diamonds, furs, or talking about him calling long distance from all ’round the country. Like I said, Bob’s a good family boy, and in Hibbing that means something, ’cause these Jewish people, they stick together, why…”

The din from the piano bar has gradually welled up to the point where Don Mckenzie’s voice is inaudible. I tap my ear and shake my head, mouthing a rapid volley of WHATS? Finally Don Mckenzie’s lips stop moving and he breaks into the grandest of smiles. Leaning closer, and with a sweeping gesture to the room, he bellows in my ear, “Yeah, it’s a real live bunch!”

March 27, 1969
2. Join the Elvis Rebellion

Oh, yes, the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce will tell you, there have been times in Hibbing’s relatively short history when the future was less than bright. The lumberjack days for instance. Everyone thought Hibbing would die out with the timber like a hundred other Minnesota mining camps. But Frank Hibbing changed all that the day he stuck his head out of a tent on a 40 below zero January morning in 1893 and roared, “I believe there is iron under me. My bones feel rusty and chilly.” Frank Hibbing and his miners took over land the loggers were leaving and “the largest red iron ore open pit mine in the world” felt the bite of its first spade.

It was rough and tumble from there on in; Bret Harte and Emile Zola out front — but “progress” and “culture” in the wings.

Before long the Hibbing Village Chamber of Commerce got around to the village’s more cultivated claims to national fame:

Like Bob?

Bobby Die-lan? No, not exactly…

In 1919, Hibbing gave birth to the Bookmobile! It was a 30 horse-power White truck, remodeled into the first library bus — to serve the mining camps up and down the Mesabi Range.

The Greyhound Bus System started in Hibbing with a 1913 Hupmobile bought as a taxi by “Bus Andy” Anderson for the 15-cent jaunt between Alice and Hibbing. If you ask the folks at the Hibbing Village Chamber of Commerce who Hibbing’s most famous citizen is, they’ll tell you “Bus Andy” Anderson every time.

After World War One mining Hibbing began to have its first serious problems. The town was still prospering. There were handsome public buildings in late Victorian Greco-Roman, fine homes for the villagers, streetcar lines, shady lanes and well-paved streets, sidewalks in front of family businesses, a healthy school system, and, as Dylan would say, “the lunch-bucket filled every season.” But prosperity threatened to devour its own, and yes “money doesn’t talk it swears,” for…

The Oliver Mining Company had somehow obtained mineral rights to the land under the village, and was making an offer of $2 1/2 million to property owners for the surface rights. Part of the deal was that 80 acres of company-owned land would be provided for development in “New” Hibbing — actually, the old mining camp Alice, one and a half miles south of “Old” Hibbing. Merchants would be allowed to choose sites in New Hibbing, three business blocks would be built by the company and sold to the merchants, and the company would move 185 dwellings, 12 frame business buildings, and eight brick business buildings on huge iron wheels, the mile and a half from Old Hibbing’s shady lanes and concrete sidewalks to Alice — an empty field sectioned off by a sewer pipe still above ground.

Took four years to complete the moving. And in another six years the Depression had hit and New-Old Hibbing faced a different kind of potential annihilation: Mining came to a near standstill.

But the village survived, and World War Two came along. That didn’t help much, but at least the mines were working again. Though day by day they were becoming too expensive to operate, ore was no longer plentiful, the few men left in the mines before the war were being drafted… women took over in the pits — and the profit was next to nil. After the war, taconite changed all that. Geologists say there is sufficient taconite on the Mesabi Range to last for more than 100 years. Resurrection! Taconite, it seems, was virtually worthless as a raw material for the steel industry until recently when research… But the times they’ve a changed, both mines and plants operate around the clock, Hibbing’s prosperity once again blossoms with Kahler Inn Towne Motels and junior colleges, two Sno-Mobiles in every garage…

[related_posts post_id_1=”714819″ /]

***

Walk up Howard Street, the village’s main drag, from the Androy Motor Inn, past the Jolly Rodger and Sportsman Cafes to Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward’s in search of a little of Hibbing’s newfound prosperity for Bob… Nary a Famous Face or Personality Poster applauds the worldwide notoriety of our hometown hero, and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits is the only album in stock — if you’re lucky. Smiling salesladies offer you sticky-stringed renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” by the Muzak Strains of Jehovah Seventeen… But — to Crippa’s, Howard Street’s only music store, and surefire dealer for… two of Bob’s records? John Wesley Harding and the Greatest Hits. None of the fine old stuff on the early albums about Hibbing and the North Country? Neither of the folk-rock albums, Bringin’ It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited? The two that crucified popular music…

The saleslady at Crippa’s explains that Bob doesn’t sell well in Hibbing. People don’t like his voice. Some of the other groups that do his songs — the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez — they sell a whole lot better. But Saleslady likes Bob. She sold him his first harmonica. And harmonica rack. Had to order that special. Bob was in Crippa’s a lot. From the time he was just a little boy. Always fascinated by music. Would spend hours in the store listening to records. All kinds. Liked classical music at first. But, sometime during his junior high school years, he got interested in popular music. Blues, country, rock and roll, everything. Chet Crippa remembers ordering all of Hank Williams’ records for Bob, at one fell swoop. Chet outfitted Bob’s rock band too. With amplifiers, mikes, guitars, right down to picks and guitar strings. Chet remembers that in those days Bob carried his guitar with him wherever he went. An old beat-up Sears and Roebuck job, with a leather strap. Slung it over his shoulder and down his back, through snowstorms and everything.

The Hibbing Daily Tribune doesn’t have much on Bob. Just one picture, a four or five year old publicity shot, and no real write-ups. Everybody asks “What’s Bobby doing these days?” The Hibbing Public Library has the Daniel Kramer picture book. But none of Bob’s records or lyrics, not even a file of clippings.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723573″ /]

On up Howard Street checking for signs of the wicked messenger at every crossroad. And cafe. Into Mr. Jack’s, the L.B., Ewardsons’, and Sammy’s Pizza Palace. Straight to the jukebox. But not a Wurlitzer in town with a Dylan tune. Beatles, Bee Gees, and Bobby Goldsboro — but no Bobby Die-lan. And these are jukeboxes in places where kids hang out. Sammy’s Pizza Palace, for instance. A classic malt shop. No beer with your pizza here. Just soda pop and coffee. No tables either, but wooden booths, like in an Archie comic book. Stuffed deer heads and poorly mounted wall-eyed pike for decor. But good coffee. The kids drink a lot of it, four or five cups for their 15 cents. The kids look like kids most places, except for their dress. The girls are fairly up to date department-store tweed. No boutique fashions or hippie garb, to be sure. But rather stylish, nonetheless. The boys are the very opposite. Big pompadours with gobs of Brylcreem, gabardine sport shirts tucked into black slacks cinched up by skinny silver belts, white socks, and black loafers with horseshoe taps. Join the Elvis Rebellion. Circa 1956.

There are no hippies in Hibbing. The kids tell a story that last time Bob was in town, not for his father’s funeral, but before that, he came into Sammy’s for a pizza. Hardly anyone recognized him at first. He just walked over by the counter to wait in line for his pizza. But then some stupid girl sort of screamed, and everybody started giggling and making remarks. Bob got out of there pretty fast. But the funny thing was, not that there was Bobby Die-lan right here in Sammy’s Pizza Palace, but the way he looked. The hair, and those clothes. It was spooky the way everyone spaced right out over this weird little man. Who came on so funny, and just happened to be Bobby Die-lan.

The kids don’t have much to say about Bob. They’d rather talk about four-barrel carburetors or fuel injection. The hot rod thing, another later 1950s, early 1960s vogue. Popular music seems harder to come by in Minnesota than in most places. WMFG, Hibbing’s radio station, plays polkas and Andy Williams muzak. But no Bob. Keith Knox, their program director, did assure me, however, that they have a Montovani album somewhere with Bob’s music on it. (Good-time Evelyn over at the Androy Motor Inn piano bar says sure, she likes that song “Blowin’ in the Wind” — but try to get her to play it.) The only top-40 station you can pick up during daylight hours is WEBC from Duluth. And that’s not really top-40 but golden-oldie. The big Midwestern stations with solid top-40 formats all tune in at night — but fairly late and somehow sounding very far away.

Consequently, one wonders. About Bob, in the middle ’50s, when rock music was still struggling for play on big stations back East. And what it must have been like musically in Minnesota then.

April 3, 1969
3. Electric Bob Plugs In

B.J. Rolfzen. In a tan rain coat and conservative suit. A youngish fellow, lean, with dark hair. Outgoingly friendly and a tad bemused. At scruffy me? Or the possibilities of immortality for Bobby Zimmerman? No, not Bobby, Robert. The boy next door. Almost literally. B.J. lived across the street from Bob during the high school years. Excuse me — Robert. B.J. also was Robert’s 11th grade English teacher. Robert was a quiet boy, aloof. Used to sit in the front row of B.J.’ss class, to the left of the desk. Never said a word, just listened. Got good grades, B-plusses. Took life seriously. Spent a lot of time by himself, must have been thinking and writing — though B.J. never saw anything young Robert produced. Liked motorcycles, had a slew of them. And to have owned a motorcycle in the middle fifties, one would’ve had to be considered, well, could never have labeled Robert wild or hoody… he was always such a sharp-dresser but, perhaps… eccentric. The rock band he and some of the other kids had, for instance. Yes, that was quite a band. Electric. Folk music was far from fashionable in those days. Rock and roll was king, and even that was brand-new to Hibbing. One of the biggest shocks of B.J.’s life was the first time Robert and the band performed at a school concert. Eleventh grade. The Jacket Jambourie Talent Festival. Curtain went up, Robert gave the signal, and absolutely the loudest music anybody had ever heard… and Robert! Standing up at the piano, screaming this… music into three microphones, this quietest of boys from the front row of B.J.’s English class, bellowing like… a Negro or something, with the rest of the band, two electric guitars, a bass and drums just splitting your ears, and… Why the Principal told B.J. later that Robert had pounded so hard on the Baldwin’s fortissimo pedal that he’d broken it right off.

Positively Dionysian! That silent boy… And the way he acted the next day! Sat down in his usual seat there in the front row of B.J.’s English class, didn’t say anything, but… smirked the entire period. As if to say, that’s right, B.J. You saw it. And you can be a witness.

— Vachel Lindsay. The American poet B.J. considers closest to Robert. In style. And tradition. William Sanzinger and Hattie Caroll, you know. Maybe. “The ladder of law has no top and no bottom.” B.J. likes that line. Plus the dust jacket poetry of “The Times They Are a Changin’,” the part about Hibbing. B.J. assigns that to his 11th grade class every year. Those lines about the courthouse and the church with its arms cut off in the moonlight — great stuff! And “With God on Our Side.”‘ Unquestionably Robert’s finest song. B.J. never fails to play that one for the class, discusses it, tries to show exactly how… and they always ask so many questions. What was this Bobby Die-lan like? Did he really sit right there?

Sure, B.J. saw Robert when he was back last visit — for his father’s funeral. But not at the funeral parlor. Over at the Zimmermans’. All the Zimmermans were there, Maurice and Paul, their families, the Edelsteins, the Goldfines. B.J. spoke to each of them. Lingering with Beatty and David. But where’s Robert? Of course he’s home, David explains, back in the kitchen — you know, by himself.

Not a bit surprised, B.J. assures me. Robert always was a loner. Even around the house. B.J. excuses himself from those assembled in the living room. And walks back to the kitchen. All the way through, way off to the left in the breakfast nook, there’s Robert. Just sitting. Smoking a cigarette. Recognizes B.J. at once, though. Stands to greet him with a firm handshake. B.J.’s impressed. Robert always did have such fine manners. But Robert’s embarrassed, and yes, thank you, you’re very kind, but… quickly shifts the conversation to B.J. and Hibbing. How’s the class? Things still the same over at school? Miss it in a way… have you heard my latest album, John Wesley Harding? No, B.J. replies. Hasn’t gotten around to it yet, but will first chance. Robert standing calm, blue-eyed in the middle of the kitchen — goes on to say well yes, uh, wish you would. Think it’s my best, and after all Mr. Rolfzen I do believe you owe me as much. — What’s that?, slight flush, impudent young… ’Cause you, Mr. Rolfzen — a hint of the old smirk from front row, left center — you’re the one taught me everything I know.

…great Christ, Bob!…

***

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

— But to the scene of the crime!

The Hibbing High School Auditorium. 1957. The Jacket Jambourie Talent Festival, and Bobby Zimmerman, Hibbing’s original blue-eyed soul brother. On dirty-blues piano, standing up for your pleasure, the heir to Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and, uh, Little Richard.

Robert Zimmerman:
“to join Little Richard”
Latin Club 2;
Social Studies club 4.

Bob Dylan’s high school yearbook! With Bob Dylan’s principal standing over me in Bob Dylan’s principal’s office. To join Little Richard? Oh blasphemous myopia, of yearbook staff volunteers the world over. And Bob Dylan, a member of the Social Studies Club? The Latin Club, maybe. But the Social Studies Club — a bunch of Friday afternoon kids sitting around discussing this week’s Senior Scholastic?

And Bob Dylan’s report card! Principal is careful not to let me see any grades. But I ask to take a closer look at that incredible junior high school picture pasted to the transcript — some fat little kid with greasy hair, in a plaid flannel sport shirt, beyond further description — and quickly glance down the list of grades. Ones I saw: Average as apple pie, with some B figures in English. I ask about Bob’s attendance record. Principal assures me it was excellent. What about all those times Bob was supposed to have run away? Was he careful to pick vacations? “Well,” Principal cornermouths, “for a while there; when Bob was just getting started in show business, you know, building an image, the family asked us not to divulge any information that might contradict his press releases. But now, Bob no longer seems to fear admission of his rather normal childhood in Hibbing, and the family has given us the okay to come out and speak freely.”

Apparently Hibbing High School, harrumph, has been chosen this year for the Francis Bellamy Award, a national prize for the state (Minnesota in 1968) high school whose spirit most genuinely reflects that of Francis Bellamy — the author of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. A key consideration of the Bellamy Award Committee is the list of noteworthy alumni submitted by a high school. Bob’s name appears on the Hibbing High School roster, tucked away among his fellow alumni’s laurels:

Bob Dylan

Achievement

Modern folk song writer and singer. His fame and fortune was made with the singing of his ballad “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter, Paul and Mary. A millionaire at 25 years of age. Reached the top within six months after his arrival in New York.

