Discovering Bob Dylan

How I became a fan, an appreciation of Al Kooper, and other sundry items

I became a Bob Dylan fan by way of Al Kooper. Let me explain.

You see, I was an Al Kooper fan before I even knew he had played with Bob Dylan. I had heard Dylan on the radio but didn't really appreciate him. I was among those who thought he couldn't sing and that his songs were too weird. Secretly, though, I liked hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Positively 4th Street" when they played them on the radio, but I didn't tell my friends that. In all honesty, I'm pretty sure the very first time I was aware of Dylan was hearing "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" being played on AM radio back in 1965 and wondering who that was. I was struck by the line "I asked the captain what his name was and how come he didn't drive a truck" and thought it was the funniest song I had ever heard, but to me it was just another novelty tune - not unlike all those Ray Stevens songs I kept hearing around the same time. Someone told me that was Bob Dylan, so I filed that away for future reference. Later I found out he had written the Peter Paul & Mary hit "Blowin' in the Wind" and the new Byrds single "Mr. Tambourine Man", plus a whole slew of other big hits. I was impressed by his songwriting, but that voice. Couldn't get past that at the tender age of 13.

Fast forward to 1968. I had just recently discovered a phenomenon called free form underground radio on the FM dial. There were few stations on the FM dial at that time, and those were either classical or foreign language, but a few renegade rock stations starting popping up. In my area it was the legendary KMPX-FM in San Francisco (By the way, if anyone reading this happens to have any tapes of KMPX from the mid to late '60s, please let me know!). Suddenly I was hearing all sorts of music that top-40 AM radio would never play: The Mothers, Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, the Blues Project - pretty much anything they felt like playing. One day I heard a song that blew me away. It was just one person singing with a string quartet, but the nature of underground radio was such that they would play sometimes hours of music without telling you what was played, or they might give the rundown at the end. You really needed to pay attention to the order of the songs played if you wanted to know what you just heard. Anyway, it took a few more times of them playing that song before I found out who the artist was. It was a song called "The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes, and Freud" by Blood Sweat and Tears. Now I had seen that album in the stores and didn't know anything at all about it, so I went to buy it. Looking at the back cover I see all these horn players. Hmmm, jazz. Being 16 years old at the time, jazz was the music my grandparents listened to. I wasn't sure about this, but what the hell, I had to have that song. Well the Blood Sweat and Tears album turned out to be the first mature rock album I ever bought and opened my eyes up to other styles of music. The album simply stunned me, and the song I had bought it for turned out to be not even the best tune on the album. On first listen I realized I had already heard about half of the album on KMPX and liked what I heard without knowing who it was. I studied the liner notes more carefully now. Who was this lead singer with the unusual voice? It appeared that this guy Al Kooper was the brains behind the whole thing, singing all but two of the songs and writing most of the material as well as having a hand in arrangements. The more I listened to the album the more I was convinced it was a masterpiece, and I still feel that way today. It's easily one of the best albums of the 1960s.

KMPX continued to play the album, although I never heard any of it on "regular" radio, and one day after playing something from the album, the announcer said "Blood Sweat and Tears. Al Kooper and Steve Katz, formerly of the Blues Project...". Ding! I knew about the Blues Project but didn't know that Al Kooper came from that group, so I went out and bought all the Blues Project albums the next day. Fortunately for me, they were all in a bargain bin. The Blues Project albums, in particular their only studio album "Projections", cemented my admiration for Kooper. (I didn't realize it at the time, but there was a connection between a lot of what I was hearing on FM radio, and it was producer Tom Wilson. He produced Dylan, the Blues Project, the Mothers, and the Velvet Underground all in roughly the same time period.) What else did Kooper do? I managed to find out, I forget how, that he played with Dylan on the Highway 61 Revisited album. Now I had to hear that, so I borrowed it from a friend. Hmmm, Mike Bloomfield was on the album too. I had been hearing lots of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on my newfound FM radio station, so I was well aware of how heavy Bloomfield was. And with Al Kooper too, another heavyweight. Wow. This Dylan guy must be pretty good after all, but isn't it folk music? What are these blues guys doing on an album like that? I soon found out. It was like walking into a dark room and turning on the light. Suddenly everything was clear and bright. This album ROCKED! This album was underground. This album was the real thing, like a shot of the hard stuff after drinking milk all my life. I felt like I had aged 10 years and now had the wisdom of a mature adult. No more teeny bopper crap for me now!

So that was it. No turning back. From there it was Blonde on Blonde and every album before and since. Blonde on Blonde just simply eclipsed everything I had ever heard before. As for Kooper, I still listen to that first BS&T album every now and then and am still blown away by it. It doesn't seem to have aged a bit. His work with that band was highly innovative, and in my opinion helped to change the course of pop music in the late '60s and into the '70s. I'll always be grateful that through him I was led to the amazing work of Bob Dylan, and I'm glad that he played a major role in helping to shape the sound that defined Dylan in 1965.

John Howells

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