Friday, September 24, 2021

Flashback Friday: Off the Record, An Oral History of Popular Music

The late Tom Petty
Imagine that you have been invited to a huge party, and when you get there everyone is a somebody... a Somebody in the history of pop music. Who do you talk to first? Do you walk around looking for your favorites first? Or do you just saunter around talking with whoever you run into next?
That's what it's like to pick up the book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.

Obviously a party like that can only be assembled by someone with connections. In this case the author is Joe Smith, who happened to be president and CEO of Capitol Industries-EMI (the same ones who signed the Beatles, Dylan and so many more.) Before this he had been president of Warner Bros./Reprise and Elektra. A Yale grad who became a popular and successful disc jockey, Smith seems like just the right guy to gather all these other pop celebs under one roof.

The book is handled just right. There are no long interviews. Like the party, you can bounce around for a brief spell with Tom Petty, then George Harrison, Little Richard, Ray Charles. Over here is Dylan and is that Yoko Ono? Oh yes, talking with Joni Mitchell, Phil Collins and Ella Fitzgerald. Joan Baez, Robert Plant and James Taylor seem to be enjoying themselves over there with Tina Turner and David Bowie. Then you see the jazz guys, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck staring out the window onto the lawn where Quincy Jones is listening to Robbie Krieger, Mary Travers, Frankie Valli, Al Kooper and Herbie Hancock. Donovan pensively listens to John Fogerty and David Lee Roth. Judy Collins seems to be reminiscing with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Lou Rawls and Tom Petty can't seem to get enough of Henry Mancini.

O.K., you get the picture. And the stories they tell are fascinating because pop culture has played a role in all of our lives.

My bedtime reading ended with Mike Nesmith talking about the Monkees. They were not a music group, they were characters on a television show. The purpose of the show was not to end up with hit records, he says. But one day they're driving along in the car and hear that their song Last Train to Clarksville is #2 on the national charts. Nesmith says the very notion of it was bizarre. Suddenly everything changed.

The Monkees were shipped to London to prepare for a road tour as a music group, but they weren't really sure about how they really felt, nevertheless they followed through. One strange quirk about the tour was having Jimi Hendrix open for them. Mickey Dolenz had heard Hendrix in a London club and made the recommendation, which Nesmith off-handedly thought was O.K., sight and sound unseen. When they arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina, to do their first gig, the Hendrix trio is mind blowing, even in appearance, but the teeny bopper screamers are there only for one purpose, and it's not the Experience of Jimi Hendrix.

says he disguised himself and went into the crowd to snatch a listen. He'd never heard anything like it. "It was the most exhilarating, the most majestic, the most entertaining, the most fulfilling music I'd ever heard," said Nesmith.

But the mismatch was self-evident and after eight gigs Jimi had had it. The girls were chanting, "We want the Monkees," and in the middle of a song the most incredible guitar player of a generation left the stage in the middle of a song, disgusted.

For the record, this book offers a lot. It's real, it's intimate, up close and personal. Recommended.

You can find the book here on Amazon

Illustrations by the author

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Introduction to Unremembered History of the World

What follows is the introduction to my story Unremembered History of the World, which appeared in my short volume of stories titled Unremembered Histories.
Introduction to Unremembered History of the World 
There are some who have proposed that it is sheer vanity for us to imagine our earth as the only heavenly body populated by creatures with intelligence and personality. I propose that it is equally vain to imagine that our history, the one recorded by our historians, the one we know as "recorded history," is the only valid history for mankind here on this earth. 

To imagine life on other galaxies and to search for it are not unrelated. As is well known, steps have already been undertaken to find evidence in support of this hypothesis. 
In regards to the notion that there exists the possibility of an infinite series of parallel times, verification of this theory is a task whose path is less self-evident, obscured as it is by mists. And yet, we see glimpses of it, reflected here and there, from the great minds that were not bound to earth by the pettiness that so smothers us.