Graduation Date
June 5, 1959

Kids all up and down the halls are polishing trophies and plaques for the acceptance ceremonies. Principal ushers me downstairs to meet Val Peterson, Bob’s junior high school music teacher, an attractive, jovial woman alive with rhythm and musical smiles. I meet her at her desk in the classroom that has been hers since Bob was a music student at HJH. She greats me laughingly — oh yes, Bobby sat right over there. In the front row. (I have a seat.) Was an able student. Always participated well in class. Would do his course-work but never really got a good grade in something unless that something excited him. Once you got him excited, well, it was tough to reign him in. His brother David, on the other hand, just the opposite. An excellent student, steady worker, and fine pianist. But classical. Strictly. Now that boy could make his living from the piano!

Bob was interested in classical music, too. Though earlier in his student career. Pop music became big for him, oh, the first year of high school. He played guitar and piano then, and whenever the school had a music show scheduled, Bob would be there. Whether he was invited or not. His audiences didn’t take him very seriously in those days, Val Peterson fears. Didn’t understand what he was trying to do — recreate the harshness of the country, folk, and blues idiom. Bob performed by himself, primarily. Without the band. Always had marvelous stage presence, a natural. But people didn’t care. His sound was grating and they didn’t like it. But Bob finally did achieve a certain degree of notoriety in Hibbing — came in third one year at the Winter Frolic Talent Competition.

Of course Val Peterson is fond of Bob’s music! Plays his records for the class and proudly answer the same questions that besiege B.J. Rolfzen. She seems more aware of Bob’s influence on popular music, however. Uses terms like folk-rock, mentions key groups by name, and listen to her version of the infamous first school appearance of Electric Bob.

Back in the school auditorium, Principal at my side, pencil in my hand. Taking it all in. The auditorium — theatre in truth, modeled after the Capitol Theatre in New York, scaled down to village size, cost millions to build, plush, the best in sound equipment… sound equipment! According to Val Peterson: Electric Bob, mad for volume, decides that the group’s several microphones and amplifiers just won’t do the job…

So when the curtain rises, there’s Bob and the group out front, with not only their own sound equipment up full, but the entire school amplification system as well. Mikes in the piano, on amplifiers, in front of the bass drum, and three at Bob’s side for the vocal. KA-WHANG-ang-ang ! There is… confusion somehow… people are… dis… oriented and… no one’s able to react in a fashion appropriate… Principal in the first row, host to school system officials and visiting Iron Range dignitaries… fights… his way backstage and… halfway through Bob’s first number… ARGH! cuts the house mikes off with the flick of a switch. It’s still plenty loud out there, but Bob’s hopping mad. (Maybe that’s when he broke the foot pedal on the Baldwin. Same piano. Still right on stage, sheathed in a gray quilted cover. Out to pasture.) Anyway, Bob finished his set and stalks off stage. Amid shocked and indignant laughter. At music these villagers have never heard the likes of. And (agony!) Bob’s voice. A garbled howl, they chuckle. Sure wasn’t singing, guffaw. Bob didn’t speak to anyone at school for days.

 

April 10, 1969
4. Bob Dylan’s Iceskates?

A northwest wind is blowing hard and wet through Hibbing as I trudge down Seventh Avenue, a street Bob must have walked a hundred thousand times. Past the Blessed Sacrament Church where David was married last summer (scandal in the Jewish community — why couldn’t David have married a nice Jewish girl like Bobby did?) to 2425 East Seventh Avenue, at the corner of 25th Street, the Zimmerman family residence and the house where Bob grew up.

A strange looking house. Rectangular in shape, under a flat roof. Like a garage-attached Greek temple, with pseudo-classical mouldings and a column-lacking portico. All done in light tan stucco, behind a yard full of fat bushes. Neighboring houses are somehow less impressive. They run the gamut, from B.J. Rolfzen’s ex-residence across the street, a little pink cottage rambling off in all directions, to big split-level types around and about, to the house next door, more than a bit ramshackle. Plus 25th Street torn up by construction and partially closed to traffic — all lend the Zimmerinans’ place an air of permanence…

Mrs. Zimmerman? Un-unh. Terry Marort, a young housewife with a couple of kids. I ask about Mrs. Zimmerman. Nope, she doesn’t live here anymore. No? Flustered, I explain my presence. Terry’s very kind. And sympathetic. Of course you come in, do come in out of that weather. Across the threshold and inside: Wall to wall carpeting, blonde on blonde furniture in a color tv’ed living room. Terry explains that, yes, much of the furniture I see belonged to the Zimmermans, a dining room with a nice old table, a big kitchen sporting all the latest appliances, and… Bob’s breakfast nook! and Archie booth scroll-sawed into Hansel and Gretel Bavro-American.

Terry tells me that she and her family have just recently moved in. The Marorts are buying the house from Mrs. Zimmerman. The decision to sell had been a tough one for Mrs. Zimmerman to make. Bob had offered to take the house and keep it up in case he ever wanted to come back to Hibbing. But Mrs. Zimmerman had said no, and finally convinced Bob and David that letting the house go was for the best. Bob then, apparently, had said okay, but who are you going to sell it to? Who in Hibbing do you think will be able to af­ford that house? Old people, right? Old people with top price pocketbooks and no life in their hats. Nope. Not if Bob can help it. Find out what top price is for the house, then cut that price down to struggling-young-couple size and Bob will make up the difference. Doesn’t want anyone but young people living in his house. Young people with kids.

Typical of Bob, Terry says. Though she’s never met him. But Terry’s heard so much about Bob from Mrs. Zimmerman she feels as if he practically still lived here. And the basement recreation room for instance. Mrs. Zimmerman’s Bob Dylan Pop Center. Would I like to see?

Mrs. Zimmerman took down most of the posters and things before she moved out, Terry continues, but she hasn’t carted them away yet. There are a few still hanging. On the blonde pine walls of the rec room — a small wooden affair boxed into one corner of a basement already crowded with humming, rumbling appliances — and there are publicity stills from Bob’s movie, personality posters, and dust jackets to his records. In one corner however is a huge pile of stuff: pictures, posters, clippings, Dylan propaganda, from all around the world. There are photographs, color photographs with French or German captions that few people in this country ever could have seen. Obviously posed publicity shots of Bob in English three-piece suits, Pierre Cardin-type pastel shirts, and Carnaby Street ties. One in particular is a color photograph of Bob from a French magazine. It shows our impeccably attired 2425 East Seventh Avenue hero seated for lunch at a sidewalk cafe. He is coldly staring down his photographer from behind a shrimp fork stabbed into a lemon. The caption, roughly translated, reads: “Bob Dylan — American pop idol, etc., etc., confesses to reporters that ‘My past is so complicated you wouldn’t believe it even if I told you.’ ”

And there was more junk too, Terry tells me, things like clothes, teddy bears, shoes, and athletic equipment. Mrs. Zimmerman threw most of that out. Boy didn’t Terry bet Bob’s fans would have had a field day in that stuff! Teddy bears! Mrs. Zimmerman cried while she threw them away but she’d already decided it was for the best.

[related_posts post_id_1=”674292” /]

Terry saved some of the clothes for her kids, but the rest she fears are long gone. Too bad more things weren’t salvaged, but what could she do with Mrs. Zimmerman standing right there and… but, wait. Here’s something, this pair of iceskates. Terry had forgotten she’d snuck them out of the trash. For her little boy. The skates are still in excellent condition, black figure skates, the blades still sharp, look like they’ve hardly ever been used. Guess little Bobby didn’t spend a whole lot of time iceskating.

— Bob Dylan’s iceskates?

Back upstairs, Terry’s on the telephone. Calling people Bob’s age who might have known him in Hibbing. Gets me names of fellows that at one time or another were in Bob’s band: Chuck Nara, Bill Marinac, and Larry Fahbro. But all three have long since left Hibbing. Terry also finds me names of some people a little older or younger who might remember Bob, people still in town. And the name of a girl Bob used to go with, the only girl anybody seems to remember Bob sticking with for very long. A saucy little blonde number, Terry says. Down in Minneapolis now. A Swedish girl. Echo Helstrom.

I ask if there’s anything else left in the house that’s reminiscent of Bob. Well, uh, yes. There’s the original bedroom furniture upstairs in Bob and David’s room. Might as well take the entire tour. After all, Mrs. Zimmerman warned Terry this sort of thing might happen.

On the way upstairs, Terry shows me a little second story sundeck guard-railed onto the roof of the garage. It’s at the very rear of the house. Used to be one of Bob’s favorite spots. Neighbors have told Terry that in recent years the only way anyone would know Bob was back in town was if they saw him sitting out there on that porch. Sunning himself all alone, his feet up on the railing, surveying the scene, and…

Terry’s kept Bob’s room the same for more than just practical reasons. Apparently one of the semi-formal conditions of the sale was that Bob could stay at the Marorts in his old room whenever he wished to visit Hibbing. (Mrs. Zimmerman, when she finishes traveling, is to move in with one of Bob’s Hibbing-based aunts.) Bob and David’s room is across the hall from two larger bedrooms, the master bedroom and another where the boys’ grandmother had lived. The boys’ room — Bob’s bedroom, for godsake — looks cramped. There are two single beds perpendicularly set up, a chair, and an old pine dresser. With cigarette burns left by the careless hand of our man himself. I try out Bob’s bed, bouncing it gingerly. The view from Bob’s window in the cold afternoon light is the bleakest of bleak. Terry Marort rambles on, about Mrs. Zimmerman and her furs, Mrs. Zimmerman and her diamonds, Mrs. Zimmerman and her Cadillac. But I’m only half listening… Outside the snow’s swirling back and forth, steaming up the window. An occasional car goes by — a ’56 Chevy, a ’49 Ford. There’s music playing, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, Elvis, or Gene Vincent, from an old Victrola in the corner. Smoke from cigarettes forbidden to use curls over the dresser, tries to hide in the closet. A stray foot kicks a beat-up guitar sticking out from under the bed. Strikes a hollow unfingered chord. Bedspreads, school books, curtain rods, and warm socks. Bluejeans, black loafers, Bible stories, and Bo Diddley — playing loud from the corner now. Over chains through new snow in the street…

***

It’s been a long day. Thank goodness for scrapbooking motherhood. And helpful Terry Marort. I finally got hold of Melvin Edelstein, too — one of Bob’s cousins and manager of Hibbing’s two movie theatres. Melvin Edelstein told me the usual, Bob had been a loner as a kid, used to come to the movies an awful lot, by himself, mostly. Yes, Melvin Edelstein knew of Bob’s movie Don’t Look Back. Yes, that’s correct, the film had not been shown in Hibbing. And would not be. Personally, Melvin Edelstein had been all for a showing, but Bob’s father had seen the film somewhere and so had several other out-of-town relatives and, well, there had been raised eyebrows. What with all the very embarrassing gossip about Bob and drugs only just beginning to die down in social Hibbing, the family had decided against a hometown run. The film had been scheduled to play in Duluth, but somehow that had never come to pass either. Yes, Melvin Edelstein had seen Bob at the funeral. He had looked fit; and as a matter of fact, Melvin Edelstein had raised the question of a possible Hibbing showing for Don’t Look Back. But Bob himself had been against the idea. People in Hibbing, he feared, just wouldn’t understand.

April 17, 1969
5. Girl From the North Country

Barreling down fabled Highway 61 away from Duluth and the frustration of several futile telephone calls, I’m headed south to Minneapolis. South to Echo Helstrom, David Zimmerman, and the University of Minnesota — Bob’s freshman year alma mater. But Highway 61! Roaring out of Lake Superior’s industrial backwash, cutting a swath through East Minnesota’s hunting and fishing territory, over rivers with names like Kettle and Willow, big choppy lakes like Sturgeon and Moosehead, past Northwoods towns like Mahtowa, Sandstone, and Pine City. The entire countryside is blindingly bright in the loudest of red and yellow falls, colors intensified by reflections in shoe-shine black water, the sky once again wide open to cloudless blue infinity. And not another car on the bare mid-afternoon highway.

For experiment’s sake I keep fooling with the radio, trying everything — AM, FM, even short wave. But can’t pick up much. Local reports on hunting and fishing, some Lawrence Welk-super-market-swing, and an occasional forest ranger chewing the fat. Pretty soon though, I’m getting top-40 stations from the Twin Cities area, civilization is sprouting up all around me, Bee Gees are wailing “gotta get a mess-edge to yew-ew,” and before I know it I’m beneath the Golden Arches of a Minneapolis McDonalds’ Drive-In.

I find a telephone booth and ring up the number Echo’s mother has given me, the office of a Minneapolis film company. A secretary answers promptly. It is Echo:

“Oh yes, I was expecting your call. But another five minutes and you would have missed me. Now just a minute. Don’t have to go through all that. I’ve heard everything about you. Momma telephoned and told me you were doing a story on Bob. ’Course you can see me, but’ll have to be at my place which is a mess, and hope you don’t mind making it pretty soon ’cause I have to drive up to Hibbing tonight…”

I have about 15 minutes to kill before I can meet Echo, so I start tracking down David Zimmerman. He’s given me three numbers where I should be able to get him, his apartment, his office, and the scene of a rehearsal he’s to attend this evening. David Zimmerman is a student at the University of Minnesota, seeking a degree in music education. But as the September 6 issue of the Hibbing Daily Tribune reads, quoting from a Sunday supplement article in the Minneapolis Tribune, “at the age of 22 David is ‘eking out a fairly good career discovering, managing, teaching, and working with young performers.’ He’s very candid about the ‘indispensable in,’ that the fact he’s brother to folk-rock hero Bob Dylan ‘initially opened a lot of doors at Columbia’ for him.” An undergraduate A and R man I suppose one might call David, with “high office relations” on the Board of Governors.

Catch David at the first number I try, but there is confusion as to where and when we should meet, the hint of apprehension in David’s voice at the mention of my appointment with Echo, a chaos of thwarted plans steadily building, until David gives me another number where he’ll be until 9:30, at least, call him before then if I get the chance.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721901″ /]

Okay, off through the unfamiliar streets of Minneapolis, map in hand, Echo’s directions in my head, telepathic rays of sacred need-to-know drawing me to Echo’s basement apartment. Down a short flight of cement steps, past washer-dryer central, to bungalow no. 4. A simple tap on the door, and…

Echo — blue eyes, Swedish-long-blonde hair, black and white houndstooth outfit, skirt way up above knee-high black patent leather boots, all topped off by the finest little smile this side of White Bear Lake!

