Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bob Dylan's Dream

How many a year has passed and gone,
And many a gamble has been lost and won,
And many a road taken by many a friend,
And each one I've never seen again.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain,
That we could sit simply in that room again.
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat,
I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.
In May 1962 Columbia Record releases The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the second LP by a folksinger in his early twenties, and the first to be made up largely of his own compositions. Despite high expectations for the record — Columbia executive John Hammond is said to be convinced that Dylan could be the “next big thing” in the pop music business — the album's sales are initially modest, then quickly plummet. There are one or two polite but puzzled reviews in folk magazines (“original folk songs?”), but most listeners fail to connect with the record and dismiss it as, at best, a mere curiosity. The trade press take it as evidence that the “folk revival” has peaked and will not be a significant factor in the the record business in the coming years.

A few months later a single by an obscure Norwegian polka combo becomes a fluke hit, igniting a decade-long infatuation with the genre. Kids put down guitars and strap on accordions; rival gangs in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Newark form polka bands, competing with each other to see who can play the fastest and dress the flashiest. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan never earns back its advance, and Columbia scraps plans for a follow-up. The folksinger still plays coffee houses for a while, but to smaller and smaller audiences; people are moving on, and he begins to see the writing on the wall. He waits tables, sometimes in the same clubs he used to play, and does some office work as a temp.

Around the time of JFK's second inaugural he moves up to the Catskills, where he becomes part owner, and later sole owner, of a bicycle shop. His records are out of print, though for a few music collectors and eccentrics they eventually achieve a kind of cult status. Now and then somebody tracks him down at the bike shop, where he acknowledges his identity, autographs an album cover or two, and cheerfully gives directions to a nearby trailhead. He keeps a guitar in the back room and will bring it out if requested, but nobody in town seems to have heard of him — he's just Bob from “Bob's Bikes” — or to care that he once cut a couple of records. Once in a while he heads down to the city and joins one old friend or another on a club stage again, just for a couple of songs. He divorces once, marries again, has a couple of daughters. Sometimes he sits on the front steps of his house playing and singing for the kids in the neighborhood.

In 1978 the owner of a small specialty label calls him up to talk about re-releasing his old records, if the label will sell the rights. Dylan agrees to write a paragraph or two to add to the liner notes. Asked if he has any new material he hesitates a bit and then says yes, he's got a few songs, not too many. He goes into a studio — just a little place in somebody's basement — and makes another record. It doesn't sell many copies, but the owner of the label is satisfied, the New York Times gives it a nice capsule review a few months after release, and an old friend who owns a part interest in a club persuades him to do a couple of shows.

He gets a little paunchy and his hair thins out. For his fiftieth birthday a bunch of friends and neighbors throw him a birthday party in the backyard of his home. He's a grandfather now; he takes out the guitar and sings a song he's just written about his new granddaughter, and his neighbors are surprised to hear how well he plays the instrument. He tells a few stories about the old days in the Village, about what it was like to make a record in a big studio in New York.

He sells the bike shop to a younger employee and becomes the arts reporter for a local weekly. As his sixtieth birthday approaches a couple of his songs are picked up and covered by some young kids in Oregon who are making their first record. The record does well and the royalty check is a nice surprise. After a writer for Rolling Stone does a profile of him one of his old records is re-released again and gets a little airplay on some college stations. There's talk of making a new one, if he can find the time and if he can get the new songs into shape.

He likes to sit on the porch in the evenings, while his wife is cleaning up after dinner, and stare off through the pines at the lake in the distance. Every now and then a black bear ambles into the back yard, just at twilight, sniffing around for garbage. Some nights he takes the guitar out and plays just for the bear.

Postscript: Some time after writing the above, I found this passage in Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One: “I don't know what everybody was fantasizing about but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream.”