I Know Why Bob Dylan Crucifies the Press Every Chance He Gets
as always for Marcia
In the winter of 1992 I played the role of Hogan in a Rocky Mountain Theater Guild production of Eugene O’Neill’s Moon For The Misbegotten at Muddy’s, a coffee house housing a basement theater at 22nd and Champa Streets in Denver. Along with my fellow actors, Melissa Stander and Richard Collier, I usually headed two blocks east after rehearsals and performance to put to rest the Irish within and unwind at The Mercury Café. In keeping with the Gaelic nature of Hogan, my character, a tipple of whiskey and a draft beer or two were generally required to turn me back into my normal self after an evening of O’Neill’s pathos, wit, and brogue. It was a Thursday night after rehearsal that I encountered for the first time an incredibly gifted singer songwriter, a talent so gifted that to this day I still refer to him as “Better than Bob.” I could easily have nicknamed him “Better Than Woody” or “Better Than Hank.”
So Ric Collier and I are sitting at the bar. Melissa's in the kitchen talking theater with The Mercury’s owner Marilyn Megenity. A kid (young twenty-something) parts the curtained outside 22nd Street dining room entrance, lights a smoke (people used to smoke in public places), cracks a glad smile as if he’s just happy to be here or has told himself a joke, and shuffles through the dining room past the bar to a stool under the neon encircled tiger where a microphone and guitar are waiting.
“I’m gonna sing some Woody Guthrie songs,” he announces as he begins to play guitar with a primitive authority and confidence so insistent, that the generally noisy dining room immediately quiets, for indeed it is already apparent that something’s happening here. Ric and I spin around on our bar stools; enough of actors admiring their own reflections in the mirror that spans the back of the bar. I give the kid my attention. FOR THE NEXT FOUR HOURS! He does not just sing some Woody Guthrie songs, he sings some forty or fifty Woody Guthrie songs! Because he never mentions his own name during his overlapping sets, I have to read it on the chalkboard marquee as I leave at 2 AM: Jason Eklund.
The following Thursday I am again at The Mercury Café, arriving around ten. Again I don’t leave the bar until closing time as, this night, the relentless and tireless and happy Jason fills the wee hours with Fred Neil songs, the somewhat obscure legend of a singer songwriter who authored a number of 60s hits including “Everybody’s Talkin Bout Me”, the Harry Nilsson sung theme of the 1969 Oscar wining X rated film Midnight Cowboy. It should be noted, at this point in 1992, Fred Neil is not exactly a household name, but here is this Jason Eklund singing the entire quarter of a century old Fred Neil catalogue! I have always loved the songwriting of Fred Neil as the Best Man at my wedding thirty three years ago had given me two out of circulation Fred Neil LPs as a wedding gift and those two LPs were usually part of the stack on the spindle of my record player in my late 70s living room; and a California artist friend of mine from Venice in LA, Saul White, had grown up with Fred Neil in Florida and had been hanging with Fred in Greenwich Village and Woodstock when the songster had his brush with stardom. Jason’s mastery of the Fred Neil material blows me away.
But it’s the following Thursday when things get even more interesting as Better Than Bob fills The Mercury Café with a litany of songs that defy identification. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them somewhere but I can’t put a name to either the song or its writer; regardless, I’m usually singing along with each song by the third refrain or so. “I get lonesome out there,” Walk one more mile,” “I’m still Karen about you,” and “Sand in my Shoes” are a few of the hooks that have me singing. This time at closing time I introduce myself and query Jason.
“OK, two weeks ago you had Woody Guthrie in your ass pocket and last week Fred Neil. Whose songs were you singing tonight? They are so familiar but I just can’t place them.”
“Mine,” he smiles as he extends his hand. “I’m sure you’ve never heard them before.”
Now I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan ever since I bought the first record of my life, Dylan’s first record, the mono LP BOB DYLAN. I grew up piss poor in Philadelphia and the paper Abe Lincoln and change I had in my pocket when I entered Mayfair’s only record store on Frankford Avenue represented a month’s money made scavenging metal and paper in neighborhood trash cans. My plan was to buy the best record that money could buy. When I asked the clerk for his recommendation, he pointed to Columbia Records latest release. I tell you this only because when I shook Jason’s hand, I felt as if I was also meeting Bob and Woody and Fred. And a host of others whose names I’d come to know over the years. Despite the decade’s difference in our age, I knew I wanted Jason in my life and so I asked him a favor.