Echo ushers me into a small, laundry-cluttered living room, shoves a stack of Sunday newspapers off the couch, and invites me to sit down. She seems less sure of herself here than on the phone, but keeps up a steady flow of conversation, all about having spoken with her mother this afternoon, how excited she had been that a writer wanted to interview her daughter, and it’s not long before Echo settles into a more relaxed state, the smile really comes on, and she’s remembering times with Bob:

“Place I first actually met Bob I guess was over at the L.B. Cafe in Hibbing. That was back at the beginning of our 11th grade year, 1957 I think. I’d seen Bob around school before, but he’d never spoken to me until that night. He was always so well dressed and quiet, I had him pegged for a goody-goody. You know, one of those kids that never wanted to have any fun, always going to church and listening to their parents, you know. Well that’s the way I figured Bob was.

“We were sitting in the L.B. that night, my girlfriend and me, when Bob came over. He was with a friend of his too, and they just came over and sat down. I suppose you could say they were trying to pick us up, but I don’t know. He still looked so innocent and well-scrubbed I never even thought about that.

“We talked for a while about nothing in particular and had another soda I suppose, until I thought of asking him what seemed to me a pretty stupid question at the time, you know, just conversation. He’d just finished telling me about how he played the piano and was forming a band, when the name of a song I’d heard the night before popped into my head. The only rock and roll music you could get in Hibbing in those days was broadcast late at night over a colored station from Little Rock, Arkansas. Some of us listened to it every night, but I never would have thought Bob did. I guess I mentioned the name of that song really just to show him how much he knew about music. Anyway, the song was ‘Maybelline’ and it was brand-new to me.

“ ‘Maybelline,’ he screamed ‘Maybelline’ by Chuck Berry? You bet, I’ve heard it!’ And on and one about Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, everybody that was popular at that time, about their music and how great it was, how he loved to play it himself and how someday he wanted more than anything else to be a rock and roll singer — all with his eyes sort of rolled up in his head, in a whole different world, until it finally dawned on him. He stopped what he was saying, leaned half way across the table, his eyes great big, and whispered ‘you… you don’t mean that you listen to Gatemouth Page out of Little Rock, Arkansas?’ I said yes I did, had for a year and just how long had he thought he was so special being a fan of Gatemouth’s.

“Well, that did the trick. We talked about music and how he wanted to so much to be a singer, about movies, actors and actresses, and I even told him how I was planning on being a movie star, which he really got excited about, promising he could get me into all the movies that came to town, free, because his uncle owned the theatres. We kept talking about how great show business was, and how someday we’d sure surprise everyone in Hibbing, until the L.B’s closing time. But Bob wasn’t anywhere near ready to stop then, so he said, ‘Come on, follow me!,’ and led the four of us upstairs over the dining room where he said there was a piano. The door was locked and Bob picked it with his penknife, but the rest of us were too scared to stay so he didn’t either. He asked if he could meet me after school the next day though, so I could come over to his house and hear him perform. I said yeh sure I wanted to, ’cause he’d surprised me all right and I no longer thought he was a goody-goody. Still, now that I think back, it was a whole month before he even kissed me.”

Echo laughs to herself at this, looking at me for the first time since she’s started talking about Bob. She’s hardly moved. Hasn’t fidgeted at all. Just tucked her legs up under her on the couch. But her facial expressions have been going like gangbusters. Echo’s a good actress. And storyteller. But not for me. For somebody out there across the room somewhere.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692774″ /]

“His family didn’t take to me at all, ’specially once they realized I was becoming more than just Bob’s little friend from school. I don’t know if it was ’cause I came from the wrong part of town or ’cause I wasn’t Jewish. I expect it was partly both. I didn’t even think about Bob being Jewish till quite a while after we’d met. And I only asked him about it once. There was another fellow, John Bucklen, who used to pal around with Bob and me. The three of us, gosh we were always doing things together. John wanted to be a disc jockey. That was going to be his claim to fame. Anyway, one afternoon we were riding around in Bob’s car when I said ‘Zimmerman, that’s a funny name. Is it Jewish?’ Well, Bob didn’t answer anything at all, just kept driving with his face sort of funny. Later John took me aside and said ‘Listen, Echo, don’t ever ask about Bob being Jewish again. He doesn’t like to talk about it.’ That same year, the 11th grade, Bob came over to my house after school one day and told me he’d finally decided on his stage name. Yes, it was ‘Dylan,’ after that poet, I think.

“We went steady that whole 11th grade year. A winter and a summer, I think. Bob was pretty serious about his band and they practiced a lot. It was all a blues sound then, what we heard on the radio from Little Rock. Bob sang and played the piano, and he used to practice with the band in garages around the neighborhood. Nobody liked their music much, least of all Bob’s voice. I used to get so upset, for days ahead of time when I knew he was going to sing in public. He and the band played around town fairly often, at school assemblies, at the youth club, and at Collier’s Barbecue. People would laugh and hoot at Bob, and I’d just sit there crying. One time in particular I remember the band was scheduled to perform over at the armory. I was nervous as usual, sitting right in the front row waiting for them to come on. Finally they did, and I shut my eyes and put my fingers in my ears like always. They were so loud! And I didn’t want to see or hear people laughing. Well the band started, and l was sitting there like that praying everything would be all right, when the girl next to me pulled my hands away from my face and screamed ‘Listen!’ At first I couldn’t hear anything but the band. They were doing a Ray Charles sort of boogie, really loud. But gradually it got so I could distinguish Bob’s voice… and you know what he was singing? He was howling over and over again, ‘I gotta girl and her name is Echo!,’ making up verses as he went along. I guess that was the first song I’d ever heard him sing that wasn’t written by somebody else. And it was about me! You know, people didn’t even laugh at Bob that night. But I cried anyway.

“We talked about each other’s careers a lot. How someday we’d really show people in Hibbing. Boy, neither of us could wait to get out of that town. There was really nothing in Hibbing either us cared about. Except each other. Oh, we were really in love. Everybody laughs at kids when they fall in love, saying how they don’t know what it means or anything, but that’s not true. Kids know. We’d talk about getting married a lot, just to get out of Hibbing for one thing, but Bob always said no, we can’t even think about that. Would interfere with our careers. It was always the career with Bob. I thought about a career a lot too, sure, but with Bob it was an obsession. He really wanted to show everybody. And he has, I guess. Though few people in Hibbing could even care.”

Echo pauses here a moment, slowly smoothing her skirt. She’s still staring way off across the living room. I venture a question: “What about some of Bob’s later songs — the ones that don’t specifically mention Hibbing but sort or sound like they might have Hibbing in mind. Can you think of any like that offhand?”

“Yes… yes, that song ‘Positively 4th Street.’ I remember when it came out I said to myself, Bob wrote that song about Hibbing! For all those people who used to boo him when he played. And who probably now couldn’t be nicer or more polite when they see him. Some of those people up there were just awful to us. I’m glad he wrote that song. I really laughed when I heard it.

“We had some good times together though, up there. Bob was always so crazy! He’d imagine the nuttiest things, and then we’d have to act them out. He’d keep pretty quiet most of the time, but when he got an idea his eyes would get great big and you couldn’t stop him talking until he’d finished telling you everything about it. He was all the time making things out to be more serious than they were, too. Like I remember once after school we were up in Bob’s room listening to records or something, and nobody else was home. I wasn’t supposed to be allowed upstairs, you see. Well all of a sudden the front door slams and Bob gets really scared. Actually, I don’t know now if he was scared so much as he saw the whole situation as an opportunity to do something crazy, and he was just excited. Anyway, his eyes got all big and he told me we couldn’t let them find us alone up there. He’d have to do something. So he put me in the closet and told me to wait until I heard him go outside, and then climb out the window and he’d catch me. He gathered up all his schoolbooks and went downstairs to tell his grandmother, I think, that he had to go to the library. Then he snuck around the side of the house to catch me coming out of the window. The plan worked somehow. And Bob was so proud! But he was awful silly about things like that. I mean, sure, his grandmother didn’t find us, but there I was in broad daylight, hanging out of Bob’s second story window, my skirt up around my waist, with Bob down below waiting to catch me and I guess everybody in the whole neighborhood saw that!

[related_posts post_id_1=”86359″ /]

“But we didn’t care. I suppose I was just as crazy as Bob to go along with some of those things, and enjoyed them as much too. We had our fights though. I remember one time we’d had a big one. Over at my house, and my mother and father had gotten into it. Everybody was mad, and I didn’t see Bob for a couple of days. Till one afternoon I was sitting in the living room doing something or other with my parents, when the doorbell rang. I got up to answer it and thought I heard music, but didn’t even think until I opened the door, and there was Bob, decked out in one of the tv gambler’s vests he used to wear, beating on his guitar and singing ‘Do you want to dance and hold my hand,’ you remember that song that was popular then. Anyhow, boy was I surprised. He stood there on the doorstep and sang it all the way through once, then pushed past me into the living room and sang it again for my parents. Then he just wouldn’t stop, but paraded around the house singing that song till all of us were laughing so hard we’d forgotten what the fight was even about.

“Bob was always looking around. For anything different, but mostly things he thought would help him in his music. Like Negroes. You know, there aren’t any Negroes in Hibbing? To this day. That used to make Bob just furious. He loved their music so much, every time he’d hear about one coming through town he’d go and find him just to meet him and talk to him and find out what he was like. That probably sounds funny to you, but it was really funny, not funny but strange for us to see one of those people. Bob would all the time drag me along too. I remember one day we had to drive way over to Virginia‚ that’s a town out on the Range — just to see this one colored fellow who was visiting the radio station over there, and who was from the South I think. Anyway, he was offered a job over in Virginia as a disc jockey, and we all got to be pretty good friends.

“Traveling started to become important for Bob too, and I suppose that’s one of the big reasons we broke up. He began taking off every weekend, going down to Minneapolis or St. Paul to listen to music he said, but I knew he was seeing other girls as well. That didn’t bother me so much as just being left alone all the time. This went on for a couple of months I guess before I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and got up enough nerve to give him back his ID bracelet. Was right after one of those lonely weekends… on a Monday morning. I knew I’d see Bob in the hall at school, so I decided to give him his bracelet back then. I spotted him strutting through the crowd with a couple of his friends in tow, all full of show business and image and telling tales of gosh knows what had gone on down in Minneapolis that weekend. I just walked right up to him and told him I had something to say, and handed him back his ID bracelet. His first reaction was to push me up over against the lockers and whisper real loud, ‘Shh… not here!’ His eyes were all big but I don’t think he really took me seriously until later. I didn’t see him all day, after school or anything, but that night he came over to my house. He was crying. And wanted to know what I thought I was doing. I told him again. He wouldn’t stop crying, but he understood.

“After that, I didn’t see him for a good long while. He went out with some other girls, and I had plenty of dates too, but neither one of us ever went steady again. He wrote a page-long sort of letter-poem to me in my yearbook the day we graduated — no, that’s up in Hibbing at my mother’s, I don’t have it here — but after graduation and that next summer I didn’t see Bob until Minneapolis. I’d moved down here, and he was a freshman at the university. He was living in a fraternity house off campus, and we went to a few parties together. But gradually he got into the beatnik business, with the coffee house and everything, and I stopped seeing him altogether. He’d call me occasionally, but the parties I didn’t like much ’cause everyone was sort of, well, degenerate. Like he called me once right before he quit school and invited me to this party where he said there was free food, free wine, free love, and all the girls were sitting around with no blouses on. I drew the line at that. And don’t guess I saw him again till he came back from New York a year or so later.

“He’d just recorded his first album, and was in Minneapolis for a concert at the university. He called me and asked if I wanted to go to a party. I said okay ’cause I hadn’t seen him for so long or anything. He’d changed a lot. He was skinny, whereas he’d always been sort of chubby. He had on bluejeans and a workshirt and was… dirty. I asked him about New York and the music he was playing, and whatever had happened to the hard blues stuff? He said, ‘Oh don’t worry it’s still there, but folk music is what’s really going to be big,’ and that’s how he was going to make it. I told him I didn’t like the sound of it as well as the other stuff, and he said ‘I know, but this is the coming thing.’ With his eyes all big. He played his guitar at the party that night and everybody loved it and Bob was happy in the limelight again like old times, only now they didn’t laugh at him. We both got pretty tipsy and later when we were alone he got very sentimental and asked me to come back to New York with him, and said he’d get me an apartment and we could be together again. I started crying and telling him no, but he kept talking about it until finally I got mad and said ‘What about this folksinger Joan Baez you’re supposed to be in love with, just what about her?’ He didn’t say anything, but got up and walked across the room to his suitcase. He pulled out a photograph, came back over and shoved it in front of me. It was Joan Baez. ‘Do you see this face,’ he said, ‘do you see it? Do you think I could ever fall in love with a face like that?’ Well I really started crying then, and got sort of hysterical and left. Left all by myself. I guess that was the last time I saw Bob. Though he’s called me just to say hello since then. Since he’s really become famous. Once or twice.”

Echo’s sitting quietly again. Toying with a strand of hair. I ask if she’s ever heard that song “Girl From the North Country.”

“Yes, that’s on Bob’s second album isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh. Do you think it’s about you?”

Echo’s silent for a moment. “Sure, I think it’s about me. I know it’s about me. There’s no else it could be about. And even if there was… no, it’s about me. Bob never wrote me a letter to tell me it was about me or anything, but then that would have been kind of silly, wouldn’t it? And besides… he knew he didn’t have to.” There’s a knock at the door. Echo starts; but gets up to answer it. Her nephew. Come to pick her up for the weekend jaunt to Hibbing. Echo introduces me and hurriedly explains my presence, packing a few things for her trip.

Echo’s nephew was just a little boy when Bob was still around. He remembers meeting Bob, but that’s all. Echo’s nephew doesn’t say much. And Echo doesn’t have much more to say either. Except that she’s sorry she has to rush off. I tell her don’t be silly, she’s been extremely helpful and more than kind to allow me so much of her time. And that I understand perfectly. It’s a long way back up to Hibbing.

