I once talked to Bob Dylan.
Sure, lots of you could probably say the same thing. But in your case, it was probably from the eighth row, screaming, 'What the hell are you're playin'?' Or, wired to the tits on purple owsley, staring at the cover of Blonde On Blonde, maybe wondering aloud what Bob's scarf symbolized. Perhaps you saw Dylan walking through Manhattan and misquoted something from the New Testament at him. Or told him at Halloween you dressed your brother up like a mule, complete with jewels and binoculars. And Dylan (who is set for a May 1 concert at the Time Warner Cable Uptown Amphitheatre), wisely, kept walking.
But I actually spoke to the guy once — in the Folk City bathroom — and he spoke back. Yes, I talked to Bob in the john. He was as brief, mystical and sarcastic as you might expect. At least I think he was sarcastic. The way Dylan's sentences always seem to arch upward, he always sounds either philosophical or snotty. Either way. We had an exchange.
It was 1975 and I had just quit college to try and be a singer/songwriter. You know, the gig Dylan invented. He made it seem cool, streetwise and mesmerizing. Years later, John Mayer turned it into the musical version of the Moe Howard two-finger eye poke.
Several friends and I got a loft in this new area of Manhattan called Soho, all wanting to be the Voice Of Our Generation (nothing contrived there), a quest as elusive and frustrating as going to McDonald's with the hope of finding the McRib sandwich. Still, Richie, Michael and I wrote some good songs about experiences we hadn't had yet and played them at bars, clubs and other venues.
One of them was Gerde's Folk City, where Dylan played his first professional gig. In 1975, it was a place where I was playing my original songs every Tuesday night. I was under the spell of Bruce Springsteen in those days. So, even though I was from the suburbs, many of these tunes revolved around some guy who wore Chuck Taylors, talked tough and inferred that he'd participated, peripherally, in a gang fight — often as the guy who says, 'Cheese it, here comes the fuzz!'
Considering my diction was fairly close to William F. Buckley and I wore penny loafers, none of this was going down too well. And it didn't help that I wore an earring that I borrowed from my nana. And it was a clip-on. Still, the tunes were good and I was determined to get discovered and signed there before going on and recording what was called an "album," during this, the Pleistocene Era.
I was young and optimistic and writing fanatically. I was also woken up one night around midnight, by Michael, one of my loft buddies. Michael was small but tough, with a full beard and hair parted in the middle. I liked him regardless, but what really made me want to hang out with him was he'd spent time in 'juvie,' and seemed to really know about jail. And what he didn't know, he made up. I figured just hanging with the guy gave me the street cred that a private school education, a big house and a Golden Retriever named "Plimpton" couldn't. But here's the thing, the hook, as we say in songwriting. That night, Michael had big, startling, Kennedy assassination conspiracy-style news.
"Man, I just came back from Folk City," Michael said, shaking me awake. "Dylan is onstage right now. I also saw Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and a whole bunch of other motherfuckers! Wake up and let's get down there!"
I should mention that for all his talent and good-hearted bonhomie, Michael sometimes found himself in direct conflict with reality. He was no worse than say, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, but without the desire to shoot the president because he wasn't protecting our redwoods. Luckily, my other roommate, Richie, was home, too.
Richie (who is now esteemed songwriter Rich Deans), was our reality factor. Make that cynical factor. This good-looking guy wrote and spoke in a way that made H.L. Mencken sound like a Camp Fire Girl.
Still, he loved Dylan. And since we had nothing going on, we decided to better get over to Gerde's-post haste! In fact, I put a leather jacket over my T-shirt and kept on my pajama bottoms. Considering what I often wore to Folk City, this was actually a step up. You know, I looked like Lou Reed, just waking up from a nap.
Dressed and as excited as a couple of hopheads from a Kerouac novel, off we ran to see if Bob Dylan was really there, or if Michael had just forgotten to take his meds.
Ten minutes later, we were at the club. McGuinn was indeed onstage with 'Ronno.' Joan Baez was sitting at a table, probably horrified that both men were playing electric guitars. And one had glitter on his eyelids. But Folk City was strangely listless, half-empty and certainly not Dylanesque. Dylanless was more like it.
I was depressed. I was exhausted. I was wearing my jammies, for Christ's sake. "Michael," I said, between blasts of my inhaler, "why did you do this to me?"
And just as I wheezed out the last few words, Mick Ronson, the only Englishman I've ever met who needed subtitles, said into the mic, "Hey, Bob. You wanna coomb up and play that new song of yours?"
Then, as if he'd been hanging, bat-like, from the ceiling, there was Bob Dylan. Wearing a leather jacket over a striped seaman's shirt, jeans, his Jewfro messy enough to betray the fact that he didn't use Afro-Sheen. He huddled with Ronno and Roger for a minute and then launched into that new song. All about a boxer named Rubin Carter, who I actually knew of. I'd read a story about his seemingly trumped-up prison sentence. And who Michael, our resident jailbird who claimed to know everybody (except me, when he owed me money), said he'd done some time with.
Bob and the boys launched into the story of "The Hurricane," his first socially angry song in years, with a great groove and a chorus you didn't forget after one listen. The club went absolutely cuckoo. And, although we didn't know it, this was the night that was the embryo which would soon turn into that wild, screaming baby, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
About 31 verses later, the rocking, intense tune ended. Everybody was elated, laughing, wondering if they'd just imagined what they had seen. Dylan slipped off the stage without much notice, no expression on his face. I ordered a beer, made a few smart remarks to people who commented on my PJ's and then decided to head to the bathroom.
That's where it happened.
As I walked into Folk City's john, which was so disgusting I think it was the inspiration for the Hazmat suit, I heard a flush and there, facing me, was Mr. Bob Dylan. Yes, crazy Dylan worshippers. Bob urinates just like the next guy.
For a second, we stood face-to-face. I didn't want to gush, or genuflect or do anything goofier than standing in front of Dylan in my pajama bottoms. So, I decided to get all irreverent on his ass. Having just heard his song, acting like the Evil Dylan (or is that redundant), I said, "Bob, what do you know about Hurricane Carter?"
Dylan, notoriously tight-lipped, looked at me for what seemed the entire length of "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands." Then, with the faintest smirk, he stared at me. And said: "What do you know about Hurricane Carter?"
Yes, guys, even in a bathroom so horrific, it could cause your grandkids to have birth defects, Bob said these words with that slightly mocking, slightly sincere, Minnesota, Marge Gunderson inflection. I think he winked. I cannot remember if he washed his hands. But since he wasn't about to make me a sandwich, who cared?
When I recovered and walked out, the club was still undulating, but Bob was gone. It didn't matter. I was one of the few people (who had not been professionally assigned) to ask Bob Dylan a question and get a perfect Bob Dylan answer. I knew that going home and reading about Hurricane Carter would not help.
Bob did what he's done for the lucky for 50 years now. He's asked us things that at first seem simple, but, upon further reflection, could baffle the great philosophers of the world — The Dali Lama, Noam Chomsky, the guy who said, "The rent's too damn high."
I knew something now. That not everything could be explained. Or revealed. And some things were better if they weren't. I'd have to think for myself from now on. It wouldn't be easy. It still isn't. But, uh, I'm working on it.