The following is a copy of a story I wrote for the Village Voice on November 2, 2016, on the occasion of Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m republishing it here on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Happy birthday, Bob.
The year was 1974 and things in New York, in a word, sucked. The city was in financial meltdown. Bankruptcy and the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” were only a year away. Maybe the meltdown was part of the reason Bob Dylan was back in his townhouse on MacDougal Street, just north of Houston. He and his wife Sara were on the rocks after almost a decade together. A melting-down city and a melting-down marriage.
At the time, I lived in a $200-a-month loft on the fourth floor of 124 West Houston, on the edge of Soho, then still an industrial wasteland. Dylan had a practice space on the first floor, right around the corner from his MacDougal Street residence. When I’d rented my loft three years before and the landlord informed me that Dylan was on the first floor, I found it completely unremarkable. You read about how Dylan had decamped from New York in those years — first for Woodstock, then Santa Fe, then Malibu — but he was so much a part of the fabric of the city that there was never a sense he’d left. Of course when I rented a loft on Houston Street, Dylan would be in the building. Of course he would.
When you walked in the lobby you could hear him sometimes, composing music and trying out lyrics. There was only a thin Sheetrock wall between Dylan’s studio and the lobby, and Dylan had an upright piano right against that wall. I knew this because I had given him a hand moving amps and other equipment in and out of the studio. One day, on my way to work at the Village Voice, I found a folding chair on the street and stashed it under the stairs so I could pull it out and sit there, inches away from Dylan, and listen to him writing at the piano.
That’s how I first heard him working on something extraordinary in the summer of ’74: the songs that would make up Blood on the Tracks. “Tangled Up in Blue,” “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Our auteur of adolescent angst was trying to put his life back together at the piano.
Dylan had always had a way of distilling being young and living in New York City. His songs piled up images, metaphors, hints about his life. Trying to read into them, we could also read who we were. But this was something entirely different. This was Dylan without the cloak of lyrical mystery. This was how he felt unfettered, who he saw looking in the mirror. He was doing in public something we had all gone through in private — breaking up with a lover, bleeding anger and regret, love and loss, and pain. Lots and lots of pain.
One afternoon I came downstairs and heard him working on something new, so I got out my folding chair and listened. He was writing his midlife masterpiece, “Idiot Wind.” He had that melody down, with its mix of wistfulness and acid resentment, but he was having a hell of a time with the lyrics. He would sing a verse and, dissatisfied, bang his fists on the keyboard. Then he’d take a moment and start again.
He knocked out the refrain quickly, his anger bubbling up in raw bile. “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth.” Vicious stuff. I sat and listened as he struggled with the reckoning, that there wasn’t just one idiot to blame.
Blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
(Bang bang on the keyboard…another pass…bang bang…what next?)
Blowing through the dust upon our shelves
Then the banging stopped, and — so quietly I could barely hear him through the thin wall — he caressed the keys as he wrote the final lines of the song:
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.
That fall, the Voice sent me to the Middle East to cover terrorism and various wars. Dylan began recording Blood on the Tracks in September in New York, then redid five of the ten tracks in Minneapolis in December. I returned from the Middle East in January ’75. He released Blood on the Tracks on January 20, to almost universal acclaim — his best album in nearly a decade, since Blonde on Blonde in 1966. I quit the Voice that summer. I was freelancing for magazines, spending quite a bit of time on the road. Then one night when I was back in town, a friend called and told me to come over to the Bitter End (it had been rechristened the Other End then, though it was the same place and they’d change the name back down the line). Dylan was showing up every night around midnight and jamming.
It took us only a short while to realize he was auditioning a band. I heard him telling his friend Bob Neuwirth one night between sets that he wanted to travel the country in a bus, like the country and rhythm and blues guy did. They would call it the Rolling Thunder Revue.