Who is the hippest of them all?

The Dylan Phone-In with Bob Fass on WBAI 26-1-1966

by Russell Blatcher


Founded in 1960, WBAI-Pacifica Radio at 99.5 FM, is New York's premier community station. We serve the city, the nation and the world with award-winning programs in news, information, politics, art, culture, music and much more. WBAI is a non-profit and non-commercial station which is listener-supported and part of the Pacifica Foundation.

Broadcasting at 50,000 watts from the heart of the city at the center of the dial, our signal reaches the tri-state metropolitian region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. We welcome you to our home page and you can listen live to WBAI's programming on this web-site anywhere across the city and around the world.

The above is a message from the Internet home page of WBAI, which is apparently still going strong. I was recently given a recording of the whole of a January 26th 1966 phone-in show with Bob Dylan on that station, hosted by Bob Fass. This has been in circulation for some years, but I hadn't heard of it before, though Clinton Heylin has a brief description of it in Bob Dylan: A Life In Stolen Moments:

January 26

Dylan and friends (Al Kooper, alias Roosevelt Gook, and Victor Maimudes, alias Pete the Suede) appear on Bob Fass's early morning WBAI radio show, participating in a two-hour phone-in. Both Dylan and Fass sound extremely stoned. When asked to "turn on the telephone" Dylan replies, "Your telephone is very infamous". The whole phone-in becomes a series of hilarious verbal confrontations with Dylan. When one caller says he is hungry, Dylan retorts, "Tell me, are you hungry as a man in drag?" At the end of the show, Dylan talks about the single he has just recorded, and the sessions that are taking place. A session scheduled for the 26th is canceled.

Heylin is characteristically wayward in his descriptions, particularly "extremely stoned". Dylan is in typical put-on mode, recognizable from Don't Look Back and all the press conferences and interviews of that period. I am also surprised by the parts of the tape he chooses to highlight. There are some other very intriguing exchanges during some of the calls, when the Dylan mask drops, despite the wearying egging on of his two attendant cronies of hipness. These are strongly reminiscent of Bob Neuwirth’s revolting performance as jester in chief, during Don’t Look Back.

Playing the tape for the first time was like stepping into the Tardis. After a few minutes, I was so drawn into it that I was seriously contemplating ringing Oxford 78506 and trying to ask Bob one or two searching questions myself. The Atlantic seemed more of a barrier than the intervening 36 years.

Yes, I agree some of the calls are hilarious, but Dylan's responses are often also very annoying, especially as he constantly talks to his companions while the caller is asking his question, and then answers it (or rather doesn't) any way. This is fair enough when he is being asked if he likes the Byrds (!) or why he is not singing about Vietnam, but even some of the serious callers, unless they stick resolutely to their position, are brushed off and laughed at as well.

Dylan's facade first cracks when a bookseller asks about Tarantula:

