THE MAN IN DYLAN'S BASEMENT By Toby Thompson
In August of 1967, a few months after Bob Dylan began writing and recording songs for The Basement Tapes in the Catskill Mountains, near Woodstock, I moved to a 400-acre-farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Charlottesville, Virginia. It was something people were doing then, moving from city to country. I had left Washington and its heady music scene for a graduate program in English at the University of Virginia. And Dylan of course had left New York and its pop zaniness for the relative sanity of the Catskills. Charlottesville was no arts colony, but its university had been founded by Thomas Jefferson, who designed it architecturally and whose democratic ideals hung like mist around its colonnades. Jefferson had been an eccentric of the first order–Monticello, his brilliantly conceived house near Charlottesville is testament to that fact–and the university had a predilection for mavericks. Edgar Allan Poe had been a student there in 1826, but left in a flood of gambling debts. The night before his departure, he burned every stick of his dormitory furniture to stay warm. Charlottesville coddled balladeers and had its folk-music scene: Arthur Kyle Davis, the celebrated folklorist, had taught at the university since the 1920s, and its foremost practitioner was Paul Clayton. Paul was a student of Davis in the 1950s and a graduate assistant who helped him compile the book, More Traditional Ballads of Virginia, a collection that was a follow-up to Davis’ earlier Traditional Ballads of Virginia. Clayton was a serious folklorist and musician who by the mid-60s had recorded some 20 albums. He divided time between a 200-year-old cabin in Brown’s Cove, Virginia and Greenwich Village, where he performed in its folk clubs and was the intimate of its biggest names, including Dylan, Baez and Dave Van Ronk. The latter would recall, in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, "[Paul] was one of my closest friends and also something of a mentor at times ... he was a brilliant man and had thought through a lot of musical questions very carefully. His voice was a smooth, midrange baritone, almost a Burl Ives sound." Dylan mentions Clayton often in Chronicles. He describes him as resembling the painter, Paul Gauguin: "He dressed in black from head to foot and would quote Shakespeare ... [He] sang a lot of sea shanties, had Puritan ancestry, but some of his old relatives had been from the early Virginia families. [He] had a log cabin outside of Charlottesville, too, where he used to go from time to time. Later on, a few of us went down there and hung around for a week or so in the mountains. The place had no electricity or plumbing or anything; kerosene lamps lit the place at night with reflective mirrors." And as Bob Coltman asserts in his authoritative Paul Clayton and the Folk Song Revival, "For Dylan, Paul Clayton was traditional song personified, speaking to him in mystic tongues."
"Paul was a trance", Dylan would say.
That trance would end or intensify for Dylan when, on March 30, 1967, Clayton committed suicide by electrocuting himself in the bathtub of his Greenwich Village apartment.
A month or so later, Dylan began recording The Basement Tapes.
He had befriended Clayton in New York (Van Ronk introduced them), but almost certainly had heard his music prior to moving there. Clayton was known as "America's most recorded young folk singer," and his albums had reached the heartland. "Because they were early entrants in the folk record market," Coltman writes, "they traveled farther than they could have a few years later." As contemporary Lee Hoffman told Coltman, "Paul Clayton was one of the few folk singers whose records I'd been able to get before I moved to New York." There are references to at least one Clayton song on Dylan's 1960 St. Paul tape where the latter's voice "sounds so much like Clayton that many have concluded it is him," a fan noted. In September of 1961, Dylan followed Clayton to Charlottesville, stopping first at Washington's Showboat Lounge for a Sunday hoot with Paul, then driving 120 miles south to Charlottesville's Gaslight. It was, in small part a music venue: Carolyn Hester, Richard Farina, Mike Seeger, and even I would play there. As Clayton friend Rey Barry told Bob Coltman, the Gaslight was "a very unusual place ... had loads of things hanging from the ceiling, like a junk shop ... It was a steakhouse rather than a coffee house .. So this was a meeting place for the entire avant-garde of the area ... they gathered at the Gaslight, and it was an actual meeting place for people who had no kinship except for their outlook on the world."
