By Jules Siegel
Originally appeared in
The Saturday Evening Post, 1966, as "What Have We
Copyright © Jules Siegel 1966, 2000
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QUICK AND LITTLE,
Bob Dylan scrambled from
the safety of a rented gray sedan and ran for his dressing room
through a wildness of teenage girls who howled and grabbed for
his flesh. A cordon of guards held for a moment against the overwhelming
attack. Then it broke and Dylan disappeared beneath yards of bell-bottoms
and long hair. After a brief struggle he was rescued by one of
his assistants, who methodically tore small and large girls off
him, but it was too late. With a pair of enormous shears, a giant
blonde girl had snipped a lock of the precious Dylan hair and
now was weeping for joy.
"Did you see
that?" said Dylan in his dressing room, his pale face somewhat
paler than usual. " I mean did you see that?" repeated
Dylan, who tends to talk in italics. "I don't care about
the hair, but she could have killed me. I mean she could have
taken my eyes out with those scissors."
This is Bob Dylan's
year to be mobbed. Next year it will probably be somebody else.
But this year Bob Dylan is the king of rock and roll, and he is
the least likely king popular music has ever seen. With a bony,
nervous face covered with skin the color of sour milk, a fright
wig of curly tangles, and dark-circled hazel eyes usually hidden
by large prescription sunglasses, Dylan is less Elvis or Frankie
and more some crippled saint or resurrected Beethoven.
The songs he writes
and sings, unlike the usual young-love pap of the airwaves, are
full of dark and, many insist, important meaning; they are peopled
with freaks, clowns, tramps, artists and mad scientists, dancing
and tumbling in progression of visionary images mobilized to the
massive beat of rock and roll. They often make very little logical
sense, but almost always they make very good poetic sense. According
to a recent poll, college students call him the most important
contemporary poet in America.
He is certainly
the only poet who gets his hair snipped off by shrieking teenage
girls, but Dylan has always been a defier of categories. His first
fame was as a folk singer and folk-song writer. Last year he modified
his style to what has been labeled "folk-rock," a blend
of serious, poetic lyrics and rock and roll music, which has brought
him his greatest commercial success but has alienated some purists
who were his early fans. He is a singer whose voice has been compared
to the howl of "a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire";
a performer whose stage presence includes no hip wiggling or even,
until recently, any acknowledgment of his audience; a public figure
whose press conferences are exercises in a new kind of surrealism
in which reporters ask, "Are you planning to do a movie?"
and Dylan answers, deadpan, "Yes, I'm going to play my mother."
Yet, Bob Dylan,
at the age of 25, has a million dollars in the bank and earns
an estimated several hundred thousand dollars a year from concerts,
recordings and publishing royalties. He is even more popular in
England and Europe than in America. Four hours after tickets went
on sale for his recent London concerts at Albert Hall, the SOLD
OUT sign was put up, and at one time five of his LP albums were
selling in the top 20 in London. One paperback book on him has
already been published; a hard-cover book about him by Shelton,
folk critic of The New York Times, will be published this winter;
a third book of photographs and text by Daniel Kramer is scheduled
for winter publication. A two-hour documentary of his English
tours will soon be released for theater showing; he is about to
begin production of his own movie; ABC-TV has signed him for a
television special. A book of his writings, Tarantula,
is to be published by Macmillan late this summer, with a pre-publication
excerpt to appear in the Atlantic Monthly.
And although he
is still not nearly so popular as the Beatles, who have sold nearly
200 million records in four years, his artistic reputation is
so great that in the recording business Dylan is ranked as the
No. 1 innovator, the most important trend- setter, one of the
few people around who can change radically the course of teen
says Phil Ochs, a folksinger friend of his, "is the king.
He's the one we all look to for approval, the one we're all eating
our hearts out about, the one who proved you could make it with
the kids without any compromises. If I didn't admire him so much,
I would have to hate him. In fact, maybe I do hate him anyway."
Born Robert Zimmerman,
May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minn., Dylan is a product of Hibbing,
Minn., an iron ore mining town of 18,000 inhabitants about 70
miles from the Canadian border. The Southwestern accent in his
singing voice is apparently acquired; he speaks without it. His
father is a prosperous, witty, small (five-foot-six), cigar-smoking
appliance dealer. His mother, a deeply tanned, attractive woman,
is described by acquaintances as extremely intelligent, well informed
and very talkative.
Dylan has a brother,
David, 20, who attends St. Olaf College on a musical scholarship,
and in the family it was always David who was thought of as "the
musical one." Abe Zimmerman remembers buying a piano ("Not
an expensive one," he says) when Bob was ten. Bob took one
lesson and gave up in disgust because he couldn't play anything
right away. David, then five, began taking lessons and has been
playing ever since.
