Chasing Bob Dylan’s Shadow: A Rags-to-Rags, Coming-of-Age Story Of Dead Dreams, Empty Bottles, And A Young Man’s Quest To Write One Good Song.
Before we proceed, I want you to remember one simple phrase:
“It’s not how hard you fall, it’s how high you bounce after you hit the bottom.” — Click to Tweet
It was Labour Day, 2004.
I had just graduated from high school and I was beginning to sink into the melancholy that every 18 year old kid faces heading into their first fall after school ends. The sky was cloudy and it was already turning cool as I drove home from a camping trip.
My mind was cloudy too, focused on the three things waiting for me in my bedroom at home: an old green backpack stuffed with clothes and a couple of Jack Kerouac books, my guitar packed up safely inside an old black plastic case, and a bus ticket to Montreal.
According to that bus ticket, the next morning at 10am I was going to get on a Greyhound with a backpack and my guitar and head 4000 miles across the country to a city where I didn’t know a soul.
I had no plans… no arrangements… no friends or family out there…. nothing but a poorly thought-out dream which consisted of me heading East and taking the world by storm with my guitar, just like Bob Dylan did in 1962.
After I arrived home that night, I sat in the dark in my room, scared and disheartened. I stayed up all night and talked myself in and out of taking that bus ride a thousand times.
When the first thin rays of grey morning light came through the blinds, I took a deep breath, and…
I tore up the ticket.
Who was I kidding? I had never even written a song.
A SECOND CHANCE
A couple years later, I found myself in a different car on a different Labour Day, with that same depressing old feeling in my heart. As the car wound through the mountains, Tom Petty sang through the speakers:
This old town is a sad affair
You’ll be glad, you’re not there
It ties your hands, it spikes your drink
I’d say more
But I can’t think
I had been working, playing in a few bands that weren’t going anywhere, taking a few courses at college, getting drunk on weekends: all those things that people do. Hell, I had even written a song or two. I can still remember a verse from one of them:
In the corner the jukebox looked more like the icebox
Frozen in time falling soft on deaf ears
I sighed as I was thinking about the way I was living
And I wished I was somewhere other than here
That song was titled: “Somewhere Other Than Here” and, looking back now, it seemed to indicate that I had made a terrible mistake when I tore up that bus ticket and stayed in my hometown. Regardless, hearing that mournful dirge Tom Petty was singing in the car ride home was the last straw for me.
When I got home, I called up a friend and we booked a flight to Montreal. I’m still not sure why I decided to go East—there was, and still is, a bustling music scene in the much closer city of Vancouver—but for some reason I had decided that Montreal was Canada’s musical mecca and I had to get there.
And besides, this trip was going to be different. I was older now: wiser…smarter… and even though I didn’t have many of my own songs written, I knew how to play pretty much every Bob Dylan song, so I would always have something to sing at all the gigs I was going to get.
Plus, I would probably be overflowing with so much inspiration from my adventure that I’d have a thousand songs written after the first week!
THE PROMISED LAND
We arrived on a dark night in November. It was cold. It was snowing. As we tried to hail a cab at the airport, I wondered why such a wise and talented individual like myself would decide to travel across a frigid country like Canada in the winter. Nevertheless, optimism still reigned and we made our way to a hostel in Old Montreal.
Having nothing better to do that night, we decided to locate the nearest venue that played live music, have a few drinks and maybe make some connections!
As we found out, it’s a big city…
We quickly got tired of trudging through the snow and ducked into the nearest pub. Surely, we could just have a drink or two to warm up, ask the waitress where the nearest open mic is and then head on our way, right?
When I came to, I found myself standing under a streetlight in front of an immense gothic cathedral, listening to a peculiar sound. As the beer haze subsided, I stumbled out of the road to the sidewalk and I realized that the sound was my friend, pounding on the huge wooden doors of this strange cathedral in the middle of the night, drunkenly screaming to be let in.
As the door started to open from the inside we both ran off into the night.
This was a poor start to a business trip…
Nevertheless, I awoke the next morning only slightly hung over and doubly determined to find a place to play some music. A superstar folk-singer isn’t born overnight! I knew this was going to take some work going into it, and besides, it was the first night…
Unfortunately, the city was nothing like I expected it to be.