Caller: Hello, I'd like to ask Mr. Dylan why his book has not been published.
Unknown: There's a conspiracy.
: Oh, that's a serious question, right?
: Yeah, well, can't we get...
: No, it, it's going to be published soon, it's going to be published, it'll be out within 2 months, I've just been changing it a lot..
Caller: [dolefully]Not one, but two, I'm a book-seller, I've lots of young people asking...
: Oh, I'm sorry Sir...
Caller: ..when it will be published.
: I'm sorry Sir.
Caller: It's not a conspiracy really..
: Yes, aah, mmmm, [quietly] what can I say to this fellah?
Unknown: [nervous laugh]
Caller: Now, seriously.
: No, it'll be out in two months, the thing is you see, I've just been changing it, I mean, I Just can’t let this, you know, let anything go out, right it's [inaudible] very easy to write book.
Caller: No, but you've got lots of young people...
Bob Fass
: You know, Truman Capote took six years to write his book...
: Yeah, well, no no, I would never take something like that...
: Just give me a clear answer.
: It'll be out I'm told, see I've just I’ve just got to go over it one more time, it's in galleys now.
Caller: Yeah? [Clearly knows how long a delay that implies!]
: and if it was in galleys before..we went with individual printers, you dig?
Caller: Sure...
: and so, aah, but they just didn't turn out right and it was a shuck, so we just wasted Time but now it's back in the Macmillan galleys, so it should be out in two months.
Caller: Well, I'm not concerned for me, but just the kids...
: Mmm, no, no, I realise that, yes.
Caller: If you just know how much they cuddle up with pleading eyes to the bookseller..
: Oh, well, I realize you booksellers are all just like octopuses [??]
Caller: No, but it's kind of a compliment to you, but...If I could just give, you...
: What book do you run?
Caller: I have a bookstore in New Jersey.
: Oh, yes.
Bob Fass
: Oh, that's the one where the autograph party's gonna be.
Unknown: [giggles]
Caller: No, I wish it were, but,
: The autograph party's gonna be on Charles Street [?]
Caller: I'm trying to be business-like about this...
: Oh, yes, I don't talk business on the telephone..
Caller: Well, but seriously, if you can tell them that it’s in galleys like you were just telling me
: Oh, I'll tell them, sure, if you'd like, sure, sure, you have my official word on it. It's in the galleys, you can definitely say it'll be out in a couple of months...
: It's still vague…
Bob Fass
: Yeah, I know, our folio is often late too.
: Yeah, yeah, I'm very thirsty, I'm going to get a drink of water now…
Caller: Look, I'm trying to be quite serious about this...
Bob Fass
: But, seriously...
Caller: Oh, yes, Bob Dylan says this, says that, and then, no, sorry, it's being postponed, can You give us any positive answers, like maybe, May 15th?
: [very quiet]Is there any hope? [louder] mumum this isn't Laurence Harvey by any chance?
Caller: No, no, I'm not putting you on..
: Are you sure?
Caller: No, I'm just a poor bookseller, trying to answer the teenagers.
Bob Fass
: We're just poor..
: We're just teenagers, man
Bob Fass
: Trying to answer the telephone.
Caller: Well, I didn't do this casually, we were asked to dial this number, and I called you, and talked to you for a little time...
Bob Fass: OK, bibi
Caller: Bibi.[call ends]

Of course, Tarantula was not destined to be published until November 1970. In Behind the Shades ­Take Two, Heylin quotes Dylan (from 1968):

I just put down all these words and sent them off to my publishers and they'd send back the galleys, and I'd be so embarrassed at the nonsense I'd written I'd change the whole thing.

This is clearly one reason for Dylan's embarrassment at this call (he is quick to squash the Truman Capote comparison - he knows he has produced nothing to approach, say, In Cold Blood, first published in 1965). But the caller's careful annunciation and serious tone clearly rattle the punster. From the off the bookseller effortlessly swats the crony's 'conspiracy' remark, and seconds later turns it back on Dylan. By the end Dylan is clearly signaling Fass to end the call or help him out (poor Bob calls out for a glass of water). Also when Dylan apologizes twice, and calls the gentleman 'Sir', I can detect no mockery whatever, in fact it is reminiscent of an American son's respect (after all Dylan's father was a serious retailer as well).

Now compare that call with a more typical sample:

Caller: I'd like to speak to Bob Dylan.
: You have to give your name.
: My name's Steve.
: Steve what?
: Steve Gitman[?]
: Dylan?
: Gitman
: Ditman.[crony giggles] that was almost my name.
Bob Fass
: What was it before it was Ditlman?
[more of the same]
Dylan: What do you have to say Dylan?
Caller: [now totally rattled by this asinine teasing] Bob?
Dylan [giggle] What else you got to say
[Finally gets to ask what Dylan thinks of The Byrds!]:
: Oh, come on, don't ask me these kind of questions, I don't wanna..., I don't wanna do this kind of thing..I like the Byrds, I like everybody, come on...
Caller: Ok, what do you, err…
: Well, what do I think of Rosemary Clooney...or Judy Garland's daughter, right?...Rosa Minnelli,
Caller: What do you think about boys with long hair..
: Oh, I know you, you're Rosa Minnelli's boyfriend...
Caller: Do you think they should be made to be cut?
Dylan: Oh! What do you think?
[caller struggles on with his increasingly stupid questions]
Caller: Where do you get your ideas for songs?
Dylan: Ah! no, no, no[inaudible]
Bob Fass: We're going to go to another call.
Dylan: Bibi

