The day began with some minor crankiness as we planned where we would stay near Cleveland (more on this later). We left the quintessential cheap roadside inn remarkably named “The Rodeside Inn” a friendly but drab place, for an unremarkable day, a day of driving from one place to another (Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame) but it ended with a real twist.
After a brief tour of the Cornell campus, which included a photo of Bill at the university auditorium where he first saw Bob Dylan in concert, the intrepid travelers set out on the long drive from Ithaca to Cleveland, traversing the Southern Tier of New York on an epic 300 mile trek through the green valleys and modest mountains of Western NY. Fortified with what we thought were excellent take-out sandwiches, we set out and began talking and… talking. Who knew two guys could talk for 6 hours straight about life and what else…but Bob Dylan?
The day took a slight dip in Bill’s opinion when they stopped for lunch at a rest stop on I-86 only to discover that his turkey sandwich with lettuce/tomato/onion, purchased at Larry’s suggestion from the famed “Ithaca Bakery” lacked one key ingredient: the turkey. Oy. Struggling to be “mature,” Bill gathered his forces and soldiered on after exclaiming something on the order of: “#*X!” Suffice it to say, the persecution of the Jews continues. Larry quietly enjoyed his bakery products and blithely ignored Bill’s somewhat excessive kvetching.
On we rode through an endless and beautiful Interstate valley, disturbed only by the incongruous eruption before us of the new Seneca Indian Nation Gambling Casino, by the side of the road. We recovered by becoming engrossed in conversation about Dylan, specifically: What made him such a strange, incandescent genius? What part art? What part artifice? What part psychological development or brain structure? What manner of man? This went on for some time, with early Dylan music being played in the background. Bill read an interview aloud with Dylan’s early 60s girlfriend Suze Rotolo (and her sister Carla) which shed some light on Dylan The Person. A few helpful puzzle pieces were put together, but this three–hour discussion will have to continue. We continue to hover above the enigma that is the focus of our search, but we are beginning to find some recurrent themes and lines of inquiry. Stay tuned.
At this point, some 200 miles down the road, Larry shared a rare recording of Dylan’s very early song about the terrible death of Emmett Till, a 12- year old black boy killed by some racist and cruel whites. Not a very well-known song, it drives a stake through one’s emotions, as it conveys the cold inhumanity of the racist killers. In Larry’s opinion, the song is a harbinger of Dylan’s storm of powerful songs about racism that would soon come, for example “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” We both agreed that this early song made up in raw power what it lacked in craftsmanship.
We finally pulled off at exit 223 in Ashtabula, Ohio—by the way the only place so named in the world–seeking a hotel that would pre-position us about an hour away from the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame which we plan to visit first thing in the morning. When we reached the top of the ramp, our old friend serendipity appeared once again! A sign for Kent State University…only 8 miles away! Naturally we resolved to pay an immediate visit. (The CSNY song was already playing in our heads. Those Sixties just wouldn’t quit!) After settling in at a worn-out Ramada Inn, we took off for the campus and someplace to eat. En route we began to share our doubts. Hold it, doesn’t Kent State have several campuses? How come we never heard anything about Ashtabula? Our pal Google filled us in: the massacre was actually at the main Kent campus. Damn. It was like dear serendipity had just gotten mugged in an alley. Still hunger drove us on in search of food.
Larry saw a local joint called the Hot Rocks Grille, which looked a little sketchy to Bill. But my oh my what a great diner-type place it turned out to be! Truly we ended up supping with the good people of Ashtabula, though we were among the few who managed to resist the “all-you-can-eat” fish special (which some of our co-diners might have done well to resist as well). Bill screwed up his courage and asked a local whether Ashtabula County was Republican or Democrat. A friendly man said it was split 50-50. Over the next half-hour several folks joined in continuous conversation with us, and it all began with that one question. Soon one friendly mid-western family’s curiosity got the best of them and they asked where we were going, and we explained as best we could what our trip was about. Of course they knew all about the R&R Hall of Fame in Cleveland. To our great surprise, though, the father and son were also huge fans of Dylan and were themselves amateur traditional musicians, hailing from a music-making clan in West Virginia. Serendipity may have been mugged, but she clearly struggled to her feet in what happened next: the son, young man, asked if we knew that Dylan had mentioned the one and only Ashtabula in one of his songs? In unison, Larry and Bill let out a chorus of “WHAT???!”
We were doubtful, but within minutes he showed us on his mobile phone the words to the song, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Yup!
I’ll look for you in old Honolulu
San Francisco, Ashtabula
Yer gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
The Ashtabula connection had been made. Dylan was truly everywhere. We were on the trail! (Apparently, this trail was so wide there was no getting off it.)
We shook hands about three times, exchanged business cards (in case they ever visited Boston or we returned here). The father, as it turned out, was a Dept. of Homeland Security cop—and one of the friendliest guys you would want to meet. Other diners came over to urge us—one affectionately grabbing Larry’s arm–to visit West Virginia and attend the annual Jamboree of the Hills concert. We were quickly becoming members of the Ashtabula community.
We all left the restaurant together (along with some chocolate cake and blueberry pie in case we got hungry), and we shook hands again. The young man bid us adieu and told us that if we ever made it to the campus, he would “hook us up.” Musically, we wondered? We weren’t sure what he meant, but it sure sounded friendly.
A great day. Who could have predicted that the Hot Rocks Grille, just a mile from vast Lake Erie, would be the high point and exclamation point at the end of today’s long highway journey.