My life with Bob Dylan

by Craig McGregor

STANZA 1 

I’D HEARD OF Bob Dylan long before I met him.

At the time, in the early ’60s, I was reviewing jazz and folk and pop music for the Sydney Morning Herald and playing folk songs with my brothers, and I was a good mate of Don Henderson, who was establishing himself as the leading writer of contemporary folk songs in Australia. The folk rock wave was in full strength, both here and overseas and Dylan was acclaimed as one of the key figures in the movement. But the mainstream media and disc jockeys still dismissed him as just another protest singer, even some members of the folk fraternity were worried about his fusion of popular and folk music. I wasn’t; I had listened, hard, to his songs and admired their conjunction of folk integrity (blues, made-over folk melodies) and the almost R&B energy of pop music.

Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds had turned some of his early songs into hits, in fact most people knew of his work mainly through other artists, so when Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, decided that it was time he toured Australia the publicity street posters declared NOBODY SINGS BOB DYLAN LIKE DYLAN. I persuaded John Moses, then news editor of the Herald, to let me go and see Dylan when he arrived. So in April, l966 I found myself jumping into a taxi equipped with a reporter’s notebook to see
Bob Dylan.

Sydney Airport. Early morning. Gulls, bitumen tarmac, hip kids in knee-high boots, camel-hair jeans, Zapata moustaches. Boeing 707, in from Honolulu. Pause. Doors open, the first passengers disgorged, blinking in the unfamiliar sunlight. Another pause. Then Dylan. I assumed it must be him, though he looked smaller and frailer than I’d imagined. Descending from the gangplank he was talking to some of The Band, but walking across the tarmac he was by himself: a tiny, lonely figure. Customs. Then, at last, into the main hall, where fans besieged him. He gallantly accepted a fifty-foot pop art fan letter glued together from magazine and newspaper clippings, signed himself ‘The Phantom’. Black corduroy suit, black suede high-heeled calf-length zipper-sided boots, dark glasses, a halo of long ringleted hair: Dylan, 1966. He held up his hands (look no stigmata!), turned away and made it across to the press room where the TV cameras and reporters were waiting. The Band, wearing dark glasses and sombreros, and the greying bulk of Albert Grossman followed. Dylan was smiling, being obliging. He settled himself down on a sofa for the press conference. The arc lights switched on. I sat down beside him, to his left. Downcast eyes, hooked Jewish nose. The crucifixion was about to begin.

It was soon obvious that nearly everyone there had already made up his mind about Dylan. Or their editors had. He was either a Protest Singer, or a Phony, or preferably both; and they weren’t going to be put off by any of that shit about him just being someone who wrote songs. Nobody welcomed him: the first questions were hostile, brutal, stupid. Dylan tried to answer seriously at first, but it was a lost cause. A few mumbles. Nobody listened. A young man from the Sun kept interrupting with a line of questions drilled into him by his paper: get him to admit he’s a phony, that all this protest stuff is bullshit.

It went on and on; Dylan finally gave up trying to give serious answers and improvised a hilarious spoof of his questioners, but by this time I was laughing too much to take notes. And I had to get home; I’d decided to write something about it all. Next day the staid Herald ran on the front page the article I wrote about Dylan. The sub-editors cut it in half, but they kept the title (‘Bob Dylan’s Anti-Interview’) and all the stuff about Dylan putting down the press and parodying the whole performance. They even left the last paragraph intact: ‘Like I said to Albert, this boy’s got talent. Why don’t you put him on the stage sometime? He could be as big as – well, as big as Robert Zimmerman nee Dylan, who happens to be, quite simply, the most creative and original songwriter in the world today.’ I was still at home when the telephone rang. It was Dylan’s road manager. Was I going to Bob’s concert at the Stadium that night? Hell yes, I was going to review it. Well, Bob wanted to meet me.

Then started my up-and-down relationship with Dylan, which has lasted (sort of) for most of my life. The concert that night was held in the Stadium, a giant ramshackle hangover from the turn of the century, which had been turned into an entertainment centre with a revolving stage. As I walk with my wife into the main arena, Dylan’s road manager, who had been waiting at the entrance, catches me by the arm. Come backstage at interval, OK? 

We do so. Dylan is squatting down on his heels on the floor, electric guitar already around his neck. Grossman and The Band are there. Dylan mumbles hello. Yeah, he dug what I wrote. People don’t understand what he’s into. He is jumpy, nervous, unable to keep still. I have to bend down to talk to him, end up squatting alongside like a courtier.