Goethe noted that his heart contained the capacity for all acts, from the most heinous to the sublime. Could he have been standing on the threshold of those infinite courses that sweep into other avenues of time, unseen, unknown and unremembered?
Bernard Yachtmann records instances where people have had glimpses of other histories, reiterating the conviction that time contains an infinite number of parallel streams, and in each there are alternative histories, of an infinite variety.

While not every act leads to significant consequence, many acts do, and what if in an alternate history the consequences of those acts were indeed being played out. Likewise one can find similar references by Marconi, Hasjammer, and Brandt, and an exhaustive treatise along these lines by Don Luis de Nativo.

While at the University of Salamanca at the turn of the century, Don Luis de Nativo wrote extensively on this theme. Though his manuscripts remained mostly unpublished and were eventually lost, the man de Nativo is best remembered as an archetype of de Unamuno's "man of passion" as fleshed out in The Tragic Sense of Life, de Unamuno's master work. (I have been told that it was a chance meeting with Joseph Conrad which prompted de Nativo to pseudonymously publish his epic work El Mundo Gordo.)
In other words, to get right to my point
: my proposition is not original. It has been well documented by others as a reasonable conjecture. No doubt it is my own insecurity that forces me to cite other, more significant voices, as if the testimony of my own experience will be insufficient.
Those of you who know me know that I often have unusual dreams. Oftentimes the dreams unfold as detailed stories. I recently dreamt a short skit which became a television commercial. I've had prophetic dreams, including a dream which showed me that my firstborn would be a son. I've also had other dreams which I believe were gifts from God.

In September of 1984 I had a strange dream. As is my custom, I recorded the images of my dream, in as much detail possible, and its effect.

Two months later, while looking for a book by one author or another at one of our local used bookstores, I happened upon a small, Irish green, clothbound book called Flight of Gypsies. It was one of those moments when a decision carries weight, when you feel compelled to act irrationally. The price, eight-fifty, was higher than I would have expected, especially considering the broken binding and what appeared to be several loose and missing pages. Yet when I opened the book and randomly read about five sentences, I knew that I must have the book.

I'd no sooner gotten the book home than I regretted the decision. The volume was more or less a compendium of prophecies by various gypsy seers in England, from 1632 to 1785. The purpose, I could only surmise, was to assemble a record of prophetic utterances for verification purposes. For the most part, the sketchy accounts were repetitive and tedious and I soon found myself bored. There were prophecies about early deaths, unhappy marriages, deformed children, and blights on households to the third and fourth generations, utterances about flea infestations, curses of blindness and baldness, worms, contagion, and dementia. I put the book on a shelf in our garage.
The next day I found one of the pages lying on the floor next to my desk. With no intention of reading, I picked it up to toss it in the trash when the name Thomas Olney caught my eye. Olney was the name of the man in my dream. To this man and his family I will return, in order to strengthen my arguments and make plain my case.
Not all dreams are stories, nor do all dreams reveal secrets about the nature of the universe -- though many reveal secrets about ourselves, and I am often quite impressed with the power of this magic mirror of our souls. Nevertheless, that night I began a quest, the result being my story about one of our unrecorded and unremembered histories.... one of many, I might add... and one which we may all, with longing, seek to re-attain... if not for ourselves, then for our heirs. Of this I am most serious.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Was Ben Franklin the First American Humorist?

This past weekend I began reading Paul Johnson's The Humorists. The book is not really humorous per se. Rather, it is a collection of profiles and bios of humorists through the ages, from Hogarth to Noel Coward. Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, W.C. Fields, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and others each get their day in the Johnson sun. 

I'd read his Intellectuals and was enriched by his Modern Times (another book of mini-biographies) but had not seen this volume and having recently written about the National Comedy Hall of Fame it seemed like a good follow up. That is, I thought it might put 20th century comedy into a historical context as part of a larger tradition.

The chapter I'm currently reading is about Ben Franklin, whom Johnson calls America's first humorist. He also designates Franklin as the inventor of the one-liner, which I found intriguing. One-liner quips have become a staple of many standup comics. 

