Bob Dylan: The Man In The Attic (A Memoir)

Music Features Bob Dylan
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That year there seemed no place to keep warm. Wintertime in New York town, the wind blowing snow up and down the streets, sleet spinning against the glass storefronts, wind coming gritty and razorous out of the mouths of alleys, cutting through your clothing to the bone. This was the last of 1963, the cusp of ’64; Kennedy was in the graveyard and Johnson in the White House, and something was in the wind. The first hints of disquiet in the air. Some dire chord had been strummed, the vibrations were rolling outward, wars and rumors of wars.

Drunk on the rhetoric of Thomas Wolfe, I had left my home in the South and come looking for experience. I had determined to open myself to everything the world had to offer, good and ill, to accumulate life and hoard it like a miser and, at some more contemplative point, try to make sense of it. I had joined the Navy, and now I was in Brooklyn, where Thomas Wolfe had walked the midnight streets and chanted: “I wrote ten thousand words today.” The Navy had promised travel and experience, and so far it was working out. I was new at the job, but already I had been hassled by cops and hustled by folks in the financial end of the love business, beaten up by Canadian Airmen in Esquamalt, by a street gang in Brooklyn and by a surly bartender in Long Beach. Experience was unfolding itself to me like a flower.

I even had a girl. Her name was Sara and she had almond eyes and long, straight chestnut hair. She was a freshman at a city college and she was into social causes like the burgeoning civil-rights movement. She loved poetry and books and music. She even believed me when I told her I was going to be a writer. We had met in the summer and been together as often as we could through the fall and winter. It was understood that we were soulmates, that we would always be together.

We hung out mostly in the Village, looking for the already ancient footprints of Ginsberg and Kerouac, listening for the fading chants of the Beat Poets, listening to jazz and folk music and blues in the cafés and coffee houses. I was in my civilian clothing, trying to blend, but already the world was aspiring toward a hip scruf?ness the Navy wouldn’t tolerate and I had to make do with my regulation haircut and polished shoes.

One night we were in a coffeehouse when a girl sang a song unlike anything I’d ever heard. This place was a basket-house, a club where musicians who didn’t have paying gigs could perform a set then pass the basket around the audience. If you liked the songs you’d drop in a half-dollar or handful of change.

This song seemed to be called, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”—that was the refrain that ended every chorus. It sounded full of contradictions—traditional in form yet new in sentiment, a love song and a kiss-off, hard and soft, tough and tender at the same time. It was a way of looking at things, a way of turning a hard exterior toward a world always looking for your weaknesses, and it came at you from all over the place. It was bathed in a gothic twilight, roosters crowing at the break of dawn, with more departures down long lonesome roads than a noir novel. It was love and bitterness swirled together: “Goodbye’s just too good a word, babe. So I’ll just say fare-thee-well.” I have to talk to her, I told Sara. I want to know where she learned that song.

I don’t think so, Sara said. You just want to meet that singer.

We met her anyway.

Haven’t you heard of Bob Dylan? This is a Bob Dylan song. He’s got a lot of others, too, and they’re all great.

Bob Dylan. I had a vague memory of reading his name in a Nat Hentoff Playboy article on folksingers. But Hentoff hadn’t mentioned this.

The next weekend Sara took me uptown to a record shop she said carried everything, and I bought two Bob Dylan albums. The second one, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, had “Don’t Think Twice” on it. Listening on the phonograph in Sara’s bedroom I realized the words were only half the story: the song was at least half attitude, acting, role-playing… something. As if James Dean had merged with Rimbaud and Raymond Chandler and strapped on a flat-top Martin. And I realized something else. You couldn’t duplicate this; this was a one-time thing. Spend a lifetime learning the picking, and you couldn’t get it the same way twice. Learn every shading and nuance of voice, and this would still be the only one in the world. Even Dylan couldn’t duplicate it—try to Xerox it and the machine would short-circuit and smoke and burn. I felt there was no precedent for this—that you could trace folk music back through its entire history, and you would not hear anything like this. The song and the song’s performance came out of someplace raw and powerful, painful as an open wound. It was a way of looking at things in a single frozen moment of time.

