A music editor who once lived in Dylan’s Woodstock House, jammed with Van Morrison, Albert King, John Lee Hooker and the next generation of Blues-Rock artists reflects on his odyssey to enlightenment in the orbit of an American icon.
How did I wind up here? Living the dream in Woodstock, NY – in Bob Dylan’s house no less – jamming every other night at the Elephant Café on Rock City Road with the local musicians including keyboardist/songwriter extraordinaire Eric Kaz (Blues Magoos, “Love Has No Pride”), fiddler/guitarist maestro Larry Packer (Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys, Sha Na Na) and my CCNY college buddy Artie Traum. That is a whole ’nother story. But it’s related. It’s all related.
The timeline of my residency coincides with Dylan’s descent from Woodstock back to Greenwich Village, where I first encountered Dylan at a club called the Gaslight Café on Macdougal Street. I’d been frequenting Greenwich Village since my time at Rabbi Jacob Joseph High School a few subway stops away on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, both after school and cutting school in 1963 to spend time in a far more educational milieu, given my interest in blues music. Greenwich Village was my graduate school of life, music, poetry and bohemian culture. I spent many Saturdays around the fountain in Washington Square Park, where you could stroll around hearing the most wonderful bluegrass bands and combos, among them some folks I later got to know from the folk music scene at City College – Jody Stecher (Ali Akhbar Khan), Dave Grisman (Grateful Dead), Andy May and yes, my good friend Artie Traum, who later invited me to stay in Dylan’s Woodstock house. Artie – bless his heart – also made the referral to the editors at Crawdaddy, where I got my first real job that wasn’t driving a taxi or a truck – as the Music Editor.
I was already well-versed in the Dylan lore, dating to a Robert Shelton New York Times article that called him a “… bright new face in folk music, resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik. … trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch.”
By 1965 I was worshipping every Tuesday night at the Gaslight, where Dave Van Ronk held court in a weekly residency known as Hootenanny Night. Known as “The Mayor of Macdougal Street” for his dominion over the epicenter of the Village music scene, Van Ronk had a breadth of musical knowledge that went far beyond the sometimes narrow “folk” confines of that scene into a breadth of American styles. The dark and intimate basement club looked and felt a good bit like the one shown in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (the Oscar Isaak starrer biopic loosely based on aspects of Van Ronk’s life). It was certainly not your usual folk gig when I first saw Hendrix sitting in with Hammond at the Gaslight.
It was across the street from his customary perch at the Café Wha? – a “basket house” where Jimi played for spare change, riffing on all the Otis Rush and Albert King songs he’d studied off records – the same records that I had in my collection. The set by Hammond and “Jimmy James” – the moniker he adopted for his first group the Blue Flames with Randy Wolfe aka California, later of Spirit – was a nasty, amped-up performance of rural country-blues and deep Chicago blues songs from the repertoire of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Howlin Wolf, most of them off of Hammond’s seminal 1965 “So Many Roads” album, which Hendrix knew intimately, having studied it intensely. On it, Hammond was backed by Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson – later to become The Band – along with Mike Bloomfield on piano (not guitar) and “Memphis Charlie” Musselwhite on harp.
It was truly a privilege to be among the 30 or so people that night who were digging these two urban bluesmen playing the shit out of these songs on electric guitars. And on many other Tuesday nights, it was not uncommon to see Dylan just hanging out, talking smack to the waitresses as he stood in the back of the room digging performances by his friend Jack Elliott, “The Brooklyn Cowboy” and Paul Siebel, Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs and other Village folkie icons.
The Jokerman, the Thief and the Jack of Hearts
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
These lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which I quote from the smoke dreams of my mind and only their literary personal significance, are for me the touchstone, the throughline, the six degrees of connection to all my youthful obsessions. Released in 1967, the Summer of Love, on his stark “John Wesley Harding,” which he recorded after his motorcycle accident while living in that Woodstock house, it synthesizes Dylan’s musical roots of Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson in its phrasing and country blues style. The cover photo was made at the home of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. I won’t get into some pundits’ assertion that Grossman was the “Thief” but I will say that the song is an allegory about the music business.
