Chronicles Volume One
By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2004 Bob Dylan
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-7432-2815-4
Chapter One Markin' Up the Score
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.
None of it seemed important. I had just signed a contract with Leeds Music giving it the right to publish my songs, not that there was any great deal to hammer out. I hadn't written much yet. Lou had advanced me a hundred dollars against future royalties to sign the paper and that was fine with me.
John Hammond, who had brought me to Columbia Records, had taken me over to see Lou, asked him to look after me. Hammond had only heard two of my original compositions, but he had a premonition that there would be more.
Back at Lou's office, I opened my guitar case, took the guitar out and began fingering the strings. The room was cluttered - boxes of sheet music stacked up, recording dates of artists posted on bulletin boards, black lacquered discs, acetates with white labels scrambled around, signed photos of entertainers, glossy portraits - Jerry Vale, Al Martino, The Andrews Sisters (Lou was married to one of them), Nat King Cole, Patti Page, The Crew Cuts - a couple of console reel-to-reel tape recorders, big dark brown wooden desk full of hodgepodge. Lou had put a microphone on the desk in front of me and plugged the cord into one of the tape recorders, all the while chomping on a big exotic stogie.
"John's got high hopes for you," Lou said.
John was John Hammond, the great talent scout and discoverer of monumental artists, imposing figures in the history of recorded music - Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton. Artists who had created music that resonated through American life. He had brought it all to the public eye. Hammond had even conducted the last recording sessions of Bessie Smith. He was legendary, pure American aristocracy. His mother was an original Vanderbilt, and John had been raised in the upper world, in comfort and ease - but he wasn't satisfied and had followed his own heart's love, music, preferably the ringing rhythm of hot jazz, spirituals and blues - which he endorsed and defended with his life. No one could block his way, and he didn't have time to waste. I could hardly believe myself awake when sitting in his office, him signing me to Columbia Records was so unbelievable. It would have sounded like a made-up thing.
Columbia was one of the first and foremost labels in the country and for me to even get my foot in the door was serious. For starters, folk music was considered junky, second rate and only released on small labels. Big-time record companies were strictly for the elite, for music that was sanitized and pasteurized. Someone like myself would never be allowed in except under extraordinary circumstances. But John was an extraordinary man. He didn't make schoolboy records or record schoolboy artists. He had vision and foresight, had seen and heard me, felt my thoughts and had faith in the things to come. He explained that he saw me as someone in the long line of a tradition, the tradition of blues, jazz and folk and not as some newfangled wunderkind on the cutting edge. Not that there was any cutting edge. Things were pretty sleepy on the Americana music scene in the late '50s and early '60s. Popular radio was sort of at a standstill and filled with empty pleasantries. It was years before The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones would breathe new life and excitement into it. What I was playing at the time were hard-lipped folk songs with fire and brimstone servings, and you didn't need to take polls to know that they didn't match up with anything on the radio, didn't lend themselves to commercialism, but John told me that these things weren't high on his list and he understood all the implications of what I did.
"I understand sincerity," is what he said. John spoke with a rough, coarse attitude, yet had an appreciative twinkle in his eye.
Recently he had brought Pete Seeger to the label. He didn't discover Pete, though. Pete had been around for years. He'd been in the popular folk group The Weavers, but had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and had a hard time, but he never stopped working. Hammond was defiant when he spoke about Seeger, that Pete's ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, that his relatives had fought the Battle of Bunker Hill, for Christsake. "Can you imagine those sons of bitches blacklisting him? They should be tarred and feathered."
"I'm gonna give you all the facts," he said to me. "You're a talented young man. If you can focus and control that talent, you'll be fine. I'm gonna bring you in and I'm gonna record you. We'll see what happens."
And that was good enough for me. He put a contract in front of me, the standard one, and I signed it right then and there, didn't get absorbed into details - didn't need a lawyer, advisor or anybody looking over my shoulder. I would have gladly signed whatever form he put in front of me.
He looked at the calendar, picked out a date for me to start recording, pointed to it and circled it, told me what time to come in and to think about what I wanted to play. Then he called in Billy James, the head of publicity at the label, told Billy to write some promo stuff on me, personal stuff for a press release.
Billy dressed Ivy League like he could have come out of Yale - medium height, crisp black hair. He looked like he'd never been stoned a day in his life, never been in any kind of trouble. I strolled into his office, sat down opposite his desk, and he tried to get me to cough up some facts, like I was supposed to give them to him straight and square. He took out a notepad and pencil and asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Illinois and he wrote it down. He asked me if I ever did any other work and I told him that I had a dozen jobs, drove a bakery truck once. He wrote that down and asked me if there was anything else. I said I'd worked construction and he asked me where.
"You traveled around?"
He asked me about my family, where they were. I told him I had no idea, that they were long gone.
"What was your home life like?"
I told him I'd been kicked out.
"What did your father do?"
"And your mother, what about her?"
"What kind of music do you play?"
"What kind of music is folk music?"
I told him it was handed down songs. I hated these kind of questions. Felt I could ignore them. Billy seemed unsure of me and that was just fine. I didn't feel like answering his questions anyway, didn't feel the need to explain anything to anybody.
