An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Me and Bobby D.

By my junior year at the University of Minnesota, I had learned several valuable things, among which were that everything I had been taught at home and in public school was either dead wrong or highly suspect; that there is no necessary connection between illegal behavior and wrong behavior; and that anything goes as long as nobody objects. Thus, I was well prepared for the most important single event in my life: the opening of Minneapolis' first "beat" coffeehouse.

Located in the Dinkeytown neighborhood next to the campus, The Ten O'Clock Scholar was a haven, a happening, a hangout and a home. Opened by Dave Lee, a rather mean-spirited but clever Korean war veteran with artistic pretensions (he was the first person I knew who painted his refrigerator in Jackson Pollack motif), The Scholar put out cheap and filling sandwiches, good coffee and chess sets, for the students, non-students and ex-students that were its habitués.

Dave's problem was that while he loved the steady stream of female bedmates that The Scholar generated for him, he didn't much care for the male of the species; and he especially disliked the musicians, his chief competition for the babes. This led to his decision to sell out in 1960, but that's another story…

Starting in about 1959, Folk Music began to make its reappearance, and by popular demand, performers became a nightly phenomenon at The Scholar. Among the early folkies was a Marine Corps dropout with bouts of depression named John Koerner, who hailed from upstate New York. John had been adopted by some local young women who had met him in San Francisco during his post-Marine recovery period, when he would sit for days on end on their fire escape playing Josh White riffs on his six-string guitar and not talking.

John later befriended a young genius poet and Leadbelly devotee named Dave Ray. His family lived in the neighborhood, and he went to University High School, just down the block from The Scholar. At 15, he was spending every spare minute hanging around and sopping up Underground Culture. One day, Dave's mother came to The Scholar to tell us how wonderful she thought it was that we were providing Dave not only with our musical encouragement and knowledge, but also with our moral guidance (we were helping him remember to be responsible for his own actions, something all of us need to be reminded of, now and then), and to ask us to please send him home by 9:00 at night so he could get his homework done. Dave, meanwhile, was getting so good on the 12-string that he was getting his own sets – but only on the weekends, when his mom relaxed the 9:00 curfiew.

Around this time, a rather pushy college sophomore named Bobby Zimmermann began dropping in. Most of us reacted negatively to him, probably as a balance to his own inflated estimates of his ability as a guitarist and as a poet. Inevitably, we compared him to Koerner and Ray, and found him so lacking that we sometimes hooted at him when he performed. Still, he persisted, and, bolstered by the women in our crowd, all of whom found his boyishness immensely attractive, he began to get gigs here and there. Nonetheless, there was universal agreement that he was definitely second rate: where Koerner and Ray were earning $5 for their appearances, Bobby only got $2.

During these early years, not many of us had cars. Since I did, I was hit on for rides to gigs, especially by Dylan (as he had renamed himself), who never seemed to have money for gas or bus fare or food or cigarettes. Mostly, the performers were going to a pizza joint over in Saint Paul known as the Purple Onion. The owner, an ex-carney named Bill, once said "if I had Dylan's chutzpah I could have ended up owning my own midway. Seldom has someone with so little talent gone so far." – and this was just a $2 gig at a pizza parlor…

Bobby was living with some other guys, having been kicked out of the SAMmy fraternity house for not paying his dues. Two of them, Dave Morton and Hugh Brown, were keeping journals and writing lots of poetry, and Dylan started doing the same. About this time, Dylan discovered Woody Guthrie, and began imitating Woody's speech patterns and singing Woody's songs. One day he was telling me all about how Woody had written some of the greatest songs of all time, but that the songs he (Dylan) was writing just weren't as good. "Bobby", I said, "do you think that he just woke up one day and wrote "This Land Is My Land", and a couple of weeks later took out his notebook and wrote "Pastures of Plenty?" That isn't the way it worked. Guthrie wrote about everything: tying his shoe, being overcharged at he grocery store; he wrote tens of thousands of songs that never made it into history. Sure he was a genius, but he was also a prolific, hard-working, and mostly unsuccessful genius". I could see the light bulb going off in his head. From that day on, I never saw him without his notebook.

When Dylan decided he was ready for the big time in the Big Apple, I, like almost everyone he knew, told him to forget it; that he didn't have the talent; that if truly fine musicians like Koerner and Ray, and their new partner, harpoonist (mouth harp player) Tony Glover, were not able to make it there, he had no business even trying. This was one of a long line of outrageous mistakes I have made in my life; not my worst error, but right up there on the failed prediction awards list.

When Dylan came back from New York with a Columbia Records contract, and slid into "my" booth at the Mixers bar, he couldn't help but rub it in a little. I can see now that he had earned a little crowing, but back then I had less of a sense of humor about being dead wrong and getting caught at it. I told him he was a punk; that I didn't care if he had made it, he was still a punk to me, and he would always be a punk. It hurt his feelings, and it was to say the least lacking in grace on my part.

Bobby, if you happen to read this, I apologize. You've done well; you've even done some good. Most of us grow up, somewhere along the line, and you probably have too.

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