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Drifter's Escape

For Bob Dylan, New Orleans and Louisiana have always offered shelter from the storm.

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"You don't have to walk through secretaries, pinball machines and managers and hangers-on in the lobby and parking lots and elevators and arctic temperatures."

That's how Bob Dylan described New Orleans' allure in a 1989 USA Today interview. For Dylan, the man renowned as rock 'n' roll's greatest poet and one of the most scrutinized, yet inscrutable, performers in American popular music, New Orleans and Louisiana have always offered safe haven.

It's a notable connection, as Dylan remains one of the world's most influential and powerful artists, a man whose name belongs with fellow trailblazers such as Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso and John Steinbeck. Unlike some other icons of his generation, Dylan hasn't become a parody of himself. (Witness Mick Jagger's unlistenable new solo album and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's shamefully exorbitant 2002 ticket prices.) Dylan recently won an Oscar for his song "Things Have Changed" from the movie Wonder Boys and is currently touring behind his superb Grammy-nominated 2001 album, Love and Theft, which shows that the strength of his wordplay, and blues-, country-, rockabilly- and folk-infused songs, haven't diminished.

And Dylan isn't content to rest on his formidable accomplishments. He still performs non-stop, and this week his current tour arrives in New Orleans. It's been long rumored that Dylan owns a house here, but the city -- and the state of Louisiana -- have undoubtedly provided him a creative harbor throughout his storied career. With that in mind, here's a 10 list of why Bob Dylan can call New Orleans and Louisiana home.

Bob Dylan and former Louisianian Tony Garnier (second from left), along with guitarist Charlie Sexton (left) and drummer David Kemper. - ROBIN MAY
  • Robin May
  • Bob Dylan and former Louisianian Tony Garnier (second from left), along with guitarist Charlie Sexton (left) and drummer David Kemper.
1. He's known Louisiana music since the start of his career.

Even before the scruffy teenager -- born Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minn. -- set out for the bright lights of New York City, he was already enraptured by folk music. His early heroes were Woody Guthrie, Odetta, the Kingston Trio -- and Louisiana legend Lead Belly. One of the first known recordings of Dylan, from an apartment in St. Paul, Minn., in 1960, contains versions of Lead Belly's "Take This Hammer," and a 1961 tape includes Lead Belly's "In the Evening." That same year in New York City, Dylan's concerts regularly featured songs from Lead Belly's repertoire, including "In the Pines" and the traditional "John Hardy."

Dylan has admired Lead Belly throughout his career. According to Clinton Heylin's book Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments, Dylan said during a 1980 concert in San Francisco: "The first person I ever heard of playing a 12-string guitar was named Lead Belly. ... At first he was just doing prison songs and stuff like that ... until he'd been out of prison some time and decided to do children's songs. People said, 'Oh, what, has Lead Belly changed?' Some people liked the older ones, others liked the newer ones. But he didn't change -- he was the same man."

And when Dylan was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, he downplayed his inclusion and said, "It was a great honor to be included, but more important was the recognition of Lead Belly and Woody [Guthrie], seeing them get the respect they deserve."

2. He sang traditional New Orleans songs in the recording sessions for his first two albums.

Dylan recorded "House of the Rising Sun" (also recorded by Lead Belly) for his 1962 debut album, and during the 1962 recording sessions for his 1963 album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Dylan recorded the still-unreleased "I'm Going to New Orleans," a variation on the song. After the first verse ("I'm going down to New Orleans, baby/To the House of the Rising Sun") Dylan inserted a nice self-reference in this verse:

Went to see that gypsy woman,

Have my fortune told.

Went to see that gypsy woman,

Have my fortune told, have my fortune told.

She said you're a good boy, Bobby,

Man, you just got a bad luck soul.

3. Then he wrote an original New Orleans song for the sessions for his third album.

In the 1963 sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin', Dylan recorded "New Orleans Rag," which shows a tongue-in-cheek Dylan singing about New Orleans' red-light reputation, with a nod to Creole/Cajun French:

I was sittin' on a stump

Down in New Orleans,

I was feelin' kinda low down,

Dirty and mean.