April 24, 1969
6. For Old Times’ Sake

It’s a couple of hours yet before I can see David. Supposed to meet him by 10 at a bar called Duff’s in downtown Minneapolis. To kill time I drive down by the University of Minnesota campus, just to see what it’s like. I pass by the fraternity house where Bob had lived as a freshman. I don’t even notice what chapter it is. I look for the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffee house where Bob used to perform. In a student quarter nick-named “Dinkytown.” I can’t find it. Ask a policeman who informs me that the old Scholar has been replaced by a new Scholar in another neighborhood. He gives me directions and I finally locate Scholar-new. It seems depressingly passé. There’s practically no one else there, and the first set is about to begin. The fellow running the place tries to get $1.50 cover charge out of me just for an interview. He remembers Bob, but didn’t know him personally. That was all a little before his time. The old Scholar. I tell him thanks anyway. A couple more people wander in. A waitress is setting up microphones on stage. I leave before the music starts.

Find Duff’s after a complicated journey through Minneapolis’s central shopping district. A futuristic, one-way traffic hang-up virtually impossible to navigate. Huge glass and steel skyscrapers towering over fountained malls and 50-foot-wide sidewalks. Captain Videoed corner-bus-stop lounges heated for your north country convenience. And everything so clean…

Duff’s is terrible. Some sort of Friday night singles club, everybody respondent in midwestern-hip, lots of carefully trimmed sideburns and white turtleneck sweaters. Pictures of the Minnesota Twins and Viking all over the walls. A strange place for Bob Dylan’s brother to want to meet you for a drink. I make the mistake of arriving a half hour early. And David Zimmerman is late.

I’m sitting near the door when he comes in. By himself. And I’d expected to meet his wife. David and I recognized one another immediately from mutual telephone descriptions. David is short like Bob but stocky. Close too fat. He wears glasses. And well-tailored sports clothes — stylish — jodhpur boots, mod-English jacket, cuffless tapered trousers — the whole trip.

Turns out his wife Gail is circling the block. Apparently she can’t get into Duff’s with slacks on. The weekend, David explains. We leave Duff’s to try someplace else. David says let’s put some people on. Gail pulls up in David’s brand-new Buick. David pretends we’re trying to pick her up. Howsabouta ride honey? We both pile into the front seat. David and Gail have a chuckle. The doorman at Duff’s doesn’t look too put on.

We stop at a combination restaurant-fancy motor inn, that has its own parking lot. David’s worried we won’t get in here either. Because of Gail’s slacks. We do though. But on the way, David tries another put-on. At the cashier’s counter he pauses to grab a toothpick from a little stainless-steel dispenser. He spills about 30 toothpicks on the floor. As he’s bending over to clean up the mess, the cashier says consolingly, that’s okay, people do it all the time. David gets up and says, oh really, well in that case I don’t want to be different — and leaves the toothpicks on the floor. The cashier doesn’t look too put on. Just a little pissed off.

We finally settle down at a table. David with a Bloody Mary and a five ounce sirloin-hamburger-special he wants to share with Gail. Me with Budweiser. David’s doing a lot of talking. But he’s not saying much. He asks me who I’ve seen. I tell him. And he tries to discount practically everything they’ve said. He tells me Terry Marort’s iceskate story is false. Bob never skated in his life. The skates were David’s. He says he’s never heard of Bob’s babysitter, Don Mckenzie. And some of the guys I have listed as having been in Bob’s band he tells me Bob never knew. Just can’t trust people when they’re talking about celebrities, he says. Not their fault really, but people tend to make things up. Hmmmm. I inform David that I’ve just spent a very interesting couple of hours with Echo Helstrom. He has nothing to say about that. Pulls on his Bloody Mary instead.

I play back a few of the stories Echo’s told me. David’s reaction is interesting. Silence. So I try a difference tack. Talk about my visit to the high school. And how I saw old teachers, heard some great tales, and had a glance at Bob’s transcript. What’s that, David bites. Bob’s transcripts? Who showed it to me. Oh, someone in the office. Who though, the Principal? Gosh I don’t remember, anyhow I snuck a look, he didn’t xerox a copy for me or anything. David’s silent. Visions of principals dead in his head.

I ask David about Don’t Look Back. He tells me Bob was dissatisfied with the film. So much so that he sued D.A. Pennebaker. But lost. Judge said if Bob knew some yo-yo was following him around with a camera, he should have known enough to watch himself. Mis-representation of Bob’s character, baloney.

[related_posts post_id_1=”76250″ /]

David tells me a couple more interesting things. I ask about Bob listening to Little Rock, hoping at least that’s correct. David says yes, he can remember Bob doing that. He also remembers the L.B. Cafe and concerts at Collier’s. But he doesn’t expound upon anything. I ask if he’s seen the story in a recent Village Voice about Bob giving his motorcycle to a gardener. No, David says, he hadn’t seen that. Though he remembers the gardener. At Albert Grossman’s in Woodstock. The gardener was an old guy, a real loser. I ask if the bike wasn’t pretty well smashed up from Bob’s accident. David laughs and says, know how Bob hurt himself on that motorcycle? He was riding around the backyard on the grass and slipped! That’s all. The newspapers played it up big. Writers’ll do that. They had him scarred, blind, an idiot, and half dead. He really didn’t break his neck then, I ask. Sure, David says — if a cracked vertebra is a broken neck.

Gail finally yawns. And David announces that it’s time to go home. I pick up the check. And face the silent rage of our put-on cashier. In the car, I ask about Bob back in New York — what sort of music he likes now, the contemporary songwriters he admires. Bob doesn’t listen to much of anything anymore, David tells me. Except country-western. We pull up across the street from my car. I thank David and Gail for having met me so late. It’s after midnight by now. David says that’s all right but — just one thing. Watch out when you write your story, man. You mean about Echo, I smile. Yeh, about Echo. Don’t turn the whole thing into a “true confessions” piece. You know. Just watch the nitty-gritty. Sure David, I know. Goodnight, as the big Buick drives off. Condensation from the dual exhausts trailing him up the street. It’s cold. Ten or 15 degrees. And I don’t seem to be able to get used to it.

Somewhere in the maze of city blocks between Duff’s and Interstate 94 East, I come across Highway 61. Weird seeing it again in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. Nothing but a street, grey, anonymous, and cut up by traffic lights. Highway 61. A long way from the Lake Superior hills. Duluth. And the Village of Hibbing.

Two weeks after leaving Minneapolis, I received a letter from Echo. Enclosed was a Xerox copy of the page long letter-poem Bob wrote in her high school yearbook, the day they both graduated. The letter-poem’s format is standard yearbook “remember when?”, but Bob’s phrasing already shows characteristic irony and understatement. He is already dropping consonants and vowels — “yo” for “your,” “‘m” for “them,” “ol” for “old.” The letter-poem is scribbled in faulty penmanship and smudged from Echo’s mother’s attempts to censor an offensive word. But Bob’s schoolboy sentiment otherwise remains intact. The letter-poem reads very much like one of his songs. Finishing with the shakily determined flourish: “Well Echo, I better make it, huh — ”

Echo is chatty in her note. But fears she may have somehow invaded Bob’s privacy by her remarks to me. “Even though I never have anything to do with him anymore or him with me,” she writes, “I wouldn’t want him to get mad at me, just for old times’ sake.” I wrote back and told her not to worry. I wouldn’t write anything I thought would hurt Bob. Not because I feared his wrath, necessarily — a wrath rumored terrible swift — but because, well, just for old times’ sake, too.

 

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Bob Dylan’s on Fire, Rolling Down the Road

Bob Dylan’s on Fire, Rolling Down the Road
November 10, 1975

Perhaps it’s happening because nothing was happening. Maybe it means more because the lines of our interdependence are so strained, so fragile — yet overgrown, layered, and incestuous. Maybe because we’re so vulnerable now; especially in this impacted city, either hoofing it in the chorus line or hopscotching in the spotlight. But for whatever reason that you might need Dylan, and for whatever need he has of you, he’s back.

It’s like the first page of a book of miracles, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the magic gypsy returned to Macondo, the city in the jungle bearing the first magnet ever seen there. The pots and knives flew from their shelves, the nails creaked from the beams, and the gypsy, an honest man, proclaimed, “Things have a life of their own. It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” And so it is that Dylan, and Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bobby Neuwirth, and friends are out on the road, in a bus named Phydeaux (a black-humored greyhound), waking up souls in what, along with Woodstock (and Altamont if you have a taste for that side of things), is probably the most meaningful musical energy nexus of our time. The man has actually gone out and done it, and in the process discovered himself at the height of his powers.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714819″ /]

***

In early July Dylan was dragging around New York like an out-of-work folksinger, living in a borrowed loft on Houston Street. His marriage had (reportedly) busted up and he had come back to the Village from Malibu for solace, for a transfusion, or simply to be home to visit. In any event it was obviously “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” time. He would show up almost every night at the Other End, usually alone, occasionally with director Jacques Levy and boulevardier Bob Neuwirth.

At a show during the July 4 folkie-smorgasbord, Neuwirth coaxed a reluctant Dylan onstage to sing harmony. Neuwirth, the high potentate of Max’s backroom, high living storyteller, song-writer, catalyst, and nonstop dancing partner to rock and roll royalty, prepared to do a week long Other End engagement. Rob (Rockin’ Rob Rothstein) Stoner on bass, guitarists Steve Soles and T-Bone Burnette and fiddler David Mansfield all were pressed into service, with Soles flying in from California, and T-Bone from Texas. Ramblin’ Jack stopped in; English rockers Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson fell by. The show itself was splotchy and shapeless. But it seemed to spark something in Dylan, and one night the Other End’s bar suddenly turned into Johnny Cash’s living room, as Dylan & Company held forth till almost 6 a.m. with a bunch of new songs, including the wild-eyed “Joey,” about Gallo the mobster in prison reading Wilhelm Reich. At one point Dylan leaned over to Ramblin’ Jack and suggested that they all do a tour together. I don’t think that anyone who heard it took the suggestion seriously. That week Dylan went into the studio to work on his new album. He then left New York for California and Minnesota.

In October, he returned to New York having definitely decided to tour. It was to be essentially a folk-oriented assemblage, an almost literal extension of the jamming at the Other End. Everybody gets to play and sing, trying to bring some music back down to livable scale and into an accessible intimacy. He needed professional help and he brought in longtime aid and childhood friend Louie Kemp from Duluth, ex-Bill Graham associate and Santana manager Barry Imhoff, ubiquitous tour-lady Chris O’Dell, and Boston promoter Don Law. Joan Baez was called and asked to come along. They set up shop at the Gramercy Park Hotel and booked a midtown rehearsal studio. But if the tour arrangements were in safe hands, the band was not.

Dylan doesn’t have the musical chops to lead or create the kind of band he’d like to have. That task fell to Rob Stoner. He’d been knocking around New York for years, falling in with Neuwirth and eventually Dylan in July. Stoner’s an amazing rock and roll mutant, a sort of a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Fabian. Fabian? But he literally put the touring band together, with the help and stage direction of Jacques Levy. The musicians, to a man, all credit Stoner with “taking a diverse and formless group, who’d never really played together in a context that demanded any precision, and whipping ’em into shape. He brought in his old friends Howie Wyeth, who does unlikely double duty on drums and piano, and percussionist Luther Rix. Violinist Scarlet Rivera, who’d been playing with Dylan since June, also signed on. Surprisingly, things fell into place, institutionalizing the loopy informality of the late night jam sessions.

On Wednesday, October 29, Dylan, Neuwirth, and a few others arrived for David Blue’s closing set at the Other End. Ronee Blakley showed up as did Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Denise Mercedes of the glitter group Stutz. After the club closed, Dylan and Ronee Blakley shared the piano and crooned, Roger McGuinn played guitars, and Ginsberg sang. “Allen, you’re the king,” said Dylan repeatedly. “You’re the king but you don’t know your kingdom.” That night Ginsberg was invited to join the tour, followed two days later by invitations to Denise and the always helpful Orlovsky, who was sort of given a job as a baggage handler.

At 3 a.m. Eric Andersen phoned from Woodstock. He spoke to T-Bone Burnette, asked if he should come down (one-and-a-half hour drive). “Well,” T-Bone replied, “it’s really happening.” “Has it peaked yet?” Eric asked. “It won’t peak for another month,” came the answer.

The next night (Thursday) they played Mike Porco’s birthday party at Folk City. They rehearsed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Monday at 1 p.m. they left the Gramercy Park with the band on board the $125,000 Phydeaux and Dylan in a red Cadillac El Dorado convertible. The tour was to be unadvertised, playing mostly small halls, $7.50 top, with only five days notice given by handbills in each town. The secrecy was such that even the musicians didn’t know where they were headed.

Meanwhile, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the Rock and Pilgrim fame, the biggest thing in 355 years was about to happen. Advance men Jerry Seltzer and Jabez Van Cleef walked into the town hardware store. They had booked the Plymouth Memorial Auditorium earlier for a Joan Baez concert. The town fathers asked that Joan not make any overtly political statements on stage. The hall was rented, 1800 seats, for $250 dollars per night (two nights), $100 over the regular rental price after assuring the house manager that, yes, they could fill the second balcony. In the hardware, store they gave a Rolling Thunder Revue handbill to two young guys buying spackle. The first guy screamed, “Get out, I don’t believe it.” He was reassured. “You’d better be right or I’ll rip this town apart.” “It’s your town,” Van Cleef replied. The second guy turned and said, calmly, “Look man, there are some things in life that’re real. This isn’t one of them.” He was wrong, and he was right.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

***

The Sea Crest Hotel in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, (“on captivating Cape Cod”) is right on the beach. It has 200 rooms and is magnificently secluded. The tour arrived there Monday afternoon. On Tuesday I called for a reserva­tion and was asked if I wanted an ocean-front room. “Something close to the Dylan party,” I re­plied. The clerk lied telling me that the only large group in the hotel was a Mah-Jongg convention. That evening, Dylan, introduced by the Borscht Belt MC as “a dynamite entertainer,” sang in the dining room, Ginsberg recited “Kaddish” and danced a pas de deux with Ronee Blakley. Thursday evening I flew into Boston. The next morn­ing I headed for the Sea Crest.