Despite his initial
impatience, Bob Zimmerman soon taught himself how to play the
piano, harmonica, guitar and autoharp. Once he began to play the
piano, says Mrs. Zimmerman, he beat the keys out of tune pounding
out rock and roll. He also wrote- not only music but also poetry.
"My mother has hundreds of poems I wrote when I was twelve
years old," says Dylan.
As an adolescent,
Dylan helped his father in the store, delivering appliances and
sometimes attempting to make collections. "He was strong,"
Abe Zimmerman recently told an acquaintance. "I mean he could
hold up his end of a refrigerator as well as kids twice his size,
"I used to
go out to the poor sections," Mr. Zimmerman said, "knowing
he couldn't collect any money from those people. I just wanted
to show him another side of life. He'd come back and say, 'Dad,
those people haven't got any money.' And I'd say, 'Some of those
people out there make as much money as I do, Bobby. They just
don't know how to manage it.'"
In more than one
way the lesson was well taken. Dylan today, while professing not
to know anything about his wealth, appears to be a very good manager
of money, careful sometimes to what might be considered stinginess.
Dan Kramer recalls
having to meet him at a hotel. "I called him," he says,
"and asked if he wanted me to bring anything up for him.
'A container of tea,' Bobby said. I said, 'Bobby, they have room
service in the hotel; you can have it sent up.' He thought about
that for a couple of seconds and then said no, room service was
too expensive." This was in 1965, the year that Dylan became
But Dylan learned
more than frugality in the depressed areas of Hibbing. He learned,
as Abe Zimmerman hoped he would, that there were people who knew
nothing about middle-class life and middle- class values, people
whose American dream had become a nightmare of installment debt.
He seems to have felt a blood tie with them, based on a terrifying
sense of his own peculiarity.
"I see things
that other people don't see," he says. "I feel things
other people don't feel. It's terrible. They laugh. I felt like
that my whole life.
have been the same as me, people who couldn't make it as the high
school football halfback, Junior Chamber of Commerce leader, fraternity
leader, truck driver working their way through college. I just
had to be with them. I just don't care what anyone looks like,
just as long as they didn't think I was strange. I couldn't do
any of those things either. All I did was write and sing, paint
little pictures on paper, dissolve myself into situations where
I was invisible."
In pursuit of invisibility,
Bob Zimmerman took to running away from home. "I made my
own depression," he says. "Rode freight trains for kicks,
got beat up for laughs, cut grass for quarters, met a waitress
who picked me up and dropped me off in Washington." He tells
of living with carnivals, of some trouble with police in Hibbing,
of entertaining in a strip joint.
Be that as it may,
he managed to finish high school at the appropriate time and even
earned a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. Then the
middle-class college boy from Hibbing began to remake his life
and his image radically. He moved from his fraternity house to
a downtown apartment. He began singing and playing the guitar
and harmonica at Minneapolis's Ten O'Clock Scholar for two dollars
a night; it is said that when he asked for a raise to five dollars,
he was fired. He became Bob Dylan, and has since changed his name
legally. This was not in tribute to Dylan Thomas, as the widely
circulated legend maintains, but for some reason which he doesn't
feel compelled to explain seriously.
"Get that straight,"
he says. "I didn't change my name in honor of Dylan Thomas.
That's just a story. I've done more for Dylan Thomas than he's
ever done for me. Look how many kids are probably reading his
poetry now because they heard that story."
Dylan also gave
up his very conventional college-boy dress--for his first professional
appearance in Minneapolis he had worn white buck shoes--and began
to develop his own personal style. At first, he was influenced
by the uniform of folksingers everywhere--jeans, work shirt, boots,
collar-length hair. Now that he's a rock and roll star, the uniform
has changed. The boots are still part of it, but the jeans are
now tight slacks that make his legs look skinnier than they are.
The work shirt has been replaced by floppy polka-dot Carnaby Street
English shirts with oversized collars and long, puffed sleeves.
Sometimes he wears racetrack-plaid suits in combinations of colors
like green and black. His hair seems to get longer and wilder
by the month.
In December, 1960,
Dylan gave up on Minnesota and took off for New York to try rock
and roll, then in an uncertain state and dominated by clean-cut
singers like Fabian and Frankie Avalon. It was not an auspicious
time for someone who looked and sounded like Dylan.
"I tried to
make it in rock and roll when rock and roll was a piece of cream,"
he says. "Elvis had struck, Buddy Holly was dead, Little
Richard was becoming a preacher, and Gene Vincent was leaving
the country. I wrote the kind of stuff you write when you have
no place to live and you're very wrapped up in the fire pump.
