My Bob Dylan Story, and everybody else's

Every Dylan fan should check out Expecting Rain, Karl Erik Andersen’s excellent website which collects links to the Bob Dylan news of the day, as well as links that would be of interest to Dylan fans (see the links at the end of this post.) Today Karl posted a link to a site where people wrote their best Bob Dylan stories, and it made me think of my own encounter with Bob. I thought I’d add my story, but do it here....so here is….

My Bob Dylan story.

It must have been the end of 1977; I was eating lunch by myself at the Brentwood Country Mart, a complex of small shops and food stands in Los Angeles less than a mile from where I’d grown up. I’d eaten there hundreds of times, beginning when I was 2 or 3 years old. It was a weekday, and I was in the courtyard, eating my BBQ chicken and French fries, surrounded by mostly middle-aged women in groups of two or three, at small tables.

I was concentrating on my lunch when a scruffy man in a black leather jacket, with two or three little kids circling around him, walked through my field of vision. He was out of place—I remember his long curly hair, the beat up jacket, and his long nails with nicotine stains. Most everyone else in the place was well-dressed and upper middle class to upper class—so he really stood out. I glanced up and did one of the great double takes of my life—for it was Bob Dylan.

He walked into the toy store—my toy store—the one I’d grown up hanging around, where I bought my Matchbox Cars and Hardy Boys books. Unbelievable. Bob Dylan at the Mart. I looked around and it was clear that no one else has noticed nor recognized him. I thought quickly—did I have enough time to rush home to get an album for him to sign ? No, I’d probably miss him. I abandoned my lunch and hightailed it to my car, grabbing a felt-tip pen and a scrap of paper, and positioned myself outside the door of the store. I didn’t want to hassle him, but it was Bob Dylan-- my hero--and I knew I had to at least try to get an autograph.

I looked inside, but couldn’t really see him. So I waited. It seemed about 15 minutes before he emerged, with his kids still running around, paying no attention to him. He was carrying a child’s twirling baton, with some gift wrap and ribbon wrapped around the middle, but not covering the rubber tips on the ends. It looked like he’d been shopping for a birthday party gift for one of his children’s friends. Nervous as hell, I made my move.

“Excuse me, Bob. I’m sorry to bother you, but could I get an autograph ?” He looked at me, weakly held up the baton, which was in his right hand, shrugged his shoulders and said “sorry, I can’t sign,” indicating that the baton in his hand prevented him from using it to sign my paper. Embarrassed, I once again apologized for bothering him, and said something to the effect that his music had had a huge affect on me over the years, and thanked him for it.

I fully expected that to be the end of my encounter, but surprisingly, he asked me when I’d first heard him. I told him it was when I was 10 years old, in 1966, at summer camp. He asked me what song I liked best, and I told him “Like a Rolling Stone.” I said I thought it was a groundbreaking song in many ways, and marked his great transition from acoustic to electric, and that I thought it was brilliantly produced. I probably told him that I had gone to high school with the son of Tom Wilson, who produced that epic track. And I mentioned that I’d heard he was going to go to Japan soon, for his first tour there.

He was very surprised that I knew that, and asked where I’d heard it. I told him I worked at a local record store, Rhino Records, and we had a subscription to Billboard Magazine, and I’d read it there. At some point it occurred to me that he probably had people approach him constantly, telling him how much his music meant to them. I felt like he was testing me, to see how much I actually knew about him and his music, and I was passing the test. We chatted for another minute or two, and then he said “well, I’ve gotta go. Nice to meet you.”

I figured I’d take one last shot and asked again for an autograph. He looked at me, shrugged again, held up the baton, indicating he still “couldn’t” sign, and said, “See ya.” I was in shock.

At the time, I was sad I hadn’t gotten a signature. Happily, 32 years later, I’ve got plenty of signed and handwritten Dylan things. But Bob gave me something far more valuable—some of his time and a memory I won’t ever forget.

For further reading, check out Expecting Rain, the very amusing book Encounters With Bob, and the website The Best Bob Stories You Know.


Robert Shelton--He Got It.

Above is the first article ever written about Bob Dylan; a rave review in the New York Times by music critic Robert Shelton, written a mere 7 months after Dylan arrived in New York (and only 3 months after the young Bob Zimmerman began calling himself "Bob Dylan.")

According to Clinton Heylin's excellent "A Life In Stolen Moments/Bob Dylan Day By Day: 1941-1995," it was on January 24, 1961 that the nineteen year old Dylan arrived in "a snowbound New York, accompanied by his friend Fred Underhill. He heads for the Cafe Wha. It is a hootenanny night, and he performs a couple of songs. The Wha's owner, Manny Roth, asks the audience to provide them with a place to stay for the night." The next day Dylan traveled to Greystone Hospital in New Jersey to meet his ailing idol, Woody Guthrie, suffering from the hereditary disease, Huntington's Chorea. Meeting Guthrie is the ostensible reason that Dylan headed East.

It's rather astounding to see, then, that in 7 short months Dylan had developed to the extent that Shelton--the nationally known music critic for the most important newspaper in the United States--devoted the majority of his review to Dylan, the opening act for the much more established Greenbriar Boys. And Shelton was so confident about the talent of this virtual unknown that he wrote "it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up." You've gotta hand it to Robert Shelton--he truly got Dylan, and he wasn't afraid to say it.

I love reading articles like this, which show what people were saying as events were unfolding--before the revisionist history set in. I'm fortunate to have a very large archive of early Dylan articles, thanks largely to the prescience of two very early Dylan supporters, the late San Francisco music critic Ralph J. Gleason and the late 16 Magazine editor Gloria Stavers. Both collected clippings on Dylan for their files, and I was fortunate to buy their collections. Someday I hope to publish a compilation of the best of these--but for now, I thought I'd share this most important one. With the hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and millions of words written about Bob Dylan, it's kind of amazing to think--this is where it all began.