I met Peter Orlovsky in the lobby. He said I shouldn’t be there, security was very tight. No press, no girl friends, no business like show business. He suggested I talk to Louie Kemp. Kemp was amazed that I’d found them. I’d have to leave. I said I’d register. We struck a bargain. They’d give me a room and send people up to talk. They’d send up lunch and two security guards, one to run errands for me, the other to make certain I didn’t leave the room and to ac­company me if I did. Like Camp David, or Los Alamos. Fair enough. So, under virtual house arrest, I enjoyed my first visitor, Steve Soles, who told me that “Everyone cares about everyone else here, we’re all feelin’ good, no tension. It’s really run by pros and it’s a grown-up tour. Nobody’s on a bad trip or fucked up with drugs. And it’s all spontaneous. We don’t know where we’re goin’, neither does Dylan. We just walk out, tune up, and fall into the song.” Soles is half-N.Y., half L.A., but all of it came together in N.Y. “L.A. doesn’t breed this kind of en­ergy.”

The tour represents an enor­mous financial investment for Dylan. There are no super banks of amplifiers or special lighting, but it still involves at least 50 people. It’s been a dream of the collective rock consciousness to do a tour like this. Small halls, no advertising — “the real magical mystery tour,” as Neuwirth says. And whether or not Dylan makes a profit — there will be a film, of course — he’s still doing something admirable. But it’s like the old J.P. Morgan riposte: “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” If you’re a big enough star to warrant a secret tour you a) don’t need the money, b) reap compensatory free publicity, c) stoke up your own emotional capital, and d) what the hell else would you be d0ing — sitting around the pool with Ali McGraw and occasionally switching your drink from hand to hand?

Meanwhile, outside on the beach, Jack Elliott, looking like a lawyer in Miami, is chasing Joan Baez, incredibly beautiful in just a towel. The cormorants are diving for fish and the Mah-Jongg ladies are walking around with their hands behind their backs.

Howard Alk and Mel Howard are there making a movie with Sam Shepard feeding them images; Jack Elliott talking to the wax pilgrims in the Mayflower museum; Rob Stoner as Gene Vincent and T-Bone Burnette as Buddy Holly in rock and roll heaven with Joan Baez as a red-afroed hooker and Paul Colby as a nightclub owner. Or, a scene in a local diner with Ginsberg as “the emperor” and Dylan as “the alchemist.” Allen: “Are you the alchemist? I’m the emperor, here’s my card”; he hands Dylan an orange maple-leaf. Dylan: “Your kingdom is bankrupt after all the wars, after sending off to Indochina for a shipload of tears you still haven’t paid your karmic debt.” Allen: “What’s the alchemical secret that’ll help?” Instantaneously (all improvised), Dylan smiles: “Invention.” And he proceeds to mix up a bowl of remedy, going behind the counter for Ritz crackers, honey, pepper, milk, Tabasco sauce. “Your using ordinary materials,” cries Ginsberg. “That’s the point,” says Dylan.

But like all rock and roll tours this operation is functionally schizophrenic. It’s understandably bizarre, this institutionalized intimacy, this paramilitary folkyness. Dylan’s aides are there to protect him, and like any other zealots, they overdo things. My incarcera­tion was probably just a mistake, but a mistake very much in keeping with the tone of the tour. Kemp put a sign “Quarantine — Lepers Quarters” on my door.

So I threaten to sue, to call the police, the FBI (kidnapping is a federal crime), etc. And suddenly they’re very nice to me. McGuinn, Neuwirth, T-Bone, and Rockin’ Rob arrive. Room service comes in with a tuna salad and some wine. I insist McGuinn taste the wine first. I turn down some ha­shish because smoking makes me paranoid.

Mick Ronson, wearing just a towel, wanders in. He’s one of those English guys who, if rock ‘n roll hadn’t intruded, would’ve been a hairdresser. He’s a gen­uinely sweet man, and totally blown out by the whole idea. “I can’t believe it, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” like a Child of God or a Hari­-Krishnoid, “the rest of my life, before this, was all bullshit.”

McGuinn, one of the world’s great gadget freaks, brings out a Polaroid and waits for a gull to fly past the sun. Neuwirth, looking calmer and softer than ever, starts talking about the 10 years of talk­ing that preceded the tour. “It’s gonna be a new living room every night. This is the first existential tour, it’s a movie, a closed set, it’s rock and roll heaven and it’s his­torical, no, hysterical. No, spell it h-y-s-t-o-r… “and never finishes the word. “It’s been Ramblin’ Jack’s dream for a long time, he’s the one who taught us all and the dream’s coming true.” And then, “Aw, shit, let’s just watch the sunset over the Atlantic.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”671322″ /]

***

Nowadays the residents of Ply­mouth eat grinders and drive around rotaries. It’s like any other medium-sized New England town filled with nice clean-looking kids, a lot of ’em still wearing their Army field jackets because the working class fought the last war. Even $7.50 is a steep ticket in Ply­mouth.

The Memorial Auditorium seats about 1800, including 400 folding chairs on the floor, ordinarily a basketball court. With the chairs set up it’s just like your high school auditorium, if you went to a small old high school. It was Halloween, but with the exception of a human toothpaste tube the Plymouthians were all dressed up as Bostonians. And the local police frisk you for wine at the door, but two New Yorkers, singer Garland Jeffreys and guitarist Alan Friedman, out­smarted them with bottles of Soave Bolla and Southern Com­fort, respectively.

At 8:20 the show started. The band came out in Lone Ranger masks, with Steve Soles, who looks like John Astin, made up in whiteface. Neuwirth was wear­ing a khaki flak vest and served as MC. Throughout the show a guy behind me kept referring to him as “‘Nam,” saying, “He’s all right, see that vest, he’s been to ’Nam.”

Everyone on the show is in another band or plays solo, so the first half-hour was taken up by their solo spots. Rockin’ Rob Stoner did “The Moment’s Too Good to Be Wasted, But I’m Too Wasted to Be Any Good,” assisted by Quacky Duck’s David Mansfield on fiddle. David, only 19, looks like a Tintoretto angel and continually amazes everyone with his virtuosity. Neuwirth waltzed across the stage in those sliding glide steps you used on polished stages when you were a kid, he sounded great as a singer, too. T-Bone, who sounds like Roy Orbison singing underwater, came next followed bizarrely by Ronson’s Bowie-ish “Is There Life on Mars?” Then Ronee Blakley as Betty Boop with a mustache, the only real stiff on the bill. In toto, though, they’d taken all the dumb random jam session energy and drew it into focus. Then Neuwirth sang Kristofferson’s song to Jack El­liott, while Jack wandered out looking loony as ever in a Hawaiian shirt, knickers, and ever-present Brooklyn-Cowboy hat. El­liott’s one of the threads that ties the whole thing together. Ginsberg first met him in 1950 when they dated the same girl. She fell for Jack, sez Ginsberg, and Allen turned homosexual. Anyway, Jack’s the real thing, an authentic beatnik weirdo and he got tremen­dous applause, like they recog­nized a real freak. He sang, howlin’ and happy, getting down on his haunches or pointing his guitar like Lou Costello with a bayonet. At that point the show really took off.

Now, I want to say this now, before I get into telling about Dylan. Despite all this horseshit, like starting in Plymouth (“How Bicentennial of him,” says my friend David Schwartz), and all the too obvious loops of symbolic meanings and great chain of po­etry, i.e., Blake to Whitman to Ginsberg to Dylan, it’s just a show. I’ve seen a lot of shows. And this one is the greatest show I’ve ever seen. Better than the Russian Circus when the troika disap­peared. Better than Fiddler on the Roof.

Dylan comes out in a mask, like a Clockwork Orange droog, in his black leather coat, long scarf, and that old porkpie sombrero of his festooned with flowers. He and Neuwirth start “When I Paint My Masterpiece” together and that’s the only metaphorical teat to suck on. This tour is Dylan’s master­piece. With a tiny little Gibson sunburst guitar, it was old “Alias” again, weird like a Goya, in the land of Coca-Cola.

You see him and you hear him and you say No Way. You can’t believe it. He’s tight like a mata­dor and he turns slowly into a dark, bloody version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” He sounds more natural than ever before, so that his vocal affectations work better. Ronson drops a letter perfect solo and Dylan slowly takes up a harmonica and lifts it to his mouth. But he can’t play it because he’s still got the mask on. He turns around, takes it off, faces the audience, the place goes crazy like a Saint Vitus’s dance or Saint Elmo’s fire. Dylan responds with virtual Clapton on the harp, hips thrust forward, electric on the balls of his feet. Suddenly it’s over, and Neuwirth says only one word — “Dylan.”

He plays “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” next, reciting the overlong verses, the words rolling faster and faster and Ronson takes another solo, with his guitar low on one knee, right foot forward. And I think, “Yes, if he lives to be 100 this is the best thing Ronson’ll ever do.” Dylan takes it all in, strutting, sauntering around the stage, abso­lutely 100 Per Cent All There.

He does the new “Durango” and “Isis,” both coauthored by Jacques Levy. During a guitar solo someone tosses a rose on stage. Dylan turns on left heel, throws scarf over shoulder, and in one motion, like a shortstop, picks up the rose and tosses it back. And throughout the rest of the song he rocks on his heels, hands hanging in fists, tossing his head from side to side. You gotta see Dylan dance.

That’s only half of the show. When the curtain comes up again there are four legs showing and two of ’em are Joan Baez’s, on the left. Together they sing ”The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Baby, You Been on My Mind,” and a new Dylan song that sounds like “For Sentimental Reasons,” with Joan and Dylan trucking in and out of the mike like Sam and Dave.

Then Baez solo: her Dylan song, “Diamonds and Rust,” an exces­sive a cappella “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a Lily Tomlin imitation, and three more numbers. Next McGuinn, who’d been playing banjo, does “Chestnut Mare,” another Jacques Levy tune, and Joan returns for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Garland Jeffreys, sitting next to me, seems to explode with happiness.

Dylan comes back alone, harmonica holder on his neck, for a syncopated, faster version of “I Don’t Believe You.” Even his guitar playing is getting better. Followed by his new single, a topical song, “Hurricane,” about Reuben Carter in prison. The lyric is long and chilling, accentuated by Scarlet Rivera’s playing. Followed by two more new Mexi-Gothic love songs. Then, yet another love song. Amazing: “Sarah, loving you is the one thing I’ll never regret, Say-­rah, Sweet love of my life.” And how could it be, how could his personal life, the part that counts, come to so much pain as he segues into “Just Like a Woman”? Final­ly Ginsberg comes out all in white, (inexplicably he doesn’t do much on stage; he should open the show) and Joan, in a Bozo-the-Clown mask for, inevitably, “This Land Is Your Land” with Ramblin’ Jack singing the verses nobody else knows, cause Jack knew Woody Guthrie and Guthrie knew William Blake.

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552″ /]

***

“It’s Dylan’s mudra,” said Gins­berg, holding up three fingers to make a sign like a Bombay Boy Scout (which he is). “It’s his ges­ture, his act of significance. It’s the actualization of his best fanta­sies. His lesser, aggressive fanta­sies have been exhausted.” From one Jewish Gemini to another, Planet News to Planet Waves, 10-4.

Dylan’s survived, grown up. He’s not burnt out; his best work might even be ahead of him. He’s a giant, like Chaplin or Picasso. Like Brando or Muhammed Ali. He’s always got a plan. This one works on every level — body, head, intel­lect, heart. Nobody else even comes close — Jagger, Springsteen, Paul Simon.

The radio, next day, seemed to play only Dylan and Baez. It was some sort of reassurance that the miracles had actually taken place. Or were about to take place, because Dylan was on fire and the Rolling Thunder Revue was filling the sky.

“Aw, shit,” said Neuwirth, “let’s go watch the sunset.”

 

The back page of the November 3, 1975, Voice gave a preview of Dylan’s tour

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Bob Dylan’s Opening Night

CHICAGO – Brother Spider and his Side Buster. That’s what the hand-lettered sign on the fork-lift truck says. It’s 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon when Brother Spider, the man at the wheel, drives the Side Buster through the backstage gate of the Chicago Stadium with half a ton of red carpeting on his fork.

Brother Spider is part of the regular Chicago Stadium work crew. Most the winter they wax the floor for the Bulls or ice it for the Blackhawks. This afternoon they’re laying down red carpet for Bob Dylan.

And the Side Buster?

“The brother call it The Side Buster because one day someone don’t open up the gate fast enough for him and he bust a hole through it,” one of the stadium security guards explains to me.

I’m hanging around with the security guards in the backstage perimeter of the Stadium hoping they’ll think I belong so I can be around when Dylan arrives for his final rehearsal.

Workmen shoulder cases of fine wine into the dressing rooms on the left. The Side Buster passes through the gate with a fork-lift full of blue velvet.

And over the to right stands a strange cubicle looking fresh and delicate amidst grimy Bull and Blackhawk apparatus. The red carpet and the blue velvet were faded rental items, but this snow-white cubicle looks freshly built and freshly painted. TUNING ROOM says a sign on the side of the boxlike little room. The door is slightly open and inside I can glimpse tables set with white tablecloths.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

I’m edging over to see what else is in the TUNING ROOM when the normal stadium din is pierced by the articulate roar of Bill Graham, Dylan’s guardian angel for his tour.

“I SAID I WANT ALL PRESS TO GET THE FUCK OUT OF THIS BUILDING UNTIL 6 P.M.,” says Graham, pursuing two camera men and a reporter he’s flushed out from the stage area.

“THAT MEANS STAY THE FUCK OUT TILL 6 P.M. IN ENGLISH,” Graham explains, pointing with outstretched arms the way out Gate 3 1/2.

Unwilling to jeopardize my lone hard-won press ticket (I had to stab at least one other Voice contributor in the back to make sure I got it), I retreat from the TUNING ROOM door and slip out Gate 3 1/2 myself.

That’s when I met Adam.

Adam Knyght is his performing name and once he sang with Bob Dylan. Well, not exactly.

Adam is a back-up musician. Last August down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Adam played back-up harmonica and sang back-up vocals for Barry Goldberg who himself does back-up work for Bob Dylan. Dylan was down in Muscle Shoals helping produce Barry Goldberg’s first solo album, and that’s where Adam met him, he says.

Adam became close to Dylan that summer, he says. Dylan tried out some new songs for him, Adam says, got high with him in his van. They had some heavy raps together last summer, says Adam.

This afternoon Adam is waiting outside the Chicago Stadium Gates in 12 degree cold, hoping to get inside to see his old friend Bob. He’s driven 1000 miles from his tem­porary home in Montreal to be here for the start of the tour, and it’s not hard to see he’s dreaming that Bob will invite him along.

