You know those photos you see sometimes, of a group of famous people, and when you read the caption it says, e.g. "Pablo Picasso, Graham Greene, Unidentified Man, Marlene Dietrich"?
That would be me: Unidentified.
I've been the butt of a cosmic joke, played on me by an amused universe, in that for all the years in which I actively attempted it, I never became a celebrity -- while consistently rubbing shoulders with celebrities, often in the most absurd, existential ways.
For example, one of my biggest claims to unknown fame is that I gave Carly Simon the line "clouds in my coffee" for You're So Vain. This seemingly outrageous claim has been substantiated, thank goodness, by Carly herself, in the liner notes for her box set, entitled... Clouds in My Coffee. But not even a hardcore Carly fan would be able to pick me out of One of Those Photos (not that many actually exist).
Nonetheless, I was there! On the periphery. I've been there -- with the Stones, with Scorsese, with Sondheim and in fact, dozens like them... not that most of them would be likely to remember. Which brings me to the admittedly bold statement in my last post, that I started the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Back story: Bob Dylan changed my life. He changed my hairstyle, which went blowing in the wind at age 16, he had much to do with my becoming a songwriter, he was the icon of my adolescence.
Cut to 1975, when I was living on Bleecker Street (around the corner from the Bobster, but later for more on that) and making a living as a sideman playing keyboards in a number of local bands. As a member of Jake and the Family Jewels, I got booked into the Bitter End for a 4-day stint leading on for Bobby Neuwirth. And because Neuwirth was a friend, I was invited to sit in with his band (T-Bone Burnett on guitar) each night -- Neuwirth who was well known to be one of Dylan's oldest friends.
Word was out that Dylan, in the midst of writing and recording the songs for Desire, was on the prowl. Emerging from semi-seclusion and evidently eager, for a change, to revisit the musical haunts of his folkie youth, he was rumored to be coming down to the club, and for once, the rumors proved true. He slipped in for the late show and slipped out again. But the second night when the house cleared, the musicians and friends lingered and the doors closed, and Dylan reappeared.
I was in the dressing room when Neuwirth brought him in. Somehow in moments a makeshift receiving line formed, a kind of ring around the room, Neuwirth bringing Bob along it like the royalty he was. Neuwirth introduced me to Bob as "a great piano player" (thank you, Bobby) and I shook my idol's hand, looking deep into hooded eyes that told me nothing, and they moved on.
The next night, Dylan was back again, and surreally enough, this scene was virtually replayed: I was in a cluster of people in the dressing room hallway when Neuwirth arrived with Dylan in tow, and Bobby introduced me again. "He's a great piano player," he told Bob. Dylan and I locked eyes for a moment longer this time. We both silently acknowledged in the instant that yes, in fact, we had been here before... before with the ghost of a shadow of a hint of a smile, Dylan moved on.
Later that night, Neuwirth cajoled his friend into playing "that new song, that good one you were doing last night," and Dylan sang his tribute to mobster Joey Gallo, called Joey, for an audience of some 40 lucky people who included me and my girlfriend, Joey.
But that's part of another story, and I gotta stick with this one, which brings me to the fourth night of Bob-mass. On the last night of Neuwirth's gig, word having swept Bleecker Street and its environs like wildfire, practically every musician who owned a guitar was trying to scrape their way through the Bitter End's brick mortar to Be With Bob. After the late show, I found myself at a table with Neuwirth, Allen Ginsberg, Rambling Jack Elliot and Dylan (posing for the hypothetical photo that would leave me Unidentified). As it happened, with other visitors snatching up my various seatmates, eventually everyone else had stepped away from the table but me and the Big D.
Alone with Bob Dylan. I spent about an hour -- felt more like a couple months -- inside of what was probably 19 seconds with this man, the one man I'd ever practically tried to be, frantically searching my seared-to-ice brain for the right thing to say. The Knicks were having a good season that fall, but saying "How about those Knicks, Bob?" to the voice of my generation -- a voice well-known, BTW, for its withering wit, was not going to play. But what then, what?
Dylan sat, the taciturn enigma, oblivious to my agonized paralysis... and then finally, given no reason to be there, stood up from his chair and strode to the upright piano on the corner of the stage. He began picking out some chords, and within about a minute that stage was filled to capacity. And musical history has recorded what resulted from this jam session and those that followed, as the core of this band became the Rolling Thunder Revue and toured America, from tiny clubs like this one to Madison Square Garden.
Such is the awesome power of Periphery Man. Because you see it, don't you? If I hadn't bored Bob Dylan into deserting me for an upright piano, the whole thing never would have happened.
For those of you who may be wondering what in the name of all that's holy any of this has to do with romantic comedy, I refer you to yesterday's post -- wherein seeing Scorses's Dylan doc inspired thoughts of a Joan and Bob rom-com (hey, I thought it was a perversely amusing angle on the life of a sacrosanct hero, though some friends have disagreed), and musings on another potential screenplay about a based-on-me and a based-on-Joey.
Come back tomorrow, and I'll try to rustle up some cinematic erotic funny out of that.