On a Thursday in October, I saw John the Baptist in the motel parking lot while I walked back toward my room with my wife beside me navigating the rivers forming in the concrete depression that ran through the center of the asphalt slurry and seemed horribly out of place until the shadow of clouds sent a torrent of sudden thunderstorm and revealed the cleverness of a long forgotten cog in a civil engineering firm whose four years at state college prepared him for the job. It was the second time I'd seen him because he was standing by his room when Kathy and I descended the steps because I wanted a Diet Coke from a fountain and not from a machine so we needed to cross the street, and it was smart anyway because I needed another pack of cigarettes and they were cheap at the gas station and only a short walk in the rain, and when we crossed back over, my sandals soaked, he was headed the other direction to pick up liquor and I offered him the umbrella which was only a little protection anyway and I knew he had a mile or so to walk; and I really didn't expect him to show when he told me he'd be back to drink whisky and play the mandolin for me.
The umbrella was poorly made and cost less than a pint of vodka so it really wasn't any kind of sacrifice at all to give it to him even though he later told me it was a beautiful thing and it let him know he was on the right path and he was therefore driven, compelled even, to get the bottle of liquor and to drink it with me, and I suppose such a compulsion could explain why he'd show at the motel room I used as an office (while my wife kept one for the daughters and the boys kept the other) with the bottle and a ukulele in hand, and though I'd planned on an early night and no more drinking, I let him in and presented the two brandy snifters I had on hand because they were on sale for only a dollar a glass. I didn't really want to drink because I'd already had half a fifth of single malt and before that a few fingers of absinthe (straight because even if I'm supposed to drip through a sugar cube, my peculiar preferences wouldn't allow for any addition of water to spirits) so I knew from the outset that I wouldn't be able to keep up with him and felt more than a little embarrassed that I'd forgotten that Jim Beam also made rye, and the idea of seeing Kentucky Straight in front of any word other than Bourbon seemed wrong; but the almost innocent and instant familiarity in his approach, the genuineness in his affection, and the urgency of his longing overcame my hesitation and he sat on the poorly constructed wooden chair while I sat on the bed and watched him.
Of course, I asked him to play Dylan because it seemed apropos, and I suppose it was inconceivable to me that a man like him would be a bit of a wandering minstrel, a traveling troubadour, a beggared bard and somehow overlook Zimmerman and I wasn't really prepared for him to say he only liked Dylan when the Dead sang him, and perhaps it says something about me that the alcohol, drugs, growing affection, inappropriate disclosures, and even the clumsy pass he made at me nine or ten shots later, holding a hug too long and kissing my neck and then squeezing my chest and telling me I had nice titties, didn't anger me. All of that was driven by rye, but for a man like him to choose not to call him Terry, Jimmy, Bobby, Zimmy, R.J., or Ray but to actually relegate his work to derivative performances; and to do it without qualification or without any reference to the two or three who'd done well with his work, and particularly without the necessary disclaimer that while Hendrix and Rose and Cash were acceptable in their adaptations and competent in their conversions -- but that the spirit of the songs belonged to Dylan -- and only the Animals could claim a better version and he didn't even write that song anyway so it didn't really matter, was pure heresy more offensive than ignorance or even plain dislike, and I thought about it a few weeks later when I walked into the theater to see the man who'd written with such originality and attitude that George Harrison had to wear it out, and even before Dylan introduced him to pot; and considered whether or not I'd buy my fourteen year old an eleven dollar plastic cup of cheap domestic draft.
John Baptist never brought the mandolin, and when I asked about the instrument with the scuffs that leapt from its surface, the soft pulp contrasting shockingly with the rich and somehow plastic mahogany, he looked briefly ashamed and insisted I understand the ukulele wasn't typical but had a low g string, and having knowledge of only the erotic lingerie version of that that particular term, it did nothing for me, but the earnestness of his appeal and the almost desperate urgency in his voice earned a nod of false understanding from me but no realization that he held the wrong instrument could keep the songs from running through my head -- first Donavon and then Fry -- for the rest of the night through the short bursts of Coe, Nelson, and Cline; and no amount of concentration could stop Hornsby's from cycling in the back of my mind, even when his eyes grew wide as he recounted the paranoid self-doubt and the suddenly appearing nonexistent room in his apartment when he processed his dimethyltryptamine with amphetamine salts, eliciting from his supplier accusations of heresy for the admixture, for daring to defile a sacrament with unnatural synthetics developed only to increase endurance, to transform naturally peaceful, benevolent, loving, respectful, and tender Japanese hippies into remorseless, suicidal murderers.