I nearly killed myself with pity and agony. I saw the way doors
close; the way doors that do not like you close. A door that does
not like you needs no one to close it. I had to retreat."
Retreat for Dylan
was folk music and Greenwich Village. He was strong medicine for
both--nervous, cocky, different from anyone else around.
a young magazine editor, remembers meeting Dylan at a party: "There
was this crazy, restless little kid sitting on the floor and coming
on very strong about how he was going to play Holden Caulfield
in a movie of Catcher In The Rye, and I thought, 'This kid is
really terrible'; but the people whose party it was said, 'Don't
let him put you off. He comes on a little strong, but he's very
sensitive--writes poetry, goes to visit Woody Guthrie in the hospital,'
and I figured right, another one. I forgot all about him until
a couple of years later he was famous and I wasn't. You can't
always be right about these things, I suppose." Both Kretchmer
and his wife are now Dylan fans.
Says Robert Shelton,
whose book about Dylan is to be published this winter, "He
was so astonishing-looking, so Chaplinesque and cherubic, sitting
up on a stool playing the guitar and the harmonica and playing
with the audience, making all kinds of wry faces, wearing this
Huck Finn hat, that I laughed out loud with pleasure. I called
over Pat Clancy (an Irish folksinger, one of the Clancy Brothers)
and he looked at this cherub and broke into a broad smile and
said, 'Well, what have we here?'"
Not too long after
that, Shelton wrote a laudatory review in the New York Times of
a Dylan performance. About the same time, Columbia Records executive
John Hammond met Dylan at the home of folksinger Carolyn Hester,
whom Dylan was going to accompany on a new record Hammond was
producing. Without hearing him perform, Hammond offered Dylan
a two-year contract with Columbia, and immediately hit a snag.
Dylan, a minor of
20, refused to admit to having any living relatives who could
sign for him. "I don't know where my folks are," he
told Hammond. "I think I've got an uncle who's a gambler
in Nevada, but I wouldn't know how to track him down." Taking
another chance, Hammond finally let the boy execute the contract
The young folksinger's
first LP was called Bob Dylan. It cost $403 to produce and sold,
initially, 4200 copies. By way of comparison, Dylan's most recent
record as of this writing, Highway 61 Revisited, has sold 360,000
in the United States. All together, it is estimated that 10 million
Dylan records have been sold throughout the world. His songs have
been recorded in more than 150 other versions by performers ranging
from Stan Getz to Lawrence Welk, and the royalties, Dylan admits,
have made him a millionaire.
In achieving this
success, Dylan has had powerful allies. Not the least of these
was Billy James, a young Columbia public relations man who is
now the record company's West Coast artist-relations director.
It was through James' efforts that Dylan got his first taste of
national publicity, but the singer's past was to come between
them. In 1963, when Dylan was entering his first flush of fame
with "Blowin' in the Wind", a song which became an unofficial
anthem of the civil-rights movement and a major popular hit, Newsweek
revealed that Bob Dylan was Robert Zimmerman and went on to suggest
that not only was Dylan's name a fake but it was rumored another
writer had created "Blowin' in the Wind". One part of
the story was false--Dylan was the author of the song; but the
other part, of course, was true: Bob Dylan was Robert Zimmerman.
Dylan was infuriated
by the article and blamed Billy James for it. For two years the
two did not speak. James won't talk about the incident at all,
but people who know both of them say that Dylan attempted to get
the public relations man fired. Two years later, they met at a
party and Dylan was all friendship again. When James mentioned
the Newsweek affair, Dylan put an arm around him and said,
"Thousands of people are dying in Vietnam and right at this
minute a man is jumping off the Empire State Building and you
got that running around in your head?"
One of the great
factors in Dylan's early success was his profound ability to articulate
the emotions of the civil-rights revolution, which was developing
its peak of power in the early Sixties. Recognition of this talent
came in dramatic form at the Newport Folk Festival of 1963.
Although he had
already appeared once on the program, which is a sort of Hall
of Fame of folksinging in action, he was called back to the stage
at the end of the final concert. Accompanied by a stageful of
folk stars, from Pete Seeger, the gentle "king" of folk
music, to Joan Baez, the undisputed queen, Bob Dylan sang "Blowin'
in the Wind" to an audience of 36,000 of the most important
folksinging fans, writers, recording executives and critics.
"How many roads
must a man walk down before they call him a man?" they sang.
