by Belle Randall

from Berkeley Daze



"This song is dedicated to my class at Palo Alto High and to all the people who might have been my friends," said Joan Baez in concert when she was not yet twenty. In a life of few regrets, one of mine is having failed to reciprocate Bob Dylan's friendship—friendship which he offered generously and inclusively to those of us who gathered around him listening to him sing and play in Greenwich Village the summer of 1961. Not yet twenty-one, without even a jacket warm enough to see him through the winter, with only a guitar and a harmonica (its holder made out of a twisted coat hanger), with nothing one would have recognized at the time as an exceptional musical talent, with nothing really but words—shapes made out of air—poetry is truly something made out of nothing—Bob Zimmerman arrived in New York City and convinced us almost at once of his genius.

Dylan was very accessible in those days. In order to find him you had only to stroll up Bleeker or MacDougal streets looking for a small figure in a corduroy cap, hunched forward, carrying a guitar case that seemed almost as big as he did. You'd look in Cafe Figaro, or Cafe Rienzi, or in Izzy Young's Folklore Center, or you'd drop by the Gaslight just before closing time and stick around after hours, when musicians from all over town showed up to play.

I'd only been in New York a couple of weeks myself, having left Berkeley in June, at the end of my sophomore year, to run off with John Stauber, a professional guitarist. We'd gone out together only once, on the last night of his last previous engagement in San Francisco, but we corresponded in the year that followed. I had fallen in love by mail partly in order to get out of the ordeal of having to do it in person. In person I was often nervous. Years later I would learn that this was partly the result of a medical condition, but the excess thyroid in my system only exacerbated a tendancy of character. At the time, poetry was for me what sign language is for the mute. I mention this—my inability to communicate in person, my preference for the written word—at the outset because it will figure again in the events that follow.

The Gaslight was a basement room, low and dark like a cave—so much like a cave that I remember the booths as if they were hewn out of tree trunks. There was a cash register and counter at one end, a kitchen at the other, and a wood platform that served as a stage, facing the booths on the opposite wall. The heavy wood planks that served as tables were deeply gouged with graffiti and initials, each equipped with a candle and a sugar bowl. The candle was necessary in order to read the large, greasy menu. On the back, a thumbnail history informed you that the poet Dylan Thomas had read from this stage.

The headliner and MC at the Gaslight during the first weeks of that summer was Noel Stookey. During the day he was rehearsing with a new trio—still unnamed—whose other two members would show up at the Gaslight after hours to try out the material they were rehearsing. Sandy Bull, Bill Cosby, Carolyn Hester, Bruce Langhorn, Tom Paxton, Hugh Romney, Dave Ray, and Dave Van Ronk are among the other performers I recall seeing there.

Into this smoke filled room came Bob Zimmerman. In accent, dress and manner, a pint-sized, imitation Woody Guthrie; in appearance, extremely youthful. Bob Milos, the manager, told us that Zimmerman had lied about his age in order to obtain the card necessary to work as a musician in New York. Was this true? He didn't look twenty-one. His cheeks were rosy, his hair, masses of untidy blond curls. He had a cherubic, choirboy look (still evident on the cover of his first album, for all his effort to contrive a Robert Mitchum sneer). His stature was slight. It was easy to believe he was still in his teens.

He was friendly with striking impartiality. I've wondered since if he had decided on this as a policy. I can remember him inviting six or seven of us who had gathered around him in the back of Izzy Young's one afternoon up to his place for spaghetti. John and I weren't able to go; whatever errand took precedence I've long since forgotten.

Often drunk, or pretending to be, always in favor of intoxication, if not total self annihilation, Zimmerman would mount the stage holding aloft a gallon of mountain red, enjoining us all to get loaded. Did he smoke dope, people wondered. Milos vowed to take him upstairs to the "dressing room" and turn him on at the first opportunity. But even before that, Zimmerman gave the impression of living on the edge, of being farther-out, less cautious than the rest of us. He seemed to have three or four human souls crammed into one body, he was so vivid—on stage, a match flame, buckling and righting itself in the wind; on the street, a fledgling sparrow, chirping and full of good news of himself. Where had he come from? He was elusive about his past, disowning his middle class background. We were inclined to believe that he had sprung full blown from a boxcar. I remember the night he changed his name. He sang, "This name is my name, this name ain't your name," to the tune of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," provoking applause and foot-stomping laughter from the crowd, eager to prove itself in the know: Noel Stookey had just changed his name to Paul in order to provide his trio with the seemingly accidental grace of "Peter, Paul and Mary." (How uninspired, I thought when I heard it. I felt I had a vested interest in the choice, having myself mulled over the question for a while. Was this worth Noel's having changed his name for?) Amid the laughter, I couldn't catch Zimmerman's new name. Bob Dillon? That sounded too bland, like Alan Ladd or something. Dylan spelled with a "y". Had he named himself after Dylan Thomas?