I didn't ask him to elaborate his trip because my brief forays into hallucinogenic dreams consisted first of seeing and feeling Ozzy Osbourne singing Iron Man, only not the words and not the singer, but the notes splayed out like ribbons of scarlet and turquoise in my eyes and the rainbow bars wouldn't stop even after I'd emptied the dollar-fifty-nine hamburger and fries into the toilet along with the generic beer the corner station with the highest grossing arcade game in the county sold to me grudgingly for nine weeks before finally taking my money without asking for my driver's license and even after the vomit left me empty and hungry in that disturbing way the body cries out for nourishment after expelling it, the colors shot over the ceiling with every shattering blow of the bass line, and it confused and angered me more because every time I checked the power on the stereo, the green light was off and when I put my ear right up to the speakers I couldn't hear the song emanating from within, and when I finally drifted off, the music was still loud and stayed in the background of my mind long after any remnants of psilocybin left my body. Worse, the time I ate stamps had followed three or four thick razor-separated rails of crystal awareness, and this was back when to call it crank was to criticize or to question its quality, though I learned two decades later that what found its way into my nose and bloodstream before regulations forced cookers to manufacture it from lesser materials now held that appellation as a nostalgic term of quality; so when Rob showed up with five of the typical crowd, an ounce of green, and two sheets, I was already well past stimulated and by the time the smoke in the studio apartment coalesced into a chess piece, my ability to accept the changing world had left me.
So I didn't want to hear from a man whose namesake announced the Christ telling me about the earth dissolving into a video game block world or the immediate vibrations of his body or the deconstruction of everything into lime and especially not how he'd hoped and expected the stretchy butterfly lady who would tell him everything was just fine and not terrifying and green and evil but wonderful and he should therefore relax and experience it but instead got coyote lady, a being, a fucking being, in his peripheral vision who laughed at him like a jack in the box but in reverse, descending out of view when he tried to focus directly on her, and I guess I agreed when he said, "You have to be strong like bull to smoke that shit, man," even though he qualified it all and said it was probably the solvent that made for the bad trip. I was decades past interest in such conversations, though, except to avoid appearing uninterested or inhospitable, and I think I was already standing on that edge because as the rye descended in the bottle he pointed out constantly that it was his glass constantly refilled and mine that slowly sipped away into emptiness, but I ignored him with a smile and all it took was a song request or a soft whistle in response to a comment to take the conversation in a direction other than fermented grain, so though he returned often to the complaint, I only drank about a fifth of the fifth but probably appeared to take about a quarter of it because every time he left on an apparently urgent errand I would pour whatever remained in my glass in the sink and refill it when he returned to the room.
Maybe part of the problem was the frenetic pacing of his conversation because he looked like a man whose every syllable would be drawn to extraordinary lengths and punctuated with violent coughs laced with tetrahydrocannabinol and though he slipped into such a role between constant insecure pleadings for reassurance about his hairstyle -- strange pigtail braids -- and regular reference to his once full beard and wide eyed recounting of his time in Northern New Mexico where he spent months with geological maps, mescaline, and horse tranquilizers, taking care to be ginger in order not to degrade the alcohol, and singing Dear Prudence to every pretty girl while the man who employed him for his hashish recipes injected himself with ketamines every day and frightened him with talk about chopping up bodies and leaving them in the woods; for the most part he rushed through and by and over and onto subjects like my eight year old talking about internet animal games, my fourteen year old talking about Godzilla and my nineteen year old talking about motorcycles. In retrospect, I suppose I resisted the engagement in part because he was so damned difficult to label and my life had become a series of interactions from one label to the next, most simple to affix like the hippies who filed into the amphitheater to sit through Knopfler and complain about the length of his set and smoke in the small porch and stairway with thirty or forty of the addicted complaining about a Brit who dared to believe he had any right to share a stage with an American deity, and especially a Brit who dared let American folk influence his music when everyone came to see Bob and not a pretender, and especially not a pretender who refused to play Sultans of Swing, the only one of his songs that didn't pander.
