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How Dylan Found His Voice

by LENNI BRENNER

I don’t say I was Bob Dylan’s room-mate. Calling some-one your room-mate means that at least one of us paid rent. It was the winter of 1961. I was crashing at banjo-picker Paul Shoenwetter’s pad on East 4th Street between Avenue C and D, in what is now called the East Village, but which we knew as the Lower East Side, along with Vince Hickey, a jazz drummer, and Tom Condit, a socialist buddy, when St. Paul brought in yet another stray.

Vince married black, to the daughter of Victoria Spivey, an ol’ timey blues singer. He was an encyclopedia on ragtime. Tom and I were up to our asses in the civil rights struggle. Bob, at 19, going on 20, 4 years younger than me, was our junior colleague. He couldn’t be expected to say much that was new or interesting or amusing to us worldlings. However we recognized a marvelous musician, and welcomed him into our fraternity of the rebellious, brilliant and crazy.

The highpoint of one chat is chiseled into stone. Peyote was still legal. The problem was that it tasted like tiger piss going down. Then it upsets your stomach. But that’s the best news it ever had. That means the veggie was kickin’ in. It gave me spectacular eyes-closed color visions and the tummy-ache vanished.

Tom processed some. He ground-up a batch of dried up fist-sized buds, and put the powder into gelatin caps. That solves the taste problem. He laid 50 caps on me and split. I took 30 and was waiting for them to come on, when Bob walked in. I gave him the 20. He downed them, told of a near-by party and left. After my technicolor show came on, I walked over.

I vote the winter of 1961 as New York’s greatest. Four fulsome blizzards had left huge mounds everywhere, and then, on Friday night-Saturday morning, February 3-4, another storm dumped 17.4 inches on the city. The total accumulation was the greatest ever. For the first time, the mayor had to ban non-essential traffic so plows could clear a lane down the side streets, with many parked cars buried for months under humongous glaciers. For me, high, those streets, with icicles as big as they get, hanging off tenement fire-escapes, were the once-in-eternity Siberia-in-the-Apple, well past any piddling prophet’s paltry Paradise.

The party was at the home of Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Bob was adding whiskey to the peyote, as he, Mark Spoelstra and other folkies played in a back room.

After dawn on Sunday, the 5th, I left for Paul’s. I was alone when Bob came in, 20 minutes later. We chatted about the night, and I got on him about a southern song they sang, Just lookin’ for a Home. “Bob, you never saw a boll weevil. Mark never did. None of us have. If one flew in the window, or crawled in under the door, or whatever the hell they do, we wouldn’t recognize it. Stop singing about boll weevils and sing about your own life and times.”

He was slouched on a couch. In a hot second he was upright, his smiling young face suddenly electrically alive: “That’s what Joe Williams told me!” His new maturing face mirrored his thinking as the implications of what we said sank in. Others have that experience. Someone tells us something but it doesn’t click until someone else slams it in.

It is idle to speculate as to whether Bob could have eventually figured out by himself that he had to do his own thing. I say with certainty that Big Joe and I were, in life, the agencies that propelled him to his destiny. I remember nary another word. But his expressions were unforgettable. Here was the most gifted young musician-poet of his time and place suddenly getting his act together as an adult and performer.

For at least the first minute, almost two, after his exclamation, his thoughts put themselves spontaneously onto his face. His initial reception of my statement was followed by a series of self-induced facial shocks as he silently cooked our old/new ideas in his pot. Then he regained his composure, leaned towards me with his elbows on his thighs and we talked for a few more minutes. Then, as we had been up for a heap of hours, we crashed. There was no doubt that both of us thought a profound thing had happened to him.

Of course I had no idea that he would make such an impact on the world. But that visual scene was hardly one that anyone could forget, even if it happened with a nobody. To be sure, it wasn’t quite as if the scales immediately fell from his eyes and he received sight forthwith and arose and was baptized, as with Saul becoming Paul. But thru his cogitations he did spring up and go. The few words remembered and circa 10 minutes forgotten are how the mind sometimes turns events into memory. A highlight stands in for a whole conversation. The physical details are so vivid because the night was so spectacular and my vision was keyed up by peyote.

As his career took off shortly after, in the full bloom of our friendship, I had further reason to think about that morning, and lock in the incident. I’m sure that he saw it the same way. For the next two years, I was his wise buddy, who pulled his coat on a crux matter for him as a poet and person. In any case, we got up in the Winter dark. We had no food. Bob cleared out first, saying “I have to do some writing.” Yea verily, a bright young fellow came into that pad, a full man went out.

