When Bob Dylan came calling

While I was doing one of the final edits of my book, Trips, I came across a letter to the editor from Bob Dylan in an old copy of the folk music magazine, Broadside. I always liked this letter, I thought it was a piece of literature worth preserving and wanted to reprint it in Trips. I probably could have done so without permission; it was already published and a citation was all I would have needed. But I was strongly moved to get permission, and since I didn't know how to contact the publishers, I wrote to Bob Dylan in 1972 and asked permission. He answered the letter himself and we had a short back and forth correspondence discussing his letter in Broadside. At one point I had to retype him a copy because he didn't remember it.

In the end, Dylan said no. I appreciated that he let me state my case. I wrote and thanked him and enclosed a beautiful handmade crocheted hat, the kind all the Bolinas poets wore. I had a postcard and a letter from Bob Dylan for my effort and I felt rewarded enough. It was nice enough for him to even let me know that he was considering it.

I was living in Bolinas at the time and I had described my home in Bolinas and sent a picture of it in my letters to Dylan. It was a couple years later, in October, 1974. Dylan must have remembered the correspondence, and perhaps it piqued his curiosity about Bolinas. One morning I got a call from someone who said he was Bob Dylan and that he was at the BPUD (The Bolinas Community Public Utilities District--we say "beepud") building, was that near my house and could he visit. I was rather testy on the phone. I'd been really busy working on my studio with a carpenter and my then close companion, songwriter Jim Roberts. I'd gotten occasional hoax calls (as well as authentic ones)from people saying they were well known artists, but none this brazen. I challenged and chastised the caller none too politely.

"I am Bob Dylan, I really am. You made me a hat, remember?"

Omigod. I really felt like a ditz. I apologized profusely and most self-effacingly but I also couldn't resist joining his laughter. He wan't the least bit offended. He told me it certainly wasn't the first time it'd happened.

I jogged down Elm to the BPUD to pick him up. He was wearing a brown corduroy jacket and slacks, and rocking back and forth on his heels in the BPUD doorway. Absolutely nobody at the BPUD-- where they had a utilities district office, a local newspaper office and a pre-school class running-- paid any mind to Bob Dylan using the pay phone or standing in the doorway waiting for Ellen Sander. That's Bolinas for you.

It was a sunny day clinging to a cool little mist around the edges. We got into his pointedly nondescript baby blue Chevy van parked in the BPUD parking lot and I directed him back to my house. I'd been working on the studio, a rather grandiose name for the 12 by 14 free standing writing room with skylights that I was building on my property, and I mentioned that to Dylan on the phone. When I said I was building a studio, I really meant it. I was helping with the framing, roofing and even built the deck. That was my first and last experience with carpentry. I didn't mind the work, but the power tools are so loud, even with earplugs and they're hard to hold on to, even with gloves. When I showed Dylan the half-framed writing room, I realized that he probably thought I meant a 12-track recording studio.

I was, of course, in my scraggiest jeans and sweatshirt, coming-apart tennies, sawdust in my hair. I was a mess, but a very happy mess. I excused myself from vanity and just forgot about it. I didn't want to miss even a minute of this by showering and changing.

We went into the house, had some strong Peet's coffee and Bob noticed a guitar. He quickly determined that Jimmy and I were writing songs and wanted to hear some. Jimmy and I wrote kind of country-rock/hippie/small-town anthems and love songs. I wrote homespun folky songs. Jimmy had a body of work from his stint as a lyricist with Sea Train. We sat there and played songs for Dylan. He was much more relaxed with the music than he was with the small talk. Jim played guitar and I played mandolin. I played a couple of songs I remembered from that first Joan Baez album. At that point, Dylan got ahold of my old Gibson J45 and played with us. Once he picked up a guitar, I knew I was going to get him to play his stuff sooner or later. He really enjoyed playing, and continued to ask for more. He was all smiles, animated and engaging. He'd make an appreciative comment about a song, or, if he really liked it a lot, he'd eyeball me without a word and nod. He didn't talk very much. I kept the coffee coming, we kept playing, sometimes together, sometimes solo, and the afternoon unwound in music.

At one point, Jimmy and I had been playing for over an hour and a half. Dylan was loving it. I remember that during one of my songs, he put his head on the table and pounded his fists joyously. I was highly amused because I recall doing exactly the same thing when I first saw him play in the Village. When I told him so we both cracked up. He loved Jim Roberts's songs. He was just enchanted with Georgia (The State Of Georgia's Mind), especially. Finally, I asked Dylan "So, you got one?" which is musician-talk for, do you want to play now?

Dylan sort of squirmed and grinned, but, realizing he wasn't going to get out of it, he began to play. "I guess I got one," he offered. He played songs from the Blood on the Tracks album, which, as it turned out, he had recently recorded (it wasn't released yet).

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts went on for over ten minutes. We all got lost in it. I can still hear it across my kitchen table, the day growing late through the window, shadows unfurling across the mesa, the sundown wind coming up, Lily, Rosemary and Jack chasing each other in the rafters.

He coursed into that signature reedy, nasal intonation of elongated vowels when he sang Tangled Up In Blue. The warbling Blu-u-u-e resonated through the little wooden house for weeks. I still hear it. I'd been holding steady until then, but during Tangled Up In Blue, I was transfixed in a sea of admiration and wonder. The suspension of disbelief began to dissolve.

At one point Bob expressed fascination with my mandolin. I showed him two easy chords and he began to play it. I saw him fall in love with it. It's so little and you hold the whole thing against the crook of your arm, like a baby. I remember that same experience, myself. And it plays so familiarly if you know guitar. Had he never played mandolin before? How could that be? We spent time talking about how special a mandolin is. I showed him a song I composed on the mandolin, a humorous one about a beer drinking dude and a pot smoking hippie girl. He was really enthralled and asked if it took a long time to learn. I told him I had taken a couple of lessons from David Grisman. I hooked Dylan and Grisman up and I understand he took a lesson himself.

I called Peter Rowan who lived in Stinson Beach, the next town over, and sent Dylan over there to see Peter's fabulous mandolin collection. And also his guitars, because Dylan's, a rare Martin 0042 had been stolen from his van recently, and he was looking for a new one. Jimmy, with great deference, offered to give Dylan his Martin D-28, but Dylan declined to take it.

As he took his leave, Dylan paused by the door and his eyes fell on a smoky portrait of Leonard Cohen I had on a high shelf near the door. I think he might have thought it was him. Most people looking at that picture thought it was Dylan. It did look like him, which was one of the reasons I liked that photo. He paused and looked at it for quite a while, then quietly said "That's very nice." And then, in his best "Who was that masked man?", he was gone. He went to Peter Rowan's. They played music together for hours over there as well...and didn't talk much over there, either.

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I guess you can't have it both ways, but at this moment, I'm sorry I didn't publish the letter. I don't have the issue of Broadside any more and it's likely lost. But Dylan probably might not have visited me if I had.