When he sees me scurrying out of Gate 3 1/2, Adam asks me if Dylan is inside.

“No, the rehearsal won’t start for an hour or so, but Dylan’s asked Graham to keep all outsiders out,” I reply.

“That’s okay,” says Adam, “Once he sees me, Bob’ll remember me from Muscle Shoals. He’ll probably let me in,” says Adam. Adam is 20 years old.

Adam suggests we drive around in his van listening to Dylan tapes until rehearsal time. Adam’s van is equipped with a powerful cassette machine and a powerful lid of dope.

Adam turns on “Blonde on Blonde” and “Visions of Johanna” comes on. The van turns on Halstead Street and the dope comes on.

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552″ /]

Adam turns out to have some interesting, if not entirely believable, first second and third hand tales to tell about his old friend Bob.

First the third hand story, because it’s the biggest if it’s true. There’s been a rumor going around that Dylan plans to give all his profits from this tour, every cent to Israel.

“Down in Muscle Shoals I remember Dylan tellin’ me how Israel is the only civilized place in the world,” Adam says.

“Civilized, that’s the word he used?”

“Yeah,” says Adam, “he told this story about how he was at this kibbutz and he would stand around outside and listen to them chant the prayers in the evening and wish he could be part of it.”

“He didn’t take part?”

“He said he stood outside and listened.”

Now for The Second Hand Story. It starts with organ boxes and ends with love, but it’s really about Dylan’s wife Sarah.

“Sarah is wonderful,” Adam says rapturously, “She has such an aura. You know she’s the one who pulled him through after the accident. She’s got some incredible aura. She’s so mystical, and she’s into everything. I remember in Muscle Shoals she was talking about getting him one of those boxes for collecting cosmic energy — what do they call them?”

“You don’t mean an orgone box?”

That’s it,” says Adam.

“You know,” says Adam continuing, “that he’s writing all his songs for Sarah now. There was one he tried out for us in Muscle Shoals — it was the best love song he ever wrote — a new one, and when he finished singing he looked around and said ‘I wish she coulda heard it.’ ”

“What’s it called?”

“I can’t remember if it had a name then,” says Adam.

Finally the first hand story. Adam and Dylan were getting high together in the van at Muscle Shoals. “He opened up to me about his religion,” Adam says. “He’s getting into being Jewish and Bobby Zimmerman and all that, but he said his real religion was the sun.”

“The sun?”

“Being like the sun. Getting up every day. But then he said something about how his real religion was getting into himself, that he’d gone you know so far into himself to escape from being a star, he was so scared of being a star, wheels on fire and all that, that he’d gone so far into a hole in himself that he’s finally come out the other side.”

“Like a black hole in space,” I said.

“What’s that?” says Adam.

“A black hole is what happens when a star collapses.”

“A star collapses, huh?” says Adam.

“Some people say it’s a hole into another kind of universe. I don’t think it comes out a star on the other side, but then again maybe it comes out another kind of sun, or son but the sun is still a star and—”

“You been smoking too much, man,” says Adam. “Maybe we ought to head back and see if we catch Bob.”

He turns the cassette machine up. We start singing along at the top of our voices. By the time the van finds its way back through the West Side ghetto to the Chicago Stadium again we are hoarse from singing the rest of “Blonde on Blonde” and the entire “Greatest Hits Volume I” tape, the one that ends with “I Want You,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Just Like a Woman.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”671322″ /]

Adam and I stumble around the back of the stadium and head for Gate 3 1/2. As we round the corner we can see the gate itself has been rolled down shut, but two huge vehicles have drawn up flanking.

On the near side of the gate a glossy black Fleetwood Limousine sits silent and immobile. On the far side of the gate stands a huge gold and white “Recreational Vehicle.”

A sign on the door of the big mobile home says “The American Camper: America’s Largest Indoor Showroom.”

“Bob’s in there,” says Adam.

I’m skeptical, but the camper does have California plates (306 GLC) and Dylan and the Band have been living in Malibu lately.

“When he comes out I’ll let him know I’m here,” says Adam.

The door of the camper opens. A couple of familiar looking musicians jump down and walk into the stadium through a small door beside the closed gate. No Bob.

But the camper door remains open, and there’s some shadowy movement in the interior recesses.

“He’s scared to come out, he’s petrified of doing this tour,” says Adam.

A figure steps out into the door­way of the camper. It’s Bob Dylan. He seems to be fiddling with his guitar case. He looks out. He seems to notice he’s being watched. He disappears back into the “Indoor Showroom.”

“He hates performing,” says Adam.

Finally Dylan steps out into the wintry sunlight, blinks his eyes, and heads for the gate, carrying his black guitar case. He’s wearing brown corduroys, he got a brown knit scarf hanging around his neck like a tallish, and he looks like shy and sulky little Bobby Zimmerman, trudging off to Hebrew school to rehearse his bar mitzvah speech.

“He don’t look happy,” says Adam.

He don’t look up. He don’t look back. He don’t look at Adam either.

“Bob,” Adam calls out softly from six feet away. Bob doesn’t seem to hear. In fact he seems to shy away from the sound, and hurry faster through the door in the gate. A p.r. man appears from out of nowhere, hurries through behind Dylan, and signals us not follow.

Adam and I take turns pressing our noses against the small glass window in the gate-door, but all we can see inside are security guards and fork-lifts.

Adam and I stand outside the gate. Adam is at a loss. He’s trying to explain to himself why his old friend Bob didn’t take him in. Then Adam decides why.

“I know why,” he tells me. “It’s because of you. He hates the press. That’s why he turned away. He’s conditioned to look away when people say his name.”

But Adam is still optimistic. He takes out his ticket for the concert tonight.

“Look,” he says. “I got a box seat. Section B. That must be close enough. I hope it’s close enough. ’Cause if I can make eye contact with him during the concert, he’ll see me, he’ll give me a signal. All I gotta do is get his eye.”

Adam gives me a lift back to the Holiday Inn LSD, which is where we meet The Kid. The whole Dylan entourage except for Dylan himself is staying at the Holiday Inn LSD. (LSD stands for Lake Shore Drive, but several signs inside advertising the “Pinnacle Room” Rotating Rooftop Restaurant and the “Shake Rattle and Roll Revue of the ’50s and ’60s, featuring Las Vegas–style Tabletop dancing by Pierre and his Be-Be girls,” call the place “Holiday Inn LSD,” and the Maine restaurant is called “Mrs. Leary’s Barn,” so there’s reason aplenty to call it the “Holiday Inn LSD.”)

[related_posts post_id_1=”403808″ /]

Adam is playing “Greatest Hits Volume I” on his cassette machine in the elevator (we have decided to play more tapes and smoke more funny cigarettes to get ready for the show) when The Kid walks in.

The Kid says he’s come all the way from Boston for the concert. He asks to listen to the tapes with us and promises he’ll bring some coke to my room.

The Kid is so young and clean-cut Boston Irish looking we’re not sure if he means the stuff you snort or the stuff you drink, but 10 minutes later he shows up with the real thing.

The Kid tells us he’s 18 years old and just about the only Dylan freak he knows among kids his age. He sent away for tickets to the Boston concert, but didn’t get his letter postmarked in time.

“I was goin’ crazy thinkin’ I’d never get to see him, then my old lady somehow gets me a ticket to the opening concert and puts it in my stocking for Christmas, and it was like a dream come true.”

“So how come your girlfriend didn’t come along with you?” I ask the kid.

“What do you mean, my girlfriend?” the kid asks.

“You said your old lady put the ticket in your stocking and—”

“Yeah,” he said, “my old lady, my mother.”

“Your mother? I thought you were using that dumb California term for girlfriend, old lady.”

“No,” he says, “my girlfriend isn’t into Dylan. It’s my mother who is.”

We’re getting ready for the show. “Highway 61 Revisited” is careening through the cassette machine, and we’ve decided to leave for the stadium at the end of “Desolation Row.”

We’re all feeling great childlike rushes of anticipation. We all agree “Highway 61” is the best Dylan album of all. We all agree we want Dylan to do “Like a Rolling Stone” for his final encore. We all disagree over which is Dylans best love song (the Kid says it’s “Just Like a Woman,” I say it’s “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” Adam says it’s the mysterious song no name he heard Dylan sing down in Muscle Shoals). But we all agree we are the three greatest Dylan freaks of all time.

Halfway into “Highway 61” the Kid begins to freak with anticipation.

“It’s not gonna last. It’s not gonna last. I snorted this coke too soon. I’m getting this great rush now — Jesus — but it’s not gonna last till we get there. We gotta leave early enough. Dial the time number. We gotta make sure. We don’t wanta get caught in traffic.”

The Kid explains how lonely it’s been for him, the only Dylan freak his age among friends who are all into Quaaludes and Deep Purple, how he discovered old Dylan albums, how he tried to tell everybody but could not get across.

“Yeah,” says Adam to the Kid, “you became a Dylan freak when it looked like you’d never see him in the flesh. Like he was dead for you, and now suddenly you get to see him.”

“It was like a dream come true when I saw that ticket Christmas morning. I still can’t believe it’s gonna happen.”

“Yeah,” I say to the Kid. “For us it’s like going to see the Second Coming but for you it’s like you never saw the First.”

“Hey why don’t we get going. It’s almost 6. We gotta beat the traffic.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It can’t hurt to be early.”

“We gotta stay through the end of ‘Desolation Row.’ All the way to the end,” says Adam. “Dylan did.”

***

There’s no big brass bed on stage, but there is a double decker bunk, the kind that sleeps two, separately. There’s a comfy-looking over-stuffed sofa up there too, and an old-fashioned roll top desk, and a nice little wine-cooler type refrigerator.

There’s a crystal ball resting on top of the organ, candles flicker tastefully around it; Tiffany lamps illuminate it with a stained glass glow; and except for three tons of electronic amplification equipment the stage inside the Chicago Stadium looks like an intimate little living room. Or bedroom.

It’s like two ex-lovers planning to spend a night together for the first time in seven years, this reunion of Dylan and his American audience tonight. Do they act their ages for each other or do they revive aging acts?

Dylan comes on acting about three ages at once. He chooses to begin with a song he wrote 10 years ago when he was 22. It’s called “Hero Blues” and it’s about a woman who’s “the screaming end,” a lover who keeps demanding him to go out and perform more and more heroic feats for her, keeps pushing him closer and closer to the grave to provide her with entertainment.

It’s a song from Dylan’s acoustical folk day, but backed by the Band, he does it like a hard rock number from his pre-Accident electric period when he was 25. And behind it all is the sensibility and confidence of a 32-year-old post-Accident father of five warning his audience that no amount of screaming on their part is going to drive him to his screaming end again.

As for the audience, well, not even yours truly Mr. Jones here is paying attention to any of that shit about warnings at the time. The song’s obscure, we can barely make out the words, but we’re all sighing with relief and exhilaration: It’s really Dylan — he may have become an entirely different being in the past seven years but he can still remember the old times fondly enough to do a good imitation of himself back then. We begin to relax.

Then he does an electric “Lay Lady Lay” and the sighs of relief turn into sighs of pleasure.

He continues to play with his ages. He’s not singing “Lay Lady Lay” in the laid-back countrified way he did as a 29-year-old back in 1970. He’s doing it as a hard-rocking “Highway 61” type song, the kind he did when he was 24. It’s a lovely synthesis that lets him have his country pie and eat it too.

But having made his swift and effortless conquest of the audience Dylan suddenly seems to get cold feet. (A good part of the audience was also beginning to get cold feet about that time, but for a different reason: The main floor had been laid down over the hockey rink and if seems they don’t bother to melt the ice first.) Back to Dylan’s cold feet. As soon as he finished “Lay Lady Lay” he withdrew from the spotlight, retired to the rear of the stage near a hat rack, and played inconspicuous back-up guitar for several numbers by the Band.

After a while it began to look like Dylan had decided to do the rest of the concert as if he were just one of the boys in the Band. Having been promised so much by the first two numbers, the audience began to act a little restless, peering into the shadows to see if Dylan had disappeared. He was wearing black, and was hard to see back there. Scattered calls of “Where’s Bob?” could be heard.

Then something very nice hap­pened. The Band chose this moment to sing “Stage Fright.”

It’s a song about the fear “deep in the heart of a lonely kid/who suf­fered so much for what he did”; about how ever since the kid won “fortune and fame/Since that day he ain’t been the same.”

When they reach the refrain The Band seems to lean in and sing in the direction of the hat tree, where Dylan appeared to be hiding out:

Now see the man with the stage­ fright
Just standin up there to give it all his might
Now he got caught in the spotlight
(©Copyright Canaan Music)

The whole thing might have been ­staged for all I know, but I thought it was wonderful and whatever it was, it worked. Dylan steps back out front and center and starts singing again. And the song is “It Ain’t Me Babe.”

If it ain’t him, who is it? It ain’t shy little Bobby Zimmerman who’ stepped out of the mobile home this afternoon. It ain’t even the frightened tough guy Bob Dylan who wrote “It Ain’t Me Babe” when he was 23. It ain’t the “Win­terlude” dude of his most recent “Self Portrait” either. No it’s all of these rolled up into one 32-year-old guy who finally seems to know enough about who he is to play with who he was. After all, he was so much younger then, he’s older than that now. )

At this point the music starts to get very good and the whole evening begins to take off. Having warned us not to demand too much of him, Dylan proceeds to give us more than enough.

He does a short crackling version of “All Along the Watchtower” that’s meaner and rougher than the harmonic whine version on the “John Wesley Harding” album, but retains enough restraint to distinguish it from the thunder­storm abandon of the electric “Watchtower” Jimi Hendrix did before he died.

Then Dylan strides over to the electric piano and does a breathtaking version of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the most wrathful melodramatic version I’ve ever heard. He seems to be reveling in the sheer malevolence of the song, piling snarl upon sneer into every­ curl of a line, looking like the Phantom of the Opera standing hunched over the piano pawing at the keys, overdoing it just enough to let you know he’s fooling around a little too, so that despite the anti-audience, anti-reporter, anti-per­former viciousness (“You hand in your ticket/And you go watch the geek…”) it’s impossible not to love him for the sound of it alone.

