Tangled Up in Bob
We've been friends for thirty years, which is why, I suppose, everyone asks me what Bob Dylan is really like. The answer is as complicated as he is.
THIS MONTH BOB DYLAN’S LONG-AWAITED autobiography, Chronicles (Simon and Schuster), shall be released on the heels of a reissue of my old friend Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s classic, On the Road With Bob Dylan (Three Rivers Press), so I’ve got an excuse to tell you about the first time I met Bob. It was the fall of 1973, and my band, the Texas Jewboys, was playing the Troubadour in Los Angeles. One night Bob walked in barefoot, wearing a white robe. Possibly he thought he was Jesus Christ or Johnny Appleseed, or maybe he’d just gotten out of the bath, but everybody definitely treated him like a god. He was friendly, cryptic, and almost shy when he was introduced to us after the show. Later, we watched from the dressing room window as he got into his limo in the alley behind the club. Willie Fong Young, our bass player, said it best at the time: “He may not have any shoes, but at least he’s got a limo.”
It wasn’t long after that that his road manager called my road manager (who, cosmically enough, was named Dylan Ferrero). I was instructed to go out on the Santa Monica pier at midnight and meet a baby-blue 1960 Cadillac convertible that would take me to Bob. After a long, mystical journey, I wound up at the home of Roger McGuinn, the founder of the Byrds, who was to become a friend of mine even though I did make the following comment to him that night: “There is a time to live and a time to die and a time to stop listening to albums by the Byrds.”
By two o’clock in the morning, I had still not seen Bob, but I did stumble upon Kris Kristofferson talking to a young groupie he’d apparently just met. Kris looked up and said, “Kinky?” Simultaneously, the girl and I responded, “Yes.” Kris pointed me in the direction of the kitchen. I wandered in, and there was Bob sitting on the counter, strumming a guitar and singing a song I’d written, “Ride ’em Jewboy.”
It was fashionable in the early seventies to talk long into the night about “life and life only,” and Bob and I did that. I told him about my recent trip with the members of Led Zeppelin aboard the Starship, their private jet with a fireplace, and that I was particularly excited about urinating backstage next to Jimmy Page. Bob was not impressed. “They have nothing to say,” he said. “You and Kris have a lot to say. You should say it.” Without, he went on, using makeup and dry ice.
Later, I went off to find a drink, and when I returned, Roger was helping Bob up off the floor. “The wine’s not agreeing with him,” Roger said. That night, I suppose, I wasn’t agreeing with him much either, but that could have been because I had a chip the size of Dallas on my shoulder. Or it could just be that time changes the river. However you look at it, it’s now clear that Led Zep, like so many other acts, has been relegated to the bone orchard of nostalgia, while Bob remains a spiritual beacon in a world largely remarkable for its unwillingness to be led to the light.
Traveling and making music with Bob is a rare opportunity to see a magic messenger at work and play. In 1976 Bob asked me to join him and Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Allen Ginsberg, and many others as part of his Rolling Thunder Revue, which traveled across America that year leaving behind some satisfied women, some wildly enthusiastic audiences, and some brain cells that promised they’d get back to us later.
I hung out a lot with Bob after that tour, and as mesmerizing and untouchable as he seems onstage, offstage he can be extremely warm and witty. Imagine Bob and me standing in the parking lot of a seedy motel in Fort Worth at two-thirty in the morning with a redneck motel manager repeatedly asking him for his driver’s license. Or picture Bob at a barbecue at my parents’ house in Northwest Austin. (When my mother brought him a plate, he said, “Thanks, Mrs. Friedman. You must be very proud of your son.”) I remember shopping with Bob at the famous Nudie’s in North Hollywood, where he saw a rhinestone jacket embroidered with Jesus’ face. “A guy ordered this a long time ago,” Nudie told Bob, “but he never came back for it.” “He has now,” said Bob. Bob bought the jacket, wore it for one performance, and then gave it to me. The Bob Dylan Jesus Jacket promptly brought me seven years of bad luck, after which I sold it at Sotheby’s. (It hung for a while in the Hard Rock Cafe in Tel Aviv.) Several years ago I caught up with Bob in New York and told him what I’d done with the jacket. He shook his head and said, “Bad move.”
Speaking of jackets, I once spent a month with Bob in the village of Yelapa, off the western coast of Mexico. Although it was over 100 degrees every day, Bob never took off his heavy leather jacket. I knew he was from Minnesota, but it did seem somewhat odd, so one day on the beach I asked him about it. His answer was to tell me a story about the king of the gypsies, and how, when the king got old, all his wives and children left him. I thought at the time that Bob might be feeling a chill that few of us ever feel.
People often ask me what Bob is really like. He’s naturally shy and superstitious and hates to be photographed because he believes that every picture taken of him reduces his chances of becoming an Indian when he grows up. Bob, in fact, has a lot in common with the Native American people. They both believe, for instance, that you can’t own land or a waterfall or a horse. The only thing they both believe you can own is a casino. Yet Bob’s been so many things in his life that it’s almost impossible to pin him down. He’s been a vegetarian, an Orthodox Jew, a born-again Christian, a Buddhist, a poet, a pilgrim, a picker, a boxer, a biker, a hermit, a chess player, a beekeeper, and an adult stamp collector—and almost everything, except a Republican, that a human being can possibly be when a restless soul is forever evolving toward his childhood night-light.
And, of course, he’s a very funny American. I remember once when we had to book a flight at the last minute and there was nothing in first class available. When we got back to coach, there were only a few seats left and Bob found, much to his dismay, that he was seated next to an enthusiastic young female fan. “I can’t believe I’m sitting next to Bob Dylan!” she screamed. Bob gazed calmly at the girl. “Pinch yourself,” he said.