What interests me is Dylan’s assertion – in his seminal autobiography “Chronicles: Volume One” – that Jimi Hendrix’ version of the song (recorded with the Jimi Hendrix Experience for their third studio album, “Electric Ladyland” – 1968) is superior to his own original version and that, according to Wikipedia, “…Dylan first played the song live in concert on the Bob Dylan and the Band 1974 Tour, his first tour since 1966. His live performances have been influenced by Hendrix’ cover, to the extent that they have been called covers of a cover. The singer has performed the song live more than any of his other ones, with over 2,250 recitals.”
OK, so here is the first degree of separation: My friend Larry Packer’s Band Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys’ first album, “The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away,” was produced by Jimi Hendrix. The association with Hendrix came through the band meeting him in New York City, where they were the house band at Café Wha? across Macdougal Street from the aforementioned Gaslight. Cat Mother was initially managed by Michael Jeffery, who also managed Hendrix. Cat Mother opened for Hendrix on several occasions, as a result.
Another Zelig-like connection that comes to mind is the night in 1965 at the Café Au Gogo on Bleecker Street when Hendrix, then known as Jimmy James, rocked the house, Bloomfield, Keith Richards and a certain bass player for the Animals among them named Chas Chandler, who would eventually spirit the gangly Seattle bluesman to the British Isles, where his transformation… but I am getting ahead of myself. I tend to ramble. I can’t hardly believe it but I was there too! And I have written about it elsewhere.
North of the Border, Draft Dodger Blues – a Digression
So how did I get from the leafy environs of Toronto – I did mention in Pt I that I made a detour to Canada, didn’t I? – to the fallen leaves of Woodstock? Well, therein lie a couple of tales. You have to understand that not everyone was hot and bothered to go to Vietnam and kill them some “Gooks.” On the contrary, the majority of America’s educated class was about finding a way out of that controversial conflict. My dad, for one, was not keen on my going “Over There” (his adopted love of Jimmy the Yiddish-speaking Cagney notwithstanding). He would tell me stories of the lengths his dad went to get out of service to the Tzar’s army, stories characterized by images of grandpa sitting in the snow bare-ass so the resulting canker sores would get him disqualified from service.
My journey to freedom from the draft was a parallel one. When I graduated high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the smooth move was simply to garner a 2S deferment – the “S” was for student. So my choice of grad school in English Literature was narrowed to York University in Downsview, Ontario, where I managed to earn a paid Teaching Assistantship that came with the opportunity to receive a Social Insurance Card, the laminated equivalent of those flimsy cardboard Social Security Cards we had. That entitled me not only to some level of comfort and socialized medicine but the prospect of gaining Landed Immigrant status, an escape hatch which I still have today, just in case Trump or someone like him returns to office.
Life in ’60s Toronto was funky but chic, peppered as it was with rock clubs and a folkie scene on Yorkville Street that was the Canadian equivalent of Greenwich Village. You had the Canadian version of Beatniks, hippies and antiwar folks and a club scene that was rockin’, including one memorable backstage hang at The Electric Circus with the Jeff Beck Group – Ron Wood, Rod Stewart and Aynsley Dunbar among them, courtesy of my college buddies from New York, whose band Meat (featuring Billy Cross and Rob Stoner – see below) was the opening act. And a lot of free sex. That was very comfortable.
I landed in a rental of a room in a house full of Yank expatriates – draft dodgers and even a deserter, all of whom were not treated with disdain by the local constabulary – in the Spadina-Avenue Road neighborhood, a stone’s throw from bohemian Yorkville. Things were rockin’, evenings spent huddled around the aforementioned Jeff Beck Group’s “Truth” album or Hendrix’ latest and all the vinyl one could consume in a proverbial thick haze of marijuana smoke, and days festooned with acid trips to Toronto Island, a kind of maritime Central Park at the Southern tip of downtown that had to be accessed via funky ferry.
And then the dream was over. Stateside, they would eventually do away with the 2S deferment, replacing it with a lottery system; if you had a low lottery number, you kept your deferment and essentially dodged the draft legally. But there was about a year or so of limbo wherein the 2S went away but nothing replaced it. So, off I went to downtown Manhattan and the law offices of an antiwar organization that referred me to a shrink. This psychologist walked me through the various scenarios one could present to a draft board physical in order to acquire a 1Y (psychological) deferment, which was a shade less defined than the 4F classification that Donald Trump acquired at the time for having bone spurs or some such malady.
