A rock journalist who grew up on Bob Dylan looks back on the signposts of his relationship to an entire generation’s mentor, from his teenage years in the Village to witnessing the master go electric at Newport to living in Dylan’s Woodstock Byrdcliffe House and beyond.
A Peek Inside the Mind of the Poet Laureate
When I was a kid in the Bronx making deliveries for my dad’s grocery store on College Avenue, I had an epiphany listening to my transistor radio. Leaping out of that little box that normally issued forth the scratchy sounds of Neil Sedaka, Buddy Holly and Murray the K were the funky rhyming couplets of an avatar I would later hold to my chest and keep within my heart, the voice of my future generation and the poet of the Modern Age.
It was Bob Dylan and it was strange, catchy, raw and genius, singing “Subterannean Homesick Blues”:
Johnny’s in the basement, mixin’ up the medicine
I’m on the pavement, thinkin’ about the government
The man in a trench coat, badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off
Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did
God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alleyway, looking for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap in a pig pen
Wants 11 dollar bills – you only got 10
From that moment, as they say in memoir-land, I was hooked. I went out and bought the album it was on, “Bringing it All Back Home,” Dylan’s groundbreaking LP that added electric instruments from the Chuck Berry school of music to the angry protest-oriented folk song culture that Dylan was the champion of. It was the fifth studio album by the American singer-songwriter, released on March 22, 1965. When my mom, an immigrant from Poland who had survived concentration camps and learned English by listening to Elvis on the AM radio in the kitchen as she cooked up her kasha varnishkehs, heard those raspy lyrics issuing forth from the same radio, she was flabbergasted and not a little bit miffed.
“Vot iz dett chicken-scratching?” she says with disdain. “I mean, ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” is one thing but this guy sounds like he’s caught his foot in a bear trap.” But this dichotomy was destined to be our eternal generation gap. Forget about my father, an opera-lover who wouldn’t know a folk song if it wasn’t a “Fiddler on the Roof” antecedent or at the very least a niggun from the Radomsker Rebbe.
We interrupt this intergenerational discourse to bring you this snippet from Wikipedia:
Robert Allen Zimmerman (Hebrew name Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham) was born in St. Mary’s Hospital on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Iron Range west of Lake Superior. His paternal grandparents, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, emigrated from Odessa in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) to the United States following the antisemitic pogroms of 1905. His mother’s grandparents, Benjamin and Lybba Edelstein, were Lithuanian Jews – (known in my hood as Litvaks) – who arrived in the United States in 1902. In his autobiography “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan writes that his paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Kyrgyz and her family originated from Istanbul.
25th July 1965: Bob Dylan goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival
“Dylan Goes Electric” Controversy at Newport
As we approached the festival stage after a hard day’s night of driving from the Catskills I was just as excited to hear the Butterfield sounds booming across the PA as I was with the anticipation of seeing Dylan. Then when I found out the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were going to be the back-up band for Dylan (sans Butter and augmented by keyboardist Al Kooper), that was the superfecta to this novice harmonica player.
What I remember about the night itself was lining up with all these ragtag people to get into the place as the band warmed up to the tune of blues riffs that ricocheted across the hills and crannies of the fairgrounds – and the chatter that was going on. I wound up being closer to the back, lining up with all these folkie/Americana/Hippie Beatniks and as you were going up the hill you could hear the unmistakable sounds of Dylan’s amplified harmonica and the booming bass and Mike Bloomfield’s riffs screaming out. The anticipation was: What is Dylan going to be blasting us with? It wasn’t the folk purist thing. He was going to be messing with the Holy Grail that the Newport quote-Folk-unquote Festival was supposed to be about.
To me, it was great: “Like a Rolling Stone,” he was belting it out. Then we started to hear these raucous sounds and I thought they were saying, “Down in front!” so they might see what’s going on. It wasn’t what was supposedly reported where the crowd booed the electric guitar numbers.
Now, this has been written about ad infinitum: whether Dylan’s appearance on that stage as the headliner with a pickup group drawn mostly from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, featuring Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Sam Lay (drums) and Jerome Arnold (bass), plus Al Kooper (organ) and Barry Goldberg (piano) playing loud, powerful instruments in contrast to the quiet banjos and fiddles of the folkie movement was greeted with cheers or jeers.
Dylan had appeared at Newport in 1963 and 1964, but in 1965 my reluctant apostle, met with a mix of cheering and booing, left the stage after only three songs – he played “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh. It Takes a Train to Cry.” What happened after that is the subject of much debate. As one version of the legend has it, the boos were from the outraged folkies whom Dylan had alienated by showing up at this Church of the Royal Folk with an electric guitar.
An alternative account claims audience members were merely upset by poor sound quality and a surprisingly short set. As soon as he strapped on his Stratocaster, the jeering and yelling from what could only ironically be described as the cognoscenti of banjo & fiddle devotees in the audience grew loud enough nearly to drown out the sound of Dylan and his band. It has been stated by some who witnessed the historic performance that some of the yelling from the audience that night was about the terrible sound quality of the performance – high-decibel and poorly mixed with a soupcon of dodgy sound that rendered Dylan’s vocals unintelligible.
