Sunday, March 14, 2010

Old Harmonica Boxes

We were kids. Aged 12 or 14 or so, with and older friend named Eddie who was 16 and could drive a car. We were in the park lot, back of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, maybe 1962, talking to Bob Dylan. Dylan had just finished a concert to a half-filled auditorium; he’d recorded two LP records and was in his Charlie Chaplin phase of performing. Funny. Off the wall. Forming the early chapters of a deep catalogue. Hell, we were kids who grew up listening to our parents Harry Belafonte “Calypso” records. This Bob Dylan was our James-Joycean dream-ticket out of the suburbs. I didn’t tell the other kids that I’d decided that’s what I wanted to be. What this guy did with words and music. THAT thing.
There he was, sitting in a Ford station wagon, waiting for his road manager to come back with the money. Our friend Eddie had an empty harmonica box and he handed it to Dylan to sign. Then Bob Dylan looked at me and said: “Heh, kid, where’s the nearest liquor store?” I told Bob Dylan I was too young to drink. I didn’t know where the nearest liquor store was, or where the chicks hung out, or where the weed was stashed, or any of that good stuff. I was a Catholic school kid with braces and bad eyes. A day-dreamer; sand castle-builder. But maybe Bob was speaking in code and inviting me along on his song journey. “Heh, you…kid! Let’s go…”
The road manager appeared and they took off down the road. We took off after them; Eddie had the pedal to the metal. Following Bob Dylan into history. Or something. They saw we were behind them and pulled over. We pulled over too. Dylan jumped out, laughing and dancing around our car; like a drunken Whirling Dervish. Then he jumped back in his car and they vanished into the Big Time. I thought it was all a dream; but I guess it happened. Hell, I shook hands with Jack Kennedy once and saw the Dali Lama; but this was better. Dylan travelled his high road; I struggled on, until I had the guts to begin writing songs. And the seasons whirled round and round; the circles closed.
Almost fifty years later somebody handed me the new Clarence Clemmons book (Springsteen’s Sax Player) called “Big Man.” Clarence mentions a song I wrote with with Dave Alvin, “Haley’s Comet;” Springsteen says: “Man I wished I’d written that…” Deeper into the book there’s a dream sequence where Bob Dylan is telling Kinky Freidman: “Joe (Ely) did a hell of a song tonight about a rooster…a Tom Russell song…it’s good. It’s called ‘Gallo del Cielo,’…and I’m hard to impress.” I don’t know if that transpired. It’s in there, though. It takes me back to when he asked me where that liquor store was…that secret code urging me to get started. Songwriting…and now I’m wondering if Eddie still has that old harmonica box.