Having studied the finer points of draft board psych-out, I settled on the condition of Paranoid Schizophrenia for my method acting campaign, having received intricate instructions on the tics and nuances of that condition, and I hopped on the Greyhound Bus to Buffalo, site of the nearest draft board, where I would spend the two weeks prior to the physical at my friend Corey’s house, perfecting my Method Act. This involved a lot of grunge in the form of no sleep, plenty of alcohol, liberal applications of olive oil to my hair and body, coupled with an outfit borrowed from my dad, this herringbone coat that I lived in and slept in over a sweat shirt that never came off and was festooned with snot and other impurities. My antiwar psych coach had also given me pointers on how a paranoid schizophrenic acts and I developed a tic-laden cold stare which was enforced by a drill of focusing intently on two spots on the ceiling and darting my eyes back and forth between them. Oh yeah, Corey was prompted to give me the Heebie Jeebies by shouting at me and startling me at any given moment.
Came the day of the actual physical, I was ready. Corey dropped me off downtown at the draft board and I was on my way. And therein lies a trip – a bad trip, literally. So here’s me, the rattled, tic-laden peace creep in my raggedy herringbone overcoat threading my way through the various steps of the Draft Board Physical with all these other unwilling recruits. I stayed in character, my paranoid schizophrenic persona punctuated by darting concentrated gaze from point A to Point B on the ceiling of this old Buffalo facility. The three young African-American lads who were my trailmates on that stretch of the ordeal were good-naturedly teasing me through my self-induced fog. They couldn’t help but notice my intense, stupefied state, and one of them even sang this psychedelic mantra in my ear to illustrate my bad-trip state: “Strawberry fields forever,” he would drone again and again as I continued to dart back and forth between those two spots on the ceiling.
The spell was finally broken when I got to the part of the journey where I was required to hand over my urine sample, a loosely held plastic cup, to the military man who was collecting them. Only I didn’t volunteer it immediately as the others did. Oh no, not Strawberry Fields Bad Trip Noë. I just stood there grasping my plastic urine-filled cup until the Sergeant reached for it. Instead of letting it go neatly, I clutched it as if it were my remaining Cub Scout badge (for urination?) so that when the sergeant grabbed it from me my possessiveness caused some of the liquid to spill on him!
Well, that was a decisive moment in my journey/ordeal that day. I was instantly dismissed from the remainder of the process and told to report to the shrink down the hall. My method act had been successful! I was released from the process and told to return to Toronto with a 1Y classification. I made my way hastily out of there, studiously maintaining my method act as I left the building and jumped into a cab that took me to Corey’s house where I took my first shower in two weeks and then celebrated heartily.
At about that time, my career trajectory shifted from the prospect of a life in Academe, lecturing about English literature to that of a poet, vagabond and Kerouackian freight train rider and hippie/beatnik storyteller who eventually landed a job on a music magazine after driving a cab in New York City, studying human behavior in the Graduate School of Life. That journey and how I came to live in Bob Dylan’s house is up next.
Full Circle: The Johnny Herald-Rob Stoner-Artie Traum-Van Morrison-Bob Dylan Woodstock Connection
The “Nashville Skyline” album found Dylan in a quiet place, after his own turbulent experiment with electrifying folk music. He had taken an opportunity after that motorcycle accident to reconnect with family life, and his music had become more personal. “The songs reflect more of the inner me than the songs of the past,” Dylan told Newsweek at the time. And that was the soundtrack of my mind that cold winter of 1970, which involved playing my harmonica at a local club on Rock City Road called the Elephant Café with the likes of Artie Traum, All Night Newsboys’ Larry Packer (who still resides in Woodstock) and these great musicians from Artie and Happy Traum’s Children of Paradise group, keyboardist Eric Kaz, and Mark Silber. We played that Rock and Roll Music till the break of day at the Elephant and another cultural hotspot, the Joyous Lake.
But, you ask, how did this former draft dodger come to reside in Bob Dylan’s house? Well, yes, it had something to do with my roots in Greenwich Village, since Woodstock, before its mistaken association with the rock festival that took place 30 miles away in Borscht-Belt White Lake, Woodstock was known as Greenwich Village North. The Village was where I came of age, playing hooky from my yeshiva high school on the Lower East Side and taking the subway two stops to (Positively) West Fourth Street and a poetry reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I soon became a regular at the folk music mecca in Washington Square Park and at the Gaslight Café on Macdougal Street every Tuesday night. Dylan, John Hammond, Patrick Sky, Eric Andersen, Paul Siebel, Ritchie Havens and Jimmy James (aka Hendrix) across the street at the Wha? (chatted with him about blues records on the stoop in front of the Kettle of Fish one night).