Or so they say. From where I was sitting – er, standing that night in the rear of the crowd, it didn’t sound like boos. I thought they were yelling “Down in front!” That’s why I was standing, because you couldn’t really see much with everybody clamoring up there. It was the Day the Music Got Loud, the Night that Bob Went Electric, and for me and my buddy Jerry Seidenfeld captured sleeping it off on a cot on page twenty of David Gahr’s “Festival Songbook,” it was all pure psychedelic funk.
David Gahr, the brilliant photographer whose “Festival Songbook” and many published photos of the burgeoning counterculture were a sign of the times, was a friend of mine, who used to hang out – along with Dylan, George Harrison, Paul Simon and other Greenwich Village superstars at my friend Matt Umanov’s guitar shop on Bedford Street in the Village. It was also David, that wizened photographic chronicler of the Folk Music Movement, who told me on the street outside Matt’s shop to always keep a good head and always “Get the money!” A whole drawerful of Dylan prints Dave gave me were stolen from my garage in Santa Monica years later. I have a couple still and this pic of Jerry tells a poignant tale.
What I remember about the night itself is lining up with all these ragtag people to get into the place as the band warmed up to the tune of blues riffs that ricocheted across the hills and crannies of the fairgrounds – and the chatter that was going on. I wound up being closer to the back, and as you were going up the hill you could hear the unmistakable sounds of the amplified harmonica and the booming bass and Mike Bloomfield’s riffs screaming out.
Flashforward 67 years and Dylan is back on the road with his “Rough & Rowdy Ways” U.S. Tour, scheduled to hit LA’s Pantages Theatre June 14 and he’s getting the same reaction now that he did all those years ago [by regularly rearranging his songs], never content to sing the same song the same way – ever. To me, as a lifelong fan, it’s all the same thing, a continuum.
And Jerry and I, died-in-the-beanie Bronx Dylanologists that we were, saw a similar half-electric, half-acoustic show at the Mosque Theater in Newark in the Fall of ’65. No booing there from where I sat – this time in the front row. It was the faithful and they couldn’t get enough. PS, the backing band was The Band by this time. God bless Albert Grossman, Dylan’s wizened manager.
On a personal note re Newport ’65: The performance by Mel Lyman of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band at a harmonica workshop the next morning was where I miraculously learned how to play harmonica. From that day on, it all fell into place and I became the virtuoso that I am today. If you google Mel you will find some Rolling Stone articles about his leading a cult, an urbane Boston version of what Manson and the kids would become known for. Well, he did have some powers. Until that day, I had always carried my little harmonica around with me, driving people crazy on the Grand Concourse city bus as I tried to get some sounds out of it, unsuccessfully. When I strolled up to this harmonica workshop at Newport the day after Dylan’s debut, there was Mel, teaching the faithful a rendition of the folkie chestnut “More Pretty Girls Than One.” Noticing that he was using a C harmonica, same key as the one I had, I started to play along. As if by mystical magic, it all fell into place and I was playing that tune along with Mel like I was a Jug Band regular! As he began to blow that harp, I played along with him – in tune and mellifluous. Praise the Laird! All of a sudden I realized that I knew how to play the harmonica. I have been a blues harp player ever since.
Bob Dylan & The Band “Forever Young” – A Tribute To Bob Dylan
Byrdcliffe, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Face the Music in Woodstock
Fast-forward to a place I spent some formative years in and which occupies a major component of my subconscious to this day: the house in Woodstock, NY, down a dirt road from Upper Byrdcliffe Way, a deeply rustic magnificent structure with surrounding elf-infested grounds which I roamed and rambled in my post-traumatic stupor that came with the territory of being a hippie vagabond abruptly ousted by a self-inflicted wound to my psyche caused by the realization that I had been a graduate Teaching Assistant in Toronto living with a bunch of draft dodgers and deserters, beatniks and bohemians in an acid-tinged fog whose epiphany gave me the angel wings of flight from academia to nasdrovia in the jingle-jangle morning I’ll come fah-lowing you.
How did I wind up here? That is a whole ’nother story. But it’s related. It’s all related.
You see – to quote Dylan again, get used to it – “Time passes slowly here in the mountains.” And the road to those mountains, to mix a metaphor, was a long and winding one, not totally unrelated to George Harrison, the Beatle who uttered it. As commemorated by the echt-photographer of all things Woodstock-Levon-Band-related, a photo by Elliott Landy (I’m guessing circa-1968, in the same enclave where he shot the Dylan-with-a-Gibson Hummingbird-gift-of-George cover of “Nashville Skyline”), a picture of Bob Dylan and George Harrison looking out the window of a funky freestanding shack is an instant karma icon of the spot where I spent many a cozy afternoon playing eight-ball and nine-ball on the mini-pool table that was its centerpiece. Those low-hanging lamps you see behind George and Bob, I ran out that table underneath them not two years after this visit.