Ben Franklin's wit was but one of his gifts, and he made the most of it. As publisher of Poor Richard's Almanac he fulfilled a duel need in people's lives. The Almanac provided useful information regarding weather, planting dates for farmers, tide table and other useful information for each calendar year. Franklin took it a step further by embellishing it with entertaining quips, witty phrases and wordplay.

According to Paul Johnson Franklin wasn't into the idea of just being a thinker. He wanted to be a doer. He also recognized early that in order to be free to do what you want it takes money. Money wasn't an end in itself, but a means to an end, hence his efforts to make his Almanack more popular than its peers.

Here are some witticisms to carry you through your day today.

--He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.

--No man e'er was glorious, who was not laborious.

--Necessity never made a good bargain.

--It is better to take many Injuries than to give one.

--There are no gains without pains.

--Lost time is never found again.

--Haste makes waste.

--Love your Enemies, for they tell you your faults.

--Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.

--If you would not be forgotten 
as soon as you are dead and rotten, 
Either write things worth reading
or do things worth the writing.

* * * 

Related Links
Poor Richard's Almanack
Ben Franklin's 13 Virtues

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Story Behind the Armory Mural We Did Last Year

Mark Nicklawski, Michael Shannon, Zane Bale, Mark Poirier
Members of the Duluth Dylan Fest Committee
Photo credit: Michael Anderson -- Click to enlarge

Last summer -- and it feels like a decade ago -- Mark Poirier asked me if I'd be interested in doing a mural on a section of Duluth's Historic Armory. Mark is the Armory director who runs the office and manages the building at this point in time. His motive, in part, was to show the public that there were things happening here. For two decades all the renovations have been taking place inside, so it still looked like an abandoned building to many.

Every mural starts with a blank slate.
This one is 17 ft wide & 13 ft tall.
I expressed interest but wasn't sure I'd have time. When August began to slip past I realized that we'd better get on the ball or it would be winter soon. With the blessing of the Armory Board I proceeded to reach out to a group of local painters to see if they might be interested in contributing to the concept I'd conceived.

For those unaware, the Duluth Armory is where young Bobby Zimmerman saw Buddy Holly a few days before Holly died in an Iowa cornfield in Clear Lake, Iowa -- along with the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and their pilot.

Although many of us were drawn together through the Duluth Dylan Fest and Bob Dylan Way, it was agreed that the theme should be something broader than a tribute to Bob Dylan. 

Because the Armory's history is full of stories, one concept that emerged was to capture and share some of those stories. While I was painting images on the larger wall, a dozen artists worked out different themes to accompany and embellish it. For this reason we see Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Holly, Sonny & Cher and John Philip Sousa in some of the pictures here. Some of the artists created more abstract impressions.

The wider theme included the manner in which the Armory and its surroundings has been a source of inspiration. One painting, for example, is a tribute to the Anishinaabe peoples who lived on these shores before it became a U.S. territory and later Minnesota.

Each of the artists who contributed was given an 18" x 18" panel which had been precut and primed for painting. One panel (right) lists the artists names in the order that their pieces appear from top to bottom. (Missing from this image are the names of Lulu and Tubbs, who were added when their pieces were delivered later. You can see their paintings to the right of Buddy Holly in the upper left.)

Some of the symbols in the larger mural itself are worth noting. Most of them are related to Bob Dylan, even if he is not a central feature of the painting. Sing Your Song was the title of a documentary on Harry Belafonte that many Duluthians saw at a Duluth Superior Film Festival several years ago. I chose this because when young Bob Dylan arrived in New York City, Wood Guthrie was his idol but his ambition was to be "as big as Harry Belafonte."

As it turns out, young Dylan's first paid recording gig was to play harmonica on a Harry Belafonte album. Though he was lined up to play on three songs, he only recorded one. You can see a photo of the harmonica he played and read the details of that story in Peter McKenzie's Bob Dylan: On a Couch & Fifty Cents a Day.