Next night I see the show again and go up to Dylan’s hotel room afterwards. Amazingly, Dylan plays me the acetates of his two-disc album Blonde on Blonde, which had not yet been released. His next show is in Melbourne. Then Perth. Last stop in Australia before that climactic tour of England, which Martin Scorsese has filmed so brilliantly in No Direction Home. Dylan sends a message to me, via another writer. Try and make it to the States, man.

The States? Oh sure, like fucking hell. 

STANZA 2 


FIVE YEARS LATER, I was awarded a two-year Harkness Fellowship to the United States and my family and I found ourselves living in an apartment on the edge of Harlem in New York. America was in turmoil: it was the time of the massive anti-Vietnam protests, Black Power, the Black Panthers, the civil rights marches and the hippie/Woodstock/Haight Ashbury movement. In Dylan’s memorable description: 

There was music in the cafés at night

And revolution in the air – ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ 

Keeping in mind Dylan’s invitation, I managed with great difficulty to find a telephone number for him in Greenwich Village where he was living, and left several messages for him, but never got an answer. Finally, months and months later, I got through to someone and thought I recognised Dylan’s voice. But for some reason my professionalism deserted me and I was overcome with my old teenage shyness and instead I left a message with him for Bob Neuwirth, an old music friend of Dylan’s, and Dylan hung up.

So much for Craig the intrepid journalist.

Nevertheless I was so admiring of Dylan’s music, the sheer scale of his achievement and the intensity of his inspiration, I decided to write a book about him. In the time I had left in the United States it would have been impossible to write a full-scale biography, and anyhow I have always been wary of the biography as a literary form (who can really know another person?). So I thought I would compile a retrospective of all the significant interviews Dylan had done at that stage and the major essays written about him, then preface it with a long introduction which I would write myself about the major themes and sources in his work. Everyone I approached was very willing to be included in the book, including Robert Shelton, the music critic from the New York Times whose review of Dylan’s first performance at Gerde’s Folk City set the twenty-year-old songwriter on his way, and dozens of other writers including Nat Hentoff, Studs Terkel, Jon Landau, Lillian Roxon, Nik Cohn, Jann Wenner and Wilfrid Mellers. It was only the second book ever to be written on Dylan and was published in the United States, Australia, Britain and Holland. When it first came out in 1972, titled Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, many people asked: ‘Why a book on a songwriter?’

They don’t ask that any more.

STANZA 3 


TWELVE YEARS AFTER his first tour of Australia, Bob Dylan is back again, in Brisbane, sitting curled up in a chair with his long toenails and longer guitarist’s thumbnail, scruffy, unprepossessing, laid-back, apparently together, with a four hour realer-than-reality film Renaldo and Clara out in the States and a tour of worshipful Japan behind him. Outside in the humid police-stricken streets of Brisbane, kids half his age are already lying around the Festival Theatre, beneath lights which say BOB DYLAN GEORGE BENSON WRESTLING, to see if Bob Dylan is what they think he is, like, you know, idol of millions, spokesman for his generation, genius, trapeze artist.

He looks much the same. Shaved most of his beard off, remnants straggle down the sides of his mouth. Soft, gentle voice. Still got his sense of humour, though it’s hard to make him smile. Short pants. Romance? Looks like he needs mothering. Like he keeps saying, he’s been through a lot of changes.

‘Please, Mr Dylan,’ repeat the two girls who have been waiting outside the Crest International for his autograph, no parlour groupies these but high school kids, like many in the audience later that night. ‘Not tonight,’ says Dylan, and strolls on through the city square. He is dressed, conservatively, in a black-and-white floral shirt, pants with coloured knee-patches, waistcoat and gym shoes. His bodyguard is in white pants and shirt, moustache, brown felt top hat with a joker stuck on the brim, looking like he could have strolled off Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, which had Dylan in a similar role. The sound man is in funeral black.

‘Jesus, look at ‘em!’ says a redneck voice from a cab at the lights. Straight Oz, circa 1950. Jeers from other cars. ‘They let ‘em out once a year’. Beery, raspy, undertone of violence. Yesterday the Queensland cops broke up the women’s march, threw truckloads into cells.

Dylan strides on. Yeah, Brisbane reminds him of Mobile. 

Oh, mama, can this really be the end

To be stuck inside of Mobile with the

Memphis blues again

Tonight is the opening of his Australian tour, his first since that tense, spaced-out, disaster-edge tour of 1966. Dylan of Blonde on Blonde. A frail, anguished puppet in a brown check suit, chemicals in his blood and visions in his brain, just before the crack-up. He’s still frail, but cool.

