Monday, September 6, 2021

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

Cover photo features young Bob
with Peter's father, Mac McKenzie
In recent years it seems like books about Bob Dylan are coming out of the woodwork. What’s intriguing is how many different approaches have been taken. Some are biographies and histories, while other volumes fill holes and spaces with new details and insights. Many of the books are about the songs, others about the concerts and still others about the segments in Bob’s life. 

Peter McKenzie’s new book, Bob Dylan: On A Couch & Fifty Cents A Day, is a first-hand account  of one of the most significant periods in the artist’s life, that first year when young Bob Dylan arrived in the Village. For anyone wondering how Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, this insider accounts is for you. What occurred during his stay with the McKenzies illluminates this key period in the Dylan saga. 

The title of the book offers a glimpse of the flavor of this story. When collector Bill Pagel told me about it, he said it was going to be one of the best yet on Bob. Having just finished. it, I would assent to this endorsement. It’s fresh, heart-felt, and provides insights regarding how the young song-slinger from Minnesota was not only looked after, but mentored as he took his first fledgling steps on the road to stardom.

There’s a warmth and intimacy to the story which shines throughout the book. Peter McKenzie was 15 when his parents gave Bob an open door, a couch to crash on and 50 cents on the counter each morning to use as needed for coffee, cigarettes or subway. Bob became the big brother Peter never had. They bonded like brothers and the elder showered the younger with the kind of attention older siblings share. 

Bob showed Peter finger picking techniques and he showed him magic tricks with a standard deck of cards. One of these tricks was a mentalist memorization trick that wasn’t really a trick. It was a demonstration of Bob’s memory skills. He looked once at every card in the deck, then proceeded to name each card before turning it over on the table. (Now we know how he’s maintained the unusual acuity to recall such a breadth of lyrics in his head, not only his own catalog but an ocean of folk, ballads and blues lyrics.)

Many of the famous fledgling steps Bob took in the Big Apple are covered here, from a new perspective. He told Eve McKenzie, Peter’s mom, that he wanted to be as big as Harry Belafonte. Not long after that he would get the opportunity to blow his blues harp in a Belafonte recording session. It’s a familiar story, how he became frustrated and walked off the set after getting one song down. 

On A Couch has the rest of the story as a frustrated Bob comes home in a funk, “pacing and angry.” Mac McKenzie, Peter’s father, soothed the frustrated youth with a few wise words, but went a step further. He talked to a neighbor the next day, an old Navy buddy, who promised to smooth things over with Belafonte. Going the extra mile on Bob’s behalf would help eliminate potential stumbling stones in the young musician’s path. 

Peter’s parents were keenly aware of the possibilities that lay ahead for Bob Dylan. And Bob valued the wisdom they offered. As for Peter, he wasn’t left behind when Bob became famous. Peter’s wise parents did make sure their son stayed with his studies and kept his grades up. But when Bob headed up to New England for a concert there, he told Peter he’d check things out for his “little brother.” And when Peter was later in school there (Harvard), Bob made sure the guards let his “brother” backstage at another concert, inviting him to the afterparty as well.

* * *

The book opens with an interesting Bob Dylan quote from a 1965 interview. “It’s Eve and Mac McKenzie. And they took me in an’ they were beautiful… I lived with them…and they fed me…and I stayed out all hours an’ came back in and went to sleep on the couch. An’ Peter was there. I was his idol…now he’s 18, 19. He’s in college. He’s a very smart kid…they know me well. Talk to them.”

Dylan was giving the interviewer a lead to follow up on. "Talk to them," he said. But the journalist missed the clue. Fortunately, Peter McKenzie took the time to put down in writing the stories which till now were only in his heart and mind. 


After finishing the book I spoke with Peter McKenzie in depth. This is the beginning of what will be at least two articles.  

Opening night at Gerde's Folk City
April 11, 1961
EN: When did it became apparent Bob was heading for stardom?

Peter McKenzie: The first day we met him. Feb 16, down at Gerde’s after a Jack Elliot’s concert.

EN: It’s apparent that your father is a central character in this story. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how important mentors are in various stages of our lives. Your father became that for young Bob.

PM: My father, Mac McKenzie, was one of the of the founders of the National Maritime Union and first Vice President. As first VP of the National Maritime Union, he was in charge of all of the organizing around the country to sign up people and chief negotiator for all union contracts for all the seamen. He was on the War Labor Board advising Eleanor Roosevelt and helped extensively in the Lend Lease program. He was a big deal, on a par with people like John L. Lewis and longshoreman Harry Bridges.

I didn’t discuss a lot of this with my folks because my parents tried to shield me from a lot of that. They didn’t want me going off in that direction. One of the reasons Bob showed up that night was Bound For Glory (Woody Guthrie). He wanted me to know my background. He knew he shouldn’t circumvent my parents’ authority but he thought I should know my background. He was great in that way.

Bob idolized my father. He understood things immediately. Bob knew what he stepped into and that’s why he didn’t leave. My dad was a big, big deal. He was the kind of character that Woody Guthrie sang about and John Steinbeck wrote about in many of those novels. 

If I didn’t make it clear in the book, I’ll make it clear now. When Bob Dylan showed up on our doorstep at 19 as a dropout from the University of MN saying he was from a small town in New Mexico as an orphan making his way in the world, … imagine the bond that developed and the look on his face when he found out Howard “Mac” McKenzie was indeed an orphan who dropped out of the University of Nevada at the age of 18 and rode the rails out to San Francisco and was from a small town in the far west in Nevada. When Bob found that one out he knew he’d been outmaneuvered. It was just serendipity that Bob had created this persona and he walks into the household of a guy who actually had that background, and who knew Woody Guthrie. 

EN: Impressive.

* * *

Here is where you can find the book:

IN PART 2 I will share more about Peter McKenzie and his “backward look” at the past 60 years through a lifetime of experience as a lens.      


AJ Weberman said...

I thought he said he spent most of his time time with Gooch?

Peter McKenzie said...

Bob has always been protective of our family. He also likes to run free with his imagination as in his Chronicles Vol. 1. And he likes to misdirect. That’s just the way he does things to keep his mystery going.
The Gooches are not real people. They do not exist. Bob uses the name as a metaphor to represent my parents with a whole bunch of extra characteristics that they don’t have, but Bob just adds them because he can. Anytime Bob can use his imagination in constructing a narrative to fit in the way he wants he does so. It’s part of his self mythofication.
One of the reasons I wrote the book was to get the real truth out there. Many who’ve read the book made the McKenzie-Gooch connection.

Now I have a question for Mr. Weberman. Iwould like to know the story of how youcame into possession of bootlegs of The McKenzie tapes way back in 1972. Only one person they were played for at that time was Tony Scaduto. He wrote the first big Dylan biography which came out in 1971. He interviewed my folks at the apartment and they were gracious enough to let him hear the tapes in their living room. What they didn’t know at the time is that he had a little mini-recorder hidden in his coat so he could surreptitiously make a copy. My parents didn’t find out about it till years later and they were furious. It was unauthorized and a complete violation of journalistic standards. If they’d known it at the time they would have filed a police report, then sued him and the publisher. But, such is life. The quality of the tape is pretty bad. You were selling copies of it way back then for $5, but I place no blame on you. Out of courtesy, I’d like to know from whom you acquired your original copy that you made duplicates for sale. Thx

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