I'm 56 years old. Old enough to remember one president's assassination and another's resignation, black people getting beaten for insisting on the right to vote and later a black man being elected president, people walking on the moon, and more wars than I care to think about. A constant throughout my last 46 years has been Bob Dylan.
When I was a kid, my father would drive me and my siblings on Saturdays from Manhattan to Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. We'd always stop at the same diner for a hamburger and iced tea. Each booth had its own jukebox. I'd flip through the rows of the juke and for a nickel I'd get the Four Seasons, “Little” Stevie Wonder, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and, of course, the Beatles.
As one of those kids in 1964 whose life trajectory had been irrevocably rerouted by the Fabs on The Ed Sullivan Show, I devoured every pop music magazine I could get. The hippest was Hit Parader, which, in addition to covering the British Invasion, Motown and surf music, covered the world of folk — including a rebellious protest singer named Dylan.
For my 10th birthday in '65, my folks got me a shiny new nylon-string acoustic guitar. Ed Sullivan, here I come! I learned basic chords and, with the help of a song folio of Bringing It All Back Home, I began applying my rudimentary chord knowledge to its contents. The only problem was I'd never actually heard the album, so I made up the melodies. But the words opened up a fantastic new world. “He said his name was Columbus/I just said good luck” was the funniest thing this 10-year-old had ever heard, a reminder of the sinking feeling that something was wrong in post-Camelot America and that it could be addressed with all the sneering impudence of youth.
I'd soon memorize every lyric on that album, including “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and after saving up my allowance (50 cents a week), I dropped a whopping $3.44 for a mono Bringing It All Back Home at Korvette's. Interestingly, my ersatz melodies weren't too different from the real ones.
After another Saturday jaunt that July, we stopped at the diner; as always, I checked out the juke. Hey, what's this? “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan. The nickel rolled into the slot and like millions of other kids, my life was never the same after hearing that first snare-drum gunshot that kicks off the party.
How does it feel? I can tell you this: Hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time is a feeling one doesn't experience often. It sounded like freedom.
Now a rabid Dylan fan, I found a paperback devoted to my guy called Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story, by Sy and Barbara Ribakove (“With 16 pages of exciting photographs”). I read the book over and over again with a flashlight under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep. In it Dylan claimed he'd run away from home 15 times, and it was obvious to me that if I was to wander in his boot heels, I'd need to do the same. I spent five hours roaming around Greenwich Village in August 1967, only to be talked home by a kindly commune leader. The farewell note to my parents I'd left on my bed was not well received when I returned. I found out soon after that Dylan had in fact never run away and had embellished the accounts of his youth. I can personally attest that young people are impressionable. Thanks a lot, Bob!
Forty-four years have flowed under the proverbial bridge since then and he's still delivering the goods. Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft,” Modern Times and the appropriately titled Together Through Life are among the finest albums of the last decade-plus by anyone.
To celebrate Bob's 70th birthday, which is May 24, we've asked a gang of his fellow musicians, friends and fans to tell us stories and share their thoughts about him. Given that we're L.A. Weekly, we've encouraged tales of the Left Coast — after all, Malibu has been where our neighbor Bob Dylan has been getting his jury-duty notices for over three decades.
On behalf of everyone whose lives were enriched by your words, your music, your films, your art, your humanity: happy birthday, Bob. And I forgive you for getting me in hot water with the folks back in '67.
Sat., Dec. 18, 1965
Pasadena Civic Auditorium
“Joe, Evelyn and I went to see Bob Dylan tonight. He was TOO MUCH. He came out dressed in a brown and black houndstooth suit, all by himself. With just his guitar and harmonica, which was strapped around his neck. His skin looked like the color of sour milk and I have never seen anyone so skinny before. Evelyn was really digging it and I was glad. He ended the first part of the show with a song called 'Desolation Row.' It was really beautiful. I haven't any idea what it's about. His stuff is real hard to pin down.
There is a line in 'Desolation Row' that reminds me of Sioux Cameron, that line about her putting hands in her back pockets, BETTE DAVIS STYLE. Sioux Cameron has a skirt with back pockets. When he got through, you could have heard a pin drop. Then there was an intermission.
THEN. He came back with a group of about 5 guys. The organ player cracked me up because he had this HUGE forehead, matter of fact they were all pretty silly looking. The piano player had a hideous great hooter, to quote Paul McCartney's grandfather in that Beatles movie. They were all dressed in black, they looked like a bunch of Southern preachers. They stomped the floor to get the beat and then the first song started. It was about Juarez, Mexico.
Once the music started the weirdest thing started to happen, people started getting up and leaving. They didn't dig the ELECTRICITY. What a bunch of chumps, because Dylan and his group were ROCKING. There were these two guys sitting in front of me, one was tall and skinny and he looked like a jealous bird, the other guy wore glasses, and they jumped up in disgust and ran for the door. I thought, how could they walk out on something like what Bob Dylan was doing.
Meanwhile up on stage, Dylan was moving around like he was plugged into a HIGH TENSION WIRE. BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ. The last song was 'Like a Rolling Stone,' number one on the Fab Chart last Summer. He kept shouting the words. 'HOW DOES IT FEEL?' over and over. Then just like [that,] Dylan and his Southern preachers were gone. Just like hazy smoke. It didn't feel real. I was moved, Evelyn was moved too.