Back in the hotel he looks much the same as I remember him. I remind him of the trouble I had getting through to him in New York. He smiles, shrugs, mumbles something about being ‘very busy’ at the time. There’s a tall black woman, who looks like one of his back-up singers, drifting around in the background. He wants to know how my book about him went. Alright, I reply. I turn on the tape recorder and ask him: ‘What would you like to talk about?’

What follows is the longest interview – and one of the most revealing – Dylan has given. As it goes on I feel my old rapport with him surfacing; he is friendly, fairly serious, straightforward. About halfway through I manage to make him laugh when I ask him, bluntly: 

Do you feel very Jewish, Bob?

‘I don’t know what Jewish people feel like!’

That’s a nice answer!  For Christ’s sake, you know what I mean…as a New York…’

‘As a New York Jew?’

Yeah.

(Laughing) ‘I’m not from New York!’ 

That night the concert hall is packed. Hip, moustached, kurta-topped acolytes in their twenties. Onstage a string octet of ladies in long evening gowns and men in dinner suits is playing its Bach out. Australian content (Muso Union rules). They bow. Everyone claps. The oval stage darkens, the band runs on, plugs in, blasts off on a rhythm-and-blues version of ‘Hard Rain’. More claps. Enter Dylan: white blouse, grey waistcoat, Regency curls. Ovation. He picks up his guitar and starts into an up-tempo ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

It’s a puzzle. The tune is familiar, but the song isn’t. Dylan sings it in a deep, fuzzy voice. Then ‘I Threw It All Away’. Rock’n’roll version, with a three-girl back-up chorus in the wings and the chords crudified into rock raunch. ‘Shelter from the Storm’. He declaims it rather than sings it. Same with several other songs. The audience claps loyally, but they are obviously taken aback. The old, anguished Dylan (and his songs) has disappeared. In his place is Mr Bob Dylan the Conjuror, the Magic Man, Ole Mr Vaudeville with his box of Roles and Tricks, manipulating the songs and scenarios like a Circus Master: I am reminded of Fellini, all those clowns and masks and illusions of reality and the Rolling Thunder Revue (‘It was like a carnival,’ says someone), Renaldo and Clara, top hats and make-up and make-believe. ‘Mankind cannot bear too much reality.’ TS Eliot said that.

We have lost Dylan the troubadour, I am thinking. The man who spun songs out of himself. Instead we have gained Dylan the music man, the performer, leader of the troupe, Shakespeare’s strolling band of players. The diminution is clear. But the songs…the songs are still among the finest written this century, anywhere, by anyone. Dylan’s first film: Don’t Look Back. He’s got more sense than to try to photocopy himself.


INTERVAL. SWEET SCENT of grass in the aisles. 

The lights go down again. Dylan starts singing while the crowd is still filing back from the soft drinks. He seems looser, more relaxed and the band sounds funkier. The concert is beginning to warm up. ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’ gets a terrific reception.

The turning point is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. It’s a classic early song of Dylan’s, both slow and bitchy, but he has rearranged it as a jaunty reggae number: and it is such a daring, disrespectful thing to do, so irreverent, Dylan standing his own music on its head and making it funny and mocking at the same time, affectionately satirising the man who wrote it, that I suddenly realise: he’s become the Old Master of American music, utterly reworking his original material, making it not better but different, caring not a damn what he loses in the process, or gains, and what anyone thinks. ‘It’s life, and life only...’ The audience is stunned, elated. It’s like watching the Magician, the Magic Man, Captain Goodvibes trapezing along the Never-Ending Wave…  

After the show Dylan goes back to The Crest, has a shower, joins the rest of the circus in the downstairs bar. He’s pleased with the reception, but tired. Sits around. Doesn’t talk much. He isn’t travelling with anyone.

I leave him at the table with a half-empty can of beer. The night is coming down. So is the concert high. The bar is emptying. Dylan’s the one in white.

‘Yeah, it knocks me around. Usually when you’re caught up in the turmoil of some personal event and you can’t seem to work it out…you become impatient, and then you decide to get angry… That’s what’s happened to me, anyway. I still get booted around in my personal life, here and there, but er…I just try to understand that tomorrow is another day.’

He delivers the line with the faintest hint of Scarlett O’Hara/Vivien Leigh anguish. The self-parody is perfect. Going up in the lift, I notice that on the program note he’s listed himself as BOB DYLAN, Entertainer. Hmm.