Of course there were other songs on the album, and sure enough, they were all great. There was even a song that evoked Sara, a Girl from the North Country, where snowflakes fall and the wind hits heavy on the borderline, a girl with hair that hung long and rolled and flowed all down her breast. Of course, more properly this was the East, not the North, but to the heart, the points of the compass are not only useless, but irrelevant.

In the fullness of time, “Don’t Think Twice” showed up on all the jukeboxes. Not by Dylan, but by Peter, Paul and Mary, who’d made it a moderate hit. Every bar and restaurant we went to, I rolled a lot of change down the throats of jukeboxes. I didn’t notice that Sara was becoming much vexed with the song until it was too late. I had suspected something was amiss. Long silences had crept into conversations that previously held no space for them. I would glance at her, and she would be watching me in a sort of speculative way. Perhaps our souls did not interlock as perfectly as we’d thought.

I’m sick of that damn song, she finally said. And I may have misjudged you. Your taste. He can’t sing, and not only that, but he’s not a poet, the way you say he is. It’s ridiculous, that rooster crowing at the break of dawn crap. Does he assume everyone owns a rooster? I’ve never even seen a rooster. And he’s always walking down those long lonesome roads. It’s just sentimental bullshit. I was outraged. Sentimental was the kiss of death, bullshit was even worse. Her own taste was now being called into question. It’s not sentimental. Romantic, maybe, but not sentimental. Romantic sentimental narcissistic bullshit. You only like it because it’s the way you think. Or the way you’d like to think. And it’s not only that. He’s got into your head. You’ve gotten too far into this stuff, and you’ve let him into your head. It’s warped your whole philosophy. My philosophy? Well, this was a hell of a note. Here I didn’t even know I had a philosophy, and the damned thing was warped. Broken before I even had a chance to use it. I tried to protest. This wasn’t another girl. It wasn’t another guy. It was a song. Just a song, and I should be able to turn this thing around. If you’d think about it, I said, if you could change your mind and stay…

Her eyes went cold. She was receding already, accelerating through the red shift, a girl from the North Country seen through the wrong end of a telescope. I had inadvertently paraphrased a line from the song, and naturally she’d recognized it.

Stabbed in the heart. Here on the dark side of the road. The future yawned before me. Years of the Navy to go, I was barely out of the starting gate. Our lives together forfeit. Our house unbuilt, our children unconcieved.

Nothing to do, nothing to say. Except goodbye’s too good a word, babe. So I’ll just say fare-thee-well.

Orders had come through—my ship was leaving New York. It was cold the morning we got underway. Rain, mist off the sea like pale smoke. Sara’s father came aboard to see me off. We stood awkwardly on the fantail, the sea choppy, she ship rocking against its lines. He was glad to see me go. He had never trusted my relationship with Sara, never trusted the breakup to last. He’d never trusted me. He asked prying questions, he watched me all the time, he stood with his ear pressed against Sara’s bedroom door when we were in there—you could hear him there breathing.

He’ll turn on you, he told Sara. They persecute Jewish people in the South.

I hadn’t known that.

They even lynch them. They’ve done that in Georgia.

I hadn’t known that, either. I had never been to a lynching, never known anyone who had.

For some odd reason he’d brought his old duffel bag from World War II. He handed it to me with the solemnity of ceremony. I want you to have this, he said. I accepted it. It was heavy and I wondered what it was. Lugers salvaged from the battlefield? The severed head of Hitler? Live hand grenades unpinned? A bomb with its clockwork whirring? It was grapefruit. They were enormous. They looked like heavy pink bowling balls.

These are not your ordinary grapefruit, he said. These are expensive gourmet grapefruit. I hope that you can appreciate their quality. I hope you enjoy them. You can share them with your little friends.

I plan to, I said.

He took my hand again. He clasped it between both his own. The steel deck was throbbing through the ?oors of our shoes. His eyes were bulbous with the pressure of containing so much joy.

Good luck on your journeys, he said.

And he went away, stumbling down the gangplank. My little friends were not terribly interested in grapefruit, gourmet or otherwise. They were inclined to toss them into the sea. Making a little game of it, trying to sink a floating grapefruit with a hurled grapefruit. For some reason I folded the duffel bag and stowed it under an arm. The duffel bag of the father of the girl from the North Country. The grapefruit began to drift back toward the shore, back toward Manhattan. Where I was not going.