That night, Dylan, Clayton, Mike Seeger and a folknik named Bill Clifton serenaded the diners and drinkers. Clifton told Coltman they "sang for their supper," with the Gaslight’s owner "supplying all the wine or beer we could consume, and a steak dinner at the end of the evening. After we finished we went to an apartment that Paul was renting at the time and played for another hour or two."
As Dylan writes, there was an excursion to his Brown's Cove cabin and possibly some field work–Clayton's neighbor was a treasure chest of Appalachian balladry named Marybird McAllister, a squirrel-skin banjo player "with a trove of some 160 songs," Coltman reports, among them the folk classic, "Across the Blue Mountains," about the Blue Ridge to the west. It is unthinkable that Clayton–ever more fixated upon Dylan–did not introduce him to McCallister. And it’s unlikely that he did not share his trove of collected materials–including the traditional song, "Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens," (probably learned from McCallister) which Clayton rewrote as "Who’s Gonna Buy you Ribbons," and whose tune and lyric Dylan pirated for Don't Think Twice, causing a rift from which the two remained friends but over which their publishing companies went to court.
Later, Clayton brought Dylan and Joan Baez, to Charlottesville. The three sang for drinks at the Gaslight, and joined Clayton for a perusal of the folk collection in the university's Alderman Library. Rey Barry told Coltman, "Both Dylan and Baez had come into town to look over some of the music Paul had and see if there were any songs they could use. He brought them to the Gaslight ... at that time Dylan hadn't recorded anything, but Baez was a well-known singer, so she was the star of the night, and Dylan was somebody who sang songs and played harmonica."
Clayton had become fixated on Dylan, not just for his talent but because his young friend was magnetically attractive and Paul was gay. "[He] had a tremendous crush on Dylan" Coltman quotes folksinger Barry Kornfeld as having said. And Anthony Scaduto writes, "Paul Clayton ... went around singing Dylan's praises to anyone who would listen. 'Bobby worshiped Pablo Clayton artistically,' one of the folkies from those days recalls. 'And Pablo became absolutely fixated on Bobby.'"
Whether Dylan shared Clayton's romantic interest is unknown. "It's a hot topic," Coltman told me. "[Sexual relations] could have happened, but none of my informants knew pro or con (or at least admitted knowing)." Dylan had bragged to Robert Shelton in the biography, No Direction Home that, when he first came to New York, he had hustled gays in Times Square; his androgyny was highlighted in his associations with Andy Warhol's crowd, and Marlon Brando listed him among his many lovers. "Paul took the view that if you weren't gay, you were sort of restricted, compromised, unliberated," says Steve Wilson, a Charlottesville housemate. Virginia Canfield, a folksinger friend of Clayton, had been a Gaslight regular. She told me that she believed Paul and Dylan were lovers. "That crowd-they tried it all," she said. Clayton associate and attorney William Krasilovsky, told Coltman, "Paul Clayton was a vital part of Dylan's life, and it's not mentioned anywhere. I think it’s disgusting ... They were practically roommates. They traveled together."
While Clayton was up front about his gayness–he told ribald jokes at the Gaslight and bragged to Rey Barry that "I got the son in the morning and the daughter at night." One friend, Ron Mura, spoke of Clayton's "pederasty," and Clayton may have been tortured by a predilection for underage boys, as well as by his adult homosexuality. The era was pre-Stonewall, the 1969 Greenwich Village riot that jumpstarted the Gay Liberation movement. Dylan had out-front gay friends (notably Allen Ginsberg) but Clayton’s obsession with and obvious affection for him irked. As Karman told biographer Dennis McDougal, "Paul ... was a tragic character ... He was madly in love with Dylan, who treated him badly for it."
The keenest example of that rejection occurred after Dylan's infamous 1964 cross-country motor jaunt, upon which he was accompanied by Victor Maymudes, Pete Karman and Clayton. Paul, who may have introduced Dylan to pot, provided a briefcase full of drugs. Steve Wilson told Coltman that Paul "took two drugs: green Dexamyls ... he had enough to supply not only himself but one or two other people." And pot. "It is said that Dylan turned the Beatles on to dope ... and Clayton turned Dylan on." He also had LSD, and "certainly had other kinds of drugs in his possession, if only to pass out to other people ... he made himself something of a drug supplier." Friend Jim Poole told Coltman, "Paul was the first real source of drugs I ever met. He had mescaline ... pills gotten from a [Greenwich] Village pharmacy ... He was fond of Dexamyl ... In the Bob Dylan books, he is the Dr. Feelgood guy-the provider of drugs."