As we were leaving, we ran into Greg Moore, Sioux Cameron, her sister, Cathy, Karen West, Gooler and Priscilla and we also ran into Harry Speer who had walked out. Everyone dug it the most except Harry. Everyone was going to smoke some pot. Hell, that stuff Dylan was singing about got me HIGH enough.”
From Paul Body's journal, reproduced in his L.A. memoir Love Is Like Rasputin. Paul was 15 at the time.
Before B.B. King dubbed him Wavy Gravy, Hugh Romney was a Beat monologuist, Village character and friend of fledgling folkie Dylan. The maître d' at Woodstock, Hog Farmer and saintly clown teaches circus skills to underprivileged kids at Camp Winnarainbow and has helped fund 2 million Third World sight-saving operations (Seva.org). Mrs. Gravy is Jahanara Romney, who as Bonnie Beecher was a Minnesota flame of young Bob's.
Wavy Gravy: 116 MacDougal St. [in New York's Greenwich Village] was the Gaslight Café. I was a teenage beatnik readin' my poems there and became the poetry director. I talked to the lunatic who was runnin' the place. I said, “John, why don't we try some folk music between the poetry 'cause I think it would go over really good.” And we tried it and the next thing ya know we're doin' a little poetry and a little folk music and it got so difficult because people used to line up four-deep around the block to look at beatniks.
Next thing you know I'm openin' for John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and Peter, Paul and Mary and Ian and Sylvia and people of this ilk. I was at the Village Gate with Monk when Dylan came to me and said, “You must come back to the Gaslight — help save the Gaslight!” I was happy to do that. We had spent endless hours in this little room up above the Gaslight. There was a typewriter up there that Bob would use and he would write songs on it like “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.”
He'd talk about everything. His left foot was always bouncin' up and down at great rapid speeds. At one point he was gonna will me his boots and I think one of them would've been worn out. He was a blur. He had an opinion about everything. And it was usually glorious and fired at you with machine-gun rapidity. And funny, he was one funny dude. I absolutely adored him.
Billy James was Dylan and the Byrds' Columbia Records publicist at the beginning of their careers. After unsuccessfully trying to get the company to sign Lenny Bruce, Tim Hardin, the Mothers of Invention and Jefferson Airplane, he signed the Doors, jumped ship, took Morrison and co. with him and opened up Elektra's West Coast office. He's currently working on his memoir, Famous Dead People I Have Known and Liked.
Billy James: I was 28 or 29 and I was in the publicity department at Columbia Records in New York writing advertising copy, publicity bios, album liner notes and news releases. The brilliant John Hammond [the legendary producer who signed Dylan to the label] called me from the studio and told me he was recording someone he thought I might be interested in. He was right.
I was blown away. Dylan was probably the first white musician who sounded black to me. I was completely ignorant of rock & roll, so to whatever extent his style was influenced by rock & roll, that was new to me as well.
I was responsible for writing his publicity bio, so we rolled tape on my Wollensak. He sat there and told me these incredible stories about his imagined self. Having uncles who were gamblers and uncles who were thieves and joining the circus and the street singer Arvella Gray and somebody in Navasota, Texas, and playing piano for Bobby Vee — which, in fact, as far as I know, he did play piano for Bobby Vee. There was nothing about high school or college, his parents — just fabulous stories. I never did write the bio.
I got him his first national story in Seventeen magazine. It was a double-truck story, Dylan on one page and [TV heartthrob] Richard Chamberlain on the other. I had a “Bob Dylan Orientation Kit” that I would trot around to various journalists — but I can't remember what was in it! [Laughs] He was new and different for so many people — even though I locked right into his work right away, there were so many people who had difficulty getting it. At a Columbia Records convention I played a Dylan record for Tony Bennett. I said, “Tony, listen to the words” and Tony said, “Whatever happened to the music?” My way of explaining was to say listen to the words, listen to the man's brilliant use of the English language.
I fell in love with the Byrds partly because they were using Dylan lyrics, but also because of their folk music background. I became educated in the ways of rock & roll. Dylan played one public performance with the Byrds at Ciro's [at 8433 Sunset Blvd., current location of the Comedy Store in West Hollywood] in 1965. Those of us who had already embraced that melding of influences didn't think that much about it because each of those guys had folk music backgrounds.
Johnny Rivers is an L.A. treasure, the rocker who played at the opening of Sunset Strip institution the Whisky a Go Go and had a slew of hits in the 1960s including “Secret Agent Man,” “Poor Side of Town,” “Summer Rain,” “Seventh Sun,” “Memphis” and “Maybelline.” In Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan singled out Rivers' cover of “Positively Fourth Street” — “I liked his version better than mine,” Dylan wrote.
Johnny Rivers: When we opened the Whisky [Jan. 15, 1964], Bob came in there a few times. He was known as “that guy that wrote that song for Peter, Paul and Mary.” I wasn't a big folk fan, I grew up in the rhythm & blues world out of Louisiana. I wasn't really aware of Bob's first couple of albums. I did hear “Blowin' in the Wind” by Peter, Paul and Mary — it was all over the radio. He seemed to be a nice guy and he'd come in and hang out, he would come upstairs to the dressing rooms where there was a pool table and shoot the bull with the guys in the band and whoever was hangin' out.
[About Dylan's endorsement of his “Positively Fourth Street” cover:] I think he's basically saying our backgrounds are similar, the kind of family life and environment we both came out of, although he was up in Minnesota and I grew up in Baton Rouge. We basically started around the same time and we're almost the same age. We both traveled, left our hometown to get stuff happening.