The towers of New York reared above the cold choppy water. Manhattan was stamped against the horizon like a mirage, like a palace desire had conjured.

The grapefruit drifted toward the girl from the North Country as if homing devices were embedded in them. Look out your window, babe, and I’ll be gone. Fare-thee-well.

Down through Cape Hatteras to the Panama Canal. Storms lay on the ocean. It seemed always night, always cold, everything felt wet with salt spray, everything tasted of sea salt. Seasick, homesick, heartsick for the girl from the North Country. Her image holographed in my memory, the taste of her mouth still on my tongue. Sick for the Village and espresso and the street freaks and poets, for Liam Clancy and Maria Muldaur and Mississippi John Hurt.

People had told me New York was cold and heartless. They had lied. I’d been invited into folks’ homes and slept in their beds, ate at their tables. I’d had good times and interesting conversations. I had smelled Sara’s hair, enjoyed soft flesh without the exchange of filthy lucre.

Now I was bound around the horn to San Diego. Where these things did not live. Where everything was sand and plastic palm trees. Where there was a sea of white sailor hats and battalions of jarheads who wanted nothing so much as to take you out into the alley and kick your sorry ass. Where merchants with cash-register eyes stood in the doorways of their jewelry stores and tailor shops and beckoned you to enter. Come in here, sailor. Easy weekly payments. Get an engagement ring for that girl back in the old hometown. A $20 watch for only a hundred bucks. Handmade suits of Italian silk that ?t as if they’d been handstitched in the rain forest by spider monkeys.

And the men who cruised the bus stops like predators in late-model Volvos and Austin Healeys. In their sunglasses and golfing caps. Hey there, sailor, want a lift? How far are you going?

Nowhere near that far, good buddy.

And, oh my God, I’d just remembered. The drinking age in San Diego was 21, not New York’s youth-accommodating 18.

The ship rolled and yawed. Folks strapped themselves into their bunks. I couldn’t sleep. I lay and thought about what Sara had said: You’ve let him into your head.

Well, I’d concede that. But there was a precedent for it. Everyone has folks in their head. Already I had a few tenants up in those attic rooms. James Dean, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner. Flannery O’Connor had a lifetime lease, paid up forever. Faulkner had Melville and Conrad and Joyce. Even Dylan had Woody Guthrie and those beat poets and the French symbolists. And Little Richard. Woody had Joe Hill and Jesus Christ and maybe Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had the founding fathers.

So what if I gave Dylan a room. He’d be the only musician. Always room for one more, just another towel in the bathroom, another place setting at the dining room table. I could give him the room with that little gallery where Carson McCullers used to sit in the twilight and watch the violet darkness seep into the soft Georgia landscape of her memory.

She’d be pissed and leave in a snit, but don’t think twice, it’s all right. She was outward-bound, anyway. She and Truman Capote had taken to scuffling and fighting and hissing like cats, and I was sick of the both of them.

Sometimes I could hear Dylan’s boots on the stairs. He stayed in his room a lot, drinking, I think. He sat on his cot and tuned his Martin while McCullers, interrupted at her packing, screamed through the wall—You want to knock that shit off It’s three o’clock in the morning. Do you have to tune that thing at three o’clock in the morning?

Of course this attic was not a nice place to live. Sometimes, in fact, it was a sordid, squalid place. You couldn’t have gotten Eudora Welty in there with a sawed-o? shotgun. Walker Percy, slumming, sneered, waved a dismissive arm and hailed a cab for uptown. Its tenants drank too much and had indiscriminate and unprotected sex as often as they could, and when they weren’t doing it they were thinking about it in a constant state of tumescence. Regret and loss tinged the windowpanes, darkened the fading wallpaper. Once, Faulkner passed out sitting with his back pressed against the hot radiator and when they kicked down the door and peeled off his polo shirt the vertical brown burn marks on his back looked like the bars on a window.