Along came a fella

And he didn't even ask

He says, "I know of a woman

That can fix you up fast." ...

Well, I peeked through the key crack,

Comin' down the hall

Was a long-legged man

Who couldn't hardly crawl.

He muttered and he uttered

In broken French,

And he looked like he'd been through

A monkey wrench. ...

So, if you're travelin' down

Louisiana way,

And you feel kinda lonesome

And you need a place to stay,

Man you're better off

In your misery

Than to tackle that lady

At one-oh-three.

4. He loves Tennessee Williams.

New Orleans' most famous playwright continues to inspire various Dylan lyrics and moments. "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," the lead track to Love and Theft, is a fantastical Bonnie and Clyde-like chronicle, and Dylan has the solution to their trials. "They're going to the country, they're going to retire, they're taking a Streetcar Named Desire." Another notable example of Williams' influence is the 1986 song "Brownsville Girl," which Dylan co-wrote with esteemed contemporary playwright Sam Shepard. In a songbook filled with groundbreaking lyrics, "Brownsville Girl" is one of Dylan's most ambitious compositions, a 10-minute-plus epic where Dylan and Shepard eschewed standard song structure and essentially set a play to music. Between flashbacks and commentary on Gregory Peck movies, the song's narrator has a romantic encounter that's doomed by the fact that "you always said there was something about me that you liked, that I left in the French Quarter. ..."

Bob Dylan's original song "New Orleans Rag" didn't make it on his landmark 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin', but 25 years later he returned to the city to record Oh Mercy.
  • Bob Dylan's original song "New Orleans Rag" didn't make it on his landmark 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin', but 25 years later he returned to the city to record Oh Mercy.

Williams' personal trials also strike a chord with Dylan. On Dylan's 1986 tour, he frequently introduced the song "Lenny Bruce" -- a tribute to the late comedian -- with a Williams quote. "Here's a song about recognition, or lack of recognition," Dylan said. "Tennessee Williams, it was he who said: 'I don't ask for your pity, just your understanding. Not even that, but just your recognition of me in you, and time, the enemy in us all.' Tennessee Williams led a pretty drastic life. He died all by himself in a New York hotel room without a friend in the world. Another man died like that. ..."

5. He recorded one of his most acclaimed albums in New Orleans.

In the late '80s, Dylan's critical stock was at one of its low points. After the strong showings of 1983's Infidels and 1985's Empire Burlesque, he recorded the mostly awful album Knocked Out Loaded and embarked on a disastrous 1987 tour with the Grateful Dead as his backing band.

Unhappy with the scattershot production of Knocked Out Loaded (and 1988's largely forgettable Down in the Groove), Dylan began asking peers for recommendations for a producer for a next album. U2's Bono recommended Daniel Lanois, who'd worked on that band's blockbuster Joshua Tree album. So when Dylan played the Audubon Zoo on a 1988 New Orleans tour stop, he paid a visit to Lanois, who was working with the Neville Brothers on their Yellow Moon album. Dylan listened to advance mixes, and was especially taken with the Nevilles' and Lanois' work on two Dylan covers: "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "With God on Our Side." Dylan hired Lanois and came to New Orleans in the spring of 1989 to begin recording in a studio at a converted house on 1305 Soniat St. The core Neville Brothers band -- guitarist Brian Stoltz, bassist Tony Hall, and drummer Willie Green -- were tapped for the sessions.

"When we got into the studio to do his record, we got along right off the bat," recalls guitarist Brian Stoltz. "He's quiet, doesn't say a whole lot. His mind is deep -- deep into what he's doing. At the sessions, he'd come in, everyone would say, 'Good evening, hey Bob,' and he'd head straight into the kitchen, make some coffee, and start working on lyrics. He'd come in with 20 verses of lyrics, and start reworking them. Then he'd pick maybe five, and start reworking those. It was amazing to see the stuff that he discarded, verses that never were used. It was amazing stuff."

Lanois' production gave the resulting album, Oh Mercy, the same ethereal swamp sound as the Nevilles' Yellow Moon, and Lanois was widely credited with helping Dylan make one of the strongest records of his career. But Stoltz says that Dylan was ultimately in charge of the recording process.