In the center of the mural is Robert Johnson, who famously made a pact with the devil "down at the crossroads" in Clarksdale, Mississippi at the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61, the Blues Highway... which runs North all the way up past the Historic Duluth Armory. To Johnson's right you can see the Highway 61 road sign. (The Clarksdale location is disputed by some who say it took place in Rosedale.) 

In the lower right is a funkified Bob Dylan profile that I created. 

Funkified young Bob Dylan in profile.

Here are a few of the other images displayed.

Johnny Cash by Kris Nelson

Contribution by Twin Cities graphic designer Lulu

Virginia Alexander's Duluth Symphony

Mark Poirier, masked but not anonymous, affixes Tubbs' piece next to Lulu's

Along the left side you can see (top to bottom) Buddy Holly by Ed Newman, Sue Rauschenfels' Anishinaabe-themed piece, Linda Glisson's expression depicting the energy of a concert atmosphere, and Edna Stromquist's John Philip Sousa. Molly Overden's Lighthouse and Seed is just below that .

On the right side of the mural one can see Christie Eliason's Louis Armstrong at the top followed by Virginia Alexander's Duluth Symphony,  Kris Nelson's Johnny Cash, Margie Helstrom's Blues Inspiration and Rosemary Guttormsson's Sonny & Cher.

Here's the current status of the mural. 
If you look close, on the right side it says:

Trivia: When I was in college I did an 8' x 12' painting which I 
continuously worked on and reconfigured or 3 to 5 hours a day. 
It had a life of its own, or so I theorized. I enjoy working large,
as many painters do. This is the objective I have in mind here,
to keep it alive until the time that it must depart. Which means
I need to continue working on it sometime and breathe more 
life into it. In the meantime...

And to the Armory folks who gave us this space to decorate.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

An Approach to Teaching Your Children How to Write. Why Every Homeschooling Parent Should Buy This Book.

I believe writing well is one of the most important skills any homeschooling parent can teach their children.

The written word has changed the world more than almost any other human activity. Truth is passed on from one generation to the next through the written word. Political movements may begin with a fire in the breast, but it is the written word that distributes this fire far and wide. The American Revolution was successful in large part because of the printing press and the printed word.

Learning how to communicate by means of the written word is an essential component of any successful career. Children who write well will obtain more career opportunities and find more open doors than those who neglect this vital skill. But good writing is more than simply writing technically correct sentences with proper verb tense and punctuation. Good writing is writing that engages readers. 

Writing Exercises was originally written with homeschoolers in mind, but its essential principles have universal application. The subtitle is 
How to Teach Writing and Prepare Your Favorite Students for College, Life and Everything Else.

The book's aim is to arm parents and teachers with a philosophical approach to teaching writing skills along with exercises to help implement it. The three goals of this method and the accompanying exercises are:

  • To build students' confidence as writers.
  • To improve students' creative thinking through creative writing prompts. 
  • To provide useful strategies for teaching invaluable writing skills.
  • To make sure that whatever career your child pursues, he or she is not left behind.

The book also addresses practical matters such as research skills, attribution and handwriting matters. Equally important is the matter of grading the work. Motivation is a key feature of both the exercises themselves and the grading approach.

Writing Exercises is currently available at the largest store in the world,, where 38% of all internet commerce takes place.  


Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash
Q: What age or grade level is this book written for?

A: I think students from 7th to 9th grade will benefit most, though the principles apply to any student learning to write. The goal is to instill a love of writing, not to make children hate it. 

Q: Is the book in bookstores?

A: No, but you can find it here on Amazon:

I have deliberately given it a low price to make it easy to purchase. If you apply the principles here to your homeschooling efforts, you will be rewarded 100-fold.

Q: How did you come to write this book?
A: My wife Susie and I homeschooled our children when it became apparent that public schools were coming up short with regards to meeting their educational needs. Because I'm a professional writer I took on the task of teaching writing. (I also wrote all their tests, which enabled me to stay in touch with what they were learning as well as the progress they were making.) After the children had grown, Susie encouraged me to create a book so that others would benefit from the exercises and grading approach I'd created.