After one disappointing week in Montreal, I had played only two songs at one open mic, attended only one concert (if you consider an impromptu sidewalk jam involving a criminally-insane xylophonist a concert) and sang Dylan’s When The Ship Comes In in a drunken midnight duet with a homeless man named Wolf. This duet ended with the theft, escape, and subsequent guzzling of Wolf’s half-drank 40 of Olde English Malt Liquor by yours truly…
I hadn’t been alive in 1962, but surely this wasn’t anything like Bob Dylan’s experience in New York. My heart, mind, and liver told me I had to get out of this town fast!
The dream wasn’t dead: it just had to be relocated.
We decided we would push further East, to the Atlantic. Halifax, the port of call, was waiting! We could regroup there, just up the seaboard from the Statue of Liberty in New York! New York, the place where thousands of immigrants had landed, chasing dreams of a new and better life! After taking Halifax by storm, maybe I could head south to the U.S. and see Bobby D’s Greenwich village… maybe even play the same clubs he played all those years ago!
We took an overnight train called “The Ocean.” As we travelled over the barren, snowy wastes of Quebec, I lost count of all the big wooden crosses, lit-up with Christmas lights, that dotted the landscape. Perhaps my musical salvation was really waiting for me at the end of this train-track, I thought…
As it turned out, I was right and wrong.
A NEW HOPE
Cold and rain met me as I stepped off the train. Advertised as a “chance to rest overnight,” the long, bumpy train ride was about as “restful” as an airplane flying through turbulence for 22 hours straight. But this was a new city and a second chance, so I remained hopeful.
Our hostel smelled like a fish market. The front desk clerk warned us about the random violent assaults that had been happening to people at night in the city, charged us a 10 buck deposit for the room key, and disappeared. I got stuck with top bunk and we got settled in, trying not to wake up the rough looking convict sleeping on the other side of the room.
The next two weeks passed by in a blur. The first night there, I played an open mic at a place called the “Pogue Mahone” which is Gaelic for “kiss my arse.” The place was virtually empty and an immense and sinister blonde man named “Bear” performed after me. He had an electric guitar and screamed and grunted unintelligible noises: the only word I was able to translate was “darkness” and every song he played was in a minor key.
The next night we found an open mic at a place called “The Roost.” I had prepared a version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and even had a few originals that I was planning to play.
That night, the dream finally died.
I walked in and saw a middle-aged man with long stringy hair and a black trench-coat that hung to his ankles standing on stage with a guitar. The chords he strummed seemed familiar to me, and, although his squawking was difficult to interpret, I realized that he was singing You’re No Good: the first song from Bob Dylan’s very first album.
How could this be? I thought. Who was this strange character and how did he know this obscure song? Why… I was the only person in the world who knew that song! I could play it perfectly!
A coincidence, perhaps, I told myself. He must have learned the song by accident. Nobody is doing this Bob Dylan thing anymore. I’m the only one!
And then, this man did something which, to this day, causes me to shake my head in disbelief.
He played Idiot Wind. The entire song! A slow, heartfelt version that took over 15 minutes to get through.
To the average music listener, a man performing one song, by himself, on acoustic guitar, for that length of time at an open mic is obscene.
To a die-hard Dylan fan, for someone to have the audacity to perform a cover of that song, with its epic scope and personal sentiments regarding Bob’s relationship with his fame and his wife—at an open mic, no less—is sacrilege.
How was I going to go up on stage with a harmonica and guitar and pretend I was Bob Dylan after this burnout had made a mockery of everything I was trying to be?
THE BITTER TASTE OF DEFEAT
If you haven’t been to the East coast of Canada and you have a propensity for drinking and partying, I suggest you stay away. The good-natured people, 5 dollar pints of Alexander Keith’s beer (made locally), and raucous music will wreak havoc on your personal well-being.
After that ill-fated night, I put the guitar away and set out to drown my sorrows in the bottomless party pit of Halifax. Greenwich village and Bob Dylan became forgotten phantoms in my red and faded eyes.