"The very first day of the session, Dan asked us to come in an hour before Bob to work on some things," says Stoltz. "Dan got this idea for 'Political World,' and we put together this really cool groove and had it perfected. Bob walks in as we're playing it and says, 'What was that?' Daniel says, 'We put this together for "Political World." So Bob grabs his guitar and says [imitates Dylan's nasal voice], 'No, it don't go like that, it goes like this,' and plays a whole different thing, and we fell right in behind him. That's the track you hear on the record -- one take.

"It was funny to watch some of the looks on Dan's face," continues Stoltz. "One night I got there, and Dan had worked for a couple hours on this vocal, had this beautiful reverb and delay, and it really was one of the best times I've ever heard Bob's voice sound. Then Bob walks in and says, 'It sounds like I'm in a well.' Dan's face just sunk."

While Lanois worked to provide the album's sonic textures, Dylan and the band concentrated on the song's arrangements. "We worked in a horseshoe (configuration)," remembers Green. "I was in the middle, Tony on one end, Brian on that end, Bob next to Daniel, and there was a lot of eye contact. It was interesting, putting the earphones on and hearing Bob Dylan singing in your ear, and he's right there sitting next to you. I've played with Paul Simon, too, and that was nowhere near this feeling."

Bassist Tony Hall has an educated opinion on why the dark vibe of Oh Mercy struck such a chord with listeners. "Dylan was singing in his own natural voice," says Hall. "On that album, the keys were in a lower range. He was never singing in the top range of his voice, and it sounds more relaxed."

Cyril Neville, who plays percussion on the album, feels that the close quarters of the recording sessions played a large part in the album's success. "Most of the stuff was done old-school," says Neville. "The band was elbow to elbow, and to me, it reminded me of what I like about classic New Orleans music. What you hear on that record were performances -- take one, take two, take three, until the right one pops up."

All the players say they weren't able to gain much insight into Dylan's personality. The sessions were all business; Dylan's driver would drop him off, then reappear and wait for him an hour before recording was slated to finish. Willie Green says that Dylan would sometimes ride a bicycle late at night on St. Charles Avenue, but even that anecdote can't be confirmed, considering that none of the band even knew where Dylan was staying during his visit. But Stoltz feels that stories of Dylan's supposedly aloof personality are exaggerated.

"A few years later, I was playing a show in Switzerland with a New Orleans revue, and Bob was on the same bill," he remembers. "I was playing guitar with Dr. John, and I looked over and could see this guy with a hooded sweatshirt on, peeking out from behind the curtain. When we walked off the stage, Bob tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a big hug and said, 'Hey, Brian, it's Bob, remember me?' That was really nice, and pretty funny -- like I'm not going to remember who Bob Dylan is!"

And if the timing had worked out differently, Stoltz might be playing lead guitar for Dylan at this Sunday's show in New Orleans. "Dylan's manager called me a couple years after that, and asked me if I wanted the gig," says Stoltz. "He said, 'Can you be in L.A. in four days for a week of rehearsal, then go out on the road with us?' But it was Jazz Fest time, and I had a whole bunch of funky Meters dates, and dates with my own band. I had too many loose ends to tie up, and didn't feel right walking out on Art (Neville). It was a horrible position to be in, having to turn down Bob Dylan."

6. He's shared managers, band members and gumbo with Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles.

Bobby Charles, author of the Fats Domino hit "Walkin' to New Orleans" and classic songs such as "The Jealous Kind," ran in the same Woodstock circles as Dylan in the late '60s and early '70s. Charles was managed by Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager at the time, and headed up to upstate New York to record an album for Bearsville Records. Charles was backed on his eponymous 1972 release by members of The Band, who made their name by backing Dylan's transition from acoustic folkie to electric rocker before releasing their own brilliant 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink.

