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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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,
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.
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 Lightnin' Hopkins 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
you know, with miter boxes, I guess."
boxes?" Bob liked the sound of the word. Bishops
and carpenters, you know, they all used those things.
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
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?
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.