Dylan and Me
Bob Dylan was standing two feet away from me. It was the late seventies, and I was the piano player on Saturday Night Live. I was talking with his current producer, the legendary Jerry Wexler, as we watched Dylan rehearse his band. I was right where I belonged. Surely God had blessed me by putting me in this favored position. Only one problem: Dylan was wearing a huge cross.
So what was the problem?
A little background information: I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue. I also grew up at the end of Highway 61. My hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, is at the northern extreme of that storied road. Thunder Bay is where my close friend Wayne Tanner, one of the original Dylanologists, turned me on to the great singer/songwriter. His album Highway 61 Revisited was the Talmud to the Torah of my life. I learned Al Kooper's high organ line and Paul Griffin's piano part on "Like a Rolling Stone" note for note, sound for sound. The keyboard combination helped define Dylan's new sound. And the sound made me absolutely crazy. Then there was the certain knowledge that Dylan, the most important poet of our generation, was also a landsman. Bobby Zimmerman was a fellow Jew.
In the seventies, I had heard that Bob had returned to his Orthodox roots. Supposedly he was studying with a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. Then came the rumors that our man Zimmy had ventured beyond the Old Testament into the New. I didn't want to believe it. I clung to the notion that once they cut the tip, you're always hip.
Yet there he was, onstage in Studio 8H at 30 Rock in themiddle of New York City, singing "You Got to Serve Somebody." And I knew damn well that "somebody" sure wasn't Moses. I was bothered and bewildered. Dylan was bewitched.
"Can we lose the cross, Jerry?" I whispered in Wexler's hairy ear.
"Oh, I wouldn't say anything," he said in a panic. "Bob takes this shit seriously."
"I'm kidding," I said.
But I wasn't.
The rolling stone rolled on. The planet took several spins, and several worlds later I was amazed to find myself on nightly television as musical director of Late Night with David Letterman. Word came down that on this particular night there were to be two guests. The first was the flamboyant pianist beloved by audiences in Las Vegas, none other than Liberace. The second was Dylan. Liberace was there to cook, Dylan to play.
"Hey, Dave," I said at the top of the show, "what a night! Liberace cooking? In my book, that cat always cooks. And Dylan—I'm shocked. Did you know he went electric?"
"Calm down, Paul," Dave said.
After Dave and Liberace worked up a soulful soufflé, Dylan came on with a borrowed band. Nonetheless, his three-song set was powerful. His "License to Kill" killed. Afterwards, I couldn't keep from knocking on heaven's door. I had to bond with Dylan.
When I stuck my head in his dressing room, I saw that he was with his lovely and talented girlfriend, singer Clydie King.
"Hi, Bob," I said and, offering Clydie a smile, quoted Dylan himself: "What's a sweetheart like her doing in a place like this?"
Bob nodded in my direction. He didn't say a word.
"You know, Bob, you grew up just 130 miles to the south of my hometown in Canada. We're linked by Highway 61. And I gotta tell you something else, man. Just like you, I spent my growing-up years with my ear pressed against the transistor listening to those faraway southern radio stations. Just like you, I learned to love rhythm and blues. And hey, Bob, how about that Bobby Vee? You played piano with him, I could sing both parts to 'Take Good Care of My Baby.' We're soul brothers."
I waited for his response, but none came. He just seemed to be staring into space. But I kept going.
"When you sang Roy Head's 'Treat Her Right' in rehearsal today, Bob, it sounded just great. I wish you'd record it."
Finally Bob looked me in the eyes. I'd obviously made a connection.
"Paul, do you think you could introduce me to Larry 'Bud' Melman?" he asked, referring to the lovable nerd who was a running character on our show.
I thought Dylan was kidding.
But he wasn't.
Years later, I encountered a different Bob at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner. This Bob enthusiastically grabbed his guitar and joined the post-dinner jam. His fellow jammers that night were,among others, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Jeff Beck. Bill Graham and I were running the thing together. In those years there were no rehearsals. The jams were completely spontaneous.