I had this feeling that in order for me to get anything goin' I had to get out of Baton Rouge. First off I went to New York City and met Alan Freed, who got me a recording deal for two or three single records and talked me into changing my name to Rivers from our family name, Ramistella — it's Italian. And of course with Bob, Dylan's not his real last name. We came out of that same world where you had to go out and make things happen.
And that's one reason I like “Positively Fourth Street” 'cause of that story about “When I was down, you just stood there grinnin'.” Once you become successful, all these characters who were kickin' ya, makin' fun of ya, sayin' you'll never make it — all wanna become your buddy.
On Sept. 3, 1965, Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl with Al Kooper on organ, Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Harvey Brooks on bass and Levon Helm on drums. Kooper would have many L.A. adventures with Dylan over the years, including the time Al got into Bob's limo in the mid-'80s and found himself face to face with Elizabeth Taylor. Here Kooper recounts his memories of that first trip in '65.
Al Kooper: At the tender age of 21, it wasn't merely my first trip to California but my first plane flight, as well as my first (and last) appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. Albert Grossman had a plane and he wanted the help to go on it. I refused, as it was a little plane and something ludicrous like a 40-hour flight with stops to refuel. I said, “I'm not doin' that.” I flew first-class with Dylan and [Dylan's road manager] Bob Neuwirth — which was much nicer and quicker, so my bluff paid off.
So we took off and I was between Bob on the window and Neuwirth on the aisle. Dylan said, “Boy, you better keep your seat belt on, this is the worst flight I've ever been on.” I'm a little nervous. I looked around and everyone was having their drinks and laughing, and I thought, “Oh, let's put Al on! Everything's fine.”
When we got there, Neuwirth handed me a pull-over-your-head Halloween mask and said, “Put this on and follow me, we're gonna move fast.” All three of us put our masks on, got off the plane and ran from the gate to the limo.
When I first started hanging out with Dylan and Neuwirth, I was a kid from Queens. I'd been in the music business but I was not as well-read and as tuned-in as they were. I sat there and observed, not saying a word, until I got my hip card punched. Neuwirth was a sartorial influence on all of us — Dylan included. The first place in L.A. they took me to was a store called De Voss [a fashionable '60s boutique that catered to the likes of Mick Jagger and the Mamas & the Papas], and it was between Sunset Plaza and Doheny on the right side of the street facing west. There went my salary. Just the most amazing shirts and those pseudo-cowboy hats that everybody wore, typified by David Crosby.
I spent a lot of money on shirts, in the day 50 bucks a shirt. From there came the famous polka-dot shirts. Bob had got one on an earlier trip, which he'd worn at Newport. There was one other clothing store we went to on Crescent Heights and Sunset that Lenny Bruce used to do radio ads for, called Zeidler & Zeidler. Bob would shop at those two places, ergo I would. There was of course Wallich's Music City on Sunset and Vine. It was fabulous because you could pull out a record and play it in a listening booth before you bought it.
It was a whirlwind thing — first to just fly, then to fly to Los Angeles and to live in Hollywood and to play the Hollywood Bowl. At Forest Hills [in Queens, N.Y.] they booed because they were told to by the press. Bob would come out and play an acoustic 45-minute set and of course everybody was fine with that. And then after intermission we'd come out and they'd start booing. “Like a Rolling Stone” was No. 1, so they sang along and then booed. It was unbelievable. We played three shows: Newport, Forest Hills and the Hollywood Bowl. The Bowl was the only place where nobody booed at anything, which led me to believe that this was the much hipper coast beyond a doubt. Not to mention De Voss.
The night of the show, Ben Shapiro threw a party for Dylan at his house. I went to that and chatted up this gal who became my first Hollywood date, as it were. It was Toni Basil [famous choreographer, Easy Rider actress and legendary singer of '80s hit “Mickey” (aka “Hey Mickey!”)]. There was a trip to Dean Martin's house, which I did not attend, but Bob went.
For the last half-century, photographer Lisa Law has been one of the most respected soul catchers of the counterculture and its music. In 1966 she lived at the Castle, a palatial four-story residence in the Los Feliz area, with a ballroom and giant bay windows, embellished with wrought iron. Nico and the Velvet Underground, Barry McGuire and Severn Darden all stayed there. Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Owsley, Richard and Mimi Farina, Tiny Tim and Tim Hardin were frequent visitors.
Lisa Law: [In April 1966] I'd just moved into the Castle. Bob [Dylan] rented a room for two weeks just before the release of Blonde on Blonde and before his European tour started. He got the suite on the second floor and was writing songs. I was the housekeeper and chief cook and bottle washer and late evenings I would give him massages. He drank a lot of chocolate milk shakes, so I took it upon myself to feed him healthy dinners.
We went out shopping to Fred Segal on Sunset Boulevard. That is where he bought his polka-dot long-sleeved shirt — [the store] is still there. He was writing all the time. I photographed his desk with his typewriter. He didn't crumple papers up and throw them in the trash or I would've kept them! He would type a song and then write over it and add things. If you look at the books that show his writings, you can see the notations. People always ask me if he let me shoot pictures. He didn't stop me, but a couple times he'd make faces at me. He had a way of looking at me that was intimidating.