This place was set on the wrong side of the tracks and too near them. There was shouting and glass breaking at hours far past midnight. In the dark, freight trains went highballing past, their shrieks honing away to a thin remnant of loss that was like a taste on the back of your tongue that made you want to go with them and see the unknowable landscape they were arc-welding out of the night. The deferential ghosts of James Agee’s Alabama sharecroppers hovered in the hallways or crouched figuring with their fingers in the dust on the floorboards, spectral and transparent revenants toting up the ciphers of lives that always came up wanting.

Dylan didn’t seem to mind. He settled in. Sometimes I could hear him coughing. Sometimes his typewriter went on pecking until dawn.

On leave, preparatory to shipping out for the South China Sea, I imported Dylan to Lewis County, Tenn., brought him in like contraband in my sea bag. Three albums now. Two friends and my brother and myself sat in my brother’s room grouped around the stereo.

You’ve got to hear this, I said. He’s a good guitar player.

I didn’t say that I had been listening to him for months and that I’d decided he was part visionary and part prophet, or that I was so far into the words I might never get out or even want out.

The needle hissed on the vinyl. The guitar picking seemed to come out of some old, lost, absolutely timeless place—it could’ve been a hundred years ago or next week. The voice, when it came, was always unexpected. You were hearing it for the first time no matter how many times you’d heard it before, the voice weary and resigned and pissed o? all at the same time—it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe, iffen you don’t know by now…

Son of a bitch sure can’t sing, my friend said, his ears forever spoiled by mainstream Elvis and Johnny Mathis.

He can’t blow that French harp, either, the other friend said.

I didn’t protest, I’d heard all this before. He’s a good guitar picker, I said again.

But my brother, who was learning to play then and whose instrument was never more than an arm’s reach away, picked his guitar up from the bed. He leaned and carefully set the tone arm back. When the guitar came again he started turning the keys and plucking strings, matching the tuning that was coming out of the speakers. When he was satisfied, his left hand began feeling around the strings experimentally for the chords.

Calendar pages riffled, blew away in the wind, it was another year. I was in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea, war smoldering like a banked fire. Eight-inch guns hammered and hammered and paint flaked off the galley ceiling like harsh gray snowflakes. The ship maneuvered to avoid conjectural torpedoes. On the decks of our carrier, jets came and went and came and went, left loaded and returned empty in a seemingly endless cycle. On the beach, the fires from ammunition dumps flared and ebbed all night. By day, burning oil refineries smoked and stank. Already I was looking forward to getting the hell gone—something didn’t quite compute here. What was happening never matched what I was reading about in the paper. There seemed some grotesque disparity between event and event’s recounting.

Still, there was Dylan. Four albums now. On the new one, the songs were different; surreal images were becoming more and more common. These songs flickered around the edges. They were becoming more personal, their concerns moving from the ills of society toward some interior landscape. Less protest music. He seemed to have decided it was a lost cause. He confided in the hallway that he sometimes felt as if he were charged with holding together a world already faulted, leaking and determined to come apart at the seams. The folk-music business expected him to do this. He was tired of it. He didn’t think he could do it. He didn’t think the world was going to last. I was keeping the music to myself. Dylan was an acquired taste nobody I knew was interested in acquiring. I had one of those small phonographs, the kind that closes like a suitcase, not unlike the one Anse Bundren’s new wife is carrying at the end of As I Lay Dying, and I kept it with my records in the computer room that was my workspace. I would go there in the small hours of the night and write and listen to music. I had a lot more records now—blues and folk and the new singer/songwriters who were working Dylan’s side of the street.

Timing is everything. I was playing the album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, a song called “All I Really Want to Do.” To the untrained ear this song is particularly grating. There’s a part where, on the word “do,” his voice rises and rises and pulsates until it screeches into a sort of yodeling giggle. It’s great, and funny as hell, but there are folks who regard this moment as a perpetual fingernail on an interminable chalkboard.

McPherson, my leading petty officer and boss, chose this moment to come through the hatch and see what was going on. If it had been another song, a moment earlier or a moment later, everything might’ve gone down differently. He gave a sort of strangled inarticulate cry. He seemed taken with some manner of fit. His mouth was a horrified O; his eyes bulged in agony. He clasped his hands to his ears. God Almighty damn! he screamed, and ran across the deck and jerked the cord from the wall. He grabbed up my records blindly—Dylan, Joan Baez, Brownie McGhee, Jimmy Reed. He jammed them between the lid and turntable and forced the lid down and grabbed up everything and whirled and went through the hatch. I could hear him going up the ladder to the main deck.

