"Levon introduced himself and said, 'Can we go somewhere to play some music?' Sonny Boy took us to these friends of his, this woman had a place where she sold bootleg corn liquor. Well, that stuff is outrageous. We got drunk, drunk, and we all played. Man, he played the harmonica inside out. He'd put the whole thing inside his mouth and play it. I kept noticing him spitting in this can. I thought maybe he was chewing tobacco. I was wandering around at one point and I looked in the can and it was blood, he was spitting blood. It was a gruesome sight, and I was so drunk ....
"Things got a little weird there. There were all these young guys around trying to hustle us, and they were afraid of Sonny Boy — he was the only legend around the neighborhood, and it was also a known fact that if you fucked with him he would cut you. But eventually there were just too many people. So we all left and smuggled him into our motel — they didn't allow black people in there, you understand — and we just played and played, and he couldn't believe it. He'd been to England and played with the Yardbirds and some other groups, and he told us, 'They're awful. They want to play the blues so bad and they play it so bad....' Anyway, we really got on, and we made all these plans, things we were gonna do together. Then we went to play in New Jersey and we got this letter from Sonny Boy's manager or whoever he was, saying that he had passed. Tuberculosis."
Levon and the Hawks didn't spend all their time in the South, not by a long shot. They would play in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and pop into New York to see some of the Brill Building songwriter types they'd met when they recorded there with Hawkins: Neil Diamond, Doc Pomus, Leiber and Stoller. They spent some time in Chicago, where they got to know Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield and went with them to blues clubs on the South Side. They gigged regularly in Canada. It was on one of their northern swings that they met John Hammond Jr. Hammond and Mary Martin, who worked in Albert Grossman's office and knew a lot of Canadian musicians, both told Bob Dylan about them.
"Dylan called when they were working in New Jersey," says Jonathan Taplin, who was the Band's company manager from 1968 to 1971 but knew their music much earlier. "Evidently, he went down to listen to them, returned to New York and called up Levon. He asked if they'd like to play with him at the Hollywood Bowl and at Forest Hills Stadium. And Levon's reply was, 'Who else is on the bill?' Because they were just beginning to hear 'Like a Rolling Stone' on the radio. They never bought albums, they just listened to the radio, so they had no idea how big Bob was. The way it ended up, just Levon and Robbie went to the Forest Hills gig, and Dylan got Harvey Brooks and Al Kooper to play bass and organ. See, Levon and Robbie wanted to be sure that he'd really sold out these big places....Then they got the other three guys to come on up."
"We'd heard a couple of his records and we knew he was really good," Robbie says of Dylan, "but we were a rock & roll band. We didn't play his kind of music, we just appreciated it in the same way you would listen to Big Bill Broonzy and appreciate it. But once he started wanting to change his music, it was an interesting challenge. It was easy to play with him, but it was hard getting everybody to play with him at the same time because he would break meter, and all of a sudden you wouldn't know where you were, you'd get mixed up. Sometimes we didn't know if we were playing great music or nonsense. A lot of it had to do with....Well, it was a strange experience, going around the world in a private plane and getting booed. An interesting way to make a living, but definitely strange. Everybody was telling Bob to get rid of us, that we were sent from the devil and putting this dirty, vulgar music on a pure folkloric tradition. That's what the attitude was. And then everybody just forgot about that and accepted the whole thing as if it had always been accepted."
When Dylan's first electric tour hit Memphis — Highway 61 was on everyone's turntable; Blonde on Blonde was still several months in the future — some of the Arkansas rockers, hearing that this new kid Dylan was playing with the Hawks, drove up along the twisting delta highway to see them. It was an unforgettable show. Dylan did the first part unaccompanied, introducing. "Visions of Johanna" and driving everybody half crazy with lines like "the ghost of electricity howled in the bones of her face." Then he brought out the Hawks, who looked pretty much like they'd always looked, street casual, not too much hair, jeans, old sports jackets. The music was loud, intense, possessed. Robbie played wrenching solos from back near Levon's drums, hardly moving a muscle. Dylan, playing rhythm, mimed the throes of a convulsion whenever Robbie tore into a break, and everybody but the Arkies thought he was soloing.
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