When Bob Dylan Practiced Downstairs

“Patti Smith was then like she is now—gutsy, not to be denied—and Dylan clearly knew who she was. She asked if she could get up with the band. Amused at this seemingly frail waif, Dylan said yes.”


The year was 1974 and things in New York, in a word, sucked. The city was in financial meltdown. Bankruptcy and the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” were only a year away. Maybe the meltdown was part of the reason Bob Dylan was back in his townhouse on MacDougal Street, just north of Houston. He and his wife Sara were on the rocks after almost a decade together. A melting-down city and a melting-down marriage.

At the time, I lived in a $200-a-month loft on the fourth floor of 124 West Houston, on the edge of Soho, then still an industrial wasteland. Dylan had a practice space on the first floor, right around the corner from his MacDougal Street residence. When I’d rented my loft three years before and the landlord informed me that Dylan was on the first floor, I found it completely unremarkable. You read about how Dylan had decamped from New York in those years — first for Woodstock, then Santa Fe, then Malibu — but he was so much a part of the fabric of the city that there was never a sense he’d left. Of course when I rented a loft on Houston Street, Dylan would be in the building.

When you walked in the lobby you could hear him sometimes, composing music and trying out lyrics. There was only a thin Sheetrock wall between Dylan’s studio and the lobby, and Dylan had an upright piano right against that wall. I knew this because I had given him a hand moving amps and other equipment in and out of the studio. One day, on my way to work at the Village Voice, I found a folding chair on the street and stashed it under the stairs so I could pull it out and sit there, inches away from Dylan, and listen to him writing at the piano.

That’s how I first heard him working on something extraordinary in the summer of ’74: the songs that would make up Blood on the Tracks. “Tangled Up in Blue,” “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Our auteur of adolescent angst was trying to put his life back together at the piano.

Dylan had always had a way of distilling being young and living in New York City. His songs piled up images, metaphors, hints about his life. Trying to read into them, we could also read who we were. But this was something entirely different. This was Dylan without the cloak of lyrical mystery. This was how he felt unfettered, who he saw looking in the mirror. He was doing in public something we had all gone through in private — breaking up with a lover, bleeding anger and regret, love and loss, and pain. Lots and lots of pain.

One afternoon I came downstairs and heard him working on something new, so I got out my folding chair and listened. He was writing his midlife masterpiece, “Idiot Wind.” He had that melody down, with its mix of wistfulness and acid resentment, but he was having a hell of a time with the lyrics. He would sing a verse and, dissatisfied, bang his fists on the keyboard. Then he’d take a moment and start again.

He knocked out the refrain quickly, his anger bubbling up in raw bile. “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth.” Vicious stuff. I sat and listened as he struggled with the reckoning, that there wasn’t just one idiot to blame.

Idiot wind
Blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
(Bang bang on the keyboard…another pass…bang bang…what next?)
Blowing through the dust upon our shelves

Then the banging stopped, and — so quietly I could barely hear him through the thin wall — he caressed the keys as he wrote the final lines of the song:

We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

That fall, the Voice sent me to the Middle East to cover terrorism and various wars. Dylan began recording Blood on the Tracks in September in New York, then redid five of the ten tracks in Minneapolis in December. I returned from the Middle East in January ’75. He released Blood on the Tracks on January 20, to almost universal acclaim — his best album in nearly a decade, since Blonde on Blonde in 1966. I quit the Voice that summer. I was freelancing for magazines, spending quite a bit of time on the road. Then one night when I was back in town, a friend called and told me to come over to the Bitter End (it had been rechristened the Other End then, though it was the same place and they’d change the name back down the line). Dylan was showing up every night around midnight and jamming.

It took us only a short while to realize he was auditioning a band. I heard him telling his friend Bob Neuwirth one night between sets that he wanted to travel the country in a bus, like the country and rhythm and blues guy did. They would call it the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Somehow it was magical and ordinary at the same time. All I had to do was walk around the corner, up Thompson Street to the Bitter End on Bleecker, sit down and order a drink and listen. Joining in were Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, an old friend of Woody Guthrie’s. But Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson was there as well, along with T Bone Burnett — tall and thin, more or less a complete unknown in those days — and Rob Stoner on bass. One night, Dylan sang a song that he’d written that afternoon, “Abandoned Love.” His tone was easygoing, playful, like the Dylan of Freewheelin’, though the lyrics revolved around disappointment. “I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me,” it went. “Won’t you let me in your room one time before I finally disappear?”

