Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Don't Mess with Mr. In-Between: Bob Dylan's very first performance




OK, I finally won this battle, the battle to find an excerpt I remembered from one of the many biographies of Bob Dylan. Dylan was maybe my first hero/crush, and as a teenager I worshipped him. Images from his songs still pop into my head, and I marvel at them and realize I will never write anything that good ("Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule. . ."). 

I had this excerpt in mind from a book called Down the Highway by somebody-or-other Sounes. I don't remember if I reviewed it or not during my endless career as a literary critic (during which I covered about 350 titles for the Montreal Gazette, Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, and various lit mags), or bought it. At that point I wasn't buying many books because an online mag I was writing for was presenting me with truckloads of books they didn't want. After a while I didn't want them either, so I became a sort of storage depot. But this Dylan book, I can't find it anywhere, not in my shelves of review copies (which I have always kept segregated in chronological order, probably because at the time they were the only identity I had as a writer and I was afraid of disappearing), or anywhere in my own collection, though I did find THREE other Dylan bios: the first one written by Anthoony Scaduto, a spiral-bound galley proof called Behind the Shades, and Chronicles, Dylan's first attempt at a memoir.




But soft! What's this? All I had to google was Bob Dylan Accentuate the Positive, and lo! This came up. I am sure it is in the public domain cuzzadafact that it was sitting there on the internet, just a-sittin' there saying "take me".

So I found it: the record of Bob Dylan's very first musical performance. As a child, he seems to have been unusually self-possessed. His parents seem loving, even devoted. One would expect horrible abuse, alcoholism, etc., but there was none of that. Perhaps that's why he's still around, tough as an old dandelion root.




The central hillside district of Duluth was predominantly Jewish and Polish, with a synagogue at the end of the road. There was a general store, a European bakery, the Loiselle liquor store, and a Sears Roebuck at the bottom of the hill. The weather was determined by Lake Superior, so vast and deep it remained icy cold throughout the year. Even in mid-summer, Duluth could be shrouded in frigid fog. There was a fresh ocean smell and the cry of seagulls. Ships approaching the landmark Ariel Bridge sounded their horns and a horn on the bridge blasted in reply. These were the sights and sounds Bob grew up with as the Second World War raged to its end.





    In 1946, a year after the war ended, Bob enrolled at the Nettleton elementary school two blocks from his home. The same year he gave his singing debut at a family party. Children were encouraged to perform for the entertainment of the adults. When it was his turn, four-year-old Bob stamped his foot for attention. "If everybody in this room will keep quiet," he said. "I will sing for my grandmother. I'm going to sing `Some Sunday Morning.'" It was such a success the audience demanded an encore. Bob obliged with "Accentuate the Positive." These were popular tunes on the radio at the time. "Our phone never stopped ringing with people congratulating me," said the proud Beatty.





    Not long after, Bob had a second opportunity to perform, at the wedding of Beatty's sister, Irene. The relatives wanted Bob to sing again. Bob was reluctant, even when an uncle offered him money, but Abe persuaded him. Once again he prefaced his performance by telling the excited relatives, "If it's quiet, I will sing." It was another great success. Everybody cheered and clapped and one of Bob's uncles pressed money into his hand. With instinctive showmanship, Bob turned to his mother and said, "Mummy, I'm going to give the money back." It brought the house down. "People would laugh with delight at heating him sing. He was, I would say, a very lovable, a very unusual child," Abe remembered. "I think we were the only ones who would not agree that he was going to be a very famous person some day ... When he sang `Accentuate the Positive' the way other children his age sang `Mary Had a Little Lamb' people said he was brilliant." As Beatty said, it was amazing her son was not spoiled by so much attention.


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