I woke up every day with ringing in my ears, dehydrated and depressed, with screams of “Sociable!” the sound of glass breaking and drunken conversations still echoing in my head. Each morning, the clerks at the hostel would have to physically wake us up so we could check in for another night. I had no direction, no plan, and not an ounce of hope left to hold onto.
By day I walked aimlessly around the empty pier in the rain, humming the refrain to Stan Rogers’ Barrett’s Privateers, waiting to get blasted again when the night returned with its darkness and excuses.
God damn them all, I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears
I’m a broken man on the Halifax Pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers
What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t come here to party. I’d come here for something bigger, something better. I had music to make, didn’t I? Unfortunately, I had used up all my chances.
The end came after one particularly riotous night out.
My friend and I had gotten separated. The last I had seen him, he was screaming as a group of bouncers dragged him out of a bar by his ankles. He woke me up the next morning as he stomped into the room. He was beaten and bloody, and the laces had been cut off of his boots.
He told me to go to hell, and I said that I was already there.
Just then, the clerk came upstairs to tell us that we owed money for another night. My cash had mysteriously vanished from my wallet again, so I told her that I had to go to the bank first.
The ATM gave me some bad news: I had spent all my money. I could barely afford to settle up with the hostel and I realized I was going to have to send for money from my parents just to get home. A sad and pathetic end to a journey that was supposed to carry me forward, not see me limping back to where I came from.
Completely dejected and with my hangover beginning to set in, I sat down on a bench and put my head in my hands.
And then it happened…
I heard a woman’s voice say, “Excuse Me…”
Ah, I thought, as a tiny glimmer of hope fluttered in my stomach, here’s what I’ve been waiting for… An angel sent to get me back on track! I looked up at an elegant woman with red hair and kind eyes.
She smiled at me and asked…“Are you hungry? Do you need something to eat?”
I had travelled 4000 miles across the country to become a famous singer-songwriter, and, after only a few short weeks, I had been mistaken for a homeless person.
I took my time walking back to the hostel. I stopped at a travel agent and used my parent’s credit card to get a flight home that very night.
When I got back, I told the clerk we wouldn’t be staying another night and we returned our keys. As a parting gift, she kept our deposit money because checkout was at 11:00 and we hadn’t checked out till 11:15.
I didn’t care.
LEARNING LIFE’S LESSONS
Since then, I’ve enjoyed playing my own music, in my own style, hundreds of times in hundreds of places. Although I didn’t write a single song on that trip, I learned that the only person I could write songs like and sing like is me.
I’ve stopped chasing Bob Dylan’s shadow now…
“I spend most of my time chasing the shadows I cast myself.” — Click to Tweet
I’ve recorded two EP’s and, FINALLY in 2012, I completed my first full-length album: Junkie’s Bank Account. [view in iTunes] As you can tell, dream-chasing isn’t always glorious. A musician’s life alternates between the highest highs and the lowest lows:
All the hours on the road in cramped vehicles, far from the people you care about; hearts poured out on rooms filled with drunks who don’t give a damn, or sometimes, rooms filled with nobody; temptations; hangovers; junk food; little or no financial reward… (yeah, you’re right… who am I kidding, it’s a pretty cool life… It’s just not ALWAYS cool.)
But regardless, the details like that aren’t what music’s really about. It’s about that listener, that person that really hears you, that shares the experience of the song with you. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Ask any musician why they do it and they’ll tell you the same: we make music for the listener.
I look forward to many more ugly, difficult, painful, and also wonderful experiences in my musical journey. I hope you get a chance to share it with me by listening to the most recent, most important, and biggest milestone of my journey, my album: Junkie’s Bank Account.
Oh, and I almost forgot! I haven’t told you how the story ends yet.
I had arranged for my little sister to pick us up from the airport in Vancouver. When we landed, my friend, limping and without shoelaces, decided he would wait on the plane until everyone had cleared off. I was pretty beat up myself, but I left him there and headed off with the crowd to the arrivals area.
When I saw my sister, she gave me a hug, and do you know what she said to me?
“You look Cool.”
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