About a month later Dylan is recording his songs for his Street Legal album. The last song is entitled, ‘Where Are You Tonight?(Journey Through Dark Heat)’. In the first stanza Dylan sings:

There’s a neon light ablaze 

in this green smoky haze

Laughter down on Elizabeth Street…

Elizabeth Street? Brisbane? He’s not gazing out the window of the St James Hotel, as he is in ‘Blind Willie McTell’ (one of Dylan’s undoubted masterpieces) but in a different hotel, in a strange city, writing an agonised love song, which ends, Dylan’s voice breaking into high register:

you’ll know I’ve survived…

I can’t believe I’m alive…

Oh, where are you tonight?’

STANZA 4


SINCE THAT BRISBANE concert and interview I’ve heard Dylan perform at each of his subsequent tours of Australia, more as an act of homage than anything else. His voice has deteriorated but he is still writing mature, astonishing songs. The most recent concert I saw was at the Byron Bay Bluesfest. Many people were disappointed at that performance, which is probably the last chance we will ever have to see Dylan alive in Australia, but I wasn’t. I accept him for what he is. My brother Adrian wrote me a typically perceptive and ambivalent account of the concert: ‘Dylan racing, rasping, at furious speed, and at what seemed almost an identical rhythm, through songs known and unknown, turning the stage lights down after every song, no large screens for those at the rear, and outside people standing in the vast paddock of ankle-deep mud just to be there. To bear witness. And I thought, what a contrast to when you first met him. In Byron we came, we saw, we heard him, but his presence was almost mythic. Maybe he isn’t the same man. Who is?’

During that performance I was a fair way back in the crowd and when I finally stood up on a raised platform I was astonished by the reception he was getting. There were thousands of people there, many of them young or middle-aged, shouting and waving their arms in the air, who seemed to know the words of the songs, and when Dylan launched into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ the place erupted and the lyrics blasted out of that huge marquee like a multi-voiced tumult of emotion, like an anthem:

How does it feel

How does it feel…

To be on your own

Like a rolling stone

STANZA 5 

SOME TIME AGO I wrote: ‘Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter since Homer’. Christopher Ricks, former professor of English at Cambridge University, regards him as an almost Shakespearian figure. Because of the breadth and richness of Dylan’s oeuvre (over six hundred songs), his visionary imagination, and his dazzling use of the entire panoply of American music, I am inclined to agree…as far as popular culture is concerned. Dylan turned the pop song serious and he helped transform it into the most universal art form of our time. These days most poetry is sung – which it always has been, until the invention of the printing press turned it, temporarily, into a written form. The new prophets are the song poets.

But since Homer? Most people don’t realise that the epic Homeric myths we know as the Odyssey and the Iliad were actually sung. Leaving aside the question of whether Homer actually existed, or whether it was the name given to the amazing series of song cycles which the Greeks developed over pre-classical times and were synthesised by ‘Homer’, they represent one of the greatest achievements of the human tradition of sung art.

What about other modern songwriters? In the last century Gershwin, certainly, was a fine composer, but his output was restricted by the same commercial and cultural considerations that restricted the Tin Pan Alley melodists who followed, such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. They were victims of narrowcasting, their horizons limited by what they thought pop songs should be about (romance); it took the song poets of the ’60s and ’70s, including Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, to liberate Tin Pan Alley. The Beatles? The music critic for The Times, William Mann, who once memorably referred to the Beatles as the Beatles Quartet, once claimed Lennon and McCartney were the greatest songwriters since Schubert. Possibly. But Schubert was similarly constrained by the conventions of German Lieder and the Romantic movement which were in their way as narrow as those of the American and English popular song. 

The Middle Ages produced a substantial body of folk songs and troubadour songs, some of which had Dylanesque subtexts of social commentary, but few of them have survived musically. Going back further, Hebrew culture created the marvel of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon and much else, but again it is generally regarded as a corpus of work which was the product of a strong oral tradition (like British, Irish and American folk song) handed down from generation to generation. It is not until we reach back to Homer that we arrive at an individual songwriter against whom Dylan’s achievement pales.

Dylan’s songwriting career has now spilled over into the second decade of the twenty-first century. I wonder, sometimes, what further surprises are in store from the Jewish kid from Hibbing who exploded the art of the popular song and made it capable of dealing with…well, everything in the world.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 45: The Way We Work © Copyright Griffith University & the author.