So, folk-blues scene in Washington Square Park with my college buddies Artie Traum, Andy May, Dave Grisman, Jody Stecher, Larry Packer, Richie Havens, that lot. But the Woodstock Festival? Nah. While that was going on I was hopping freight trains with my girlfriend Carol, exploring the Hippie Highways and finding the real roots of America. On my return, I headed for Woodstock, where former CCNY lefty and roommate Mickey Friedman and I got into the local music and art scene. Mickey’s deal was poetry and politics; my craft was making sand-cast candles and selling them in head shops and curio stores all over the Catskills.
But the thing about sand candles is the process involves making a mold in a box of sand, filling it with hot wax and then burnishing the resulting sculpture with a torch. This took place in a rustic cabin on top of a magnificent rise called Yerry Hill Road. One night after carousing in town, we returned to find the lovely cabin was surrounded by fire engines. And that was when Artie Traum, who was house-sitting for Dylan on Byrdcliffe, invited me and Mickey to occupy that grand old 20-room structure. There were often these young hitchhikers who showed up in front of the house searching for Bob. It came with the territory. In fact, these vagabond looky-loo pilgrimages to Dylan’s house annoyed the once and future poet laureate – Dylan said he moved away because people were finding him, even though he lived on the outskirts of town.
I recently asked Happy Traum, “remind me again who I jammed with at the Elephant Café on Rock City Road in those halcyon Woodstock days, will you?” and Happy brought up Johnny Herald.
“John was a dear friend from the 1950s until his passing, yet I hadn’t known the connection with you,” says Happy. Indeed, it was Johnny Herald who drew him and his family to Woodstock. John Herald’s Greenbriar Boys featuring Eric Weissberg (“Duelling Banjos”) and Frank Wakefield were a nationally successful NYC bluegrass band during the ’50s folk boom. Rob Stoner, who played guitar in Dylan’s band for many years, recently told me about his tenure in Johnny Herald’s combo. “Bob Dylan was a fan who I first met when he attended one of our shows,” the deep-roots guitar and bass ace and son of the legendary Look Magazine and Dust Bowl chronicler photographer Arnold Rothstein said. “Bob was Herald’s opening act many times when he first came to NYC.”
“Happy, there are so many degrees of separation here,” I said. “I remember going up to John’s house to forage for mushrooms. That was one of his ‘unheralded’ obsessions. John Herald was a friend of the mushroom. It was at his lovely house that I first met the curmudgeonly yet surprisingly inviting Irishman Van Morrison and we three whiled away the afternoon jamming on country blues songs like “More Pretty Girls Than One,” which I teach to my Harmonikateens on Zoom to this very day.
Johnny’s story, unfortunately, did not have a happy ending. Here’s Americana historian and Woodstock resident Jon Milward, who called the Greenbriar Boys “… one of the first ‘northern’ bluegrass bands. I used to say that nobody made my Martin O-18 sound the way John did. John’s friends and neighbors were stunned when he took his life in the summer of 2005. A few days before, I’d left a message on his phone machine inviting him over for dinner. John’s sad story – lonesome, no money, stymied ambitions – taught me much about the rough side of a being a musician.”
And now to bring the degrees of separation/inclusion even more closely together, I recently asked Rob Stoner, who was Dylan’s guitar player for quite a stretch, including the Rolling Thunder Revue, a 1975-1976 concert tour on a freight train by Dylan with numerous musicians and collaborators doing the Vaudeville thing to play in smaller auditoriums in less populated cities in order to be more intimate with his audiences. Stoner was the conduit between Dylan and the rest of the band, which included drummer and longtime Stoner collaborator Howie Wyeth, plus Mick Ronson on guitar. Bob Neuwirth assembled backing musicians from the recording sessions for Dylan’s “Desire” album, adding violinist Scarlet Rivera to the mix. Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, T-Bone Burnett, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Hawkins and Ronee Blakely donned the face-paint and rode the rails with Dylan from coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada.
Before that, the Greenbriar Boys “… worked steadily at bluegrass festivals, folk clubs and colleges up and down the east coast, billed as the John Herald Band or Herald’s Honkies,” Stoner told me. “Alan Stowall, John Herald, Rob Stoner.”
