I was 11 years old in 1977 and while punk was exploding elsewhere, I was in a backwater of the San Francisco Bay Area discovering Bob Dylan. My best friend’s dad was an ex-folkie with a guitar and a great collection of vinyl. Whereas my dad still loved and played Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles at full volume (at all hours), to enter the neighbors’ house was to glean a small residual bit of the magic and late-night menace of New York and Greenwich Village. Red wine. Mysterious women of Gypsy origin.
I seem to remember the gateway drug for us was Blonde On Blonde with its classic leadoff track Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, but like Bob himself said, we “started out on burgundy, but soon hit the harder stuff.” We were kids raised on AM rock radio, and as such, we understood Dylan after 1965. The classics were still in heavy rotation: Hendrix transforming All Along the Watchtower, The Byrds chiming about Mr. Tambourine Man, Dylan himself spitting out Like a Rolling Stone.
It was the earlier records that were a revelation.
The tracks on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan painted a picture of that world we had only guessed at. Talkin’ World War III Blues introduced us to a world of Cold War paranoia filtered through Woody Guthrie, while Corrina, Corrina reached back to a deep well of traditional music that, even then, we sensed was the secret current; the hidden aquifer of American culture.
The Times They Are a-Changin’ was a little intense for a couple of suburban kids. It would be a few years before we understood the power in Ballad of Hollis Brown and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll; even the face staring out in disdainful sepia was off-putting. At the bottom of the pile, however, was a simple black and white cover with a photo that seemed almost like an afterthought. It showed a quite different person than the disapproving fundamentalist folkie from the year previous. This guy seemed to be comfortable in his own skin. This guy was cool.
When the needle hit the first track, we knew something else was going on here. The Jimmy Rodgers yodel in All I Really Want to Do, along with the song’s platonic admonishments showed a fun side of Dylan that we had missed wading through the heavy hitters. Sure, Rainy Day Women had been fun, but to a 11-year-old, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was decidedly not.
Spanish Harlem Incident laid out the bohemian mise-en-scène we had imagined was out there, but hadn’t yet experienced roaming our backyard kingdoms; but the track that totally captured out imaginations and ensured that we both would be life-long fanatics, was Motorpsycho Nitemare. Dylan’s ability to set a scene and tell a story was, and remains, unparalleled.
For years, we called each other “Unpatriotic, rotten doctor Commie rats.” Good times.