A Catskill Catalog: September 5, 2012

Rumor has it that Bob Dylan has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s said the 71-year-old singer-songwriter has support for the prize among crucial voters on the super-secretive selection committee.

If Rock ‘n’ Roll is literature, than Dylan’s got to be at the top of the literary heap, with, perhaps, the late John Lennon as his only real peer. And a case can be made about Rock ‘n’ Roll as literature. For the past 55 years, American music has both fostered the spread of the English language around the world, and used that language to stretch the limits of personal expression.

Seems pretty literary. If literature is the artful arrangement of language for creative expression, well then, Bob Dylan deserves a few votes.

And he was once one of ours: a Catskill Mountain guy. At least, for a few years.
Bob Dylan lived in Woodstock in the 1960s. He came to the mountains because his manager, Albert Grossman, came here. Albert Grossman was personally responsible for the 1960s transformation of Woodstock from artist colony to Rock ‘n’ Roll village.

Painter Milton Glazer was an important Woodstock artist who had done some album-cover work for Grossman in New York. He and his wife, Shirley, became friends with the young folk-music promoter and manager. When a desirable but expensive house became available in Woodstock, the Glazers wanted to see it go to a friend, and Albert was the only one they knew with enough money to buy it.
Albert Grossman came to Woodstock in 1962. Soon, he found a house for his newly-signed folk singer/songwriter, Bob Dylan, and Grossman and Dylan’s presence brought other musicians to the mountains, and, over the next half-decade, Woodstock was transformed, as young people flocked to town attracted by the music and the counterculture the music both reflected and created.
It’s a pretty straight line from painter Glazer, to impresario Grossman, to Dylan, to the ’60s-celebrating Woodstock we know today.

Long-time Fleischmanns resident Bud Sife ran the Sled Hill Café in ’60s Woodstock, a side-street bar in the center of town and at the center of the music scene. Dylan and his band-mates were regulars, as were many Woodstock musicians who often came to the Sled Hill at the end of the night, after performing somewhere else in town.

Bud, I am sure, was part of the attraction. Here’s how one Sled Hill regular remembers him, “Sife was, and remains so I’m sure, an amalgam of showman, builder/carpenter/recyclist (his mantric chant at the time was the espousal of the five dollar home made of corrugated cardboard boxes insulated with dead leaves), engineer, psychologist, moralist, curmudgeon, and a sentimentalist with a habit of taking in wayward kids, musicians and old friends on the skids — all of whom received sermons delivered with the gravity of a Polish rabbi replete with the best Yiddish bon-mots on human nature I’ve ever heard.” 

Bud tells a great story about the last time he saw Bob Dylan. Seems, one Sunday, around 2:00 in the afternoon, “Bobby Dylan came into the place and asked if we had an instrument. Someone looked in the store room where a lot of musicians left guitars and brought him one. People were starting to come in. It had been a big night the night before. People were hung-over. Dylan just sat in the corner and played, quietly.

“Two girls come in the place, high school girls, and they see him, and they scream, and they shriek, ‘That’s Bob Dylan!’ and they rush over to him, ask for an autograph and all. He just got up, put down the guitar, turned to the door, and ran out. He never came in the place after that.”
Bob Dylan came home to the Catskills, Sunday night, with a concert at Bethel Woods, the state-of-the-art performance center built on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Concert. Sitting on a $30 patch of lawn, I joined thousands of others to welcome him home.

I was surprised by how young most of those others were. This was no baby-boomer nostalgia act. The concert was advertised as “Bob Dylan and his Band” and that was exactly what you got. When the lights came up on “Watching the River Flow,” I had to use the binoculars to pick out which one was Dylan. He was tucked-in behind a keyboard, singing, yes, but playing with the band, not in front of it.

It was that way all night. After each song, the lights would go down, the stage blacken, and when the lights came up again, the rumored Nobel Prize nominee had to be found. Where is he now? Oh, behind the keyboard. Now, out front with a guitar. Oh, now, on harmonica.
Object lesson in humility: a great star plays as one of six.

And what a six it is! The band is so good the music fills the night air like liquid. The notes seem physical. The sound is enveloping. This is a really good band. Best I ever heard.
Besides the opening number, Dylan included “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and “High Water,” among the 17-song set-list. Maybe the famously tight-lipped Dylan was suggesting, to his old Catskill Mountain neighbors, that he knows what we’ve gone through, that he may not be a Catskill Mountain guy anymore, but he knows.

billbirns@gmail.com