If you have additional questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or email me at

Thursday, September 16, 2021

On Marketing: The Search for Silver Bullets

Originally published in September 2011

In my 25 years of thinking about marketing-related problems, a number of observations have impressed themselves upon me so that they have now become personal marketing principles. Among these I include the well-worn maxim, "There are no silver bullets." 
I know that a lot of business people wish there were indeed a silver bullet, a top secret marketing tip that they might be privy to. This would help them find relief from having to do any further homework, any further study or thinking or work. 
When you stop and think about it, virtuosity in any endeavor is the result of a hours of practice, preparation and sweat equity. Some people have natural abilities, but unless sharpened and honed the most gifted musician, athlete or sales professional will falter. 

Applying oneself to think from a marketing point of view is not natural to many of us. It is, however, a skill that we can learn.
Most books on marketing, by necessity, are an attempt to chronicle universal truths that apply to all businesses. They do not and can not address all the particulars of our specific situations. Each of us is experiencing a different set of circumstances. Thus we must each do our own homework to think through how this or that principle applies to our own unique situation. 

A friend once observed that successful people do the things that are necessary, not just the things that are enjoyable. "It is interesting," he said, "that by doing these necessary things routinely and developing skills in those areas, they become enjoyable or at least not unpleasant." 
So it is with finding business and marketing solutions. We must invest time to think, to gather information, do our homework... and execute. This not only applies to business, but across the board in a hundred applications. 

A silver bullet solution will not revive a stale marriage. A silver bullet solution will not restore a broken relationship with one's children. A silver bullet will not make you rich, if you want to go there. Whereas it's true some people do win the lottery, the reality is that it does not teach us anything that we can pass on so that others can replicate our success. 
When you reach for the stars pay attention to where you're walking so that you don't accidentally walk off the end of a pier. 
Have a very special day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

My Grandmother Helped Build Telescopes, a Woman Ahead of Her Time

Warren O. Tribune Chronicle, May 3, 1951
I've often remarked on how my grandmother was one of the most influential people in my life. I owe her a debt gratitude for the encouragement she gave me and the example she set as an inquisitive, lifelong learner. 

Last night I found a manila envelope in my garage with a newspaper story from 1951 featuring my grandmother polishing a mirror for a Newtonian telescope that she the telescope society she belonged to were building. The title of the article is Astronomer Here Counts Herself Among Few Women To Make Telescope Mirror

The journalist did not receive a byline, leaving the spotlight squarely on my grandmother, Elizabeth Sandy. What's immediately striking is that in those days they evidently did not identify women by their names but rather in association with the husband. Here are the first paragraphs:

A lot of women make cookies, some make jam, and a few make quilts, but the number of women who have made mirrors for telescopes is very, very few.

My grandmother Elizabeth Sandy
One of the very few to ever make such a mirror is Mrs. Grant F. Sandy, 1426 Sunset NE, one of approximately 30 members of the Mahoning Valley Astronomical Society.

Mrs. Sandy intends to use the mirror in a Newtonian reflecting telescope, the mounting of which she and her husband plan to construct in the near future. The mirror is the first one ever made by Mrs. Sandy altho she has had an interest in astronomy ever since she was a high school student in Cairo, W. Va near Parkersburg.

"I’ve been fascinated by astronomy and history ever since I was a teenager," she said. "And the fact that I was also interested in mathematics helped considerably to foster my interest in astronomy."

“Starting astronomy is like reading the history of the universe," she added. “Once you become interested you can’t quit your search for the truth about the marvels discovered by the telescope. We learn about our own earth by our observations of the other planets and universes.

"Mirror making for telescopes is a fascinating hobby which takes dogged persistence and hard work. But the end product, the telescope, makes it all very much worthwhile when it takes a deep into the most romantic branch of modern science, astronomy and astrophysics."

