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)


Anonymous said...

I'm about 2/3s of the way into this book and I highly recommend it. There are hundreds of books about Dylan, but the vast majority are written by people with as best second or third person personal experience. This is one of the few that take you there.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the note. Yes, I agree.
Daryl Sanders' book about the making of Blonde on Blonde gave me that "fly on the. wall" feeling, but Peter's book conveys the warmth and wonder of the period, not just facts.