I followed him. He was at the rail. The deck rose and fell in the chop.

Drown this caterwauling son of a bitch, he said.

He hurled everything into the sea, albums skipping like frisbees, the phonograph listing and filling with water, going down for the third time, do not resuscitate.

He turned and went without a word.

I stood watching the records drift toward the shore. Like messages sent into space, hello out there. I wondered what the Vietcong would make of these strange cultural artifacts. All these drowned bluesmen and Cambridge girls with ironed-looking hair. I imagined them putting Dylan on the turntable, lowering the tonearm. Scratching their heads in perplexity. Goodbye’s just too good a word, babe. So I’ll just say fare-thee-well.

Timing is everything. When I stepped off the plane that had flown me from Japan to Long Beach for discharge, a crewman’s tinny radio was blasting away. I stepped into the hot glare of sunlight, and a familiar voice was demanding, How does it feel? To be on your own? A complete unknown? With no direction home? Like a rolling stone?

That sounds like Dylan, I thought. But the music sure doesn’t. What the hell’s happened here? Dylan hadn’t been in his room for a few months—he was on the road, more changes in the wind.

There was more strangeness around. Changes abounded, they seemed to be the order of the day. I’d been gone 18 months. In days to come I saw men on the streets with hair down to their shoulders, people carrying signs protesting the war. Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? I saw rock music on primetime TV, a show called Hullabaloo. The Byrds were singing Dylan, granny glasses, more long hair. McGuinn was even phrasing like Dylan. I saw a duo calling themselves Sonny and Cher. They looked like Brill Building hippies. They were singing a song called “I Got You Babe.” The words were drivel except for one word. Babe? Where’s that Babe coming from? They’re stealing from Dylan, picking his pocket, ripping him o? like a Tijuana pimp. Where’s a cop when you need one?

More calendar pages blowing in the wind, a veritable snowstorm of them. Time passes slowly up here in the mountains, the world goes its weary way. Dylan and I grow older. He’s much on the road these years, identities flicker like frames in a film. He’s a family man, a gypsy rover, a whiteface minstrel, a born-again Christian. He’s an 80-year-old bluesman from the Mississippi Delta; masks shuffle like cards in a deck. I try a few masks of my own.

There comes a day when the attic is almost deserted. Except for Dylan, the tenants are long gone. Who knows where—perhaps they’re winos living like street people. Heroes have feet of clay; they stand on shifting sands. A man must make his own way. A cold wind blows down Desolation Row, the ambulances are long gone, the sweeping Cinderella is so far past the age of being easy, her Bette Davis style is a grotesque vamping.

A man could learn to live listening to Woody Guthrie, Dylan said a long time ago. I believe that this is just as true of Dylan. You could learn to live listening your way through all those albums. Especially if you have an affinity for masks and one-eyed jacks and shifting identities—now you see me, now you don’t.

And you learn to accept growing older. You become aware of mortality. The sun lowers, hovers over the horizon. I got new eyes, Dylan marvels. Everything looks so far away. Shadows are falling, and I been here all day, he sings. It’s too hot to sleep, and time’s running away. But then there’s that reassuring kiss-my-ass defiance: I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes.

Don’t think twice, it’s all right. The more things change the more they stay the same.

A man must make his own way, and you grow too old for heroes. But Dylan and I go back a long way; we’ve been through a lot together, and you never grow too old for a friend, even one you’ve never met.

Presidents come and go, and empires rise and crumble, but Dylan’s still on the road. The never-ending tour rolls on to its inevitable end. But nobody’s giving up here, nobody’s getting old. On Love and Theft, the most recent studio album, Dylan sounds positively rejuvenated, shot full of some kind of goat-gland tonic, funny as Charlie Chaplin, brash as Robert Johnson and wise and fatalistic as Mississippi John Hurt.

So jump into that hopped-up Mustang Ford, babe, and throw your panties overboard. This ride’s not over yet.

And hey—girl from the North Country: Goodbye’s just too good a word, babe. So I’ll just say fare-thee-well.