On April 8, 1966, we went to hear Otis Redding at the Whisky a Go Go. Taj Mahal opened for him [with Ry Cooder in the Rising Sons]. Bob, [then husband] Tom [Law] and I were in a booth, and Otis and his band blew me away, so I jumped up and shot lots of pictures, many of which were out of focus because Otis never stopped moving. We went backstage afterwards and Bob asked Otis if he wanted one of his songs for a new album. [Bob reportedly gave Otis an acetate of “Just Like a Woman.”]
Wavy Gravy: I remember connecting with him in Sheridan Square [in New York in the early '70s] when I was writing my first book. I ran into him and we were gonna go to this apartment in Sheridan Square where friends of my wife who Bob knew all the way back to the University of Minnesota were. She was going there to tidy up and Bob and I were going to the smoke shop at the corner for matches and various combustibles when this guy screams, “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD” — then he comes running up. … “ARE YOU ARE YOU ARE YOU ARE YOU REALLY … WAVY GRAVY???” He's goin', “My girlfriend is never gonna believe this!” and I said, “I'd like to introduce you to my friend Bob.” And he says, “Hi Bob — but seriously … Wavy Gravy!” [Guffaws] It was wonderful. Bob got such a kick out of that, let me tell ya.
Though Jim Keltner was originally a jazz drummer, his résumé reads like a rock & roll wet dream. He's played with three-quarters of the Beatles and was “Buster Sidebury” in the Traveling Wilburys. Then there's Clapton and Cooder, Neil and Joni, various Stones — and Dylan. His first Bob session was the 1971 single “Watching the River Flow,” and he's played with Dylan periodically ever since, including two years on the road from late 1979 through 1981.
Jim Keltner: [In 1973, Dylan was working on the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack.] It was a session for Bob at the original Warner Bros. Stage in Burbank, before it became the Clint Eastwood Scoring Stage. In those days it was a big room — a big soundstage. Also in those days they had big screens the musicians looked at, rather than little TV monitors like they do now. Everything was bigger than life. The drums were isolated in what they call the pillbox with a little window above the cymbals so you could see the screen. Otherwise, the rest of the room was dark, except for a little bit of light for somebody's music stand, and I couldn't see Bob from where I was.
I think we did two or three takes. After the first take, it was clear to me what the song was about, so in the intro I played a little stick thing that gives the impression of a pistol chamber bein' spun. Then we got into the song and watched the scene with the actress Katy Jurado — a real soulful face and big eyes. She was crying and Slim Pickens is down by the river dying and Bob is singing, “Mama come take these guns from me/I can't use 'em anymore.” And the way he sang it, it just hit me, it really got me. I welled up and I started cryin' and I thought, “Good lord, what am I doin'? I gotta play this track! Bob's not into doin' extra takes because somebody cried and messed it up.” All these things are goin' through my mind, in the meantime the song is goin' by and Bob's vocal — singin' those words, to that scene on the screen — just put me away.
By the time we were done with the song, it was the most amazing feeling. I knew right then that this was a first for me — I cried while playing the drums on a record. If you were to play that song for me right now, I'd well up.
Kinky Friedman is a country singer-songwriter, best-selling mystery novelist and former gubernatorial candidate in his home state of Texas. He was on the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976.
Kinky Friedman: In 1973 at [Kinky's first L.A. show at] the Troubadour, Bob came in a white robe. He looked like a kleagle of the Minnesota Klan. And he was barefoot. It was very nice of him to come to the show. He liked one of my personal favorite songs, a song I've never recorded called “Carrying the Torch,” which you think is about a girl back home who's carryin' the torch for you but really it's the Statue of Liberty and the drummer has American flags on the drumsticks at the end of the song. It's a patriotic crowd-pleaser — went very well on the Grand Ol' Opry stage, not so well at the Troubadour, but Bob liked it. So we're lookin' out the window and we notice he's got a limo out there in the alley. It was amazing: Somebody observed that he didn't have any shoes but he had a limo.
Los Angeles native Harvey Kubernik is a local authority on the history of rock & roll in this town. His most recent book is the acclaimed Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon.
Harvey Kubernik: [After an eight-year hiatus from touring, Dylan hit the road in 1974 with the Band.] I went to all three of the Dylan/Band shows at the fabulous Forum in Inglewood. At one of the shows I sat with Henry Mancini, literally if not in the front row, then row three. I thought, “What is Henry Mancini doing at a Dylan concert with the Band?” He was telling me about digging the group Cream and to be open-minded and that Dylan was a great lyricist. He might even have used the word hymnist. I didn't know what he meant.Everybody was bringing their own history to this gig. The projection on Dylan and the Band coupled with moxie and hustle of Bill Graham was really something. Weeks before the show, I was invited to an Elton John Rocket Records party near Tower Records on Holloway. Bill Wyman arrived with David Geffen. I had a chat with Geffen, who was very accessible. I thanked him for helping arrange this [Dylan] tour. I started realizing there's a promoter, there's an agent. Wow, there's people involved who do these things. Until then, you went to the Shrine Auditorium and you gave the girl behind the window a 10-dollar bill and she gave you change out of the cigar box and some Bazooka gum and you walked in. It was a world before Ticketmaster and Ticketron. It was [local record store] Wallich's Music City. You didn't buy days or weeks or months in advance. I realized the complexion of the concert game was changing in front of me.