But John wasn't like them, the aged worshippers who sat and waited for the Genius from Duluth to play and shifted uncomfortably, mumbling in their seats and desperate for him even after forty-seven years to ascend the protest throne he left when he gave up the wind and the times for stones and vitriol, but the flower children sat wide-eyed and expectant, some wilted and some dried and pressed between the pages of the songbook he'd discarded more than twenty-five years before my oldest boy (who sat three seats down from me next to his brothers and remarked that Knopfler was a hell of a lot more than Dire Straits after all) first opened his eyes and cried and changed me from a cocky self-absorbed asshole to a cocky son-absorbed asshole and tied strings of introspection about me that pulled me away from the grass, pot, green, ganja, skunk, weed, and sensi so that I just stopped all of my desperate attempts to appear conscious three years before Zac turned five, eight years before the towers fell, and twenty years before I finally saw the man who may or may not have named himself to honor raging against the dying of the light. And it was shocking, I suppose, to hear John Baptist flip from the beauty of desert peyote expansions to Townes Van Zandt with bad news from Houston (and how the hell can that command his respect and attention while the man who'd trekked to see Guthrie didn't?) and back to living in the high Southeast where real underground liquor house fight clubs filled his weekends with a crazy crackhead who called himself Goat (even though his mother named him Billy Joe) and ascended his highs and crashed his lows on the inside or the outside of the red gate where Perry proved Black moonshine was different than White moonshine and Black moonshiners were different than White moonshiners and even though his prizefighting days were sixty years behind him, the thugs all listened and showed respect because he'd beat the shit out of their daddies and then back to the not-mandolin to sing about closed doors and endless night; and God forgive me but all I could consider about the sale of ten thousand copies of the album and every purchaser forming a band was the video Andy Warhol made and whether or not Lou Reed had experienced a blowjob from the bellwether of the art market.
I didn't say anything about the thought to the prophet with the ukulele and he didn't seem to notice the expression on my face but switched seamlessly to Otis Redding and then from the pain in his heart to Jagger's dead bouquet before promising to run away with me, and I couldn't help but think that Robert Smith would have found the rendition pleasing but out of place given John's decidedly untormented demeanor, disaffected as it was; but I couldn't reflect for long because he demanded I refill the glasses and actually pressured me into a solid gulp before theorizing that Sasquatch lived in a perpetual state of "wait a minute" like an Indonesian monkey man and then bursting forth in a warbling twang a song he wrote with his father before he started his lonely travelling career in well site geology. Then he left because he suddenly had to bring a book in his car but I didn't see him for almost forty-five minutes, and by the time he returned I was already well into reminiscent fantasies about Nicole and her vain attempts to learn how to swallow but always spitting and staying with her anyway because of her abnormally thin labia and the general earnestness of her desire to please though in all it was a melancholy kind of yearning and not at all the excitement of youthful sex that drove the thoughts, so though I was perturbed when he returned it had more to do with him bringing an uninvited guest than with any interruption, though I knew the contractor from around the hotel and was more irritated at the idea of sharing the embarrassment of the Lord's herald than with the man's actual presence.
In fact, when John abruptly left again on an undisclosed errand, I poured the contractor a drink and tried obliquely to recruit him as a substitute host, but he saw through it and instead we talked of Seabees and Port Hueneme and Oxnard in the 70s and dancing to Jim Croche and Three Dog Night; and oddly I didn't speak of Dylan, which might have been a first for me in any conversation about music, and it was especially odd because we spoke of Levon Helm's voice which was a natural lead in so why I let the conversation slip to modern rock without a mention escaped me and by the time the anointer returned to ask if we'd join him for stimulants in another room, the conversation had turned to drywall and road construction, and Craig used the confusion of the holy man's return to escape, which sent a fresh wave of contradictory vexation through me. I think I masked it well enough as John called his uke Trigger and sang about Mexican police, which wasn't entirely accurate or at least not as I recalled because I first heard the song when Emmylou sang it and I knew Merle had sung it, too, but I was pretty sure it was another one of Zandt's songs, and the idea that someone would play a man like him and not know him grated even though he quickly jumped to a song about dust in the air, sky, and eye and then suggested my tears could become roses.