And then they cut him off. Now, fair enough, this caller is asking the dumbest questions ever, but Dylan, with his opening interrogation has completely unnerved him before he can say anything. What does he gain by this? The caller may only be a casual fan, may not care much at all, but the listeners who did worship Dylan (and there were many, especially then) must have been shocked by this. Dylan treats him and some other callers with the same contempt that he treated journalists.

A little later another caller picks Dylan up on this very point:

Caller: Ah, Mr Dylan, I was just wondering why you all sit around there, and pardon me if it sounds nasty, putting down every phone caller, when in fact all you have to do is be sweet lovable Bob Dylan, and everyone will go crazy and ecstatic..
[Fass or someone else seems to suggest they cut off the call]
Dylan: Oh my God man, hey no, man, he just doesn't understand, hey, all these people, hey listen, I don't know who this is, I'm not even going to ask your name, that's how much I think of you, but, all, everything you just said, hey like these people that are calling up, I'm sure to any normal person listening knows that this is just not a put down [....] nobody's being put down...
: [gentle reasoning tone] But you're inviting it, you're inviting the whole thing, "Hey come on kids call me up"
: Kids! Nah kids are not going to be up at this hour
Caller: Alright then, everyone that calls up, they say "Hey, Bob like I know you, or like what are you doing about...”
: Come on, come on, come on, what do you want me to do, answer them?
: What would you like us to talk about?
Caller: Talk about something that you like!
: I like to do this right now, when I leave from here and we ride around in the car, we'll Talk about some other things, but right now we're here, what can I say to you?
: Ok, I'm sorry.
Dylan: You should be.
: [to caller?] No, you shouldn't be sorry
: No, no, I'm sorry, I'll give you two tickets to choose a concert ..
Caller: No, no, but the whole thing is, it sounds like each one is trying to show how aware they are of what a bad scene they're in..
: No, no, we're in a very strange mood, that all…
Caller: No, it's scenes, that's different from moods…
: Hey, whatever goes down, please don't take it personal…
: I am, it's…
: No, don't.
Caller: I'm listening to your songs, and my sister loves you
Dylan: Oh, right, everyone's sister loves me...[inaudible Dylan talks over caller]...what you say?
Caller: This is a beautiful adolescent growing up, we feel both pity and sorrow, but also beautiful and love and all those kind of things, and then to hear you get on the phone, and be hip..
Dylan: Hip, hip.., I'm really hip! Hey listen, you're hip, I'm not hip.
Caller: Oh, come on, don't do that...
Dylan: You're much more hipper than I am... from being so weird in this situation
Caller: No, no, don't do that...
Dylan: I'm not hip…
Caller Don't do it to me either, God, no
Dylan: [aside] Oh my God, this cat's just lost his mind [giggle]. Hey come on now it's OK
Caller: Yeah, I know it's alright, but my poor sister may be listening…
Dylan: Oh, well, you'll just explain it to her right, if she's your sister?
Caller: Yeah…
Dylan: The least you can do is take an interest in her…
Caller: [inaudible]
Dylan: So, explain it to her, if you know better, if you don't know better, don't complain to me!
Caller: Well, could you explain it to her, could you say...
Dylan: I don't even know her!
Caller: Yeah, but you're talking to a radio audience…
Dylan: I'm sure you know her much better than I do, can't you explain to her…
Caller: You say, "Hey I'm nice", that's all.
Dylan: What's her name?
Caller: Her name is Merl[Merrill?] [Crony giggles]
Dylan: Ok, I've got to tell you though, I never in my whole life, I've foreseen a lot of things, but like, I've never, never, never, foreseen saying "I'm nice" to someone by the name of Merl and I never have, it comes out of the blue…
Caller: Anything came happen…
Dylan: I mean have you ever?
Caller: Yeah, sure
Dylan: Have you ever considered saying "I'm nice", to someone by the name of  BeauDeGarde [?] Caller: Yes, yes, certainly, I read Pogo, and I was thinking of saying, "Little doggie, you're nice, and I'm nice too.
Dylan: You read the comic strips?
Caller: Sure.
Dylan: Oh, God, OK, well, we'll see you later
Caller: Ok, goodbye.

