Saturday, March 28, 2009
DYLAN ON DYLAN
When I arrived, it was dead-on winter. The cold was brutal and every artery of the city was snowpacked, but I'd started out from the frostbitten North Country, a little corner of the earth where the dark frozen woods and icy roads didn't faze me. I could transcend the limitations. It wasn't money or love that I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn't need any guarantee of validity. I didn't know a single soul in this dark freezing metropolis but that was all about to change -- and quick.
The Café Wha? was a club on MacDougal Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. The place was a subterranean cavern, liquorless, ill lit, low ceiling, like a wide dining hall with chairs and tables -- opened at noon, closed at four in the morning. Somebody had told me to go there and ask for a singer named Freddy Neil who ran the daytime show at the Wha?
New York City, midwinter, 1961. Whatever I was doing was working out okay and I intended to stay with it, felt like I was closing in on something. I was playing on the regular bill at the Village Gaslight, the premier club on the carnivalesque MacDougal Street. When I began working there, the Gaslight was owned by John Mitchell, a renegade and raconteur, a Brooklynite. I only saw him a few times. He was ornery and combatant, had an exotic looking girlfriend who Jack Kerouac had based a novel on. Mitchell was already legendary. The Village was heavily Italian, and Mitchell hadn’t taken even one step back from the local mafiosos. It was a known fact that he didn’t make payoffs out of principle. The fire marshals, the police and the health inspectors were routinely invading the place. Mitchell, though, had lawyers and he took his battles to city hall and somehow the place stayed open. Mitchell carried a pistol and a knife.
Lou Levy, top man of Leeds Music Publishing company, took me up in a taxi to the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street to show me the pocket sized recording studio where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded "Rock Around the Clock" -- then down to Jack Dempsey's restaurant on 58th and Broadway, where we sat down in a red leather upholstered booth facing the front window.
Lou introduced me to Jack Dempsey, the great boxer. Jack shook his fist at me.
"You look too light for a heavyweight kid, you'll have to put on a few pounds. You're gonna have to dress a little finer, look a little sharper -- not that you'll need much in the way of clothes when you're in the ring -- don't be afraid of hitting somebody too hard."
"He's not a boxer, Jack, he's a songwriter and we'll be publishing his songs."
"Oh, yeah, well I hope to hear 'em some of these days. Good luck to you, kid."
Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffling around, bundled up -- salesmen in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes.
My perspective on all that was about to change. The air would soon shoot up in intensity and become more potent. My little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral, at least in songwriting terms. Suze had been working behind the scenes in a musical production at the Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street. It was a presentation of songs written by Bertolt Brecht, the antifascist Marxist German poet-playwright whose works were banned in Germany, and Kurt Weill, whose melodies were like a combination of both opera and jazz. Previously they had had a big hit with a ballad called “Mack the Knife” that Bobby Darin had made popular. You couldn’t call this a play, it was more like a stream of songs by actors who sang. I went there to wait for Suze and was aroused straight away by the raw intensity of the songs . . . “Morning Anthem,” “Wedding Song,” “The World Is Mean,” “Polly’s Song,” “Tango Ballad,” “Ballad of the Easy Life.” Songs with tough language. They were erratic, unrhythmical and herky-jerky-weird visions. The singers were thieves, scavengers or scallywags and they all roared and snarled. The entire world was narrowly confined between four streets. On the small stage, objects were barely discernible-lampposts, tables, stoops, windows, corners of buildings, moon shining through roofed-in courtyards-grim surroundings, creepy sensations. Every song seemed to come from some obscure tradition, seemed to have a pistol in its hip pocket, a club or a brickbat and they came at you in crutches, braces and wheelchairs. They were like folk songs in nature, but unlike folk songs, too, because they were sophisticated.
This is a wild song. Big medicine in the lyrics. Heavy action spread out. Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin. And then there’s always that ghost chorus about the black ship that steps in, fences it all off and locks it up tighter than a drum.
(excerpts from Chronicles,Vol. 1, by Bob Dylan)
to be continued...
ONE MORE THING:
The new Dylan album, Together Through Life, will be released April 28th. Beyond Here Lies Nothin' is the first single, a bluesy track with an old Chess Records feel. In case you missed the free download at bobdylan.com (it was up for one day only. That's right, 24 hours) here is a sneak preview:
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'