I realized as I pretended to sip the rye and wished it was scotch and wished he was gone that Elijah reborn wasn't a poor musician, though by no means was his voice celestial or his hands divine as his name might suggest; but his melodic approach to the few measures he played before distracted by a new song were crafted well enough, and I tried to gently slip in suggestions of easier and more approachable choices like Tambourine Man and Lay, Lady Lay, but John was well past thinking or really responding at this point, the fifth nearly drained and his face even through the strains of Illegal Smile betrayed nausea and a coming expulsion and I couldn't really pay attention to his sudden and urgent pleading that I keep our awkward rendezvous from his employer, pleas made in that strange and drug-induced half-fear I hadn't really seen since my days in the studio apartment with Rob and the others as we filled the little place with smoke, experimented with niacin, planned one day to try heroin, and panicked in the certainty that the sound of every vehicle was the police coming to arrest us for our quarter or so of grass. John told me his boss seemed like an asshole, but wasn't and instead maintained a gruff exterior for appearances and was actually quite kind and the thought of disappointing him seemed to terrify, sending frightened tremors through his voice when he sang of bananas and pianas, and it occurred to me that perhaps the semi-paranoid ramblings of the habitual were in his case firmly established and not fleeting or even performed the way Gambetty assumed them back in Berkeley while we sat and smoked with a few new acquaintances -- performed in order to display experience and not because the marijuana had bestowed them to him; and as he swayed and looked like he'd vomit, I knew John was close to done for the night, and the thought terrified me because though I had a vague idea of his room's location, I wasn't certain I'd be able to find it, and I actually considered renting another room because $74.99 was a small price to pay to end my evening alone and yet be free from the guilt of expelling him from mine as he reached the end of his line.
His inebriated personality was different from his sober only in his choice of subjects and his clinging dependence on my reactions. Gone were the conspiratorial glances as he spoke of the Family using acid as a weapon, purposefully sending enemies and betrayers into permanent trips and of the stamp assassins with molecule structures tattooed on their necks as they protected laying parties for ten spots and (incidentally) if ever invited to a laying party prior knowledge of the availability of masks was a must; and gone, too, were the overtures of grandeur in his role as anointer, the role which had earned him his name and which he took seriously, adulteration of the DMT notwithstanding, and any pretense to rational thought as he played his favorite song ever, one by Coe I found forgettable, and then his favorite song ever, one by Fogerty and then five more that all held penultimate status on his list; and I finally rose and helped him to his feet and wandered the property until we found his room, where I deposited him with a bewildered co-worker and wished him a good night. When I returned to my room, I felt vaguely unhappy, and I wasn't certain if it was drinking rye after barley or if I were tired or sick or if I just felt the final tear in the fabric of my youth and realized that I wasn't young and I didn't give a damn about macramé or sitars or free love or offending anyone or mixed marriage or homosexuals or black power or white supremacy or anything at all but playing with my kids (even the adults), drinking scotch, smoking cheap tobacco, sleeping with Kathy, and listening to Dylan; and to do those things was probably the only motivation that kept me working and all that I found important in my youth wasn't or more to the point hadn't ever really been found important at all but I'd gathered it around me like a cloak in a vain pretense of significance in thought and deed and a desperate attempt to see the world with a clarity my forbearers hadn't and I'd brought a ukulele when I'd promised a mandolin and the cloak was only now a shroud.
When I got back to my room, I didn't go right to sleep though exhaustion had descended upon me nine or ten warbling songs prior and instead I went to where I'd stacked the hotel towels and found the scotch I'd hidden from John Baptist's sight to protect it when the rye was gone and poured a brandy snifter full and let it burn its way down my throat; and my mind wandered to the concert just a month away and the flight plans and the ticket costs and the hotel room in Dallas and the meals and the boys and whether or not Les would make it, and I was pretty certain Bob would play Like a Rolling Stone and probably All Along the Watchtower, but I wondered if he'd play my current favorite and if it would still sound as sweet after the prophet's visit, though fears of that nature didn't consume me, didn't prey upon my mind and were at most very vague traces of wonder when I sat between my youngest son and my dearest friend and waited and then watched and listened. He did play the song, right in the middle of his set, and when he played it, the lyrics were there and the melody was almost recognizable even if he didn't emphasize blue the way he emphasized was, and I thought it fitting that he would play his classics to his worshippers not as they were released but with the bluesy chords and bassist power and bourbon-soaked vocals of the man as he was now, influenced and still originating from the days of protest, pain, and potential but different now and mature, not casting aside his history but refusing to limit it to the sum total of his existence, instead wresting from it all that it offered and casting aside what no longer moved him; and as I thought idly about tying the laces of my shoes, I realized that no other artist would be excused for reimagining his own songs to fit his current state -- not even those who'd transformed themselves again and again into something other than what they were -- and those who were loath to be remembered for their priors usually just refused to play them and angered pilgrims who came to see 1969 or 1976 and got only the new millennium; and as we drove home to drink the remains of the half gallon bottle of well Canadian that I knew stood in the cabinet above the RV stove, I realized that though the song had flitted among my top three favorites for years and I was ordinarily violently opposed to any reconstruction, I liked the new arrangement better.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, WJ Rosser. All rights reserved.