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Tangled Up in Dylan

Page 4 of 6

Amid the glut, a million legitimate Dylanological mysteries remained. Issues. Questions. Legends to either puncture or leave alone. For instance, even after all these years, no one seems to have conclusively ascertained exactly how hurt Dylan was after the 1966 motorcycle accident; whether, as some suggest, he exaggerated his injuries to derail the hectic schedule Albert Grossman had painted him into. Nor was it completely clear if Dylan is still a Christian. Clinton Heylin says yes — "Listen to the songs." Paul Williams says Dylan's current Christianity or Jewishness is secondary to his "overriding fundamentalism . . . He is someone who believes in the literalness of the Word. He will be a fundamentalist in whatever he believes."

Whatever his current theology, I, for one, would like to know what ever happened to the Jewish jokes in Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan used to be as funny as Franz Kafka. "Motorpsycho Nightmare" (never performed live in concert) is one of the funniest songs ever written, a touchstone of surreal "dirt beneath my fingernails" shtetl humor. Maybe being born again beat the stand-up out of him, or maybe it was just the sheer weight of being Bob for so many years. But by the time Dylan got around to writing his "Lenny Bruce" song, as turgid a tune as he'd ever done, Bob had forgotten that Bruce, the old Jew junkie/First Amendment crusader, used to make people laugh for a living.

Still, when you came down to it, the biggest conundrum in Dylanology was Dylan himself. The Living Bob. How to deal with the fact that the most inspiring artist of the times still walks among us, after all these years. Written Dylanology breaks into three camps. Michael Gray's monumental, endlessly illuminating Song and Dance Man III most successfully places Dylan in his cultural context. (With resourceful scholarship, Gray finds the line "When you live outside the law you have to eliminate dishonesty" in the little-known 1958 Don Siegel noir film The Lineup, noting the obvious connection to the much better "to live outside the law you must be honest.") Gray ignores the Living Bob altogether. Referring almost exclusively to the fixed text of the "official" Columbia releases, he attempts no bridge to Bob the human, dealing only with the work, as if it were written by a poet in the thirteenth century.

Paul Williams, Clinton Heylin and others take the middle path, acknowledging the Living Bob's presence while warily wishing not to unduly trespass on the artist's personal space. This half-measure is a difficult tack, as Williams notes, describing the publishing of his well-known Dylan What Happened?, a book seeking to come to terms with Dylan's mind-blowing born-again shows at San Francisco's Warfield Theater in 1979. Dylan liked Williams' book, reportedly buying 114 copies (114 happening to be the exact number of sayings of Christ to appear in Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas found at Nag Hammadi). Dylan invited Williams backstage and even performed the famously unperformed "Caribbean Wind" at the writer's request. However, Dylan was not much pleased with Williams' follow-up article, reportedly saying, "It happens every time — when I meet someone who's written something about me that I like, meeting me spoils them and the next thing they write doesn't work."

Williams, for his part, agrees with his subject. "After meeting him, I became very much aware that Bob Dylan would certainly read whatever I wrote. Maybe it took me away from what I usually do, which is only for fans. I think the idea that Bob Dylan might be looking over your shoulder damages a lot of writers."

Then, of course, there is the other approach to the Living Bob, which is to go forward, to stand naked before him, demanding his attention. Such was the methodology employed by Larry (Ratso) Sloman in his now out-of-print account of the Rolling Thunder Tour, On the Road With Bob Dylan Rolling With the Thunder. Easily the most entertaining and strangely moving of Bob tomes, Sloman's book contains many good quotes. There is Dylan's mother, Beattie, saying, "He was born to us, but then he went away and did this on his own . . . Bob Dylan is the writer, Dylan, not Zimmerman." And Bob himself, adding, "Well, I don't understand music, you know. I understand Lightning Hopkins. I understand Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker, Woody Guthrie, Kinky Friedman. I never claimed to understand music . . . If you ever heard me play the guitar, you'd know that." To which Ratso, the fan, replies, "But I like the way you play the guitar."

But a key moment in all of Dylanology occurs when Sloman, in the midst of a book-wide freak-out about his inability to "get" the story, confronts Dylan in a hotel lobby.