At first Dylan did mainly Guthrie songs and traditional blues. The first song written by Dylan that I remember hearing is "Old Man on the Street." I felt responsible to go over to him after the set and tell him how fine it was, although I felt foolish and tongue-tied. What tears I've shed for being least comfortable conversing with those I most admire.

No wonder I admired him. I had come to poetry by way of folk ballads and Bertold Brecht. I would have been content to sit listening for hours at every possible opportunity (and wish now that I had), but on this particular night John had some place to be. "She is the real fan," I can remember him telling Dylan as we hurried out the door .

This was before the guitar had become an international fad. None of us had heard of the Beatles. Dylan had not yet invented "folk rock." Guitarists were not as numerous as roaches in a Lower East Side kitchen.

A self-taught classical guitarist who wore the uniform of a working musician, a black suit, and carried his "axe" with him everywhere, at twenty-five John Stauber had more or less steady work accompanying Leon Bibb, a supper club and concert performer with a repertoire of show tunes and folk songs. And wherever we were—in the Playboy Club in Miami, or a pawn shop in Denver—it seemed to me that when John opened the case, took out his guitar and began to play, a group of admirers would gather, young people mostly whose enthusiasm for the instrument was just beginning to grow. That summer, John and Leon were working at The Blue Angel, a supper club uptown. After their last set, John liked to stop by the Gaslight, "after hours," and play a set or two.

For myself, three of my poems had been published in Poetry that very month (my first national publication, my first anywhere, really). I was too young to know how few and far between such successes would be and was undoubtedly rather puffed up about it. Ironically, albeit only for a month or two, John was working and I was publishing when Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary were unemployed and uncertain of their futures.

One night at the Gaslight, after John had performed a Bach fugue, Dylan slid into the booth beside us claiming to have counted "112 entrances." I must have looked bewildered. "He `keeps repeatin' the same little phrases over and over. There were 112 repeats," Dylan explained (or words to that effect). That he was a dust bowl Oakie was plainly hooey. He was a couple of decades too late for one thing. The influences expressed in his songs were too literate, for another. But I never held Dylan's Oakie persona against him. Without it, there could have been no "Bob Dylan." Through his identification with Guthrie, he achieved his style. His sympathy was genuine. Woody Guthrie lay dying in Brooklyn State Hospital and Bob Dylan paid him visits.

John and I attended Dylan's first New York City concert, held in a small recital chamber in Carnegie Hall. The concert was supposed to begin at 8:00. At twenty after, Dylan still hadn't shown. I remember looking from the door to the clock, wringing my head scarf into a garrote, afraid he was going to bungle his Big Chance. Finally he appeared, apparently drunk and exuberant. The concert was terrific.

When John and Leon went on the road that fall, I went with them. When we got back to the Village, Dylan was performing nightly at Gerte's. I ran into him on Bleeker Street one afternoon. He showed me tattered clippings of his rave reviews, which he carried in his pocket. His unabashed delight in his own success was infectious. He had a new jacket too—genuine sheepskin which he had afforded with the money he was making now. And just in time. It was winter in New York. Snow had begun to fall.

I wrote home that I had met a wonderful singer, song-writer, poet. But I doubted he would ever make it big (I hastened to add) because he was drunk or stoned all the time.

The next time I ran into Dylan, the reviews had won him a Columbia recording contract and he was planning to wear the sheepskin jacket to pose for the cover of his first album. What about his own songs, the ones he had written? Were they good enough to put on a record? He wanted to know. My answer was a wholehearted yes. (Thank heavens I do not have to report having been such an ass as to have qualified it.) In the end, he included only one—"Talking New York"—evidence of reticence in this regard.

I'd left Berkeley with an "incomplete" on my record. I found myself writing the required term paper on Wordsworth while sitting on a bar stool in Freddie's in Minneapolis. Sometimes the comic Dick Gregory would sit on the stool beside me and ask what I was doing. Sometimes the comic Jack E. Leonard would sit on the other side and ask me to write him a poem. Outside a blizzard raged. The snow was so heavy, it was hard not to get lost in the three blocks between the club and the hotel. Sometimes we'd all go out for breakfast after the last set. One morning John and I decided to stay up until the stores were open and do some shopping. It took all day, and we didn't get back to the hotel until about 6:00 the following evening. I fell face first onto the bedspread. Pages of an early draft of my Wordsworth paper crackled in amongst the sheets beneath me but I was too tired to remove them.

The phone rang.