A shifting crew of others would come on board as the band took shape: Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakley (one of the stars of Robert Altman’s Nashville, which was released that June), and my old pal Kinky Friedman. Some mornings around five o’clock, we would all walk over to my loft at 124 West Houston, and I’d fix eggs and bacon and toast and coffee for the band and they would talk excitedly about the upcoming tour.

One night that summer, Patti Smith was at the loft eating leftovers from my dinner, a habit she had gotten into a couple of years before when she was sleeping on sofas around the Village, scrambling, cadging drinks at Bradley’s, trying to make her way as a poet and wanting badly, so badly, to turn it all into rock ‘n’ roll. By that summer, it was happening. She and her band gigged regularly at CBGB, and her first album, Horses, would be released that December.

It got to be about eleven, and I was checking my watch. Patti asked where I was going. I told her about the Rolling Thunder practices at the Bitter End. “Oh, man, can I come?” she asked eagerly. “I’ve never met Dylan. Will you introduce me?” Sure.

So we walked over and I made the introductions in the little backstage room. Patti was then like she is now — gutsy, not to be denied — and Dylan clearly knew who she was. She asked if she could get up with the band. Amused at this seemingly frail waif, Dylan said yes, and after a set break, they huddled onstage, looking for a song they both knew and settling on “Money,” Barrett Strong’s Motown classic. Bob sang backup. Patti sang lead, and man, you could hear that she knew the subject matter — which things are free, and which things cost, and how you can get lost between those two poles. Her heart was up there in her throat, where it’s been ever since.

How could we have known we were sitting there at the Bitter End watching a future National Book Award winner sing “Money” with a future Nobel laureate in literature chiming in on backing vocals?

That fall, the Rolling Thunder crew rented a couple of Winnebagos and started out in small theaters in the Northeast, ending up in front of thousands in arenas and stadiums. I hit the road freelancing. The Rolling Thunder Revue stayed out through the fall and so did I. The next time I heard from Neuwirth was early December. They were in town playing the Garden. I had returned from an assignment just in time to miss their last show and the backstage passes he had left for me. My answering machine was filled with messages from Neuwirth asking where the hell I was, and even more from friends marveling that Neuwirth had announced a song we had written together, which he sang with the rest of the band backing him up.

The next morning, Neuwirth called. They were staying at some hotel uptown. “Hey man! Let’s get together — what are you up to tonight?” I explained I was going to Norman Mailer’s annual Christmas party. “Hey man, I know Norman! I did sound on his cop movie, Wild 90! Can I come with you?” I’d have to ask Norman, I told him.

When I gave Mailer a call, he laughed. “Yeah, I know Neuwirth. He’s the one who screwed up the sound on Wild 90! You couldn’t understand a word anyone said. Sure, bring him along.” No sooner had I called Neuwirth back with the news than the phone rang. Bob wanted to come. He’d never met Mailer. I called Mailer again. A pause. “Sure,” he said. “I’ve never met him.”

“You mean to tell me the two most famous Jews in America don’t know each other?” I asked. Mailer laughed. “I guess if you put it that way, yeah.”

I told Neuwirth to show up at 124 at eight and we’d drive over to Brooklyn Heights together. About 7:30 the doorbell buzzed and I looked out the window. Parked down on Houston was one of the Winnebagos.

Downstairs, the Winnebago door opened and there they were: the whole tour. “Hey,” I said, bewildered, “this wasn’t the deal.” Dylan shot me a sheepish look. “When they found out where we were going, everybody wanted to go. C’mon, man. Everything will be cool.”

So off we went, somehow finding a place to park the bus in Brooklyn Heights. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was about to crash Mailer’s party with the entire Rolling Thunder tour in tow. Dylan and Neuwirth were Mailer’s guests, but the rest of them were with me, and I was responsible. So I stopped before we got off the bus and addressed the whole group. I told them this party was a big deal and there would be no rock-star fucking-around. Don’t insult anyone. Don’t get drunk. No drugs. If anyone misbehaved, I would personally put them back on the bus. I asked if I had made myself understood. There were some very pissed-off looks on some very famous faces, but everyone nodded.