An Oscar nominee for her role in Robert Altman's Nashville, Ronee Blakley continues to act and sing and is currently editing her second film as a director, One Blood.
Ronee Blakley: I was in New York doing press for the movie Nashville and staying at the Sherry-Netherland hotel, and David Blue was playing at the Other End on Bleecker Street. So I headed down and was by myself in the middle booth and David was onstage. I was harmonizing by myself from the back of the room, the way we used to do things like that. At the end of the show, Bobby Neuwirth said, “Ronee, there's someone I'd like you to meet … Bob Dylan.” [Owner] Paul Colby shut the club down and Dylan got onstage and started to play and I got onstage and started to play a little four-handed piano with him and we were having fun. People started coming into the club: [Mick] Ronson, [Roger] McGuinn, [Allen] Ginsberg. And Bob asked me to go on tour with him and I said I couldn't. And Neuwirth said, “NO??? Nobody says no to Bob Dylan!” I had to go because I had a tour beginning and I was set to meet my band in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the next day.
I went to Muscle Shoals and met with the boys and they said, “You've got to go on the road with him, it'll be better for all of us.” I called Bob and I said the band said I could come and [he said] come back to New York. A limousine picked me up [in New York], took me to the studio and I recorded “Hurricane” that night and I still hadn't slept!
The Rolling Thunder Revue was an experience that could be placed in flashing neon lights in my life. It was just that great. Bob is exciting to work with. The intensity of his performance, the intensity of his vocals. The meaning, the passion, what lies behind the words. For one thing I happen to love his voice. Some people say as if it's a given [that] he doesn't have a great voice, but I disagree. I think he has a superb voice and what he does with it is great.
McGuinn once said he'd never seen Bob eat. How does he do what he does? I think he had a very nice meal and bottle of wine with [then wife] Sara, but I never saw him gadding about, even though we all saw each other every day. He doesn't hang out with everybody as much as others might like him to? Maybe that's true, but how else is he going to preserve what he's doing? He's a worker and he works hard and he's worked a long time. He's given us his life, his life energy, his life force, and we should be grateful.
Kinky Friedman: One of the best times I spent with him was in Mexico in 1976 on the island of Yelapa. They had no electricity on the island. We stayed there for two weeks. Bob, Louie Kemp, Gary Shafner and Dennis Hopper and there were several hundred townspeople. There was a big chess tournament in the square. Bob and Louie entered me as the American champ to play the Mexican champ and I won. And I wore the Jesus coat Bob had given me, this fancy Nudie's outfit [Bob's country music–style outfit with a huge Jesus Christ face on the back]. That was a great moment. It was downhill from there, unfortunately, as far as my chess career was concerned.
While we were on Yelapa, an interesting thing happened. We were walkin' on the beach, there wasn't anybody around, and Bob was wearing his black leather jacket. It was warm and he was feelin' a chill nobody else could feel maybe, I don't know. Strange northern behavior. Somebody had a guitar and a guitar case and they set it down. At one point Bob kinda wandered over there, sat down, took the guitar out kind of in a dream state, strumming to himself on this deserted beach. It was like a movie scene. I wandered off, came back 10 minutes later, the place was surrounded by people. So he just put the guitar away when too many people showed up. It reminded me of something he'd said, that he liked playing better when he actually played for people that weren't listening, in the very early days when people'd be eatin' their dinner or talkin'. He felt comfortable with that, more so than a bunch of mesmerized robots who loved him, or thought they did.
And then the incident on the plane was funny. We were flying Southwest Airlines at the last minute in Texas and there was no first class and Bob was sitting next to this young girl who, when she realized she was sitting next to Bob Dylan, she just totally jumped through her asshole for America. She was very excited and she starts screaming, “I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! I CAN'T BELIEVE THAT I'M SITTING NEXT TO BOB DYLAN! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT!” That's when Bob turns to her and he says, “Pinch yourself.”
One of the drummers on Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded, Don Heffington also played with Lowell George, Emmylou Harris, Lone Justice, Van Dyke Parks, Victoria Williams, Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin and others.
Don Heffington: I was at the Power Station in New York in the middle of '84 recording with Lone Justice. Dylan had written a song for Maria McKee. I came in and Bob was in the back with Benmont [Tench] figuring out the chords. Bob had called Ronnie Wood down and we started workin' on some things, tryin' to arrange this tune. The first thing we did was a slow blues. He sang, but it was really kind of a guitar thing with him and Ronnie. We listened back to it and he looks up to me and says, “Man, this is the best you've ever played in your life!” [Laughs] I don't know if he'd ever even heard me before. He's a funny cat. Deadpan. You can't tell if he's kiddin' or not, but I think he usually is.
Later that year I came home [to L.A.] and there's this piece of paper, this note, kinda kicked halfway under the bed and it said, “Ira [Ingber] called and wants to know if you want to play with Bob Dylan.” So we started going over to Bob's place and playin', he had a place at the beach. That went on for a while. He'd show up and we'd play for three, four hours straight. Very spontaneous.
He just wanted to jam, I guess. I remember he worked out a Jim Capaldi tune once — actually worked on it! He doesn't teach a band a song, he'll just play it. He knows a lot of chords and he's got an amazing ear. Very musical. I think he's a lot better musician than people give him credit for.