It was Bob Dylan. He was passing through Minneapolis on his way home to Hibbing for a visit. He was free for a few hours. Did we want to get together? No, we did not. We were too tired, and that was the truth.

In order to tell what happened next, I have to tell about the Jabberwock. Tired of life on the road (so we said), we dreamed of opening our own place, a cabaret in Berkeley, where the musicians we knew could perform. John would be the house musician. I had lots of experience working in coffee houses, and I liked to bake; I would handle that end of things. Our dream could never have been realized without the help of my mother, an Oakland public school teacher, who loaned us most of the money we needed and argued our case with the Zoning Commission, who were reluctant to grant an entertainment permit and a beer and wine license in a college town. I still meet people who remember the Jabberwock with affection (see website). I do too, I guess. The high-backed booths, the tables and louvered shutters we stained and varnished ourselves, the menus I made out of checkerboards, the lighted stage?it was a pretty room, but in many ways, the Jabberwock was doomed from the start.

My mother was in an auto accident the day before we opened and lay flat on her back in bed for nine months. Bad enough having to deal with the difficulties of restaurant management, we had also to provide for her care: dumping bedpans, helping her bathe, preparing her meals. In order to accomplish this with a minimum of expense and outside help, John and I moved into her apartment. The responsibilities involved, none of which we performed well, were overwhelming. I have no doubt that the Jabberwock was losing money with every piece of homemade pie we sold. Calculating food costs, learning to cook in quantity, responding to the complaints of neighbors, preparing taxes, soothing the egos of performers, shooing pot smoking musicians (John Fehey and Perry Lederman) out of the dressing room, substituting for employees who didn't show—no matter how hard we worked, how many hours we put in, it wasn't enough. I remember the awful feeling with which I used to wake in the morning (late in the morning, for the Jabberwock didn't close until 1:00) almost nauseous with the knowledge of what was expected of me in the next twenty-four hours. I'm sure John felt the same. Our partnership disintegrated in the course of our first year in business. Eventually John went back to New York, leaving me to and my mom to dispose of the Jab. At closing time, I used to lock up, count the cash, prepare the deposit, stack the chairs, sweep, and then sit in the dark empty room listening to Bob Dylan sing "Corina, Corina" on the stereo. But I am getting ahead of myself— At the time of these events, although John was still in town, I saw him infrequently.

Posters appeared on the Avenue announcing a Dylan concert at the Berkeley Community Theatre (he was not yet so popular as to require a stadium). I decided to go, even though I would not have John's entree, and even if it meant closing the Jabberwock for the night—a drastic measure, which, as it turned out, was not necessary. Unheard of for us, we received a call for dinner reservations for seventy. It was a wedding party, the ceremony was scheduled for two in the afternoon and they planned to attend the Dylan concert in the evening; they wanted to have dinner at the Jabberwock in between. I said yes, though seventy people was the maximum of our seating capacity, reasoning that I could serve this party only, lock up as soon as they left and attend the concert myself. I arranged to go with Steve Hawkes, a boyfriend in the days before my marriage, now demoted in status to friend. He was going to pick me up at 7:30. Was I going to go back stage afterwards? It depended on how I felt. I wasn't sure Dylan would even remember me.

The day of the concert dawned bright and clear. At about 11:00 in the morning, while I was in the kitchen boning seventy chicken breasts, the phone rang. I wiped my greasy hands on my apron and answered. It was my mom, very breathless. Guess what? Bob Dylan had called the house. Did we all want to get together for dinner before the concert? "All" included John, of course, if we could find him. Dylan was very friendly, she wanted me to know—she was invited too.

How could I have dinner with Bob Dylan? I was supposed to prepare and serve dinner for seventy. I didn't know anyone who would be willing or able to pinch-hit for me at the last minute. My mom couldn't help—she was just barely able to hobble around on crutches. I could prepare an extra chicken breast for him if he wanted. A few minutes later my mom called again. Shouldn't we invite Barbara Dane? A fine blues singer, Barbara had recently expressed an interest in buying the Jabberwock. It would be only considerate to ask her; she would be hurt if she were left out. And what about Don Crawford? He was an ardent fan—and so forth. Leaving it to my mom and Dylan to work out these details, I returned to the kitchen and submerged myself in coq au vin. After a while, the phone rang again. My mom. Dylan had called again. Plans for dinner had gotten "too complicated." He would drop by sometime that afternoon to say hello.

