That rainy day in July ’67 when Dylan wanted to know my story, I gave him a present back: the image of Christ with the sign on the cross that he decided to take from my caravan. Now, almost five decades later, I would like to give him another on his 75th birthday. To do that, I should go back to that summer and wrap up this confidence well in gift paper. It’s not going to be easy, but I have to try.
Dylan had invited me back to the basement that same afternoon taking with me that guitar he’d liked so much, that same Ibanez which now stares at me silently from a stand. I played it until the sky cleared, turning the rain into a childish excuse. Then I crossed the garden and put out my last cigarette in a puddle.
The door to Big Pink was open, like it was most afternoons, and I remember walking through it as if crossing a suspension bridge. In the living room, a standing lamp cast orange gleams over a jumble of used cups, newspapers, hats, bottles and various instruments. I slowly descended the basement stairs, trying not to make a noise. But my guitar was hanging around my neck and it was that- a faint knock against the handrail- that announced my presence. They stopped playing. I froze.
- Hi Nar! Come on down! Rick was the first to greet me, with a smiley voice and a small glass held up in his left hand.
- Well, that Ibanez is back with us again… was Dylan´s mocking hello. Sit down over there, ok?
With a sharp flick of the head, Robbie signalled a chair by the organ. I turned it around and sat down, hiding behind the guitar leaning against the back of the seat. Garth gave me his minimalist welcome: a burst of ascending notes on the keyboard.
- Come on, let´s keep trying it out- in G now! ordered Dylan whilst he finished tuning up his acosutic 12-string guitar. Richard drained his cup and gave me a knowing wink from the piano.
What I heard that evening was the genesis of a song between the spectral and the sublime. The lyrics evoked a vague hope of release and the successive versions rehearsed in different keys managed to increase the emotional intensity to almost painful limits. I remember hearing that sound as if it were from inside my own body.
. . . I see my light come shining . . .
That music had something of a planetary phenomenon about it, the power of an enigma suggested by the vision of a star whose movement contravenes the laws of astronomy. They happily explored it in its different variations completely unaware of my stupor, my hands gripping the guitar as one might a lifeline whilst Dylan proposed ever sheerer, barer lines, each closer to an octosyllabic rhythm into which my breath became absorbed as if in a kind of trance.
I could not say how long we spent in that outer territory, but when Garth got up to close one of the windows I suddenly realized that it was completely dark. They were still engrossed in their exploration of words and harmonies, but I began to feel like superfluous, as if I were sitting on someone else´s seat at a magic show... I used one of their short breaks to play a couple of chords on my Ibanez, and then I stood up. Dylan looked at me for a moment, cocking his head and Rick gave me a thumbs up, smiling all the while. Before any of them could say anything I hastily thanked them and fled the basement two stairs at a time towards the orange light still shining in the living room.
There I stayed a while looking at that landscape of objects. Through the open window towards the forest, a yellow moon lit up the table where Dylan´s Olivetti was half-buried under a pile of loose papers, magazines, half-full ashtrays and glasses with ochre dregs. An amber paperweight gathered together a number of pencil sketches in different shapes and formats. On top of them, I recognized an image, surprised: it was the picture of Christ with the sign on the cross which I´d given him that very same morning. Next to it lay a file with different sized papers, manuscript notes written in varicolored inks, machine-typed phrases with corrections, crossings out and small drawings in the margins. Those pages held alternative drafts to those diaphanous lyrics I´d just heard put to music in the basement. I closed my eyes and with a faltering breath chose just one. With it in my hand, I went out into the night. Everything shook. The moon was setting behind the mountains, darkening the forest.
Fade to black and pan across to the present, to a night in May 2016: my hand now holds that fragment of a prodigy put on paper as I write these lines which I began camouflaging as a secret. Maybe it was an act of cowardice, the rest is nothing but ´objective correlative´.
This page that I have kept with me for nearly fifty years was the only tangible thing I could preserve from that night I attended the first rehearsals of I Shall Be Released. These typewritten lines were also the seed of a perfect song, a magical anthem beyond solemnity and the univocal. I sensed it that night in the summer of '67, when this piece of paper was but one of many on a table lit by a yellow moon.
I sensed it then, and now that we know it with complete certainty, this is the gift I want to give Dylan on his 75th: a kind of restitution or, better put, a retrospective "Love & Theft".
Happy Birthday !