We went up there five or six times and then he wanted to go in the studio, Cherokee [Studios] on Fairfax, and we cut “Danville Girl.” Later he did a bunch of overdubs and changed it into “Brownsville Girl.” He wrote it with [playwright and actor] Sam Shepard. It's an interesting song in that the perspective shifts all over the place, it's kinda splintered. It shifts between past and present tense, first and second person. His approach was very spontaneous. He'd always be changin' things up. He'd have stuff written on paper bags or whatever. He'd take a break and come back and change things around.
But I still don't know whatever happened to the tape of that blues we did in New York. I'd like to hear it since apparently it's the best I ever played in my life!
Wavy Gravy: Before he did the Dylan and the Dead tour, he showed up at a Grateful Dead show, I think it was at the Kaiser. We were walkin' down the hall and suddenly there was Bob, so we sat down on the floor and started talkin' about old-time stuff, and at one point Bob says he'd like to come in and see the show, and I said, let me get some security guys, and he said, “No, no, I just wanna go in,” and I said, “Well, OK.” So we're sliding into the audience and he's doin' just fine and he's watchin' the show and the Dead are playin'. Then he puts his sunglasses on and everybody goes, “AHHHHHH! IT'S BOB DYLAN!” [laughs] and I had to get security guys to get him outta there in one piece! It was hilarious.
Johnny Rivers: We did Summerfest in Milwaukee about 15 years ago, he was on one stage and I was on another. He got done early, pulled his bus up behind ours, came into the dressing room for a while and we talked about our grandchildren! He asked me to play “Poor Side of Town” for him, so he sat over in the wings of the stage by himself in a chair, and it was about 120 degrees out and he had this sweatshirt on with a hood over his head. Nobody could see him except me and the guys in the band. [Laughs] When I played “Poor Side of Town” I just said this is for my friend Bob — no one knew who the hell I was talkin' about. After I finished the song he just got up and left. [Laughs]
Jim Keltner: One of my favorite times with Bob was on a [Traveling] Wilburys video shoot. It's not often that you get a chance to just hang out with Bob. He was held captive. We were standing in the dark watchin' Tom Petty do a scene. He'd told me something really interesting — it blew my mind — and I was gonna go tell Tom. Bob stopped me and he said, “Ya know, you don't have to go say everything you know all at once to everybody all the time.” Years later I read that in [the Book of] Proverbs. It really stuck with me. People say how his songwriting changed their lives or whatever. I have some stories like that, too, but I've never told him. It's probably not necessary to tell him how he's affected my life. I think he probably knows.
In addition to Dylan's Oh Mercy (1989) and Time Out of Mind (1997), Grammy winner Daniel Lanois has produced Neil Young, Willie Nelson, U2, Emmylou Harris and Peter Gabriel and collaborated with Brian Eno. He's also currently working with his own band, Black Dub.
Daniel Lanois: The Oh Mercy sessions were very concentrated, it was a living-room environment, so we were able to focus on Bob's vocal. There was not a lot of hullabaloo in there, it was Bob and me and then we brought in additional players as we needed them. I made sure we had a really, really great vocal sound and that we caught the nucleus in a proper fashion. I just wanted to make sure Bob's voice sounded really good and the songs were coming across. We made a record next to the coffee machine. [Laughs] It was not a very illustrious setting. Walk in the door, have a seat, there's the coffee machine. When he wasn't recording Bob'd go over to the coffee machine, have a cigarette, touch up some of the lyrics, and that was pretty much it.
It was not difficult. Pretty much nose to the grindstone. We weren't in there for that long. We hit on something pretty early on that seemed to be full of fidelity and emotion. I was just sittin' there and thinking, wow, we're really doin' it. Other than be his friend and curator and bodyguard for excellence, most of it came from the man himself.
[Right before recording Oh Mercy] Bob was traveling with an aggressive, powerful trio, and I went to hear him in New Orleans and I had no connection with what was going on onstage. I had no criticisms toward those players [but] I didn't know what to do. I thought, “Is this where Bob is at? Is this the kind of record he wants to make?” We huddled up after that performance and I said to him I didn't think the songs we had entertained up to that point, I didn't think that particular band would work out. So I decided to strip it down — 'cause I wanted to hear Bob play. He's a really good player, ya know? He's a roaring piano player and I like his guitar playing a lot. He's got great rhythm and his phrasing relates to his playing, so I wanted to make sure that his playing was there connected with his vocal — the same kind of thing you get when you listen to his early records on his own. You don't think somebody should be beatin' on a drum. [Laughs] I wasn't that interested in a rhythm section for Oh Mercy, I just wanted to hear Bob.
The record's got a lot of emotions in it about travel and movement. It's got a little bit of running away with the circus in it. It's just got enough mystery to keep you comin' back. It's a hard thing to get, man. I wouldn't wish it upon anybody else. It's not good for dilly-dallying or thinking, “Oh, boy, let me work on a Dylan record and it'll be great!” [Laughs] It's a journey, man, it's an intense emotional journey.
Engineer, producer and motorcycle enthusiast Mark Howard twisted the knobs on Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind while his longtime collaborator Daniel Lanois produced. Howard also produced Marianne Faithfull and Lucinda Williams.
Mark Howard: We didn't know him on Oh Mercy, so he was testing us in a way. He didn't talk to me the first two weeks makin' the record or even acknowledge I was in the room. We only really hit it off 'cause I had motorcycles in those days, a bunch of old Harleys. He asked me to get him one, so we hit it off on a motorcycle level. I asked him about his  accident when he was a kid and he came off that Triumph and got kind of spooked off bikes for a while. I think he rediscovered 'em just by hanging out with us and I got him this 1966 Electra Glide, first year of the Shovelhead, real amazing bike, baby blue and white. It was beautiful. He'd go riding every day on it. I think that's where he was doin' his thinkin'.
I've never seen anybody work so hard on lyrics in my life. He'll really concentrate on certain lines and think maybe that's giving the song away and he'll take the last line of the song and put it in the first part of the song and it kind of gives the song a bit of a twist and you can't figure out what it is he's talking about right away.
Strangeness does happen. [Laughs] If somebody walks into the room he doesn't know, he'll go into a character and hold out his finger to shake their hand. He has different characters. He's been perceived as a certain way his whole life, so he doesn't want to lose that mystery about him. But he's funny, he tells jokes just like anybody else.
Daniel Lanois: Time Out of Mind's got a lot of emotion in it too. Hey, when we work together, that's what we get. The challenges [recording Dylan] are the same as any other record: They have to be great. We can't be doing average work. Average is just not part of the equation. [On Time Out of Mind, for instance,] if you're going to be recording material that has a foot in tradition, you can't sound like a bar band. You have to reinvent a tone to a traditional way of speaking. For a bunch of guys to huddle up and play the blues is a yawn, in my opinion, unless it's multilayered and complex and the emotion has a reason to exist. These are the qualities I look for when I'm working with someone. I don't want to just be making a record of shuffles. The more forces you have in the room, the more things happen through osmosis. I think Bob really felt that there was something happening there he hadn't felt in a while.
Mark Howard: We mastered Time Out of Mind in L.A., and that's when he was very sick [Dylan contracted histoplasmosis, a life-threatening fungal infection, in 1997] and he was jacked up on whatever they were giving him. We'd be in the middle of mastering and I'd be getting phone calls at 3 in the morning, he'd change his mind on a song. “Ya know that song ''Til I Fell in Love With You'? Can we go in there and take the very last line and stick it in the first line of the song and put the first line at the end.' [Laughs] He'd come up with these crazy things. I didn't know if it was from his medication or he was just bein' really clever.
He does something I've never seen before. He writes his songs on a typewriter or they're just words in his head, and so he doesn't have any musical changes for them — they're just words. So when he goes in to record them, he's never played them before. He'll try doin' the song in C and he'd lower it and see how his voice sounds down lower. Every take that we'd do would be in a different key. For musicians it's difficult, it's like having to relearn the whole song again.
Arrangements, keys and lyrics [were developed while recording]. He wouldn't have many of the songs written down, there was nothing on paper — it was all in his head. Bob wouldn't wear headphones. I had to have a set of stereo speakers in front of him. From the time he walks in till the time he leaves, he's totally focused. He works hard on his lyrics — he'd have a piece of paper that had words every which way you can think of — upside down, sideways. If you looked at the paper you couldn't read it 'cause it didn't make any sense to you 'cause it's just words on paper. He had this system where he'd pull from it. A lot of people got their songs in their books. This guy's got 'em in his head and he's got these little road maps. It's funny — I asked him how he gets his ideas for songs and he said, “I walk around in crowds and I listen to what people are sayin'.”
Actor, musician, photographer and artist Jeff Bridges played the role of the reporter Tom Friend in Masked and Anonymous, the 2003 film that starred and was co-written by Dylan.
Jeff Bridges: I got to play, hang out and act with him in this movie, Masked and Anonymous. Larry Charles, who created Seinfeld, is a big Bob fan, and Bob and Larry worked on this script for a few years. It was Larry's first film, and he encouraged me to participate as much as I could as far as all the acting stuff. We shot the whole thing on hi-def in about two weeks.
I can remember a day when Bob and I spent the day improvising together, which is basically kind of playing pretend like when you were a kid. They were around scenes that we were shooting in the movie, so we'd do it with the lines, then take the lines away and do it with the same kind of intentions the characters were having. I was kinda playing one of you guys, so to improvise on that is fun. [Laughs] We just jammed on these scenes and we had a great time. Bob really took to it.
I'm surprised more people didn't dig [the film]. It's like one of those epic Dylan tunes, but a filmed version. And the music in it is terrific. I've always admired him as an actor.
I can remember one day sittin' in my trailer waiting and there's a knock on the door and it's Bob and he says, “Hey, ya wanna pick a little bit?” [Laughs] Yeah! He came in, picked a few tunes. I'm a big fan of that song he did in Natural Born Killers — [sings] “See the pyramids along the Nile” — “You Belong to Me.” I love his guitar playing in that, his whole delivery. So we played that and then I played him a song of mine. I can't remember everything we played, but just to be there [laughs] was like a dream come true. I was surprised my fingers were able to work.
The general impression I got from him was kind of an ancient child, a very wise ancient child. He had such enthusiasm and openness, yet he had this wizened feeling, very wise and very young all at the same time. His excitement about what we were trying was so fresh, he was so up for it.
Johnny Rivers: I always thought of Bob as the first rapper [laughs] and a song stylist. He had a sound in his voice that was very identifiable, just like Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. I think Bob could've been a great interpreter of songs had he not written the songs he did, and probably would've been successful. You could tell he could really sing and hold notes, especially when he did that album with “Lay Lady Lay” where he changed the sound of his voice [Nashville Skyline]. The fact is that Bob had a better voice than most people give him credit for.