In the rest of the article the author shares a little about the Sandy family history, when they moved to Warren, how their children's interest in astronomy was fostered and where they went to college. Also mentioned is a planned trip out West which will include visits to the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles and possibly the Mount Palomar Observatory near San Diego, which is home to the largest telescope in the world.

* * * 

"Against the Wind" -- Elizabeth Sandy
One of the reasons I chose Ohio University was that it was only an hour away from Parkersburg, where my grandparents returned to after Grandpa retired. One of the rooms in her house had bookshelves from floor to ceiling on all four walls. Grandma did the architectural design for the house which instead of wainscoting in the living room she had bookshelves on the lower portion of each wall. 

She was a lifelong journal-keeper and greatly enjoyed reading and writing poetry, influenced directly by her great uncle John S. Hall, the blind poet of Ritchie County. She also did a little painting and was supportive of my own creative pursuits.

Much more could be said, but maybe that will have to wait for another time. Here's a poem she wrote after a stroke in the early sixties. During a surgery she had an out of body experience in which she watched the doctors and nurses fighting to keep her alive. This experience led to our later discussions regarding the relationship of the soul, mind and body, and the nature of life.

Aftermath Of A Stroke
by Elizabeth Sandy

Here I lie, tight packed as in my Mother's womb
I laid with restlessness a full lifetime ago.
But still entirely I, altho I have no room
To move about and at my will to come and go.
But now -- I wander, freely in my mind
The long road thru the crowding mists of time,
And pause in my journeying now and then
To live the happy times again
Made bright indeed by sunset's glow!

* * * 

Related Link: A Dedication 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Blowing In The Wind: Pretty Straightforward, Isn't It? Or Is It?

Proverbial wisdom: the accumulated ethical values of ordinary people in early modern England

Young Bob (Illus. by the author)
Bob Dylan wrote this timeless song in 1962, the year he turned 21. It appeared on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in 1963.

I frequently like to examine what young Dylan was doing and compare it to what was happening in the popular culture. Some of the "big hits" of 1962, when he wrote this, included The Twist (Chubby Checker), Mashed Potato Time (Dee Dee Sharp), I Can't Stop Loving You (Ray Charles), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), and Stranger on the Shore at #1 by Acker Bilk. 

Dylan first performed a two verse version of this song at Gerde's Folk City (See Peter McKenzie's book (Bob Dylan: On A Couch & Fifty Cents A Day) for more details about this time in the young singer/songwriter's life. The date of that performance was in April, so he was still twenty.

The past few days a group of Airstreamers has been in town on a journey from the North Country here down into the deep roots of the blues, taking in the Crossroads, Memphis and other historic places from music history. One of them mentioned to me how she didn't know, like many others, that "Blowin' in the Wind" was not written by Peter, Paul & Mary.

The song has been recorded extensively by other artists including a German version by none other than Marlene Dietrich. 

Much has been written about this song through the decades and it's message never seems to grow stale. By means of a few simple questions it forcefully cuts to the root of a number of issues. 27 years later Dylan would use this same technique of asking questions in a lyrical format, except the questions are turned inward. "What good am I if I'm like all the rest, if I just turn away when I see how you're dressed?" ("What Good Am I?", Oh Mercy) This rhetorical style is repeated two tracks later in the song "What Was It You Wanted?" There's nothing ambiguous about the first, and plenty of fog, shadow and mist in the second.

Blowin' in the Wind

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand? *
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
Yes, and how many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
And how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

© 1962 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1990 by Special Rider Music

* * * 

A lot has been written about this song. You can learn more about nearly any song on Wikipedia. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Ten years later it held the #14 position in Rolling Stones' 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

* "And the dove came in to him at eventide; and, lo, in her mouth an olive-leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth." --Genesis 8:11

Related Links

A Visit with Peter McKenzie, Author of Bob Dylan: On A Couch & Fifty Cents A Day (Part One)

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Talking New York, Dylan and More with Peter McKenzie (Part II)

Includes recent Peter McKenzie interview
When I heard this spring that Peter McKenzie's book Bob Dylan: On a Couch and Fifty Cents a Day was coming out soon,  I asked for an introduction in hopes of obtaining an interview. I'd heard that it contained new insights into young Bob Dylan's first year in New York. After we'd spoken a couple times, the interview was delayed because he'd made a promise to ISIS that he would wait till they'd published an interview he'd done with them. 