Clayton was bipolar or manic-depressive, and was in a hypomanic state on this trip. Stoned on marijuana and jazzed on speed, the quartet drove south. Despite two days in Charlottesville, where Dylan purchased 10 copies of The Times They Are A-Changin', a visit with Carl Sandburg in North Carolina where a Dylan LP was presented, a meeting with striking miners in Kentucky, attendance at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a jaunt to Central City near Denver and four Dylan concerts, whatever he hoped would gel emotionally with Bob didn't, and at trip's end–at Baez's place in Big Sur, Clayton felt little more than a hanger on. During the trip, Dylan had sat in the back of his Ford station wagon, composing Ballad In Plain D, (Clayton had been involved with Suze Rotolo's sister, Carla, vilified in that lyric; the couples had spent time together), and other songs, including Chimes Of Freedom, and possibly Mr. Tambourine Man. Karman, freaked by the drugs and odd behavior on the trip, left it in California. "Dylan was a very strange character," he said. "His notion of reality was like nothing else I'd ever experienced ... Dylan very weird and Clayton always high on pills... I just had to break away from them."
Thus began what Coltman calls Clayton's "Long Tumble from Grace," an elision from Dylan's favour, that of the rapidly evolving folk scene, and from sanity. Dylan appears to have dropped Clayton without explanation. Coltman told me, "It seems likely that Clayton wore out his welcome ... while they were traversing the west. Dylan was busy writing songs, transitioning into the personality that would do that [influential 1964] concert in San Francisco, and Paul may have felt like/been a bit of a fifth wheel... Paul was very much associated with the eastern seaboard folk world. To Dylan he may have felt less relevant west of the Mississippi."
It was said that It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, was written for Paul, who was known for his striking blue eyes. Dylan denies this. Yet Clayton epitomized the folk era Dylan was leaving. Bob would finish his concert at Newport '65 by rasping Baby Blue at those folkies who’d booed his electrified set. The rejection by Dylan stung Clayton, and busted for pot in Charlottesville–no minor infraction during those years—his drug use increased. Strung out, manic, hallucinating contact with space aliens, broke and desperate, he committed suicide by immersing himself in a tub of water and pressing live electrical wires to his chest.
As Coltman reports, "Izzy Young [of the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street], stricken, saw in the tragedy a harbinger for folkies. 'So Paul Clayton, who recorded more LPs than anyone on more labels, who knew more of poetry who knew more of drugs, who knew more of sex, couldn't take it anymore ... I felt again ... that our twenty-year-old idea of folk music had to be changed not to conform to present day standards, but to survive.'"
Dylan had been the avatar of that change, and The Clancy Brothers' Liam Clancy, asked by Dylan biographer Howard Sounes about the spate of suicides (including that of Peter LaFarge and Phil Ochs) in the wake of Bob’s success, said he thought they were the result of "frustrated dreams and expectations ... Dylan had taken off as a star into the firmament. He was one of us and, suddenly, there he was. [He] was what every one of us probably hoped to be, and [we] realized now that the lightning had struck. It couldn’t strike twice." Asking Dylan whether he felt responsibility for his friends' deaths, Dylan told Clancy, "Man, how can I be responsible…? These people had to do what they did. If I were to dwell on that, become obsessed with it, I wouldn’t get on with my life. I wouldn't create anything. I wouldn't write anything."
