I told this story on Twitter yesterday, in 52 tweets. Some folks were touched by it. So here it is, in paragraph form, with very little changed.
I don’t think I told this before. It’s a story about Bob Dylan’s music & me. And the kindness of a woman (not that type of kindness). And has nothing to do with politics, except that it involves a song about politics. It’s really about the romance of being young, and believing very much in the transformative power of music.
So this is 1988/9. I’m working at Elektra Records. Have been sent west to oversee the making of Faster Pussycat’s next album. This story is not about Faster Pussycat. Even though I had a fascinating time engaging with them and learned a ton about identity and point of view by watching Taime Downe work.
While in LA, I worked down the hall from Carole Childs, who was…1) A great person to learn from, smart, kind, wise, 2) a high level creative exec who made albums for a living and…3)was also in a long time romantic relationship with Bob Dylan at the time.
Bob Dylan was, and remains, essentially my favorite living artist of any kind. (I thought of this last night as Amy and I drove to pick up our son at the airport. I wanted to put on a perfect album).
So, while Carole and I were in LA, Bob was working on Oh, Mercy down in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois. I was 22 years old when this all takes place. And was very up front about my love of, and knowledge of, Dylan’s work. At the time, Dylan was in a lower ebb of cultural relevance. He was still enormously relevant, but not so much with the under 30 crowd.
Carole said it was cool that I, at that age, was a Dylan head. She thought he was making an important album, maybe his most significant in years, and, although she wasn’t working with him officially, she was getting tapes daily from the studio, and Bob was calling her to ask for guidance. I know this because I would sit in her office and hear her side of the calls.
When the calls would end, she’d say, “Bobby doesn’t have any idea how good this record can be. And then she’d say, “wanna hear a song?”
First one she played me was Ring Them Bells. Then What Was It You Wanted. Then Disease of Conceit. Then Man In The Long Black Coat None of these were finished recordings. She’s ask my opinion, which was, Holy Shit! And then she’d ask me detailed questions. What I didn;t know was she was then telling Bob that there was this kid who loved the music.
See, she and Lanois were trying to convince Bob that the record was special and he could connect with a more current audience. So she would put her REAL AND SMART OPINIONS in my mouth, as though the kid said them.
*It’s important to note: I contributed nothing. Said nothing of value. Carole said a bunch of brilliant stuff. Essentially, she and Lanois wanted Bob to sing vocals a second time to nail them. Eventually, he did.
They finished the album. I stopped getting to hear stuff.
Until: one night, late, she called me into her office. Had me shut the door, said, “we are having a hard time sequencing the record. I want you to listen and tell me what you think of this sequence. But,” she said, “no one can know you have the tape. No one in the world has it. There are no copies. His own label doesn’t have it. And,” she said (this is before the Internet, so there are no files) “You cannot make a copy. Cannot play it for a friend. I need your word.”
I shook on it. And left with the only copy of Oh, Mercy anyone had who wasn’t in the studio with Bob and Lanois.
But I had a roommate. So couldn’t play it at the apartment. I decided to drive to Santa Barbara and back, on US1, all night long, listening in the car.
This was a rented Ford Mustang convertible.
So that’s what I did. And the sequence didn’t need any input from me or Carole or anyone. It was the album you know.
I will never forget the car filling with the sounds of Political World. It was jaw dropping. I hadn’t heard that song before.
(I still think that’s the most relevant and important song there is right now).
I drove and drove and let the album become a part of me. Imagine those haunted New Orleans sounds drenched in Lanois ambience, and only you and the night sky and the Pacific Ocean on your left.
Or right, on the way back.
I have always thought it’s one of the best albums ever made.
And that night remains singular to me. Because it was as if Bob, who had no clue who I was, and never really would, was only singing to me.
Last night, driving to the airport, Amy and I put it on, and this all came flooding back.
As shitty as the world sometimes is, great art, art like Bob Dylan’s on Oh, Mercy, reminds me what we’re capable of. As does the kindness Carole showed me. Because that’s what was really going on.
I was a boy, alone in Los Angeles, in a grownups job. And she saw that, and decided to give me the gift of pretending I was helping. And then the gift of that all night drive, just me and Bob, and the sky and those songs.
And I will always be grateful, and try to pass it on. And I will always listen to Oh, Mercy and remember all of this, warmly, and, I hope, with some sense of grace for a moment in time that changed me, in a wonderful way.