Saturday, August 20, 2005

More on Bob Dylan's Pier 15 epiphany


Paul Liberatore: Pier 15 epiphany
Paul Liberatore

I wrote last week about an old jazz singer who inspired Bob Dylan in a San Rafael bar. As it turns out, a lot of people are as intrigued as I am by the mysterious incident.

Dylan writes about this life-altering episode in "Chronicles," the first volume of his memoirs. But he doesn't name the singer or the bar, and therein lies a mystery that I've been trying for two weeks now to solve.
In 1987, when this happened, Dylan was rehearsing for a tour with the Grateful Dead at the band's studio on Front Street in San Rafael's Canal District.

Dried up creatively, he fled from the studio and holed up in a nearby bar, where he says he heard a jazz combo with a singer he describes as "an older man" wearing "a mohair suit, flat cap with a little brim and shiny necktie." He said the singer reminded him of Billy Eckstine, the honey-voiced jazz vocalist from the 1940s.

Miraculously, without saying a word, the old jazz cat showed Dylan how to access his natural power, restoring his ability to perform the songs he had once sung automatically.

As I mentioned last week, I went by the Dead's old studio, nicknamed Club Front, and retraced Dylan's footsteps. I ran right into Pier 15, a bar and restaurant on the San Rafael Canal.

I figured this was the bar in the book, and reader Colleen Smith confirms it. She was working for the Dead then in the band's merchandising department, which had its offices in the Front Street studio.

"I was there when Dylan was rehearsing for the tour and I can confirm the fact that, yes indeed, Bob was 'misplaced' and walked down to Pier 15," Colleen recalls in an e-mail message. "No one within the studio could find him. This was back when the neighborhood was less than desirable (it was really funny to see people see Dylan standing in front of the studio behind the Palms (motel) and double take when they realized who it was).

"In any case, Dylan kind of disappeared and a man by the name of Dick Latvala (the official vault keeper of the Grateful Dead and my very dear friend who has since passed away) was sent to look for him.

"Dick drove an old Pinto hatchback at the time. He found Bob at the Pier - whose appearance there was starting to cause a bit of a scene - and retrieved him, driving him back in the little brown Pinto. This is one of my fondest memories of Dick Latvala, when they got back from Pier 15 and the way he told us how he found Dylan and got him into the Pinto. However, I had no idea that the whole experience affected Dylan until your story."
Latvala (of "Dick's Picks" records fame) apparently didn't mention any jazz singer in his telling of the tale. So that part of this quest is still an open question.

Reader David Gitin suggests John "Buddy" Connor, who used to sing with the great jazz saxophonist John Handy and his band Class.

"He definitely was Bay Area, possessing a deep, mellifluous voice like Billy Eckstine," David wrote in an e-mail.
Connor was known primarily as a blues singer, but he was also a noted jazz vocalist. He died last year in Berkeley at the age of 74. That would have made him 57 in 1987, the year of the Dylan epiphany. I guess that could qualify him as "an older man" to Dylan, who was 46 then. Plus he had prematurely gray hair, which made him look older than he was. Connor dressed impeccably in tailored suits and had been known to occasionally wear a cap.

I called John Handy, read him Dylan's description of the jazz singer, and he immediately thought of Connor as well.
"Buddy could inspire almost any singer," he told me. "People don't realize how good he was."

Although John doesn't remember his old bandmate singing at Pier 15, that doesn't mean he didn't.

I was beginning to feel sure that Connor was the answer to the mystery. That is until I spoke to George Lee, a former NBA player who owned Pier 15 in the '80s. If anyone would know who sang there in 1987, it would be the man who owned the joint. Once I had George on the line, I figured it was a slam dunk, game over. But he shot me an air ball instead.

"We didn't have entertainment," George said from his home in Sebastopol. "We didn't have any live music when I was there. There was no stage, just a jukebox."

Stunned, I asked George if he remembered Bob Dylan ever coming into his place. As it happened, he did.

"He came in four or five times," he said. "His big thing was eating chili. All the people would grab the silverware he ate with. They were all clamoring for his silverware."

It had crossed my mind that Dylan may have made up the singer part of the story, and now, after talking to George, that seemed like a distinct possibility. It wouldn't have been out of character for him to do such a thing.
Either that or he conflated two separate recollections - fleeing to Pier 15, but hearing the jazz singer somewhere else at some other time and believing they happened all at once. Most of us of a certain age know how memory can play tricks like that.

Then again, you have to add to the mix the Grateful Dead's reputation for mind-altering substances. An e-mail from another reader theorizes along these lines.

"Let's say he did walk in there after bolting out of the studio in the rain," he writes. "That's a clue in itself. He must have been toking with the Dead or maybe dropping a tab for old time's sake. He goes into Pier 15 for a drink and hallucinates the singer part É I could be wrong. Time will tell."

Time may or may not tell. But I'm coming to believe that this may be closest to the truth, especially after re-reading Dylan's summation of the whole affair.

"I played these shows with the Dead and never had to think twice about it," he writes. "Maybe they just dropped something in my drink, I can't say, but anything they wanted to do was fine with me. I had that old jazz singer to thank."


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