..where Dylan filmed Renaldo & Clara
..where Dylan filmed Renaldo & Clara
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.
We left Woodstock in the morning to travel to Woodstock—the festival site, that is, in Bethel NY. Sixty odd miles later, we arrived in the White Lake area of NY State, where we did our favorite thing…get lost. This proclivity is reinforced by our firm commitment not to use GPS and to rely on a) maps b) directions provided by road walkers we snare and C) instinct. After missing a turn off, we circled around the areas and were amazed to see so many skeletal remains of the bungalow colonies of our youth and, more surprising, so many colonies of orthodox and Hasidic Jews who seemed they had been helicoptered in from Williamsburg possibly the day before. Is this what is looks like on the West Bank…little houses and trailers on hillsides. What were they doing here in their religious garb looking completely out of place? It seemed incongruous, though in truth we were just two more Wandering Jews trying to find our way.
We did finally find the festival site, after coming upon the important clue of “Yasgur Rd.” (Max Yasgur was the farmer who rescued the Woodstock Festival from being canceled when all the other venues were refusing to stage a concert because it might be too large. Little did they know what would happen but they were right). There in front of us was the famous field, bedecked with an appropriate memorial plaque, and “Duke,” a site historian, who arrived one day in August 1969 from Texas (along with half a million others) and never left. He gave an informative, if well-worn rap to visitors, and after screening out his sexist jokes, one could actually learn a thing or two from him. At the top of the hill was a new Arts Center (nicely designed!), with a colorful museum that gave a good sense of the 6os and told the story of the concert, the performers and all the great music in a dynamic way. The museum told the story of the 60’s in a colorful and decent way, but since we had been there we didn’t much attention to all that. We paid attention to the music. A couple of 10-20 minute soundtracks with amazing footage were well worth the visit! (Dylan actually didn’t perform at Woodstock, but he will be there this Sept. 2!) From there we traveled the long and winding roads to Ithaca, listening to some of Dylan’s early music. Larry had last been to Ithaca in 1965, remembering it very differently than it is now. The memory of the idyllic college town was a bit spoiled by the extensive strip malls surrounding the town. Staying at the Rodeway Inn was a trip down memory lane, the classic on the road cheap motel. Clean and decent but no charm. Tomorrow Bill will take Larry tomorrow to the Cornell campus auditorium where he first heard Dylan in concert. As we continue on the road to Hibbing, Minnesota, we have a few stops before. The next is Cleveland and the R & R Hall of Fame.
One footnote: At exactly 3:10 pm, Bill received a spam email from Smithsonian Folkways. Its headline: “Happy 100th Birthday, Woody Guthrie!” Alright!
We set out at around 9am from Brookline, fought our way through strangling traffic, and finally reached the open road on the Pike en route to Beckett Mass. This provided a fit opportunity naturally to read aloud Whitman’s Song of the Open Road. (The Good Gray Poet influenced Dylan’s free verse indirectly via the Beats). Arriving in Becket, we searched out the place where Dylan’s 1970’s movie Renaldo and Clara was filmed. The setting for some of this strange and forgettable movie was the remote Dream Away Lounge buried somewhere deep in the Berkshires. We found it in an area Larry turned out to know well. Larry’s brother Ben was sitting there waiting for us as planned. The proprietor was busy watering plants and was not terribly happy to see any of us pull into the driveway at 11 am since it didn’t open until 5 for dinner. Nonetheless he did warm up a bit and told us a bit about the history of the lounge & how it was chosen to be a scene in the movie- maybe because Arlo Guthrie lives nearby. Most importantly, we were allowed to use the men’s room. “You might as well,” said Danny grudgingly, “seeing as you are already here.” Danny did not seem to be bursting with that welcoming 60’s attitude, but at least we were on the Dylan trail. While cruising heading west to New York on the Thruway, we listened to some classic “hard travelin’” Woody Guthrie songs. Guthrie, who inspired the young Bob Dylan, was born 100 years ago. Happy Birthday, Woody. We couldn’t help but puzzle over how much Woody would have related to Dylan’s post-folk repertoire.
Next stop was Woodstock, NY, where Dylan and The Band lived in the 60’s, hung out, and played music (and also where the Woodstock Festival was planned). We needed direction to the Big Pink house and the Dylan residence. While Larry was checking the town out, Bill headed over to the “Free Style Realty,” figuring realtors knew their way around. The office was empty except for “Uncle” Mitch Rapoport, the boss. After a while, Larry joined Bill. Mitch was quite a character: a Woodstock native for 50 years (having left NYC in the early 60’s), former opera singer, and “PhD in product development.” He had a number of great Dylan photos around, so we popped the key question: where? Before giving us driving directions, Mitch nonchalantly told us he knew Dylan and The Band quite well. We were dumbstruck, and he generously regaled us with stories about them and the Lovin’ Spoonful for the better part of an hour. Turns out his parents “adopted” many of the rock famous musicians who lived in town. He also told us that the Woodstock Festival was planned at the old Mill Stream Inn that his parents once owned. What of Dylan? What could he tell us? Mitch laid it on the line. “An enigma, said Mitch. Had a hard time in dealing with people. Haunted and hunted by fans and by his own demons. Still they had a relationship. He would call Mitch up and ask him to set up his table at the Inn. This was code for “set up the card table” in the kitchen where he could eat without being harassed by fans. He was hard to know Mitch told us. Well, but isn’t that what this quest is all about? We were getting closer thanks to Mitch. Fame is a problem, a real paradox. Dylan, like many stars, became a prisoner of his own celebrity.
The directions he gave us to a Dylan address and to Big Pink were on the money. Alas we misread the former, and jumped out at one house to take some hurried photos from behind a bush, thinking we had found The Band’s pink ground zero. But as we drove away, it did trouble us that the house was not pink (of course , it was pink 45 years ago & maybe not since). Damn. We retraced the route and found the right road: Parnassus Lane. Alas and alack a private road. We ignored the first No Trespassing sign since it was kind of hidden by foliage. But then came to a tree plastered with them. That was as close as we could get. Whoever lived there now clearly didn’t want visitors, even aging pilgrims on the Dylan trail. Later after dinner, we found ourselves at Ohayo road, another place Dylan had lived. Is this important piece of the puzzle? Hmm.
End of first day. Very productive. We feel we are closing in on some major insights. Mitch was a gift of God. Tomorrow, Day 2…the site of the Woodstock Festival in White Lake, 60 miles away from the town of Woodstock. Who knew.
On July 11, 2012, we began our search for Bob Dylan and the America that helped create him. We can only hope that Bob senses we are on our way. If we find him, we will ask him to return to Brookline with us. Now we embark…on the “ribbon of highway” celebrated by Woody Guthrie…on the road described by Jack Kerouac…knowing only that there is No Direction Home.