John Herald’s Greenbriar Boys featuring Eric Weissberg (“Duelling Banjos”) and Frank Wakefield were a nationally successful NYC bluegrass band during the ’50s folk boom. “Bob Dylan was a fan who I first met when he attended one of our shows. Bob was Herald’s opening act many times when he first came to NYC,” Stoner continues.
“Howie Wyeth played snare drum for us at Max’s Kansas City, which is where I first met him. Therefore, I owe my associations with Wyeth and Dylan to John Herald. John Simon Peter Walker – Yes! With Howie Wyeth on snare drum, whom I’d never met before. I owe my successful partnerships with Wyeth and Bob Dylan to Johnny Herald introducing us.”
As I write this, serendipity strikes again. I open up my Facebook notifications and there is this picture of my man Artie Traum – it’s his Yahrzeit, the day of his passing, and his brother Happy has posted the following:
“Remembering our beloved Artie Traum (April 3, 1943-July 20, 2008) on this and on all days. I love the photo of him at Newport in 1969 by Diana Davies. James Taylor is behind him. He and I were hosts at the ‘New Folks’ (or something) workshop, which included James, Joni, Jerry Jeff and other ‘up-and-comers.’ “This image of Artie captures his smile, his warmth, and his goodness, perfectly.”
So now, with tears in my eyes for the loss of my youth and my dear old friend, I find myself searching for a Dylan phrase that neatly encapsulates this soulful journey that started for me in the Bronx and winds up today in California, something in the vein of What Comes around goes around but Dylanesque. To be sure, the octogenarian whose name I have given to my son is still dispensing his wisdom on the “Never Ending Tour,” which I got to see recently in Long Beach California and which will be the focus of a sidebar to this piece, coming soon to HeadMagazine.com.
To be sure, it will be cantankerous even down to Dylan’s own description of the tour, which is now called the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” Tour.
Quoth Wiki: “… The Never Ending Tour is the popular name for Bob Dylan’s ongoing touring schedule which began on June 7, 1988. During the course of the tour, musicians have come and gone as the band has continued to evolve. The tour amassed a huge fan base with some fans traveling from around the world to attend as many Dylan shows as possible.
“Dylan himself has been dismissive of the Never Ending Tour tag. In the sleeve notes to his album “World Gone Wrong (1993),” Dylan wrote:
“Don’t be bewildered by the Never Ending Tour chatter. There was a Never Ending Tour but it ended in 1991 with the departure of guitarist G. E. Smith. That one’s long gone but there have been many others since then: “The Money Never Runs Out Tour” (Fall of 1991) “Southern Sympathizer Tour” (Early 1992) “Why Do You Look At Me So Strangely Tour” (European Tour 1992) “The One Sad Cry Of Pity Tour” (Australia & West Coast American Tour 1992) “Outburst Of Consciousness Tour” (1992) “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Tour” (1993) and others, too many to mention each with their own character & design.”
Since it is difficult for me to end this thing – and my editor can vouch for that witness the numerous delays and pushes to my deadline while I continue to juice one more anecdote out of this thing, let me end it with an out-and-out plug – albeit a fine and noble plug:
Congratulations to Happy Traum on the release of his new CD, “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere.” I’m thrilled to announce the release of my new CD, he says, “my first new CD in seven years features thirteen songs and guitar instrumentals.” His dynamic acoustic fingerpicking and singing are backed up by a stellar assortment of talented friends: Darol Anger, Marco Benevento, Ryan Berg, Larry Campbell, Cindy Cashdollar, Zach Djanikian, Neil Eisenberg, Amy Helm, Byron Isaacs, Bruce Molsky, Geoff Muldaur, Abby Newton, Eric Parker, Eugene Ruffolo, John Sebastian, Adam Traum, Tony Trischka and Jay Ungar.
Happy has put his indelible stamp on these songs and instrumentals, most of which are either traditional or have been composed in that style by writers with deep connections to what is now called “American Roots Music.” Here’s where you can order it:
Over and out. And oh yeah, All I Really Want to Do Is Baby Be Friends With You, so Could you Please Crawl Out Your Window while I depart to the Gates of Eden From my Buick 6? Don’t want me to get the Subterannean Homesick Blues now, do you?
Exclusive excerpt 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.
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.