Friday, September 25, 2009

The Drifter Did Escape

Sitting at the piano writing, dark glasses on his thin face hiding bags under his eyes, his hair wild, the mercurial Bob Dylan was tired, tired of himself and all his creations. The gigs were too many, the business too stressful, the drugs too plentiful. Fame was a trap from which he had to escape. But when? How? He had to work on new songs for Blonde on Blonde. First in New York for six sessions with Levon and The Hawks, but something didn’t work, didn’t jell. Now, here, in Columbia’s Nashville studio, surrounded by top notch country pickers and players. The room was so stuffy he could hardly breathe.

There was never a break. Tour dates on weekends, then weekdays in the studio. The 1965 tour became the 1966 tour, and though The Hawks had become his band, on salary, the booing and catcalling they received as Dylan plowed forward with his electric music was becoming too much. The Hawks were used to worse from playing bars, bottles thrown at the stage, fights in the crowd. That was just violence. This was pure hate. Levon Helm, tough as nails, had enough. After the first two sessions in New York failed to create magic, he was gone and a new drummer had to be found. Only Robbie Robertson made the trip down to Tennessee.

The pressures weren’t only in the touring and recording. Dylan’s contract with Columbia, his label for four years, since he was 20, was due to expire. MGM was dangling a million bucks at him to switch labels. And his publisher was clamoring for Tarantula, which was long overdue. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was on him every day about business. Why did he sign a book contract without any idea what he would write? The money of course. The pressure hurt so much. It was all pulling him down, and the drugs made it worse. Grass, speed (particularly Benzedrine and Methedrine), opium, hash, pot- they’d be sure to bend your mind a little. He experimented with LSD and cocaine. His behavior on stage signaled drug use, but he tried his best to deny it. He was a little boy, lost.

On the day after Valentine’s Day, Dylan sat working on a song for his new wife, Sara. They had married last November, and her pregnancy was kept under wraps. Sara was providing solid ground amidst the shifting craziness that was his world. He knew having children would change his life. Dylan, for all his counter culture image believed in marriage and family. Sara, a former Playboy bunny who Bob had met back in 1964, was so out of touch that she thought Dylan was Bobby Darin. She wanted to settle down as well, to give her daughter Maria, a product of her first marriage, a home. For both of them it was becoming clearer that outside family nothing held interest.

This song, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” laid it all on the line. He was ready to slow down the pace a little, just didn’t want to live that way anymore, the road, the drugs, the fans, all pulling him down. For the woman he loved he would give up his crown and his music, at least for a while. “My Arabian drums, should I leave them at the gate?” Yeah, that sounded good. “Your magazine husband who one day just had to go.” Would anyone heed the clues?

Country players, used to the quick two minute song, didn’t quite know what to make of this song. It stretched on, four, five, six minutes. At the 10-minute mark drummer Ken Buttrey cracked up in disbelief. What was going on here? But one take was all it took. And the whole time Bob thought and thought of how to get away.

Even after the album was slated to be finished, it was back on the road again. Phil Ochs had written in Broadside that it was increasingly dangerous for Dylan to perform in public. Bob could be pretty rough on Phil, to the point where Ochs felt Dylan hated him. But Bob had to admit that it was scarier on the road than before. What was it Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers said when she introduced him at the Newport Folk Festival, back in ’65 before Dylan and his electric band blasted the folkies with a barrage of rock and roll? Something like “take him, you know him, he’s yours.” Nobody knew him, and he certainly didn’t want to be taken. He didn’t belong to anyone. All he saw himself becoming was Elvis; he never wanted to be a prophet or a savior. The Voice of a Generation. Hah. Nothing you plan ever turns out the way you plan it. Everybody else thinks they know his fate, they’re just gonna have to wait, he thought.

How to find a way out?

On April 7, Dylan headed to Hawaii, the four 1-sided acetates of Blonde on Blonde in hand. Two days later would start another round of shows, this time in Europe after a kickoff in Australia. Two months, England, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, France. England would be pretty hostile, he knew. In Copenhagen on May 1 he got word that Richard Farina had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Richard and Mimi were making a name on the folk charts. When Bobby was dating Joan, Mimi Baez was just her kid sister. Richard was leaving a book signing party for Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me near Carmel and hopped on the back of a friend’s Harley. That was that.

Dylan thought Farina was lucky. It was an accident and an answer. Bob liked his bikes and the press knew that. The papers, they always bought his stories, ate them up. When he hit the scene and told people he’d done some hard travelin’ just like Woody Guthrie, they accepted it as the gospel. No one bothered to see that he came from a middle class Jewish family from Minnesota. Now they hung on his every word, even more so than before. The European tour would end on the 27th, and though he was scheduled to go back on the road in July, he couldn’t face it. No way.
Since Jesse was born in January, Dylan just wanted to try to be quiet, seeking salvation from the life he was leading. He couldn’t see where he was going, but Sara said she knew and he took her word. A motorcycle accident? They’d listen to his story like they listened to his songs. With all the confusion, he just needed some relief.

A motorcycle accident?

On July 29, 1966, news reports told the world that Bob Dylan had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident near his Woodstock, NY home. The police were not called to the scene and there are no public records of a crash. Bob Dylan’s medical files remain private. He would resurface 18 months later, a different man, sounding relaxed and peaceful on John Wesley Harding.

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