As a finale, I called "Like a Rolling Stone." Dylan graciously took the mic and began to sing, backed up by Mick and Tina. After the second chorus, Bill came out and whispered in my ear, "Guitar cutting session." He wanted the guitarists to play against each other. I set them up-first Beck, then Harrison, then all the others. The guitar riffs were stupendous, but now it was time to get back to the song. I looked at Bob and gestured toward the mic. He stared back blankly. He clearly didn't know what to do.
I moved in next to Dylan, realizing I had to lay it out for him. He needed to sing. So instead of gesturing, I just whispered in his ear. . .
"How does it feel?"
Wow! I thought, I'm directing Dylan to sing his own song with his own lyric.
Then he got it. He went to the mic and sang with Zimmerman zest, "How does it feel. . .to be on your own. . ."
And with that, if you'll forgive the pun, our poet laureate got us out of a jam.
Then came the Good Friday when Dylan crucified me, only to resurrect me on the Sunday. This passion played out on the stage of Radio City Music Hall. In those years we would sometimes broadcast a Letterman anniversary special. And for the tenth anniversary Dave wanted Dylan.
"Hey, Paul, Bob's agreed to come on," Dave said. "He'll play with the all-star band you've put together. Who do you have this year?"
"Carole King, Steve Vai, Chrissie Hynde, Doc Severinsen, Emmylou Harris, the James Brown horns—and that's just for starters."
"I'd love for Dylan to sing 'Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.' "
"Not sure it's enough of an anthem, Dave. This is going to be monstrous. Do you know 'One of Us Must Know' from Blonde on Blonde?"
"Not sure. Play it for me, Paul."
I slipped in the disc and within two bars Dave stopped me. "No," he said.
We went back and forth until we landed on the inevitable. It had to be "Like a Rolling Stone."
"You call Bob," said Dave. "You're the one who has the rapport with him."
"Right. Dylan loves me."
Dylan was hard to find. He lives on the road but is never anywhere for more than a day. Finally, I tracked him down in some motel in Des Moines and placed a call. When I told him that we'd be honored if he'd play"Like a Rolling Stone," he was lukewarm at best.
"That's a little obvious," he said."There's gotta be something else."
"Dave and I really see 'Like a Rolling Stone' as our grand finale."
The songwriter sighed. "It's a big catalog, Paul."
I was surprised to hear Bob Dylan sounding like music publisher Don Kirshner. Oh well, as an industry vet once told me, "It's all show biz. Totie Fields, John Coltrane—they're the same. Well, Totie could improvise."
"Tell you what, Paul. I'll be rehearsing my band in New York next week. Come by and we'll kick some things around."
When I showed up at the studio, Bob and the band were immersed in Paul Simon's "Hazy Shade of Winter." I'd later learn that Dylan dealt with writer's block by playing other people's songs. It loosened him up.
When they were done, he acknowledged me and indicated the piano.
"Let's try 'Rolling Stone,' " he said. I was pleasantly surprised. With the band behind me, I rose to the occasion. Paul Griffin would have been proud. Dylan was happy. It was on.
The next Friday, though, found me in something of a stew. Dylan had come to rehearse with my all-star band but, lo and behold, he needed to be gone before sundown. His long and winding spiritual road had led him back to Orthodox Judaism. He refused to play on the Sabbath. I had no time to waste. I placed him in front of the band and counted off. For reasons that were unclear, he refused to sing.
"Let's go again," I said.
This time he strummed his guitar a little, but nothing came out of his mouth.
I approached him gingerly. "What's going on?" I asked.
"I don't need this band to play my music," he said. "Me, I got four pieces. That's all I need. All this other stuff don't make no sense."
Panicked, I motioned to my assistant. "Get Dylan's manager over here," I ordered.
Jeff Kramer, Dylan's man, was an old friend. I spoke plainly. "Bob hates the band, Jeff. I don't know what to do."
"Just keep going," said Jeff. "He always does this."
But when I ran the tune the third time, Dylan still stayed silent.
So with the sun setting in the west, I called it a day. "Good Shabbos, Bob," I said as he left the stage. "See you tomorrow."
His exit left me in a state of uncertainty. I couldn't understand what was wrong. Carole King was wailing on that piano part. Steve Vai was channeling Hendrix on guitar. I was channeling Kooper on organ. What could be bad?
