Something Was Happening,
But I Didn’t Know What It Was

By David Dalton

Gadfly #160
September/October 2000

In the spring of 1970, I saw Les Blank’s lush, lyrical, intimate documentaries about the blues singers Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. They’re amazing films–here was the life of the blues itself–and I told everyone I met that summer that they had to see them; they were essential sacred texts of our culture.

As it happened, I spent the good part of a week in late June and early July on a train with a bunch of blues freaks (The Band, Leslie West, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead) and proselytized Les’ films to one and all. Rick Danko (may he riff in paradise with the angel choir) asked if Les (who by this point had moved in with me) might bring the films up to Woodstock so they could all see them. So Les and I borrowed a car and drove up to Woodstock to show the films to The Band and assorted Bearsville hipoisie. They were all suitably awed.

A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from Jon Taplin, The Band’s manager. Turns out “Bobby” had heard about Les’ films and wanted to see them. He was going to be in New York on Friday; could I set up a screening? No need to ask which Bobby he meant. This was the Bobby, Sir Bob himself, my idol, the sublime, inscrutable Bob Dylan.

Some years ago, Dylan and Howard Alk had taken outtakes from the Pennebaker documentary of Dylan’s 1965 European tour and made it into a maddening, methedrine-addled anti-documentary called Eat the Document. [For more on this, see “I Film While Leaping From My Chair,” Gadfly, April 1999.] Taplin explained that Dylan now wanted to release Eat the Document. But, in order to distribute it, he needed an extra 40-minute film to go with it, and he, Taplin, had suggested one of Les Blank’s documentaries.

Les is a large bear of a character, bearded, slow-talkin’, Southern and taciturn. A man of few words and fewer effusions of emotion, but the idea that Bob Dylan might see his films visibly animated him. But where to screen the films? My walk-up tenement in the East Village was out of the question. By chance, I had purloined the keys to my publisher’s fancy brownstone apartment on a fashionable side street on the Upper West Side while he was on holiday. Just the spot.

The day came. On a swelteringly hot afternoon in late July, Les and I lugged a 16- millimeter projector, a folding screen and cans of film uptown on the subway. We set it all up, arranged and rearranged the furniture and waited. Hours went by. Anxious thoughts attacked us. Did we give them the correct address? Was this the right day? Finally, they arrived. The Band, in their cowboy regalia, plus wives and girlfriends in airy summer dresses. And then there was Bobby himself, looking like he had fallen out of the sky from another climate entirely–the dead of winter actually. He was dressed in a long wool overcoat, hat and gloves (and shades, of course). Low blood sugar, perhaps due to his habit, I thought, somewhat uncharitably.

Like a sleepwalker taking his nocturnal stroll, Bob walked straight into the house, flanked by Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko, and sat down. There were no introductions, no small talk. Of course not. If a prophet came to your house, would he chat or would he rather address you in the manner apocalyptic? Even members of The Band who knew him as well as anybody treated him with the deference usually reserved for foreign dignitaries. While the men repaired to the dining room where the projector was set up, the women flipped through European fashion magazines in another room. Les, in a state of alert apprehension, ran the Mance Lipscomb film. When it was over, Dylan cryptically signaled that he’d seen enough. The lights came up. We all waited for him to say something, but the oracle was silent. Les was now palpably humming with anxiety.

I had to do something. So I walked over to Dylan, who was still sitting there swaddled in his overcoat and gloves, and asked, “How did you like the films, Bobby?” What was I going to do, call him Mr. Dylan? He regarded me with a deadpan expression and, passing over my question entirely, asked, “Who’s the architect of this house?” He spoke the way he sang, leaning on the syllables, the way a cowboy might lean on a bar. I was still listening to the music of the words when I realized that he was asking me a question. I froze. He couldn’t mean something as literal as this, could he? Dylan being Dylan and all. Of course not. It was code, an oracular utterance. But about what? I was in a roomful of books and they all had the same title. Like the wicked messenger or Frankie Lee, I was in the presence of the Sibyl but too witless to grasp the message.

The words “architect” and “house” reverberated in my brain. They ballooned into sound sharks and swam eerily through my synapses. They bristled with archaic meanings. They grew huge, they began to fill the room, monstrous dollhouse words that would turn the building inside out if I didn’t stop them. All this was taking place in a fraction of a second, I hoped, but it must have been somewhat longer because Dylan spoke again: “Ya know who built this place?” Okay, the only solution now was to play it straight, pretend to take him at face value. “Bobby,” I said (after all we’d been through, we were now firmly on a first-name basis). “I figure this house must have been built in the 19th Century.”

But centuries and stuff like that meant nothing to Dylan. He wanted that architect. “So can we get this guy?” he persisted. For a moment there, I was Bob Dylan’s contractor. “This was all a hundred years ago,” I said, “the guy is long gone.” Mundane matters like life expectancy of architects or muleskinners didn’t enter in to it. His idea of history was porous. There were no specific time periods. Everybody who’d ever lived was a contemporary: Noah, Jesse James, Joey Gallo, Bessie Smith and St. Augustine. They all lived in the timeline of the songs.

And then there was that other matter, the onion-domed Xanadau that Dylan was building at Zuma Beach. Like anyone else involved in building a house, he was fixated on the minutiae of wallpaper, carpets and kitchen cabinets. Enigmatic Bob, it turned out, was seriously into paneling. He walked over to the intricately-paneled oak walls of the dining room. “How’d they do that?” he asked, as if it were some lost art.

“Well, you know, with miter boxes, I guess.”

“Miter boxes?” Bob liked the sound of the word. Bishops and carpenters, you know, they all used those things.

No one mentioned the movies or whether he liked them or whether Dylan ever considered using them as part of the thing he was putting together for Eat the Document. I went to get a drink of water from the kitchen, and when I returned, the Gypsy had gone.

As Les and I walked down the street, we wondered how often Dylan encountered situations in which the simplest question could throw his devout followers into a state of paralysis. What if, like some Zen master around whom meanings multiplied like flies, he could never order a cup of coffee or buy a pair of shoes or find a carpenter because no one would believe him capable of such commonplace utterances? Les didn’t seem to mind that much that he wasn’t going to be on a double bill with Dylan. Dylan had seen one of his movies, and that was enough for him.

(Actually, Les has his version.)

* Note: In order to remain historically accurate, the actual film title which Dylan saw was changed in the article reprint here. Where Dalton originally wrote ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins’, we have inserted ‘Mance Lipscomb’.

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