That shared connection with The Band led to a meeting between Charles and Dylan at The Last Waltz, the Band's all-star 1976 farewell concert that also included Dr. John. "After we did The Last Waltz, he and Neil Young and I went in the studio one night together, after everybody else had left," remembers Charles. "We started singing songs to each other, and just got along real good. He played his new record for me, which I think was Blood on the Tracks. I told him, 'You come up with the damndest titles.'"

Dylan remembered that night when he played New Orleans a few years later. "I was living on the bayou between Abbeville and Maurice at the time," remembers Charles. "One of his tour buses with the rest of the musicians came and we had a big party, and we called Bob and said, 'Get your ass over here.' So he came on down and spent a few days. Nobody wanted to leave. Everybody was in the kitchen cutting onions and cooking and just having a good time. I remember that it hadn't rained in about two months, and when the buses finally cranked up to leave, it started to rain."

7. He wrote one of his biggest early hits in New Orleans -- after visiting during Mardi Gras.

Behind Roger McGuinn's honey-appled voice and jangling Rickenbacker guitar lead, the Byrds turned Dylan's 1964 song "Mr. Tambourine Man" into a No. 1 hit. It helped solidify Dylan's growing reputation as a songwriter nonpareil, and its genesis was born -- at least partially -- on native soil. Dylan told Cameron Crowe in 1985: "I wrote some of the song in New Orleans, too. I don't know, different things inspired me ... that Fellini movie? What was it? La Strada. It was all sort of the same thing you know."

In fact, Heylin writes in A Life in Stolen Moments that Dylan was in New Orleans that year on Tuesday, Feb. 11 -- Mardi Gras. Just imagine a young Robert Zimmerman, notebook in hand, seeing Zulu coming down St. Charles Avenue:

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship,

My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,

My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels

To be wanderin'.

I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade

Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,

I promise to go under it.

8. His bassist and musical director has Louisiana roots.

Bassist Tony Garnier joined Dylan's band in 1989 and is the longest-tenured member of Dylan's current band. Garnier didn't respond to interview requests -- Dylan's bandmembers take the same code of silence as their bandleader -- but his upbringing and resume speak volumes.

"He's a guy from the Seventh Ward, a south Louisiana jazz player," says D'Jalma Garnier, Tony's brother and fiddler for the Cajun band File. "It takes that kind of a guy for Dylan's band. It's a jazz concept, instead of just famous rock players backing him up. Dylan will call a song five minutes before they go on. To be able to conceptualize things, you need to listen to jazz, and we're still listening to jazz. Tony just gave me an album with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. You need somebody with a big musical background behind Bob."

Tony Garnier has played with other musical luminaries such as Tom Waits, Asleep at the Wheel, Manhattan Transfer and Brian Setzer. When he's not on the road with Dylan or working as a session man, he honors his heritage by cooking a gigantic pot of gumbo in his New York apartment for all his friends. In 1998, Garnier's gumbo recipe was featured in The New York Times.

9. He made the town of Delacroix a household name.

Dylan has namechecked Shreveport and Baton Rouge in songs like "Wanted Man," but one of his most famous songs put Delacroix on the national map. "Tangled Up in Blue" was the lead track from his landmark 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, and its beautiful melody and travelogue narrative have made it one of Dylan's signatures. In the lyrics, the narrator is fired from his job as a cook and heads South for a fresh beginning: "So I drifted down to New Orleans, where I was lucky to be employed/Workin' for a while on a fishin' boat right outside of Delacroix."

10. He made not one, but two rare club appearances in New Orleans.

Ever since his career took off in the early '60s, Dylan has rarely played nightclubs. Besides a now-legendary four-hour, four-set, 50-song 1990 performance in Connecticut and a series of 1993 shows at New York City's Supper Club, Dylan's tour itinerary primarily consists of theaters and arenas. But on Nov. 12 and Nov. 13, 1994, Dylan played two consecutive nights at New Orleans' House of Blues. They were electrifying performances, featuring Dylan rarities like the Infidels album track "I and I," and Dylan was in an expansive mood, even leaning out to high-five audience members at one point.

Extensive security requirements and contract riders would seem to be the norm for such an event, but Dylan only had one ironclad request for House of Blues: he wanted to stay in a hotel room with windows that opened.

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