Saturday night arrived. We were to do a dress rehearsal before a live Radio City audience at 7 p.m., then the real show at 10. Lots of funny stuff in the first two acts. Then the third act: Bob Dylan singing "Like a Rolling Stone" backed by my superstar band.
Before Bob's entrance for the dress, I got an idea. While the band warmed up on "Everybody Must Get Stoned," I stood at his mic.
"Let me hear what Bob will hear," I asked the engineer.
I heard very little. It turned out Bob's monitor had nothing in it. The stage was so big, the hall so cavernous, all Bob had heard yesterday was a dull roar. No wonder he hated it. He couldn't hear it.
Then I went to work. "Give him some drums," I told the engineer. "Give him some bass. He needs to hear piano. Put some of my organ in there. Mix in a little guitar."
I did the best I could with the time that I had. At least now he had a halfway-decent mix.
When it came time for him to sing, I held my breath. His mouth moved, and some of that wonderful reediness came out, but I'd have to say he gave me only 30 percent.
Between the dress and air shows, Chrissie Hynde took me to Dylan's dressing room. If you're going to see Bob, let a woman lead the way.
"Everything okay, Bob?" I asked.
"It's sounding a little better," he said.
"Will you be able to sing?"
"Long as you can play."
Well, I did play. And so did the band. And, I'm happy to report, Mr. Dylan did sing. This time he gave me a more than decent 70 percent.
By the time I arrived at the after-party, Bob was already there. He and Chrissie had their guitars out and seemed to be in sync. I sat down beside him and asked, "How do you think it went?"
"Lemme be honest with you, Paul. When I'm in the hotel room at night, I flip on the show only to catch a glimpse of Larry 'Bud.' I've never really keyed in on you. But tonight, man, I saw that you know what you're doing. If I had realized this could have been something, I would have given more."
I looked at my watch. It was 2 a.m. Bob Dylan may have crucified me on Friday, but here, on Sunday morning, my soul was resurrected.
Over time, I've lost track of Dylan's movements in the spiritual continuum. I myself have remained consistent. I'm Jewish, I'm happy. I love the tradition. Like my favorite ball player, Sandy Koufax, I don't play on Yom Kippur, the holiest time of the Jewish year, the sacred Day of Atonement. Some of my musician friends, though, have had challenges surrounding this issue.
My buddy, the great trumpeter Lew Soloff, was playing with Blood, Sweat and Tears in Europe. He was actually walking on stage when a fellow band member happened to say, "Hey, Lew, I thought you were Jewish. Don't you know today's Yom Kippur?" Lew hadn't consulted his calendar and was caught in a quandary. It was one minute to showtime. He made a snap decision. "I'll play," he said, "but I won't improvise."
Another great trumpeter, Alan Rubin from Saturday Night Live and the Blues Brothers Band, once met me at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Yom Kippur eve—Kol Nidre night.
"Good yom tov, Alan," I said, "you're beaming."
"Who wouldn't be?" he said. "I just came from Caesar's Retreat."
"The massage parlor?" I asked.
"The whorehouse," he said. "Man, I was on.I made love to that chick."
With a voice that invoked the ages, the cantor sang,"Kol Nidre. . .v'esorei. . ."
Two years later, I was reading the New York Daily News when I noticed that Caesar's Retreat had been closed down and was the object of a grand jury inquiry. Records had been seized. Alan Rubin called to say that his name had been listed among the patrons and he was due to testify. I wished him luck. After his big day, I called him.
"How'd it go?" I asked.
"Well, Paul, they put me on the stand. The attorney was tough. He grilled me."
"What'd he say?"
" 'Mr. Rubin, do you recall patronizing an establishment by the name of Caesar's Retreat?'"
" 'Yes sir, I do,' I said. 'It was innocent fun.'"
" 'I understand that, Mr. Rubin, but why, sir, were you at this particular place at this particular time?'"
" 'Well, it was Yom Kippur eve, and I wanted to make sure I had something to atone for.' "
In my case, I have much to atone for. In order to understand that process fully, we must go back to the beginning.