By the time my turn had come I'd purchased and read the book. Ironically, all the questions I'd initially prepared to ask during the interview were answered in the book. I set about to adjust my game plan and just follow our conversation wherever it went. 

Peter was 15 when 19-year-old Bob Dylan took up a form of residence in his home. There's a sense in which they were like siblings who shared a special bond. Peter admits, "Yes, I idolized him. He was like the big brother I never had. He treated me like a kid sibling. He talked to me about a lot of stuff." 

What follows here are a few anecdotes about Peter's Harvard experience, his career, Bob's songs and insights about the choices we make. At the end there's a link to the book and the first part of this two part interview.

School Days

My senior year at Harvard I had a solo suite with my own bathroom. I was painting, and had a window overlooking the Charles River. Right next door to me were two roommates with whom I became good friends. We used to have breakfast and dinner together a lot. One was Al Gore and the other Tommy Lee Jones.

When Tommy Lee was shooting the first Men In Black, they were doing a scene right outside my now wife’s apartment. I went downstairs and they were on a shooting break. I tapped him on the shoulder and he almost choked. He turned around and said, “Hey Pete!” and I said, “Hi, Tommy, how are ya. I see how well you’re doing. I don’t want to disturb you while you’re at work.” 

Peter's Career

Illustration for Joseph Papp, NY Shakespeare
Festival; Peter McKenzie
I went to the Harvard Graduate School of Architecture. I was going to become an architect. I didn’t like it, so I left. Then I went to Europe and I wound up meeting a couple people in France who were Dutch. I had my harmonica and harmonica holder with me. We went and played on the streets of Paris. They had a guitar with them, so they gave me the guitar and it was the most money I made in an hour, playing on the streets of Paris. “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!” It was very funny.

They invited me to visit them when I went to the Netherlands (they lived just outside Amsterdam) and I wound up playing for a couple months in their rock and roll band. 

I came back to the states and embarked on a career as an illustrator and a graphic designer, which I did for many many many many many many years. I had my own little company. I worked for myself designing books, illustrating books and illustrating book covers. That’s what I did. 

Bob always liked to talk to me about my art. It’s the one subject he never challenged me on. You know, he’s the musician of the family; I’m the artist in the family. And I make no comment about Bob’s art other than to say I think he has a great color sense, a great sense of color. God bless him that he likes to draw and paint. 

As the musician and writer, that’s his thing, his talent.

I haven’t met half as many people as he has, and if I lived to be 200 I wouldn’t. Who hasn’t he met? He’s met everybody. That can change a person. That’s his life. As for me, I’ll always look at him different from anybody else. He used the gifts he had to get the life success he could. He had a great way with words and he was an excellent musician. And he was pretty cool at the stage that we were really close. That’s what I can say about him.

Bob’s Songs

1962. Photo credit: Ted Russell. 
Courtesy William Pagel Archives
You have all these people analyzing his songs.    I mean, I will give you two songs that I will tell you about. Obviously, most songs that a songwriter writes are going to have some kind of personal touch and say something about their life, but I will tell you two songs–and I want you to listen to them again. A lot of people know about them but they don’t understand the depth of his connection.

If you want to listen to two songs to try to understand Bob Dylan – and there’s also an earlier song – but if you really want to know the personal Bob Dylan, that’s real with no bull, (listen to) "Girl from the Red River Shore," and "When the Deal Goes Down." Listen to those two songs. You’ll understand what I mean after reading the book. That is personal. That’s feeling. 