"How did you get here?" he asked me.
"I rode a freight train."
"You mean a passenger train?"
"No, a freight train."
"You mean, like a boxcar?"
"Yeah, like a boxcar. Like a freight train."
"Okay, a freight train."
I gazed past Billy, past his chair through his window across the street to an office building where I could see a blazing secretary soaked up in the spirit of something - she was scribbling busy, occupied at a desk in a meditative manner. There was nothing funny about her. I wished I had a telescope. Billy asked me who I saw myself like in today's music scene. I told him, nobody. That part of things was true, I really didn't see myself like anybody. The rest of it, though, was pure hokum - hophead talk.
I hadn't come in on a freight train at all. What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, '57 Impala - straight out of Chicago, clearing the hell out of there - racing all the way through the smoky towns, winding roads, green fields covered with snow, onward, eastbound through the state lines, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, a twenty-four-hour ride, dozing most of the way in the backseat, making small talk. My mind fixed on hidden interests... eventually riding over the George Washington Bridge.
The big car came to a full stop on the other side and let me out. I slammed the door shut behind me, waved good-bye, stepped out onto the hard snow. The biting wind hit me in the face. At last I was here, in New York City, a city like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn't going to try.
I was there to find singers, the ones I'd heard on record - Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, Ed McCurdy, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Josh White, The New Lost City Ramblers, Reverend Gary Davis and a bunch of others - most of all to find Woody Guthrie. New York City, the city that would come to shape my destiny. Modern Gomorrah. I was at the initiation point of square one but in no sense a neophyte.
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?
I found the place and was told that Freddy was downstairs in the basement where the coats and hats were checked and that's where I met him. Neil was the MC of the room and the maestro in charge of all the entertainers. He couldn't have been nicer. He asked me what I did and I told him I sang, played guitar and harmonica. He asked me to play something. After about a minute, he said I could play harmonica with him during his sets. I was ecstatic. At least it was a place to stay out of the cold. This was good.
Fred played for about twenty minutes and then introduced all the rest of the acts, then came back up to play whenever he felt like it, whenever the joint was packed. The acts were disjointed, awkward and seemed to have come from the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, a popular TV show. The audience was mostly collegiate types, suburbanites, lunch-hour secretaries, sailors and tourists. Everybody performed from ten to fifteen minutes. Fred would play for however long he felt, however long the inspiration would last. Freddy had the flow, dressed conservatively, sullen and brooding, with an enigmatical gaze, peachlike complexion, hair splashed with curls and an angry and powerful baritone voice that struck blue notes and blasted them to the rafters with or without a mike. He was the emperor of the place, even had his own harem, his devotees. You couldn't touch him. Everything revolved around him. Years later, Freddy would write the hit song "Everybody's Talkin'." I never played any of my own sets. I just accompanied Neil on all of his and that's where I began playing regular in New York.
The daytime show at the Café Wha?, an extravaganza of patchwork, featured anybody and anything - a comedian, a ventriloquist, a steel drum group, a poet, a female impersonator, a duo who sang Broadway stuff, a rabbit-in-the-hat magician, a guy wearing a turban who hypnotized people in the audience, somebody whose entire act was facial acrobatics - just anybody who wanted to break into show business. Nothing that would change your view of the world. I wouldn't have wanted Fred's gig for anything.
At about eight o'clock, the whole daytime menagerie would come to a halt and then the professional show would begin. Comedians like Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce and commercial folksinging groups like The Journeymen would command the stage. Everyone who had been there during the day would pack up. One of the guys who played in the afternoons was the falsetto-speaking Tiny Tim. He played ukulele and sang like a girl - old standard songs from the '20s. I got to talking to him a few times and asked him what other kinds of places there were to work around here and he told me that sometimes he played at a place in Times Square called Hubert's Flea Circus Museum. I'd find out about that place later.
Fred was constantly being pestered and pressured by moocher types who wanted to play or perform one thing or another. The saddest character of all was a guy named Billy the Butcher. He looked like he came out of nightmare alley. He only played one song - "High-Heel Sneakers" and he was addicted to it like a drug. Fred would usually let him play it sometime during the day, mostly when the place was empty. Billy would always preface his song by saying "This is for all you chicks." The Butcher wore an overcoat that was too small for him, buttoned tight across the chest. He was jittery and sometime in the past he'd been in a straitjacket in Bellevue, also had burned a mattress in a jail cell. All kinds of bad things had happened to Billy. There was a fire between him and everybody else. He sang that one song pretty good, though.
Another popular guy wore a priest's outfit and red-topped boots with little bells and did warped takes on stories from the Bible. Moondog also performed down here. Moondog was a blind poet who lived mostly on the streets. He wore a Viking helmet and a blanket with high fur boots. Moondog did monologues, played bamboo pipes and whistles. Most of the time he performed on 42nd Street.
My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry. I'd actually met her before, run across her the previous summer outside of Denver in a mountain pass town in a folk club.
Excerpted from Chronicles by Bob Dylan Copyright © 2004 by Bob Dylan. Excerpted by permission.
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