"C'mere, schmuck," Ratso reports himself as saying, demanding that Dylan listen to his plea.

Dylan addresses the distraught reporter: "Well, what is it that you want? Be specific. What do you need?"

Ratso searches for the word. His eyes suddenly light up. "I need access," he screams at the superstar. "I need access . . ."

Dylan then reportedly "rolls his eyes in amazement" and says, "Ex-Lax? . . . Why do you need Ex-Lax? What you been eating?"

This was it: access.

Access. What A.J. Weberman, in his dementia, called "the Brain" of the Poet in the hands of "the People." Access: a backstage pass to that no man's land of Dylanological real estate between the artist and ourselves. Access: what we — the scholars, the fans, the lunatics — want.

What he, the Living Bob, will not give.

Access. Proximity to the Bobhead. It is a Dylanological obsession. Whole books, like Encounters With Bob Dylan: If You See Him Say Hello, offer chronicles of chance meetings and near-meetings between Dylan and cab drivers, secretaries, salesclerks. To see him is something not to be forgotten, a memory handled with care. For instance, considering how many bands Bob has had, Dylanology is surprisingly free of sideman stories. Possibly this owes to the scuttlebutt that Bob has very little to do with his fellow players — for years, supposedly, it was verboten to even make eye contact with Bob. There is also a notion of sacred time, that for a musician, playing with Bob Dylan is nothing to speak about idly. Guitarist Steve Ripley, who toured with Dylan in the Eighties, did, however, tell me this story: Apparently, Ripley arrived at the venue at the wrong time for a sound check and found no one around. He was about to go back to his hotel when he saw Dylan, sitting near the stage all by himself. Up to this point, Ripley had exchanged few words with his enigmatic boss. But there was no way to avoid talking now: It was just the two of them.

"I really didn't know what to say to the guy," Ripley recounted. "I mean: He's Bob Dylan. What do you say to Bob Dylan?"

After a long pause, the guitarist finally blurted, "Hi, Bob, hey, how's the family?" whereupon Dylan literally bounded toward the sideman and gave him a big hug.

"Great!" Dylan exclaimed, a giant smile spreading across his craggy face. "Thanks for asking!"

Access.

I suppose it was selfish of me, a typical invasion of hallowed Dylanological space, but I felt I had no choice. At least this is what I'd decided, from a Chevy Blazer, on the road again. I'd been on Bob's tracks for a couple of weeks, trailing him through the Northeast, through Hartford, Connecticut; Mansfield, Massachusetts; Saratoga, New York; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Camden, New Jersey; Columbia, Maryland — everywhere Bob went, I was there, watching The Man in his short black coat and the pants with the honky-tonk stripe up the leg (the same outfit he sang for the Pope in, which was way better than the outpatient's hooded sweat shirt he wore throughout the late Eighties). I was studying the strange half-smile, the playful Chaplin-cum-Elvis-impersonator guitar moves, the sawed-off duck walks, diffident roll of the rheumy eye, the drop of silver sweat poised at the end of his hooked nose, waiting for my chance.

The time had come to apologize, I thought — to apologize to Dylan for wishing he was dead.

I thought it was a memory buried forever in a trunk, but not deep enough, it seems, for there it was, in a 1999 New Yorker article about Bob, in the first paragraph, for chrissakes: "In 1978, after the fiasco of Renaldo and Clara, Dylan's four-hour art film, Mark Jacobson wrote in the Village Voice, 'I wish Bob Dylan died.' "

It was true. There, in the very newspaper where I'd first read of this skinny Jew son of an appliance salesman who'd blown in from the North Country to turn my little Flushing, Queens, world upside down, I had written, "I wish Bob Dylan died. Then Channel 5 would piece together an instant documentary of his life and times, the way they did Hubert [Humphrey], Chaplin, Adolf Hitler. Just the immutable facts . . . seeing all those immutable facts about Elvis made his dying worthwhile . . ."

Geez, couldn't I at least have left out Hitler? The idea, I guess, was that even Bob dying would have been better than sitting through Renaldo and Clara twice. Maybe in 1978 I thought this was some kind of joke.

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