[related_posts post_id_1=”676267″ /]

Intermission time. The lights are up and I’m standing in the aisle talking to a magazine reporter. She says there’s something wrong with the audience, but she can’t figure out what. She says they don’t seem to be responding very passionately to Dylan, at least they aren’t making much noise.

I argue that what’s happening is that the audience is so passionate about Dylan they don’t want to let it show and scare him off the stage for another seven years. The audience is being tender and protective, not unresponsive. He’s warning them to keep certain distance and they’re responding with a kind of impassioned restraint. No need for yelling and wailing and wallowing when something like “Ballad of a Thin Man” stuns you into entranced silence.

She’s not convinced. She thinks the audience has outgrown Dylan or Dylan has outgrown the audien­ce.

Dylan must have visited the TUNING ROOM during intermis­sion: Or maybe an orgone box. He’s taken off his black sweater and put on a snow-white jacket. He looks a little like the ghostly Dylan who appeared in white at the Isle of Wight Festival back in 1969.

But he looks incandescent, rather than pale tonight. He appears to radiate that Reichian “light about the body.”

He starts heading backward in time, doing “The Times They Are a Changing,” then an astonishing “Song to Woody” from his very first album (” ’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a comin’ along/It looks like it’s dyin’ but it’s hardly been born”) and “It’s All Right Ma” ‘(“He not busy bein’ born is busy dyin’ ”) from “Bringin’ It All Back Home.”

If you remember “It’s All Right Ma” from that 1965 album you’ll recall how Dylan barely had con­trol over the torturous path of the overwrought lyrics. I used to hate the song, think it was the worst he wrote. But tonight he has so much control over it, he does it with such rolling, declamatory authority that even the most awkward and pretentious lyrics seem suddenly graceful.

A reporter for the Manchester Guardian has been sitting next to me and we have been sharing dope and scotch throughout the concert. After “It’s All Right Ma” the Guard­ian man slaps his pen down on his note pad and says, “Uh, he is so fucking superb, I can’t write another bloody thing.”

Everything is falling into place now. It all seems so well timed. First the black-garbed, half-seduc­tive half-paranoid opening, acting out his ages and playing with them. Then the white-garbed trip back to his “Ma” and his ghostly Pa (Woody). And finally the new love songs.

He sang three of them, and the last one, I was sure, was the mysterious Song With No Name Adam told me Dylan had sung for Sarah last summer; the song has a name now. It’s called “Something There Is About You” and it’s the best love song Dylan’s written, I think, since “I’ll Keep It With Mine.”

Most of the other new stuff is a little too restrained and mature for my taste now. Maybe five years from now when I’m 32 I’ll like “Forever Young.” Ask me then. I like “Something There Is About You” right now. I don’t know much about maturity but I know what I like.

***

It almost ended perfectly. For his second encore Dylan put his black sweater back on, came back, and did what everyone had been waiting for him to do all evening. He did “Like a Rolling Stone.”

He didn’t do it as well as he’d done “Ballad of a Thin Man,” but he did it and that’s what counted.

When he finished all that restraint was abandoned. The place went wild.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a louder noise,” said the man from the Manchester Guardian.

A totally satisfying climax to the evening. Nothing could top it. Dylan and the Band walked off stage. They should have been al­lowed to call it a night and leave in peace.

But then something spoiled it. That impassioned ovation for “Like a Rolling Stone” began to turn into a demand for another encore. Instead of being allowed to die a natural death it swelled into more foot stomping, more match burning, more compulsive clap­ping — a lot more.

Finally some spotlights came on again. Dylan and the Band walked back on stage. Slowly, this time.

We had put them in a position where they couldn’t refuse — they couldn’t afford to appear ungenerous on the first night of the tour. And yet we were supposed to have grown old enough to know when we’d had enough and when they’d had enough. We didn’t.

They did. They acted slightly sul­len, I thought, as they prepared for their final number. Dylan had trouble strapping his electric guitar back on. And the farewell song they played turned out to be an ill-tempered, discordant, mean-­spirited version of a fairly obscure song from “Blonde on Blonde.”

It’s called “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine.”

“I can’t do what I done before,” Dylan sings, but he knows that he will.

“It can’t be this way everywhere,” he pleads, but he knows that it is.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

When Bob Dylan Called on Patti Smith

Tarantula Meets Mustang

A copy of “Witt” was slid across the table to Patti Smith. “Would you sign this for me, please?” “Sure,” said Patti, “what’s your first name?” He told her. “Like in New Jersey?” Patti asked, and he said no: with a z. “Well, I’ll draw you a map of Jersey,” and so on the inside page Patti scratched its intestinal boundaries, in the middle labeled it Neo Jersey, signed her name, and passed the copy of “Witt” back to Jerzy Kosinski.

The night before, after the second set at the Other End, the greenroom door opened and the remark hanging in the air was Bob Dylan asking a member of Patti’s band, “You’ve never been to New Jersey?” So, all hail Jersey. And in honor of Dylan’s own flair for geographical salutation (“So long New York, hello East Orange”), all hail the Rock and Roll Republic of New York. With the Rolling Stones holding out at Madison Square Garden, Patti Smith and her band at the Other End, and Bob Dylan making visitations to both events, New York was once again the world’s Rock and Roll Republic.

Patti Smith had a special Rimbaud-emblematized statement printed up in honor of Stones week, and when her band went into its version of “Time Is on My Side” (yes it is), she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a Keith Richard T-shirt beneath. On the opening night she was tearing into each song and even those somewhat used to her galloping id were puzzled by lines like “You gotta a lotta nerve sayin’ you won’t be my parking meter.” Unknown to many in the audience, parked in the back of the room, his meter running a little quick, was the legendary Bobby D. himself. Dylan, despite his wary, quintessential cool, was giving the already highly charged room an extra layer of electricity and Patti, intoxicated by the atmosphere, rocked with stallion abandon. She was positively playing to Dylan, like Keith Carradine played to Lily Tomlin in the club scene from Nashville. But Dylan is an expert in gamesman­ship, and he sat there, crossing and uncrossing his legs, playing back.

[related_posts post_id_1=”403078″ /]

Afterwards, Dylan went backstage to introduce himself to Patti. He looked healthy, modestly relaxed (though his eyes never stopped burning with cool-blue fire), of un­imposing physicality, yet the corporeal Dylan can never be separated from the mythic Dylan, and it’s that other Dylan — the brooding, volatile, poet-star of “Don’t Look Back” — who heightens or destroys the mood of a room with the tiniest of gestures. So despite Dylan’s casual gracious­ness, everyone was excitedly unsettled.

And there was a sexual excitation in the room as well. Bob Dylan, the verdict was unanimous, is an intensely sexu­ally provocateur — “he really got me below the belt,” one of the women in the room said later. Understand, Dylan wasn’t egregiously coming on — he didn’t have to. For the sharp-pencil, slightly petulant vocals on “Blood on the Tracks” hardly prepared one for the warm, soft-bed tone of his speaking voice: the message driven home with that Dylan offhand is still Dylan compelling. So with just small talk he had us all subdued, even Patti, though when the photographers’ popping flashbulbs began, she laughing­ly pushed him aside, saying, “Fuck you, then take my picture, boys.” Dylan smiled and swayed away.

The party soon broke up — Dylan had given his encouragement to Patti, the rest of us had a glimpse from some future version of “Don’t Look Back” (but with a different star) — and the speculation about Dylan’s visit commenced. What did his casual benediction signify?

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552″ /]

Probably nothing, was the reasonable answer. But such sensible explanations are unsatisfying, not only because it’s a waste of Dylan’s mystique to interpret his movies on the most prosaic level, but because the four-day engagement at the Other End convincingly demonstrated that Patti and the band are no small-time cult phenomenon. Not only was Patti in good voice, but the band is extending itself confidently. Jay Doherty, the newly acquired drummer (he played with Lance Loud’s group and lived to tell the tale), provides rhythmic heat, and Lenny Kaye has improved markedly on guitar — his solo on “Time Is on My Side” for example moves Keith Richard riffing to Verlaine slashing. The band’s technical improvement has helped revivify the repertoire: “Break It Up” is now more sharply focused, “Piss Factory” is dramatically jazzy, and their anthem, “Gloria,” ends the evening crashingly. Missing were “Free Money,” and “Land” — the Peckinpahesque cinematic ver­sion of “Land of 1000 Dances” — which is being saved for the forthcoming album.

Something is definitely going on here and I think I know what it is. During one of her sets Patti made the seemingly disconnected remark, “Don’t give up on Arnie Palmer.” But when the laughter subsided, she added, “The greats are still the greatest.” Yes, of course! All her life Patti Smith has had rock and roll in her blood — she has been, like the rest of us, a fan; this is part of her connection with her audience — and now she’s returning what rock has given her with the full force of her love. Perhaps Dylan perceives that this passion is a planet wave of no small sweep. Yet what I cherished most about Patti’s engagement was not the pounding rock-and-roll intensity but a throwaway gesture of camaraderie. When Lenny Kaye was having difficulty setting up his guitar between numbers, Patti paced around, joked around, scratched her stomach, scratched her hair­ — still Kaye was not quite ready. “I don’t really mind,” she told the audience. “I mean, Mick would wait all night for Keith.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

2001 Pazz & Jop: Not Just Your Old Man’s Takeover

Want to know something else that happened September 11? Sure you do. The Voice’s since-downsized Web radio station first “aired” a show we’d recorded five days earlier to coincide with the release of what I’d dubbed, without the slightest originality or hesitation, “Album of the Year”: Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft.” Less than two plays into my late-August advance, as the debut “single” “Po’ Boy” came up again at track 10, I’d become convinced Dylan would win the 28th or 29th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Songful, funny, rocking, pro-life, it was to his runaway 1997 winner Time Out of Mind as, say, PJ Harvey’s Stories of the City was to Is This Desire? Moreover, there was no competition — no Stankonia, no Car Wheels, no Miseducation, not even a Play or 69 Love Songs. Before it had moved copy one, it was a bigger shoo-in than “Get Ur Freak On.”

So please, enough with the dumb idea that the world-gone-wrong events of “Love and Theft” ’s release date induced critics to overvalue a putatively prophetic album. “Love and Theft” was always going to win big, and it did — by most measures, bigger than any album in poll history. How did I know this? Because there is such a thing as aesthetic quality, and on “Love and Theft” it runneth over. Whatever guff musos put out about Dylan’s crack road band, this quality is overwhelmingly verbal. The old-school licks and phrasing would mean bubkes if they didn’t set off and flesh out his best lyrics since whenever. Like the Avalanches, Dylan loves sampling, which modernists called collage. He just takes different liberties with higher-grade readymades — folk, pop, and literary word-bits and music-bits reassembled into something unprecedented that would mean much less if it wasn’t also trad. It’s an old man’s record, absolutely. The old man is ready for death yet still feeling his oats. He fears apocalypse less now that his end is nearer. He thinks this is a hoot. The funnier it seems, the madder he gets about apocalypse. But the fear, somehow, is gone. And as you listen, so is yours.

If this achievement doesn’t move you, that’s your privilege. But I have no patience with claims that it just isn’t there, especially combined with mealymouthed remembrances of Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. Never one who ran on Dylan time, I’ve had a lot of fun making such comparisons lately, and gee, Blood on the Tracks did sound grand. Bringing It All Back Home, too. But song for song, joke for joke, vision for vision, risk for dare, their superiority to this year’s winner seemed marginal. Other favorites — Freewheelin’, New Morning, The Basement Tapes — merely held their own. And I was surprised to find that from the unyielding contempt of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the world-weary wind of “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 sounded a little too punk for its own good. I preferred the old man.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692652″ /]

Which old man, it is relevant to note, is only a year older than the one who’s writing his 28th or 29th Pazz & Jop disquisition. At two months shy of 60, I’m very nearly the oldest voter reporting. So maybe I’m just prejudiced, right? Statistically, there’s something to this. With the majority of the record 622 respondents declining to supply demographic info, I didn’t know most ages. But after a lot of e-mailing to my A–C folder and some careful guesswork with D–G, I estimated that where Dylan’s supporters constituted 38 percent of the electorate, among critics 40 and over (about a third of the voters) he pulled 55 or 60 percent. This is a sharp tilt. Note, however, that Dylan still got the preponderance of his points from the under-40s who dominate the poll base, and note too that the gender tilt was steeper. If I’m reading first names right, only 19 women voted for Dylan. The next three finishers — the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes — were far behind Dylan’s 234 mentions at 158, 120, and 106, but all three attracted as many or more women. In an all-female Pazz & Jop, Mr. It Ain’t Me Babe, now d/b/a Mr. I Never Slept With Her Even Once (what, you think he’s Mr. Singing Love’s Praises With Sugar-Coated Rhymes?), would have had some competition.

In an under-40 poll, on the other hand, Dylan would still have won handily. If this doesn’t seem self-evident, that’s because you forgot that his competitors would lose out too. You think arthritis sufferers while away their buyouts listening solely to retrofitted bluegrass and Leonard Cohen. In fact, the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes got about a sixth of their mentions from 40-and-over lifers. If the callow had been as kind to older artists, Cohen, the youngest of whose 20 doddering supporters was 34, would have outrogered the turgid Tool. (41-50, as anyone who checks our highly searchable online list can determine: song-challenged Mary J. Blige, $180-list-and-too-dead-to-enjoy-it Charley Patton, 65-year-old Buddy Guy, Spoon’s career album if you call that a career, garage-punk Brits Clinic, Rick Yorn’s brother, emo-punk Brits Idlewild, Madonna’s brother-in-law, the Ben Folds One, and 67-year-old Cohen.) In fact, the rest of the top 40 is anything but old-guard. In our 2000 top 20 alone loomed 40-and-over perennials U2, Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, Madonna, and Steely Dan, plus late bloomer Aimee Mann, with more below. After Dylan, the only senior citizens in the 2001 top 20 are ninth-place Lucinda Williams and, out of nowhere or everywhere, 40-year-old world-ska ambassador Manu Chao. Below find comeback-of-the-year New Order, Guided by Voices’ retarded Robert Pollard, and two more new old guys: country-rock vets Alejandro Escovedo and Rodney Crowell edging belatedly onto our list. On the cusp, weirdly, is the Pazz & Jop album debut of all-ages crusaders Fugazi, led by pushing-40 Ian MacKaye. (Note: Full classification of the Langley Schools Music Project had not been completed at press time.)