"Yes, 'n' How many seas must a white dove sail before she
sleeps in the sand? Yes, 'n' How many times must the cannon balls
fly before they're forever banned? The answer my friend, is blowin'
in the wind, The answer is blowin' in the wind."*
Recorded by Peter,
Paul and Mary, "Blowin' in the Wind" was Dylan's first
major hit, and very quickly there were 58 different versions of
the song, by everyone from the Staple Sisters (a screaming gospel
version) to Marlene Dietrich. Almost overnight Dylan was established
at the top of the folk music field. Here at last, sighed the folk
critics and the civil-rights people, was a songwriter with the
true "proletarian" touch, one who could really reach
the masses. For two years, Dylan was the musical spokesman for
civil rights, turning up in Mississippi, in the march on Washington,
at the demonstrations and rallies.
"I feel it,"
said Joan Baez, whom Dylan had met before Newport, "but Dylan
can say it. He's phenomenal".
For a while, Joan
and Bobby were to be inseparable, the queen and crown prince of
folk music. When Dylan went to England for a concert tour, Joan
Baez went with him. As much as anyone's, it was her voice and
authority which helped to create the charismatic reputation of
Bob Dylan the folksinger.
These days Dylan
and Baez are not as close as they used to be. When the rough cut
of Don't Look Back was screened in Hollywood this spring, Baez
was everywhere on the film, in the limousine, at the airport,
singing in the hotel room. After the screening, Dylan said to
the film editor, "We'll have to take all that stuff of Joan
out." He hesitated and then added, "Well, it looks as
if she was the whole thing. She was only there a few days. We'll
have to cut it down."
Far more important
to Dylan, however, was Albert Grossman, who took over Dylan's
career and, to a great extent, his life. He is not only Dylan's
manager, but also his confidant, healer and friend. Until recently,
in fact, Dylan had no home of his own. He lived in Grossman's
New York City apartment or the manager's antique-filled country
home in Woodstock, N.Y.
He appears to be
only vaguely aware of the extent or nature of his wealth, leaving
the details to Grossman. "When I want money," Dylan
says, "I ask for it. After I spend it, I ask for more."
Dylan has had his
effect on Grossman, too, however. "I used to remember Albert
as a nice-looking businessman, the kind of middle-aged man you
would meet in a decent restaurant in the garment center,"
says Gloria Stavers, editor of 16. "Then, a while after he
signed Dylan, I met him again. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't
believe what had happened to him. He had long gray hair like Benjamin
Franklin and wire-rimmed spectacles, and he was wearing an old
sweatshirt or something and Army pants. 'Albert,' I screamed,
when I finally recognized him. 'Albert, what has Bobby done to
A measure of Dylan's
relationship with his manager is found in the tone and style he
uses in talking to Grossman. Even in the most ordinary conversation,
Dylan can be almost impossible to understand. He is often vague,
poetic, repetitive, confusing. But his flow of imagery can be
startlingly precise and original, and the line of his thought
brilliantly adventurous, funny and penetrating. So, in describing
his music he will say, "it's all math, simple math, involved
in mathematics. There's a definite number of Colt .45s that make
up Marlene Dietrich, and you can find that out if you want to."
This kind of talk
is not useful for more than a few situations. Nonetheless, it
is the way Dylan speaks to fans, disk jockeys, reporters, acquaintances,
and frequently, friends. It is not the way he speaks to Grossman.
The his voice often goes into a kind of piping whine, the voice
of a little boy complaining to his father.
Thus, after a concert
on the West Coast, at three o'clock in the morning, Dylan was
told by a visitor that his voice was not heard over the blast
of the electronically amplified instruments. Grossman lay dozing
on the hotel bed, his tinted glasses still on, a slight smile
of repose on his heavy face.
Dylan cried, "Albert, did you hear that? They couldn't hear
me. What good is it if they can't hear me? We've got to get that
sound man out here to fix it. What do you think, Albert?"
on the bed and answered soothingly, "I told you in the car
that the volume was too high. Just cut the volume by about a third
and it'll be all right." Grossman went back to sleep, very
much like an occidental Buddha, snoring lightly. Dylan was satisfied.
managerial talent is displayed most clearly when Dylan is on concert
tour. From Grossman's New York office, the logistics of moving
the singer and his crew from concert to concert halfway around
the world are worked out with an efficiency that makes the whole
operation seem effortless.
On the road the
Dylan entourage usually consists of Dylan, his road manager, a
pilot and co-pilot for the 13-seat two-engine Lodestar in which
the group travels over the shorter distances (tourist-class commercial
jets are used for overseas and transcontinental travel), two truck
drivers who deliver the sound equipment and musicians' instruments
from stop to stop, a sound man and five musicians--two guitarists,
a drummer, pianist and organist. Grossman flies out from time
to time to hear a concert or two and then returns to New York.