George Harrison & Bob Dylan /”Yesterday” (1970) at Dylan’s Woodstock Home on Byrdcliffe Road
The pictures in this video take me back to Thanksgiving, 1970. I lived in the Byrdcliffe House with my CCNY alumni buddies Artie Traum and Mickey Friedman. Zim made the occasional appearance – very occasional – having removed himself and his wife and kids to the Macdougal Street (more on that connection later) building where he presumably was licking his metaphorical wounds from the very upsetting motorcycle accident he suffered in the ’Stock. I remember it like it was yesterday, the way he pronounced Artie’s name in his occasional phone calls. “Hello Ortie, this is Bahb,” is how King of Comedy Artie Traum repeated it for us after one of these greetings. And sure enough, the midWestern twang came through that way when I picked up the phone and it was Bob.
Artie and Happy Traum (Artie died in 2008) were the legendary duo that appeared on several Dylan albums (“Greatest Hits, Vol.2” and “Another Self Portrait”) and when I moved to Woodstock and started making candles and playing music there, the family took me in. My buddy Artie Traum (R.I.P.) was house-sitting for Bob and he graciously invited me and my roommate Mickey Friedman to stay there.
When Harrison visited New York in late April and early May 1970 he spent 48 hours making music with Dylan, first at his new townhouse at 94 MacDougal Street in the West Village, then the following day at Columbia’s Studio B. The repertoire included a solemn stab at “Yesterday” and numerous Dylan compositions, from old classics (“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”) to songs intended for New Morning, the album he was working on in 1970. They also attempted several oldies and oddities, among them “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Matchbox” and “Cupid.” Many of the recordings were jokes or brief snippets, but on his return to London Harrison recorded three of the songs – “I’d Have You Anytime,” “If Not for You” and “I Don’t Want to Do It” – during the sessions for his first solo album proper, All Things Must Pass.
A key relationship until the very end of his life, its origins in 1968 proved genuinely catalytic in terms of Harrison’s metamorphosis from Beatle George to solo superstar. “Writing and playing with Bob definitely gave him an extra sense of validation,” said Pattie Boyd Harrison at the time.
My thought-dreams companion to the Bob/George Harrison pic in which they peer out the window of the “Pool Shack”: I stayed at the Byrdcliffe house in 1969-70 after the cabin I rented on Yerry Hill Road burned down. I have particularly fond memories of this window where Bob and George are smiling through. It is a freestanding cabin in front of the house that was a fully equipped “pool hall” on the property. I spent many a moonlit evening in that room. “If I could go back to that room again …”
If My Thought Dreams Could Be Seen, They’d Probably Put My Head in a Guillotine….
The timeline of my residency coincides with Dylan’s descent from Woodstock back to Greenwich Village, where I chronicled his encounters with “Dylanologist/Garbagologist” A.J. Weberman. Well, my tenure in Dylan’s house in Woodstock wasn’t exactly a marathon, limited as it was to picking up the phone and getting that Minnesota twang, “Hello, this is Bahb. Is Ortie there?”
Once Dylan had moved back to Greenwich Village from Upstate New York in 1970, Weberman took to rifling through his garbage. That same year, Weberman began lecturing in Dylanology at the left-wing Alternate University of New York. At this time, Weberman’s organization The Dylan Liberation Front lamented that Dylan had become a “reactionary force in rock,” a view that was echoed among the radical left. Rolling Stone magazine called Weberman “the king of all Dylan nuts,” who has also been described as obsessively stalking Dylan. In late summer 1971, Dylan – annoyed that Weberman had reneged on their agreement that he would no longer dig through his garbage – assaulted Weberman on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan.
To borrow another Dylan phrase, Part II of this saga has me “Bringing it All Back Home” So now that I am ruminating on those hazy Woodstock days – my first acid trip took place in a house there starting off with a soundtrack provided by Doctor John and winding up in the snow on Overlook Mountain – and I will end this chapter with a story that brings me full circle to a harmonica player I have always considered my mentor. It was at a house party celebrating Artie’s wedding and I was playing my blues harp with a star-studded Woodstock combo. I was in the zone, wailing with my electrified harmonica on a song I had learned from a Paul Butterfield album, “Driftin’ Blues.” And out of the corner of my eye, I spy a heavy-set, hulking presence checking me out – approvingly, I could tell from the looks on the faces of my fellow musicians.
That’s right, it was Paul Butterfield! Who is up there jamming as I write this with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King and B.B. God rest his soul … and Artie Traum’s too.
Stay Tuned for Part Two
From the forthcoming “Conversations with Rock Stars: Confessions of a Rock and Roll Zelig” Shmoozing and Cruising from Dylan to Zappa and Back Again by Noë Gold, coming soon from a major publisher.
Noë Gold is the Founding Editor of Guitar World magazine, has held editing positions at Crawdaddy, the Hollywood Reporter and Movies USA, and been a columnist for the Village Voice and the New York Daily News. He is the author of articles and books on the music of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder, Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King, among others.