My marriage in ruin, my apron splattered with chicken blood, my main response was to wonder if I would have a chance to get home and shower before the day reached its crisis. As it turned out, there was time—time to run home, to shower, and to try on and discard every item of clothing I owned, in a state of increasingly high anxiety. At four I returned to the Jaberwock. My mom showed up on crutches about 4:30, having gotten a ride with the waitress who was going to help me serve. The wedding party arrived half an hour later. They were on their salad course when Bob Dylan entered. None of them recognized him. I almost didn't myself. He'd changed a lot in a couple of years. He was about twenty pounds thinner and looked ghostly, gaunt and ashen. He was wearing dark glasses. A friend was with him, also ghostly and wearing dark glasses. They'd just gotten back from Mexico. Did we have any booze? We directed them to the liquor store around the corner. The friend disappeared on this errand and Dylan sat in the back booth chatting with my mom while Louise and I cleared the seventy salad plates. My mom is the kind of person who feels comfortable talking to anyone. I remember peeking out at them from behind the espresso machine, marvelling at her social skills. For myself, my hands were shaking so I could hardly serve the cup of coffee he requested. My mom was showing him one of my recent poems. He liked it a lot, he said. I ought to play the guitar and sing it (a compliment he gave often, I'm sure). I curtsied (at least that's what I feel I must have done) and disappeared back into the kitchen on some other errand. My duties were real, yet they were pretexts too. I was relieved to have an excuse to take me away from the ordeal of making conversation. When I returned to the table, Dylan was leaving. Oh well, this wasn't a good time to get together. I was busy, he could see. We'd all get together after the concert instead. There was going to be a party. He gave me the address.

I don't really remember the concert except that Joan Baez made a surprise appearance and I applauded until my palms stung. Afterwards, Steve and I stopped for a bottle of wine and drove to the address Dylan had given—a modest stucco bungalow in the flatlands of Berkeley, the home of Mary Ann Polar, who had arranged the concert. We were among the first to arrive. Joan Baez was already there, sitting in a wing chair, looking even more beautiful than I had expected (which is saying a lot), and more petite, her black hair shining like a raven's wing across her brow. A woman introduced as "Joan's mother" hovered just behind her (I think it funny how all our mothers got into the act). At the other end of the room, beyond the double doors into the dining room, holding aloft a gallon of mountain red, enjoining us all to get loaded, was Bob Dylan. I gave him a book which contained the poem he had admired. "This is great! Have you seen this?" he said, tossing it across the room to Joan.

Other guests began to arrive, but the atmosphere was strained. Everyone was too impressed by the guests of honor to know what to say. Talking to anyone else, no matter who, was like talking to someone who is looking at himself in a mirror just over your shoulder. We were all watching them.

"Let's dance," said Bob, inclusively, to the room in general, and to me in particular, who was standing next to him at the buffet table. We danced—rock and roll dancing, at a good distance, me trying to rid myself of the self-consciousness that clung to every gesture like Saran Wrap, making it impossible to have an ordinary good time. I remember his saying something about it being a shame we couldn't get together more often. "We could always write letters," I answered. "What did you say?" he shouted over the music.

"We could always write letters."

This produced a loud guffaw. Apparently he hadn't much time for that.

When there was a pause in the music, my friend Steve, who was crouching in a corner scowling, announced, "I've had about enough of this, I'm going to split." Raised in the fifties and guided by the ironclad rule that says you are supposed to leave with the guy you came with, I got my coat. Steve drove me home—less than a mile away. We said good night, and I went into the dark house where my mother was already asleep. It was only about 11:00. The streets of Berkeley were balmy and familiar to me. I could easily have returned to the party. It was probably just getting underway. Indeed, it occurred to me that Steve may have brought me home so that I could go back and vamp Dylan unimpeded. But I had started out the day preparing dinner for seventy, and I was tired. Besides, maybe I wasn't so wrong-headed after all. I remember thinking, kicking off my shoes, that to go back now seemed grasping. I wouldn't be going back out of genuine friendship. I would only be going back now because—before I could finish the thought, I fell asleep.

* * *


Over the years I have learned that the value of meeting a famous person "in person" is over rated. One is probably closer to a beloved poet when reading his poetry than when standing next to him at a cocktail party. What can be gained from such a meeting other than the anecdotal? From Thom Gunn's meetings with T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath, for instance, I have learned that Eliot had a large head, and that Sylvia made good sandwiches. Looking back to the day of Dylan's visit, I see that again and again I chose to retreat, rather than to go forth in friendship. I could have returned his phone message instead of letting my mother do it. I could have joined them in the Jabberwock booth. I could have let Steve leave the party without me and danced the night away. But I was not free. I was not free in my marriage, and I was not free in my mind. What I couldn't imagine was that the occasion was no big deal. That was the impossible dream! If I had been able to imagine that, I might at least have stayed around to chat with Joan Baez, whose recordings had given me hours of pleasure.

Joan! Bob! You meant so much to me, your very meaning repelled my gaze like the sun.


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