Instead we get a new generation of standard bearers. Beyond the Strokes and the White Stripes, there’s a good complement of striplings: well-groomed ingenue Alicia Keys, sampledelic cheeze whizzes the Avalanches, serious-as-art-rock Cannibal Ox, cunningly childish Moldy Peaches. But no fewer than nine finishers fall into a remarkably narrow grouping of 30-ish professionals (the youngest 29, the oldest 33) hitting our chart for the second or third time: Jay-Z, Basement Jaxx, Gillian Welch, the New Pornographers’ Neko Case, the Pernice Brothers, Missy Elliott, Daft Punk, Macy Gray, and the Old 97’s. Fold in slightly younger repeaters Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright, Gorillaz featuring 33-year-old Damon Albarn, and former bubbling-unders Weezer, the Coup, and Low scoring Pazz & Jop debuts with their third, fourth, and fifth albums (but exclude System of a Down and the dull Tool, both too old, not to mention arty in the wrong way), and you have a cohort coming into its own. I don’t love all these artists and neither do you. But I like most of them. And I do respect them all. They’re never crass or stupid, at least not at the same time. They’re trying for something.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692648″ /]

Gillian Welch and Daft Punk are about as different as semipopular musicians can be. One is a DIY trailblazer, the other shoots crap in the major-label casino; one fetishizes the authentic, the other the artificial. But though the authentic one may be a little less honest, she’s no less forthright about her immersion in craft. She has an idea of what the world is like and what kind of music ought to sound good there, and she commands skills to match, which she’s sharpening. Welch says that while she and David Rawlings remain an acoustic duo, her self-released Time (The Revelator), which came in 14th (previous finishes: 23 and 33), comprises “really tiny rock songs” rather than her patented Appalachian simulations. And damned if she isn’t telling some kind of truth — it’s considerably less studied, austere, and sanctimonious-by-omission. Daft Punk are two ironic-mais-oui French DJs who pushed Homework onto the bottom of our 1997 top 40 behind an ingratiatingly clever synth-funk dance novelty (and 25th-place P&J single) self-referentially entitled “Da Funk.” Going all-out for airplay, which in dance music is as big a statement as Elvis citations are in folk music, they led the 25th-place Discovery with an irritatingly catchy synth-voice pop novelty (and 13th-place P&J single) imperatively entitled “One More Time.” Their faux pop became actual pop.

Me, I blame Welch for the O! Brother Old-Timey Strip Mine and refer privately to Daft Punk’s hit as “Please, Not Again.” Both artists pursue an aesthetic so ideologically that it narrows their music. But both deserve props just for having a vision, and though others in their cohort may be less self-conscious about it, so do they. Moreover, all have shown an ability to improve on whatever it is they do — which, because critics don’t just pump fave styles but signs of progress, attracts voters who happen to like that thing. An audacious pop album is some kind of wonder whether it sells at Jay-Z or Basement Jaxx or Old 97’s or New Pornographers or Pernices levels, while a competent one is a bit of a bore. Compare the shortfalls of marginal cohort candidates (many miss the 29-33 demo) Folds at 46th, Mercury Rev at 59th, Le Tigre at 77th, Maxwell at 87th, Garbage at 95th, Travis at 98th, Built to Spill at 118th, and (run out of town, the hussy) Shelby Lynne down at 142nd, all of whom — except for Le Tigre, who tried to piggyback more politics onto their vogue and got spanked for it — spun their wheels trying to assure their market share or drove off the road trying to expand it. And note that all of these, Le Tigre once again excepted, got twisted up playing by major-label rules.

The cohort is bedrock, a respectable foundation of artists with a future — some pop and some semipop, some quarterpop and some less. In 2002, it’ll get bigger. But its members aren’t about to change history. So towering over the entire 2001 list is the only genius in sight. With PJ Harvey and OutKast sitting out, Neil Young laying low, U2 at the Super Bowl, and R.E.M. 51st, well — achievementwise, statuswise, who’s even close? Lucinda Williams, maybe. Beatmaster to the stars Timbaland if he keeps it up for 10 years — although, lyrically, James Brown is James Weldon Johnson by comparison, Jay-Z Shakespeare. Speaking of whom, nominating Jigga is carrying this black-male-pride bit perilously close to Clarence Thomas territory, and da judge just signed an injunction to keep him out. Other observers tender faith in some promising pup or other, but though Ryan Adams, Alicia Keys, and/or Rufus Wainwright might have the stuff to take it to the next level, the conceptual effort alone would put them in mortal danger, a risk Adams kisses on the tuchis every time he opens his yap. As for the world’s greatest rock band, fifth-place Radiohead, they made the world’s greatest rock album in 1997 and it didn’t even beat Time Out of Mind. You want a credible challenge to Dylan’s hegemony-that-isn’t, your only resort is the most distant runners-up in poll history — two young bands and one 36-year-old perennial.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692643″ /]

Like everybody but our results page, I think the White Stripes made a better record than the Strokes. But not so’s they earned a free ride, and not so’s the Strokes deserve the drubbing they get for…what? For being white male guitar-bearing counterparts of Alicia Keys and her not-quite-superb major-label album with a sound people were waiting for and looks to match. Like Keys, the Strokes give teenpop glamour a tough undercoat — the hip hop sass salting Keys’s sweet intonation, the punk static pebbling the Strokes’ repetitious rush — and get playa-hated for choosing triumphant accommodation over doomed combat. The various ripoff charges are beyond silly; obviously the Strokes are working a tradition, and just as obviously they sound like no one but themselves. In this they resemble the former blues duo that came in fourth. Both bands end up far from their “roots,” and both are sonically thin by design — much thinner than Dylan’s guys recycling singer-with-backup riffs that coalesce as you listen up. As in much lo-fi, this thinness is a raised finger – guitars matter so much, it says, that we’re reducing them to an ugly essence. But it also begs out of any competition with the big guys. And it provides both with a ready path to progress. Soon the Strokes will shit-can their megaphone and try to think of something to say; soon the White Stripes will send their bills to V2 while continuing to unfold new wrinkles in human relations in 100 words or less.

Some believe Is This It and White Blood Cells represent an alt-rock rebirth, which would be nice. Unless you count materialistic old Spiritualized, the guitar-based hopefuls our college-radio types are always singling out number only three this year, and all are so specialized they make my teeth hurt: slowcore cohort candidates Low, Elephant 6 surrogates the Shins, and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who remind me less of the Jesus and Mary Chain than of the Screaming Blue Messiahs, another dark, catchy garage band whose enduring historical value is as a Pazz & Jop trivia question. B.R.M.C. are traditionalists like our runners-up, with commitment where they have spark. Low and the Shins are eccentrics. You can say that’s good — they defy sociology, ignore category, assert identity, blah blah blah. But that leaves me free to opine that, like Steely Dan’s showbiz kids, they don’t give a fuck about anybody else — and that, partly for that reason and partly because they play too slow, I don’t give a fuck about them either. Culturally as well as musically, they don’t make enough noise. The Strokes and the Stripes, antithetical though their outreach strategies are, both mean to resonate.

Still, Nirvana is so 1991, and guitar bands have long been and will long remain one option among many. Take as a sign our surprise No. 3, who slowly and eccentrically brought off as unmoored an album, groovewise, as has ever hit our chart. Every year I scoff at the shortfall of “techno”/”electronica”/”post-rock,” but in 2001 the Swan Girl of the Oscars helped turn it into a mainstream critical taste — as an option, not the future. Vespertine is oceanic, impressionistic, classically influenced — the kind of album I can’t stand. But its clicks and tinkles and desultory eroticism won me over, perhaps because Björk, like Tyorke, is better off outside the box of rock songform. Desultory to less pleasurable purpose were Björk’s countrymen Sigur Rós, recurring like that dream where you forgot your homework. The rest of our electronica finishers, however, took rock songform as a puzzle to be solved, with the top-20 Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, and Avalanches the payoff. Pomo’s answer to the Archies were our first virtual finishers, and (just like Blur) took hooks too much for granted. Basement Jaxx’s insanely catchy Rooty knew better. But Australia’s Avalanches scored the breakthrough — the long-promised new-songs-from-old-songs trick, in which untrackable samples are stitched together until they mesh into compelling music that never existed before. Unfortunately, the music in question is string-section disco.

Pazz & Jop dance albums are something of a contradiction in terms. The album aesthetics we calibrate, high on lyrics and hard on filler, are a rock thing — dance is the realm of the single and the mix. In 2000, we expanded our singles tally partly in hopes that a few club records would slip in. But it hasn’t worked. Although the old irritation of fave album cuts (which as a DJ I got to declare singles myself in 2001) is down to Stephen Malkmus’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog,” the now pervasive pop-versus-rock polarity — featuring dance-pop, teen-pop, rap-pop, r&b-pop, the inevitable rock-pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop — isn’t much better. I’m always pleased to see African Americans up top — Keys’s fourth-place “Fallin’ ” and Jay-Z’s third-place “Izzo” swamped by the most dominant single of our computerized era, “Get Ur Freak On.” Missy Elliott’s Timbaland tabla was a world-beat coup rivaling Manu Chao’s in a year that cried out for more of them (Cachaito and Rachid Taha, 55th and 71st, were top 10 for me, and Manteca’s Franco comp would have headed my list if it had seemed fair to put 30 years of genius up against one). But on Elliott’s good but flawed album — as on Destiny’s Child’s, Mary J. Blige’s, Blu Cantrell’s, and Craig David’s — I found songs trickier and deeper than the smash. Bidding to “penetrate pop culture,” in Jay-Z’s words, these r&b artists actually do what antipop ascetics rail against so automatically. They strive for acceptability by sacrificing idiosyncrasy and reiterating clichés, and so evade an essential part of the pop challenge. This tactic can get you great ear candy. But in today’s corporate environment it’s become compulsory.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692640″ /]

A vivid example is the penetrating perpetrator of the hip hop album of the year. The main reason we never get enough hip hop voters is that they don’t need us — why should the alpha dogs worry about propelling late-released Ghostface Killah (91st) and De La Soul (54th) past Low and the Shins? I don’t think The Blueprint got shortchanged as a result, though. As ear candy and public fact it has serious charms, and who can resist a line like “Sensitive thugs, y’all need hugs”? But its cavalcade of hooks is smarmy and proud — a Puffy album with flow and gangsta cred (attention NYPD: “Still fuckin’ with crime ’cause crime pays” may hold up in court!). Compare the edgy samples and ’tude of 1999’s Vol. 3 and it’s like pitting Nelson Riddle’s Sinatra against the Don Costa version. As the most accessible hip hop album since Mama Said Knock You Out, The Blueprint sure beats The Chronic, but it bodes ill for the genre’s mainstream — countless wannabes will try to duplicate Jigga’s formula, and none will succeed. The underground, leached by the usual puritanism and fertile anyway, has more jam, with the complication that it now nurtures as many up-and-coming white artists as black. Another hope is that some bud among the profusion of r&b also-rans, many of them debuts — down to 100, Bilal, India.Arie, Don Costa’s girl Nikka, Res, Angie Stone, and Maxwell — will develop material nobody can deny. Final respects to 73rd-place Aaliyah, who died proving it was possible.

I’m grateful I can care, and grateful too that Aaliyah, whose garish funeral was one of many media phenomena that seemed to grow more grotesque after the WTC carnage, can now accrue dignity on the strength of a good album. This was a shitty year before it got so much shittier, and one way it was shitty was that it was subpar musically. I don’t have much doomsayer in me, and my basic belief is that in my lifetime a musical economy has been created that nothing can destroy. Good music has become such a spiritual necessity that no amount of corporate brutality can prevent people from producing, distributing, and consuming it. Nevertheless, I note that the Dean’s List, my annual catalog of recommended albums, shrank markedly in 2001, falling below 80 for the first time since 1997. Maybe it’s because for two weeks there I didn’t listen much — one more productivity hit. Or maybe the doomsayers are right, and fewer talents and lucky stiffs can afford the indie/DIY career option, which accounted for 15 or so of the voters’ top 40 albums and two thirds of the Dean’s List. That a cohort has learned to work around the moneychangers doesn’t mean we should thank capital for providing the opportunity.

The only finisher to confront this fact rather than allude to it was an overachiever on the scale of Vespertine. Ignoring its withdrawn WTC-bombing cover with the ingrained impiety that makes rock critics the permanent no-accounts of cultural journalism, the voters awarded eighth place to the Coup’s Party Music, which in its endless verbal dexterity and revitalization of an old-fashioned groove resembled “Love and Theft” more than anything Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch will ever record. There’s a lot of bluff on this record, and some bullshit too, though less than in most Dylan. But people know it — at S.O.B.’s in November, Boots Riley’s unsubstantiated claims that we were murdering babies in Afghanistan were far less warmly received than the off-kilter funk of his assaults on the rich and the racist. Riley is one of the few artists in rock’s whole history to make effective music out of the inhumanity of capital. It’s poetic that he got respect for it in the year that reminded or convinced many of us that other brands of inhumanity are probably even worse. One nuclear bomb they’re gonna blow it all away, as the New York Dolls once told us on Mercury’s dime. But every time we struggle for better music, and all of us do, we’re reminded that we have no business letting capital be.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 2001

1. Bob Dylan: “Love and Theft” (Columbia)

2. The Strokes: Is This It (RCA)

3. Björk: Vespertine (Elektra)

4. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

5. Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol)

6. Ryan Adams: Gold (Lost Highway)

7. Jay-Z: The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella)

8. The Coup: Party Music (75 Ark)

9. Lucinda Williams: Essence (Lost Highway)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Poses (DreamWorks)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 2001

1. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “Get Ur Freak On” (The Gold Mind, Inc./Elektra)

2. Gorillaz: “Clint Eastwood” (Virgin)

3. Jay-Z: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (Roc-A-Fella)

4. Alicia Keys: “Fallin’ ” (J)

5. (Tie) Coldplay: “Yellow” (Nettwerk America)
Pink: “Get the Party Started” (Arista)

7. Eve featuring Gwen Stefani: “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (Interscope)

8. Mary J. Blige: “Family Affair” (MCA)

9. Weezer: “Hash Pipe” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ryan Adams: “New York, New York” (Lost Highway)
Daft Punk: “One More Time” (Virgin)

—From the February 19, 2002, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692640″ /]

But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692636″ /]

Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

[related_posts post_id_1=”692633″ /]

Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692630″ /]

Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692625″ /]

With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.