A few minutes later we were filing up the narrow stairs to Mailer’s place. Someone ahead of us was taking the stairs very, very slowly. I was in the lead, Dylan right behind me. A voice came from behind us down the stairs. “Hey, man! Get a move on! Who’s holding up the show?”

I stopped and turned around. “Who said that?” No one raised a hand. “All right, we’re not going another step until I find out who’s the wiseass.” A hand went up. Dylan glared at the guy and said, “That’s Lillian fucking Hellman, asshole. Get back on the bus or go back to the hotel.” Dylan had recognized her from behind. That was my first hint that Bob Dylan, though maybe not in his element, knew the territory.

Mailer greeted us at the door. I wisecracked that the big moment had arrived for the two most famous Jews in America. Tentatively, they shook hands, then Dylan looked up from under his flat-brim tour hat. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I really loved your first book, The Naked and the Brave.” For a split second, Mailer thought he was being put on and his eyes narrowed, and then Dylan looked him full in the face and stuttered, “I meant The Naked and the Dead, man.” Mailer broke into a broad grin and threw an arm affectionately around Dylan’s shoulders as Dylan introduced the rest of the band. Mailer welcomed each warmly, then said, “Come with me, Bob. I’ll introduce you around.”

Dylan was clearly nervous. This may have been the first time in forever that he wasn’t the most famous guy in the room. Over there stood Jackie O. With a single breath she took up half the oxygen in the place. Cus D’Amato was talking with fight promoter Bob Arum, Muhammad Ali having just departed for another party. Joe Heller leaned against the wall over by the bookshelves, and nearby Mario Puzo huddled with Peter Maas, doubtless talking Mob stuff. Over at the bar stood enough literary lions and lionesses to stampede a herd of wildebeests, among them Susan Sontag and E.L. Doctorow.

Eventually someone buttonholed Mailer and he wandered off to greet new guests. For a while Dylan moped around with no one paying much attention to him, until finally he saw a familiar face: Jann Wenner, the founder and editor of Rolling Stone. Dylan accosted him angrily, wanting to know why Wenner had put him on the cover of Rolling Stone rather than Hurricane Carter, the subject of Dylan’s latest hit. I thought for a second Dylan was going to cause a scene, then Jann cut him off so cleanly he might as well have used a scalpel. “Because you sell magazines, Bob, and Hurricane Carter doesn’t.”

A few of the band members were getting bored and started to nag Dylan about leaving. But he blew them off. He was just getting started. It soon became evident, as I observed him across the room, that these literary figures — huge, large, not so large — were heroes of his. He had read and admired their books. Now was his chance to talk with them, ask how they came up with this theme or that allegory, a literary allusion or a particularly rich and memorable descriptive passage. Writers love to talk about themselves and their work, and this was Bob Dylan grilling them! The party went on and on, the lights of downtown Manhattan twinkling across the river. I remember standing for about an hour around 3 a.m. listening to Dylan and Mailer heatedly discuss one of the lesser-known campaigns in World War II.

As we got back on the tour bus at about 5 a.m., Mailer was standing at the door holding a bottle of bourbon, imploring us to stay.

We reached Manhattan and everyone was hungry, so we went to the Bitter End and Dylan banged on the door and woke up Paul Colby, the owner, who lived above the club. He brought in a cook who fixed breakfast for the whole tour. Before we ate, Neuwirth raised a glass and announced, somewhat sarcastically, “Let’s toast The Writer!” This was a nickname he had given me some years before, as a not-so-subtle reminder that I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roller. I didn’t belong up on the stage. All I was was The Writer.

Ironies abound. There were at least a half-dozen major writers at Mailer’s that night, including Mailer himself, who were known to be convinced they deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, a few even subtly campaigning for it every year. To them, Bob Dylan was a pop-culture figure — famous, influential, a singer and songwriter, not one of them. Not a novelist or essayist or poet. Even now the literary ducks are nibbling at Dylan’s ankles as if his songs are somehow a lesser art than poetry. As if it matters.

Most of those literary giants at Mailer’s that night went to their graves still longing for the Nobel they felt had been denied them. And who is our Nobel laureate in literature today?

Bob Dylan. The Writer.

Lucian K. Truscott IV is writing an online memoir: