The setting was perfect, in the cool and colorful waterfront town of Nyack, New York, on the western shore of the Tappan Zee, the wide stretch of the Hudson River which got its name from the early Dutch settlers — the name means “wide sea” and on its eastern side it laps against the shores of Tarrytown, home of Washington Irving and setting for his tales of Rip van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Just up the river, also on that eastern side, is the town of Beacon, home of folk icon and social activist Pete Seeger. Also upriver, further north on the Nyack side, is Bear Mountain State Park, destination of the unfortunate daytrippers who inspired a young Woody Guthrie acolyte named Bob Dylan to write a hilariously clever song called “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.” More specifically, the setting was the small, atmospheric theater occupying the upstairs of an old building on the town’s Main Street — the Nyack Village Theatre.
And the company was perfect: an audience that was disappointingly small (probably because the weather had been so terrible earlier) but included my good friend, the author and literary blogger/essayist Steve Hart and Rob Stoner (who played bass for Bob Dylan’s band on the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, is a friendly and low-key guy, lives in West Nyack, and continues to perform professionally while also working full-time giving guitar and bass lessons.
Here’s a photo of Stoner:
Best of all was the reason we were gathered: to hear and see an audiovisual presentation on Friday, April 3, 2009, by Michael Gray, author of the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, as well as the classic volume of amazing Dylan scholarship “Song and Dance Man,” and a forthcoming book focusing on the life and times of the late blues legend Blind Willie McTell.
Gray’s talk, “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues,” used rare audio and video clips — young Dylan playing blues harmonica with Big Joe Williams, a slightly older mid-1960s Dylan transforming his harmonica into an instrument that simply transcended the blues, to a Lightin’ Hopkins song, “Automobile Blues,” that clearly provided the template for Dylan’s own song (apparently inspired by Edie Sedgwick of the Andy Warhol crowd) “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat,” to a deep and perceptive reading of Dylan’s recordings in the 1990s of two somewhat frivolous songs, “World Going Wrong” and “Blood in My Eyes,” by the pre-World War II group The Mississippi Sheiks — in which Dylan’s nuanced changes turned those somewhat slight tunes into nothing less than songs of social and personal apocalypse.
Even the wait for Gray’s program to begin was entertaining — as we watched the Rolling Stones’ 1960s made-for-television hippie extravagance “Rock-and-Roll Circus,” highlighted by a performance by the Dirty Mac Band singing the Beatles’ “Yer Blues,” with John Lennon in fine form on lead vocals, drummer Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and two quite adequate guitarists: Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.
And topping it off was getting a chance after the show to chat a little with Stoner about his musical career — and about how he’s content and happy now to play the occasional gig but mostly hang around Nyack, teach music, and spend time with his family (including a bunch of grandchildren!) and sharing a glass with Michael Gray, whose takes on American music and culture — from the perspective of a lad from Liverpool who hung out at the Cavern club! — are insightful, surprising and enlightening.
And after it all, driving back home, I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson as I listened to a recording of Mr. Dylan himself singing “Watching the River Flow.”
Finally, a musical treat:
Here’s a clip from the Rolling Thunder Revue of Rob Stoner, Mick Ronson and Bobby Neuwirth doing Dylan’s song “Catfish,” inspired by the great pitcher for the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees.
And here’s another treat. Gray shows this as part of his program. Dylan and what is basically an obscure band are appearing on David Letterman’s show in the mid-1980s. Dylan’s supposed to be promoted his new album “Infidels.” But instead of playing a song from the new album, he plays an absolutely inspired version of an old classic blues by Sonny Boy Williamson. Here’s the link to the Youtube clip:
P.S. Both Steve Hart (http://stevenhartsite.wordpress.com/) and Michael Gray (www.bobdylanencyclopedia.com) have now posted their own blog entries about the Nyack event.