So’s the one about Suze very personal, "Boots of Spanish Leather," but I’m talking about later on in life when he’s had all these life experiences. 

Those two songs… and they’re not angry songs, but I’m talking about when he’s sitting and reflecting about life, trying to make sense of it all. They mean a lot to me, because they really do reflect what’s going on in his head. It’s absolutely 100 per cent personal.  You don’t have to analyze every line. You just listen to the song and you get a sense of where he’s really at. They’re amazing.

Luckily, there was a tissue in my pocket the first time I heard “Girl from the Red River Shore.” It’s a knockout for me. I’m just condensing them down to a sensible core of what’s within his soul. It’s just unbelievable to me.

I’m sure there’s part of him that absolutely loves being famous, and loves to be adored the world over, but man, when he said that he walked into a diner and “everyone recognized me, that’s when it all changed.” That’s a horrible price to pay. He’s paid a big price. I couldn’t tell you, in all honesty, if he knew what was in store for him maybe he would’ve decided to just be a teacher. You know what I mean? I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. 

His dream was to be as big as Harry Belafonte. That was it. He had no idea what was ahead. That’s why those two songs... that’s him away from the rest of the world. The reason he can say stuff like that is because most people don’t know the person he is. It shows what he’s gone through. And some of the longings he’s had and some of the loneliness and so forth.

We All Make Our Choices. 

I never thought of it this way, where people say he wouldn’t have made it unless he had the drive… I don’t think of it that way. I think of him as someone who had a dream, and had the guts to go out and try to fulfill it. 

The only thing I wrote about in that book were my experiences, my past experiences or maybe an experience that was told to me by somebody very close to me. For example, my friend Eric Herter went to a concert that I didn’t attend and told that funny story about the curtain almost knocking Bob over and he made that comment about leprosy. I’m sure I could read a million stories in books about Bob that I don’t know. That’s his life, not my life. There’s plenty about Bob I don’t know, but that wasn’t the point. 

Historian/author Sean (Wilentz) told Peter, “What you’ve done with your book is showed a big foundation of what made Bob who he is. Rather than trying to analyze every song or why he did this or why he did that, you’re showing a fundamental grab of the root of the person, and then the career happened." 

When I say what’s in that book is what all these people have been looking for, I meant it.


BOB DYLAN: On A Couch & Fifty Cents A Day

A Visit with Peter McKenzie, Author of Bob Dylan: On A Couch & Fifty Cents A Day (Part One)

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Something Old, Something New: 9/11


Wall Street Journal, 9-12-2001

Up until I started blogging in 2007 I used to journal every morning before work. Here's what I wrote on that morning two hours before the plane hit the first tower:

“The eastern sky is clear, but fierce looking clouds threaten us from the west. It may not be a pretty day.” ~ Journal entry, Sept. 11, 2001

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My cousin Gary was a career firefighter most of his life, many of those years a fire chief. His father served his community as volunteer fire fighter and rescue squad worker. What I didn't know was that the actor Steve Buscemi (Fargo, Reservoir Dogs) was once a fireman when he was younger, before Hollywood. 

As it turns out, because of that experience, when the twin towers fell, he called the old fire station he used to work at and when they didn't answer he drove to Ground Zero and put in five 12-hour days aiding in the search and recovery efforts taking place. The experience shook him emotionally. You can read the story here

* * * 

Bob Ossler was a chaplain who spent 45 days serving the needs of those at Ground Zero during those first weeks after the tragedy. The book he wrote about that experience was titled Triumph Over Terror. Here's my interview with Mr. Ossler.

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One thing I recall from that day, besides the lack of interest in celebrating my birthday that night, was how fragile life is and that we really can't take tomorrow for granted. The proverb "Who can tell what a day may bring forth?" became very real, much like Pearl Harbor must have been for Americans who lived through that nightmare.

EdNote: The "old" was the WSJ front page. The new was learning of Steve Buscemi's background as a firefighter and participation in the subsequent search and rescue efforts.