“I’m producing some multi-media performances down the street at Muddy’s, and I’m hoping you might open the show.”
His answer “Love to” was the start of our now twenty-two year old friendship.
So some two weeks later I produce the first Friday night installment of my six-week run, MOVIEOS. Movieos are movies made of 35 millimeter slides accompanied by narration and sound. A movie made of stills, if you will. I had worked my promotion big time and as a result the The Denver Post’s entertainment critic Steve Rosen is in attendance. In my heart of hearts, I’m hoping for a repeat of a Robert Sheldon-Bob Dylan moment. The two parts of the performance, a set of some dozen or so Jason originals delivered with charming verve and alarming genius and the world premiere of my Passion Production’s movieo/slide show The First Time, photographed by Marcia with music by Bob Ferbrache, both come off flawlessly. The crowd is mesmerized, if I do say so myself, and it takes more than a tipple of whiskey to calm me down later as Jason, Marcia, Bob and I celebrate at The Mercury Café along with two of the actors from the movieo, Gregory Greyhawk and Ric Collier.
So I am little hung over the next morning when I get to read Steve Rosen’s hot off the press review in which he scathingly and insultingly skewers the entire production. I guess what pissed him off the most was the content of The First Time. I mean, from the title one might think it concerns the loss of virginity, and, perhaps, that it was not about getting laid, is what bugged Rosen the most; in actuality, the title refers to the first major drug deal of my life, and all the sweat and nerve wrenching drama that accompanies meeting a stranger in a hotel room to purchase imported Columbian Chiba Chiba on the wholesale level at a time in America when dispensary means something different than it does nowadays. In the story the novice drug dealer happens to be a high school English teacher and Rosen was simply aghast at the idea of a public servant also being a public enemy. Rosen went balls to the wall out of his way to criticize the written language of my narrative, quoting my phrases some seven times in an attempt to deride me and hold my writing up to scorn. I found it odd and ironic that he chose the best lines of the piece as examples of my failings. What he found banal, sophomoric, and clichéd, I, my friends, and the audience found riveting, poetic and haunting. But the greatest faux pas of his insulting review was his denunciation of Jason. He called him silly and naïve, a talent-less kid singer.
Well Mr Art Critic could not have got it more wrong because within two months, Jason, championed by no one other than the legendary Pete Seeger, would sign his first record contract with the premier Americana label at the time, Flying Fish Records. The story of how that came to be bears repeating and gives lie to Rosen’s assertions.
So, the third week of MOVIEOS Jason informs me that he’ll be missing week four of the my MOVIEOS run “Because I’m going to Chicago to score a record contract.”
Being the older brother figure in our relationship, I ask him, “And how are you gonna do that?”
“My plan,” he tells me, “is to hop a train to Chicago. Then I’m going to visit the offices of Flying Fish Records. I’ll smooze a receptionist or secretary there - women seem to love me as much as Mr Rosen loathes me - and find out where the big wigs eat lunch. Then I’ll plant my ass, guitar and tip jar on the sidewalk in their path between the office and the restaurant. When they come by, I’ll have an audience of onlookers in the palm of my hand and they’ll have no choice but to sign me!”
So two weeks later Jason is back in Denver for MOVIEOS Evening Number Five. I ask about his adventures in Chicago and he tells me that he did not get a record contract as the executives encountered him on the sidewalk, but they did invite him to Austin at the end of the month to audition for a deal with FLYING FISH at the fifth installment of the South By Southwest Music Festival. A week after the close of MOVIEOS Jason hitch hikes to Austin, meets the major players of FLYING FISH at a posh late nigh post show motel soiree. Townes Van Zandt hands Jason a well worn Gibson guitar at 3 AM and when Jason finishes entertaining the assembled at six AM, he gets to John Hancock on the dotted line, sealing a two record deal. For his debut album, it would be the legendary Denver to-this-day still-cooking Chris Daniels band playing back up.
So much for the opinion of music maven art administrtrix Steve Rosen, the most uptight ill-and-un-informed anti art art critic Denver has ever had the misfortune of having to endure, a man that wouldn’t know a great song if it bit him in the ass.
On Jason’s last CD is one of my all time favorite hooks: “Well, the Devil can’t come in your house if you don’t let him in.” Had I known that twenty-two years ago, I would not have let Steve Rosen anywhere near, let alone into, the basement theater at Muddy’s. And PS: to this day I know The First Time to be the first great story that I ever wrote.