Bob Dylan Turns 70. An L.A. Weekly
By Michael Simmons Thursday, May 12 2011
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."]