Lisa Law: When I saw him playing at the Grammys in February, he had 11 people in the band behind him [Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons] and he was singing and playing harmonica without his guitar. He was smiling! He's changing now — smiling more often. There was a period where he wouldn't look at his audience. He wouldn't relate to them whatsoever. He'd sing his songs in a way he never sang 'em before so the audience was confused. [Laughs] People would walk out of his concerts! Other times he'd really get down, really play, have fun and sing great!
The magic about Bob was that he always looked different and sang different. People used to call me: “Why is he doing this? Why is he doing that?” I would say Dylan's never going to be the same. He always changes. He always surprises you. That's who he is. The only thing that I don't quite understand about him is when this whole Iraqi war was going on and he had the opportunity in his concerts to sing his songs like “Masters of War,” “License to Kill,” “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,” “With God on Our Side” and “Gates of Eden” — his antiwar songs — that he didn't lead the brigade against the war. He said he wasn't like that. He wasn't political. The audiences were ready to sing along with him.
Billy James: To this day people still get pissed off at things that Bob does. We have the shining current example of Maureen Dowd [the New York Times columnist who last month wrote a condemnation of Dylan's recent live appearances in China, calling him a “sellout”]. The blogosphere fucking exploded because of what she wrote. It comes from the enormous high regard that we have for those whom we idolize. When they don't fit our perception of them, we feel dismay or anger. We just freak out. And I include myself among them. As I emailed Ms. Dowd after she wrote that, I was puzzled when Bob did a commercial for Victoria's Secret. It just didn't fit my perception of the guy. Similarly when he was the opening act for Mandalay Bay, a new Las Vegas casino, I thought, “Bob? Las Vegas? I don't get it.” But that says more about me than it says about Bob.
Jim Keltner: I was with a close friend who's a huge Dylan fan. It was in the papers recently how Bob had gone to Beijing. My friend was making this point how he was disappointed in Bob because the young Bob Dylan wouldn't have backed down when the Chinese government officials wanted to mess with his set list. I countered that it's probably true that the young Bob would've said, “OK, forget it.” But the older and wiser Bob realizes that maybe he should take the opportunity to play in China and that the youth there — like youth everywhere — will want to dig deeper and find out what all the fuss is about. They would never have been able to at all had he said, “Forget about it, I'm not playin'.”
Wavy Gravy: Bob broke the mold of songwriting. It went from “June-loon-spoon” to “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” That's quite a jump. He's become really reclusive in his geezerhood. A lot of people really miss him. When he smiles onstage, it's maybe once a year and everybody goes berserk. I think he could use some more yuks and a little permission to move about without gettin' glommed on. That somehow comes with the territory when you get to be that famous. It came at him early on. Suddenly he was the pied piper, poet laureate of the generation and everybody thought that he possessed the cure to all their problems and could tell them how to run their life. He looked in the mailbox and there'd be five people in it. It got really hard to be Bob, so he had to shut himself off, and that's no fun.
Ronee Blakley: [With Dylan turning] 70 and with all of us aging — as we are right along with him — songs like “It's not dark yet, but it's getting there” [“Not Dark Yet,” from 1997's Time Out of Mind] have so much meaning, because as we age we still need our heroes, our champions, our poets, our muses. We need people who tell us how it feels, so we can also feel. Even now, he's still doing it. He's still fresh because his take on everything is still immediate, intimate, personal, truthful. He can be harsh and he can be tender. Whatever it is, it still means something.
Daniel Lanois: [With Dylan] you get the impression that something is speaking to you. I think that's the difference between art and entertainment, ya know? Entertainment you leave and say, “Wow, wasn't that great?” With art you leave and you think, I might want to change something about my life or how I view things philosophically. Bob has spoken to a lot of people over the years, and when that happens — when you touch a heart and provide some kind of life wisdom … something as simple as “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” to look at poverty the way you've never looked at it before. To be sympathetic. That's the power of song and that's the power of Bob.
Kinky Friedman: Bob's 70 years old, but he writes at the 72-year-old level. In an age when the Internet and technology has made it almost impossible to be a hero, Bob remains one. That's very difficult to do. It's some of the obstacles he overcame and some of the failures and tragedies and challenges, how he handled all that, very much like he handled touring with the Band, people were booing him off the stage. He wouldn't let 'em do it, he would not leave the stage, he wouldn't succumb to it. That takes pawnshop balls. That's the way heroes have to be. And there won't be anymore because in the Internet world we all think we're music critics and guitar players and stars and I don't think there'll be a Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart or Bob Dylan. The culture has serious ADHD, as demonstrated by the rise and fall of Glenn Beck, for instance.
Bob remains a very mysterious and interesting cat and a hero. Those you can count on one hand. He's very much like Willie Nelson: If he stopped he would die. And if he doesn't stop, he's gonna keep goin'. So may the god of his choice bless him. He's been like a spiritual big brother to me. I've always looked up to him for wisdom and advice. To Bob on his birthday, I'd like to say, may the best of the past be the worst of the future. Shalom.
[Thanks to all our interviewed witnesses and to Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Mitch Blank, Lisa Finnie, Michael Ochs, Michael Hacker, Domenic Priore, Henry Diltz, Brad Elterman, Jean Sievers, Emily Aguilar, Richard Bosworth, Margaret Marissen, Jim Dickson (RIP) and Tiina Bockrath.]