Though Charlottesville intimates like Virginia Canfield found symbolism in the way Clayton died-"he electrocuted himself because Dylan went electric"-Clayton had encouraged Bob and other acoustic folkies to add electric instruments to their arrangements. (On the night of New York's 1965 blackout, Coltman reports, he sat "beatifically by, like some angel of a lost tradition, as Dylan and ... Keith Richards exchanged songs by candle light until, at 3:17 a.m., the lights began coming back on.") And Clayton’s last recording-a folk rock ditty titled "Gingerbreadd Mindd"-was "raucous rock," according to Rey Barry who heard it, with whimsical lyrics in synch with the era: "So she gave me little glasss of her Gingerbreadd Wine / And she gave me little piecce of her Gingerbreadd Mindd," etc., that were reminiscent of what Watermelon Spinach-type hippie groups were singing, and what novelist Richard Brautigan was creating literarily. Clayton tried hard to have the song released, and whether or not he sent it to Dylan is unknown. Coltman writes, "It is tempting to think Bob Dylan heard this tape ... The masters that became The Basement Tapes were contemporaneous with "Gingerbreadd Mindd ... [Dylan's] Apple Suckling Tree, Yea, Heavy and a Bottle Of Bread, and the wonderfully lilting You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, more rag than rock, seem to show roots in what Paul was trying to do."
What's certain is that during the spring following Clayton's March 30th suicide, Dylan-having survived a near-death experience via motorcycle and drugs-began writing and recording those personal songs that would appear on The Basement Tapes Complete, and no doubt began writing songs that he would record that fall on John Wesley Harding. Many are scriptural in tone, and redolent of imprisonment or death. Structurally, their retreat from the electric polyphony of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, to folk or traditional ballad forms is obvious. Clayton's spirit if not his music is referenced throughout. On John Wesley Harding, Down Along The Cove, may allude to Brown's Cove and Clayton's cabin there, as do The Basement Tapes Complete's Mr. Blue, Please, Mrs. Henry, Spanish Is The Loving Tongue, and Million Dollar Bash. The various traditional ballads are at the very least an acknowledgment of Clayton's influence if not a bow to it. The Basement Tapes were a rehearsal for 1968's John Wesley Harding and 1970's Self Portrait, and Clayton’s influence is unmistakable–particularly on the latter, where Paul’s Gotta Travel On, his version of Duncan and Brady, and folk or traditional sounding tunes such as Copper Kettle, Little Sadie, Alberta, Days of 49, Belle Isle, are included. In Chronicles Dylan would write: "Clayton was unique-elegiac, very princely-part Yankee gentleman and part Southern rakish dandy ... His companions were out-of-towners and like him, a 'caste apary'-had attitudes, but known only to themselves-a non folky crowd. Authentic nonconformists-scufflers. Through Paul I met people here and there who said to me it was okay to stay at their apartments any time I needed it, and not to worry about it."
One quasi-fictitious character, Ray Gooch, who in Chronicles puts Dylan up on Vestry Street, is an amalgam of Clayton's and Van Ronks personalities—and of their values. Gooch is a transplanted Southerner, and Dylan in that chapter recreates both Gooch's and Clayton's uneasy alliance with the city: "Ray, who was from Virginia, had ancestors who had fought on both sides of the Civil War ... Sometimes Paul Clayton and Ray would talk through the night ... I'd lean back against the wall and shut my eyes. Their voices drifting into my head like voices talking from another world. They talked about dogs and fishing and forest fires–love and monarchies, and the Civil War. Ray had said that New York City was the city that had won the Civil War-that the wrong side had lost ... I heard him say it and thought it was a mysterious and bad thing to say, but if he said it, he said it and that's all there is to it."
Dylan, then, was these men's student and protective of their values. But within several years, having ingested their views, regurgitated some, and reconstituted many, he found a singular path, one that led spiritually and geographically toward the mountains.
In the fall of 1968, after being examined by folklorist Arthur Kyle Davis for my master's degree at the university, jamming with poet James Dickey at a Graduate Club poetry reading, and playing briefly as house guitarist at Charlottesville's Gaslight-ever cognizant of Clayton's influence on that scene and his spiritual legacy-I left my cabin in the Blue Ridge and, after an eye-opening trip to Hibbing-more remote, frontier and "folk-traditional" than has been satisfactorily described-returned to the city. Dylan himself would soon leave the Catskills and return to Greenwich Village. Lessons conferred by the mountains had been learned, and Clayton's, if not Harry Smith's "Old Weird America" was primed to be rediscovered by hip urbanites. As Dylan would write in Chronicles, "New York City was cold, muffled and mysterious, the capital of the world ... I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close."
We felt that way too.
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