Easy Week

Positively Pier Avenue
by David Wegbreit
Published May 15, 2008

The annual birthday party where the guest of honor never shows remains a local draw

I’m in the midst of the 18th annual Dylanfest, a celebration of Bob Dylan’s 67th birthday featuring eight hours of the folk-rock superstar’s covers, I’m feeling overwhelmed. Club 705 in Hermosa Beach is filled with Bob Dylan fans, look-alikes and wannabes. The real Bob Dylan, the one born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., isn’t likely to stop by.

The performers on stage last Saturday were more than mere imitators, the guys who thought they could strap on a guitar and harmonica, mumble something incomprehensible -- and possibly deep -- and find themselves unkempt-hair-deep in adulation and women. There was classic Dylan Ray Bans, in a black coat leaning back in his chair ready to snarl. There was “Nashville Skyline”-era Dylan crooning Americana. There was coil-haired Dylan in a polka dot shirt wailing wild blues. And then there were the costumed characters from Dylan’s songs: ladies in leopard-skin pillbox hats, Big Jim “looking so Dandy and so fine,” even “Tangled Up and Blue” in a blue dress with knotted frayed ends.

I can’t help but feel as if I have unwittingly come dressed as the reporter at the end of the barb in “Ballad of the Thin Man.” Sure, I love Dylan. But a full day of knotty lyrics sung in a faux nasal twang? Maybe something is happening here and I don’t know exactly what it is.

The party is Andy Hill and Renee Safier’s invention. The two locals met in college, reunited in Los Angeles in the mid-‘80s and subsequently formed their frequently Dylan-covering band “Hard Rain.” In 1991, they decided to throw the inaugural party at the Hermosa Saloon.

Andy, 48, had come up with the idea a few years before while reading the liner notes for the then-new album “Biograph.” Cameron Crowe had written something about a costume party where everyone came as characters from Dylan songs. Hence, all these years later, Renee is all smiles and sweetness dressed in a pervert’s dream version of Little Bo Peep from “I Shall Be Free.” Andy, dressed as a sort of gladiator, is a more obscure reference to “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” (“It’s the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum, dodging lions and wastin’ time,” he later explains.)

Over the years the birthday party moved across the South Bay, from the smoky saloon to Anthony’s bar, to Chevron Park and potlucks in Andy’s Torrance backyard. One year, Renee recalls an elderly neighbor stopping by with a big birthday cake for “Bob,” assuming he was just another one of the musicians milling about the house.

With each year the set list and the following grew. This year, the event drew over 50 musicians and hundreds of fans.

Many in the crowd aren’t just toe-tapping dilettantes, mouthing the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” They’re fanatics. When Renee punctuates the sets with trivia, they know that “Sad Eyed Lady” took up one whole side of an LP and one even knows the name of the character Dylan played in the 2003 film “Masked and Anonymous.” (It’s Jack Fate, just in case it ever comes up in Trivial Pursuit.)

A couple days after Saturday’s fest, I called Andy to catch up and see what’s kept him and the show going all these years. As we talked about the nearly two decades he’s spent celebrating Dylan, he’s getting ready for Hard Rain’s next gig in Las Vegas.

He said he first picked up Dylan in the late ‘70s, when the “scourge” of disco had emptied the clubs of real musicians and real music. He bought Dylan’s records almost at random and was struck by the intensity of the storytelling and lyrics in songs like “Hurricane.”

“It just went through me like fire,” he said.

The other part of the appeal, Andy said, is that Dylan songs are technically pretty simple. Without much more than one or two rehearsals a band can pick up a few Dylan songs and be ready for the festival.

“It’s an empty musical vessel that can be filled by a competent musician with that musician’s style and creative gift,” Andy said. “[And] the lyrics are of such depth that as a performer, you’re really filled with something, too.”

There is a long-standing tendency to deify Dylan. Many, as presented in the recent Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” suggest that there is no single Dylan, that he is simply too much artist to hold onto. But Dylan is, in the end, a man and it seems more likely that there is one Dylan, one who is prolific, multifaceted and willing to shape himself into the instrument for the music he wants to play. Over the years, Dylan has fashioned himself into so many instruments that an artist can have his or her pick.

There are no Jimi Hendrix or even Guns N’ Roses ear-shattering renditions at Club 705. But the personal connection each artist has made with Dylan’s seemingly armorless songwriting is more than apparent.

For the peaceniks, there’s the moment when, in the middle of Hard Rain’s rendition of anti-war song “With God on Our Side,” a throng of Dylan fans carried a banner with three-foot-tall, multi-colored letters reading: “Don’t Follow Leaders.” This is the Dylan Ron Kovic came for. The Marine-come-war-anti-war-activist author of “Born on the Fourth of July” can’t get enough of what he calls Dylan’s “rebel stuff.”

The 8-Tracks can have their Dylan, too. The gospel band from Torrance filled the room with a jubilant version of “When You Gonna Wake Up” and other devotionals from Dylan’s often-maligned late ‘70s romp with Christianity.

There is the sweet side of Dylan, too. The festival is filled with Dylan’s love songs. Autumnal couples hold each other close when Hard Rain strikes up “I Shall Be Released.”

Kyle Hurley, the 21-year-old a friend of Andy’s found playing on the Santa Monica promenade, played the bare bones, early Dylan version of “Boots Filled Spanish Leather,” reminding the audience that the song was written when Dylan, then not much older then he, was far away from his girl in Spain.

Across the generational chasm, Dave Leahy played “Buckets of Rain,” “the only positive song on [Blood on the Tracks],” in a Piedmont blues style, conveying all the sadness that closes that angry album of love loss. At the end of his set he took a moment to remember the man.

“I’m almost as old as Bob Dylan,” he says. “How about that?”

In the end, Andy said the trick to making a daylong tribute to one folk singer is actually pretty simple: it’s a lot of fun.

This much is apparent. Before the band strikes up a raucous version of the twisted-circus sounding “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35” the band handed foam stones to the audience. As the band strikes the song’s famous, in-your-face-establishment refrain “everybody must get stoned,” the little foam rocks flew across the stage.

“That always cracked me up,” Andy said. ER