On foreign tours he usually stays with the group throughout the
Dylan's people are
protective and highly attentive to his wants, and Dylan himself,
given his status as a star, is neither especially demanding nor
temperamental, even when things don't go according to schedule.
Last spring, for
example, a concert in Vancouver was an acoustical disaster. The
arena still smelled strongly of its last guests--a stock exhibition.
It was perfectly round, with a flat dome that produced seven echoes
from a sharp handclap in the center. Large open gates let sound
leak out of the hall as easily as if the concert were held in
the open air. Although Dylan's $30,000 custom-designed sound system
filled eight large crates with equipment, it could never fill
this gigantic echo chamber with clear sound. To add to the problem,
one of the small monitor speakers placed on stage to enable the
musicians to hear themselves play, was not working.
are divided into two halves. During the first, in which he played
his acoustic guitar into a stage microphone, the sound was patchy;
in some spots it was perfect, in others it was very bad. In the
second half, however, in which rock and roll songs were played
on the amplified instruments and electric guitars, the music was
a garble of reverberation, and Dylan's voice was totally scrambled
by the echo. The sound man sweated and twirled his knobs, but
it was no use. At one point Grossman ran up to the stage to tell
Dylan he was "eating the mike," that is, getting too
close to the microphone and contributing to the electric jumble.
The musicians, deprived of the monitor, watched each other tensely
as they tried to keep their beat by observation rather than sound.
was just terrible," Dylan said when he came offstage and
hurried into the waiting car. "That was just awful. I mean
that was worse than Ottawa, and Ottawa was the worst hole in the
universe." He turned to each person in the car and asked
them separately. "Wasn't that worse than Ottawa, and wasn't
Ottawa the worst hole in the universe?" Everyone agreed that
it was worse than Ottawa.
"That was really
worse than Ottawa, and Ottawa was the worst, terrible, miserable
hole in the entire universe," Dylan repeated, with a certain
satisfaction. "Worse than Ottawa," he mused, and then,
laughing, turned around and said, "And anyone who doesn't
think it was worse than Ottawa can get out of the car right now."
Later he and Grossman
discussed the problem again, and it was agreed that the fault
lay in the arena, not in the equipment. In a better hall or a
theater there would have been no trouble. Dylan's concern now
was with the halls in which he was booked in Australia.
no good in those arenas," he said. "I just would rather
forget about arenas and play theaters. To hell with the money,
I mean I would much rather have a good show. Are we going to play
any arenas in Australia?"
"We have to,"
Grossman answered. "We haven't any choice, Bobby. There just
aren't enough big concert halls or theaters there. It's not America.
The country is still undeveloped."
right," said Dylan. "I mean if we have to, but I wish
we could play theaters and halls. I mean that place was worse
than Ottawa and -- "Ottawa was the worse hole in the universe,"
someone chimed in.
worst in the universe. And this was worse."
At no time, perhaps,
was Dylan's closeness with Grossman more important than in 1965,
the year Dylan turned from folk music to rock and roll. He had
by this time cut three more albums, two of them, The Times They
Are A-Changin' and Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, outstandingly successful,
not only in sales but in acclaim from the critics and the civil-rights
activists. But he came back from a stunningly successful English
tour with a feeling of malaise and a desire for change.
"After I finished
the English tour," he says, "I quit because it was too
easy. There was nothing happening for me. Every concert was the
same: first half, second half, two encores and run out, then having
to take care of myself all night.
"I didn't understand;
I'd get standing ovations, and it didn't mean anything. The first
time I felt no shame. But then I was just following myself after
that. It was down to a pattern."
In his next album,
Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan broke the pattern. Instead of
playing either conventional "protest" as it was understood
then, or using the traditional folk music modes, he electrically
amplified his guitar and set surrealistic verses to the rock and
roll beat. Ironically, it was one of the album's few non-rock
songs that brought Dylan his first great success in the pop market.
"Mr. Tambourine Man," recorded by the Byrds in a hard-rock
version complete with falsetto, was a massive hit.
Tambourine Man' broke, we didn't know anything about Bob Dylan,"
says "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, a disk jockey on WABC Radio,
New York. "Oh, I remember a few years ago we'd listen to
a single of his. It didn't seem to fit the sound then, so we didn't
play it. That was all I knew about Bob Dylan until the Byrds hit
with 'Tambourine Man.' Then everyone was asking. 'Who's this Bob
Dylan?' It's the only time I can remember when a composer got
more attention for a hit than the performers did."
[There's more but it somehow
got truncated. I'll fix this soon.]
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