Now, I guess that those people who think we over analyse Dylan's songs must be tearing out their hair at analyzing a phone conversation. But this is a fascinating exchange. Just like the bookseller, this man holds his end up easily, and Dylan is forced to give him respect and listen to what he says. The man neither cowers from Dylan's flashes of harshness, nor responds in kind. Fass seems to get the point much sooner, and reverses the apology, mid way through, forcing Dylan's bizarre offer of the concert tickets, which the caller completely ignores as he continues to hammer his point home. Then we reach that most crucial of words "hip". When the man first says it, Dylan responds at once, he knows he's been caught out, and denies that he is acting hip, again and again. His reaction may seem exaggerated, but I suspect that the reason was something he may have heard, very recently in a jazz club in New York.

The alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley recorded a live album in New York at the Village Vanguard, on the nights of the 12th and 14th of January 1966. Before the first track on the album Adderley gives an explanation as to why they were recording live in New York for the first time, as opposed to the West Coast: The reason we selected those rooms was because the audiences were so hip that we could, you know, just play what we wanted to play, without being bothered, and everybody dug it. We never have made a live album in New York because for some reason we have never felt the kind of thing we wanted to feel from the audience, which has nothing to do with acceptance, applause or appreciation. It's the atmosphere. You know you get a lot of people who are supposed to be hip, you know, and they act like they're supposed to be hip, which makes a big difference [laughter]. You see what I mean? [….] We want to thank you for making it possible, for being so really hip. You know that hipness is not a state of mind, it's a fact of life, you see what I mean. You don't decide to be hip, it just happens that way.

The hip amongst you will have noticed that this took place less than two weeks prior to Dylan's phone-in on WBAI. Furthermore, if you examine the first entry for the year 1966 in Clinton Heylin's Bob Dylan: A Life In Stolen Moments, you will find:

Early January

Dylan visits the Village Vanguard.

And I betcha I know who he went to see.

The caller who accused Dylan of acting hip was giving the singer some of the best advice he ever got, advice, which he was to ignore to within an inch of his life. However overblown the stories of the motorcycle accident were, make no mistake, Dylan was following a dangerous path that year, precariously balancing the competing commitments of writing a ‘novel’, recording a double album, touring the world, editing a film of the tour and just being ‘The Man’. Look through Bob Dylan: A Life In Stolen Moments for the first half of 1966, and you see a remorseless treadmill. In the popular music world, the only single artist to achieve greater exposure and face greater pressure is Elvis Presley. In many ways, his period in the army saved him just as Dylan’s perhaps enforced retreat to Woodstock did. Others who came after them escaped only by early death (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrisson). The key corrosive element in those careers is the assumption of infallibility, or if you like hipness, which is, for some reason, such a burden on pop musicians. Reading Cannonball’s words on the page cannot completely convey the lightness of tone and humour with which he delivers his speech. For most jazz performers there is no such burden, their role is free of the self-consciousness, which dogs the pop-musician. As Adderley realizes, this is a deadly trap: the minute you start to consider the effect of your actions on the audience, you are lost, and all your decisions are tainted by the aspiration to be hip.