COLUMN FORTY-EIGHT, AUGUST 1, 1999
(Copyright (c) 1999 Al Aronowitz)
(Painting by Bob Dylan)
MY DYLAN PAPERS:
PART 1---THE WOODSTOCK FESTIVAL
[History will remember Bob Dylan as the Shakespeare of his era.
There's no doubt about that in my mind. To me, Bob is one of those madman geniuses who has chiseled his niche in the common consciousness. The Shakespeare of his time? He's a cultural Alexander the Great!
For me, hanging out with Bob was like being an extra in that great movie called history. Yes, I wanted to help make that movie, even if only to play a bit part in it. That's why I hung out with Bob. People always try to hitch their wagons to stars, thinking some of that stardom will rub off on them. To Bob, all of us who thought we were his buddies, were just hangers-on to be unceremoniously discarded as he climbed to fame, sometimes using our backs as rungs in his ladder, finally reaching a pinnacle at which he contemptuously decided that fame is a curse.
Did he blame us? Or did he blame his own ambition? Obviously, fame is exactly what he himself had sought. Yes, I knew he was going to be one of history's giants---more than a mere pop superstar. He knew it, too. To conquer the world, you have to have the confidence to know that you've got what it takes. And what it takes is psychic power---a term Bob used often in his conversations with me. Bob knew early on that he could draw an audience, attract worshippers and manipulate them into doing his bidding.
Worshippers such as me. He played with me like a cat with a mouse, but still I worshipped him. He treated me like a fool because I was a fool. Aren't we all, or at least most of us, at some time or another? Nobody's perfect, not even an Alexander the Great. Too often, the psychically empowered are endowed with such a reservoir of mental mightiness that they can afford to squander some of it on nothing but entertainment. Such as head games. Head games have always been one of Bob's favorite sports. Does he still enjoy making himself feel bigger by making others feel smaller?
As a hanger-on, I was in effect a courtier. Courtiers in the courts of the psychically powerful can end up badly hurt, and Bob has left behind a long trail of hurt courtiers. As I've often said, just because someone is one of the greatest artists ever born doesn't make him one of the nicest guys who ever lived.
I guess I still worship him. But from a distance.
Because this month marks the 30th anniversary of both the Woodstock Festival and Bob's Isle of Wight Festival, I'll begin MY DYLAN PAPERS with a two-part piece I wrote about those events. Portions were first published in the New York Press.]
PART 1: THE WOODSTOCK FESTIVAL
As a higher power suddenly began wringing out the dark and dirty clouds overhead, I joined Albert Grossman and Robbie Robertson in racing for shelter inside the rear of The Band's rented equipment truck, which had been parked backstage. Robbie was the leader of The Band and Albert was The Band's personal manager and one or two of the other members of The Band got in out of the rain with us. We were on Max Yasgur's farm in rural Bethel, New York, where, almost overnight, a community of nearly half a million had encamped for what was to evolve into several days of a quasi-religious gathering that would be celebrated as one of the most significant cultural events of the times. We were at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where the backstage area resembled a midway at a carnival, with The Band's rented truck parked as if it were another concession stall, with its tailgate facing the midway. The Band's equipment had just been unloaded and the emptied room-sized cargo box of the truck could have held a dance floor. The only problem was that there was no place to sit down. As someone lit a joint and we passed it around, I watched The Band's then-new road manager, tall, thin, somber-faced and blond-haired Jonathan Taplin, brave the downpour to make sure that all the unloaded instruments and equipment remained safe and secure beneath tarps or within tents. Only when Taplin was satisfied that everything would keep dry did he come in out of the rain to join us. Maybe I'd seen him around once or twice before, but this was the very first time I can remember ever taking full notice of Taplin. He wore glasses and, although his facial hair was so light as to be virtually invisible, he seemed to need a shave. That was because he was trying to grow a beard.
"Is he The Band's new road manager?" I asked Albert.
Albert grunted in the affirmative.
"Where'd you get him?"
"From Central Casting," Albert answered.
"Well, he sure seems to be dedicated," I said
Albert grunted again. In a few weeks, I would learn just how dedicated a road manager Jonathan Taplin was.
I was backstage at the Woodstock Festival in a dual capacity. Not only had I had enough clout as a manager to book one of my acts onto the show, but executive editor Paul Sann also had assigned me to cover the event for the New York Post. When I'd pointed out to Sann that this would put me in conflict of interest, Paul made it clear that he had never been the type of newspaperman to let either ethics or truth stand in the way of a good story. As things turned out, the act I was managing, an obscure folksinger named Rosalie Sorrels, had never appeared before a crowd larger than a coffee house audience. When her turn came to go onstage at the Woodstock Festival, she couldn't find the guts to go out and perform before an audience that approached a half million. A few months later, Sann ordered me to write the Pop Scene column for the Post and when I protested that I was still managing acts, he told me that I was the most qualified person on the staff and that I should shut up and write the column or he'd fire me. Then, when I hit a home run with the column, he lost his temper. He'd wanted me to bunt!
Three years later, when he did fire me, the explanation he gave my colleagues was that he'd just discovered I was in conflict of interest. Would you believe that they believed him and not me? That's what working for the New York Post was like in those days.
It's true that I was the person on the Post staff best qualified to write such a pop music column. Not only had I been managing a rock and roll band for five years but I was also a friend of the Beatles and the only newspaperman in the world to be invited to hang out at Byrdcliffe. That was the Woodstock retreat to which Bob had retired to remain shrouded in the privacy, secrecy and seclusion of the mountaintop mist for the three years following his motorcycle accident.
"That accident came like a warning!" Bob told me at the time. "And I heed warnings!"
From the very first day I met him, Bob Dylan struck me as having parts of both Dracula and the Wizard of Oz in his overall mix. Bob always took great care to make himself mysterious. To have a relationship with Bob, you had to be ready to put up with getting put on.
"Have you ever gotten a straight answer out of him about anything? Huh? Have you?"
One of the two women who were then closest to Dylan asked the other that question in Renaldo and Clara, the hours-long home movie Bob made of his 1976 Rolling Thunder tour.
"Have you?" the second woman answered. "He never gives a straight answer about anything to anyone!"
These two women weren't just kidding. They were Sara Dylan, at the time Bob's wife, and Joan Baez, who'd once had been Bob's sponsor and lover. And, with all the scenes in this movie supposedly spontaneous, improvised and otherwise unrehearsed, more jest has never been uttered in truth. Bob never even would tell the musicians playing behind him on the concert stage what the next song or its key was going to be. Bob always kept everybody guessing. Nobody could pile it as high as Bob and keep getting away with it. And you never knew when he was putting you on. He started out telling people he was born in claptrap Oklahoma poverty. He even started talking with an Oklahoma twang. Once, he told me he'd served time in Redwing Reformatory. He used to try to enhance his self-image with apocrypha the way a girl inflates her breasts with falsies. But is the art of the storyteller in the telling or in the story?
To find out what happens next... Read Al Aronowitz's book "Bob Dylan And The Beatles, Volume One of the Best of the Blacklisted Journalist".
FOR AS LONG AS PEOPLE KEEP
LISTENING TO BOB DYLAN AND THE BEATLES, PEOPLE WILL WANT THIS BOOK!
As the man who introduced Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan to the Beatles and the Beatles to marijuana, Aronowitz---acclaimed as the "Godfather of rock journalism"---has been known to boast: "The '60s wouldn't have been the same without me."
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NEXT MONTH: THE ISLE OF WIGHT
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