I never asked him what Big Joe actually said. But we get the spirit of it in Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home. Williams’ recalled that “Bob…wrote me thanking me for the advice I had given him about music. What he earned, what he done, he got it honest. They ask me: ‘Is he real?’ And I tell them that they should let him live his own life.”

Being in on the pad’s chats, he understood my “sing about your own life and times” to be more ideologically loaded than Williams’ “live his own life.” I was also able to musically critique him because I had heard many of the best folksingers of the day and had listened to thousands of folk songs on records. In that period, Dave Van Ronk introduced me to Allen Lomax, the great field-collector. After listening to them, I read Lomax on the complex stylistic evolution of American folk music. It was obvious to me that what we call the folk music tradition was actually innumerable singers doing the old songs and making up new ones about their lives and times.

The ideological level varied from none to highly political. It is a myth that folk singers were all poor and illiterate or nearly so. And some were musically highly cultured via their churches. Accordingly, Bob welded our notions together because I added the obligation that his art should reflect our times – his, Mark’s, mine – its experiences and demands, to Williams’ down-home blues sagacity.

Yet note again how the kingly power, chance, plays with us. If I had to be ahead of time to drink with Woody, I had to be the 2nd to hit Bob like the sun, moon and stars falling on him. We ran into each other over the next two years, at Gerde’s Folk City and other hangouts, notably Dave and Terri Thal’s crib. Terri was Bob’s first manager. They were fellow Trotskyists. Bob was there, sometime after his return from his 1962 trip to Europe. Boll weevil Bob told me how he didn’t like to work in clubs for pay because “the people I want to play for can’t afford the admission.”

He ground on, all about how his record company took advantage of his youth to screw him financially, and how he had to make bootleg British records as Blind Boy Grunt. Management atrocity tales were boring old news to a seasoned red, so I tried to get him off himself. “That’s very deep Bob.” He shot back: “How deep is deep? Forty inches? Six feet?” With him completely wrapped up in his career, my like-it-is sarcasm zipped over his self-centered head. But his verbal facility was evident even in that answer that ain’t an answer.

I bumped into him on 6th Avenue and Waverly in the Village in the Spring of 1963. I offered to pay the bill for a coffee. I explained that I had sold a silver goblet boosted from a Reformed Jewish Temple. He smiled and we went to what was then a plain American greasy spoon, now the Waverly Resturant, got us a table and enjoyed the fruits of what we knew was a crime.

My ex-Christian ex-gal had taken me to a Village Episcopal church. After the ceremony, I went up to the alter and did for to partake of my first communion, without benefit of clergy. I took a wafer from a vessel. Yea, verily, Jerusalem Slim’s body is like unto a Napoleon pastry. So, in return for certaintly on a subtle point of Christian ritual that had perplexed Jewish minds for centuries, I led her thru the open doors of an empty sanctum we happened upon in those innocent, pre-crime wave days, down the aisle and onto the raised rabbi’s platform. The ritual goblet held some of what looked like wine, except that it didn’t smell of alcohol. Coke, in a sacred vessel b efore an altar, is, by American law, a religion, to be protected from desecration. Good. Even great. I’m describing a legal transgression that doesn’t merit repetition. But, in the real American 20th century, that Temple wasn’t Judaism. And in the 21st century Reform ain’t even religion. Its what a minority of Jewish kids grow up doing if they live in our secular Coke present, but are hung up on their parents’ ancestral religion. A book of proverbial truths, spiritual fantasties and barbaric war stories, also reduced, in the physical world, from the perpetual miracle of intoxicating wine, down to flat soda, in an empty shrine.

Bob approved of the double miracle, the conversion of a profaned vessel into capitalist lucre, and then into coffee and snacks, because he also had a contemptuous familiarity with Reform’s instant platitudes.

I don’t remember every word that passed between us. I told him I was heading back to the Bay Area and its politics. After maybe an hour, he felt “a song coming on.” “You know I love to hear you say that.” I left my buddy pen in hand.

Shortly after I took off for Berkeley. We’ve had no contact since. If history records me, it will be as a historian and political activist. Beyond that, my advice to Bob that winter morning will be seen as my proudest artistic contribution. His radical songs will live on. But do a good deed and throw it into the sea. His later theological trapeze act, swinging between Jesus and the late Lubavicher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, can only be described as the all-time-most-pathetic American Jewish tragi-comedy shtik.

LENNI BRENNER, editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis, can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com

 

 

Lenni Brenner is the author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators. He can be contacted at BrennerL21@aol.com.

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