I had just removed his hand — gently, I hope — from my knee when the man in the off-white linen suit told me that he was the one who recruited Bob Dylan into the CIA. The bar was desolate but warm: outside was a Chicago winter like a bear roaming the streets. I’d come to town to interview a garbage man/mobster, and it had not gone well. In fact, I was terrified. So now, with my new buddy beside me, I was drinking like a brain surgeon in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
“The CIA?” I said. “Well, that’s interesting.” I took a swallow of Jameson. “That might even be, you know, sensational.”
His large eyes, glossy with the effects of the four Long Island Iced Teas I had watched him consume, searched mine. It was a long search, to the point where I wondered if perhaps he had simply fallen asleep with his eyes open, like certain gifted tribesmen of the Amazonian basin.
“Your unreflective skepticism,” he said at last, with the ponderous dignity of the totally tanked, “is a tribute to the most daring masquerade of our times.”
“You mean — ,” I began, but was silenced by the raising of a pink, ringed hand.
“Bob Dylan was a spy,” he announced. “A very great spy. And I was his spymaster!” Now he was glaring at me in a kind of rude nostalgic triumph.
The bartender, who’d been stacking glasses, sighed heavily. Like it or not, this story was going to get told.
“Please,” I said. “Go on.”
“How can I convey,” said the man in the bar, relaxing now, “to one as cherubically unlined as yourself, the great anxiety of the 1950s?” The creases in his jacket exhaled a complex, blossomy booze-and-cologne aroma — comforting, in its way. “Above us was the white crack of infinity. The Bomb. Annihilation! But beneath us the ground was shifting, too. Beatniks, Communists, sodomites.”
“Bongo-players,” he continued. “Philosophers, nudists, tap dancers, Jesus freaks, red-wine drinkers. We in the Company had our eye on all of them. We knew better than they the strength of their contempt for society. But from where, precisely, would the threat to order come? From the existentialists, or from the vegetarians? Our great dread was that these various distracted factions would eventually . . .” (And here he had a small, fragrant coughing fit.) “. . . would eventually coalesce and form a movement.”
He ignored my sarcasm. “So we decided to find their leaders before they did. Simple enough. We penetrated them. We went into their stinking smoke-filled coffeehouses and their rank little nightclubs. We endured their revolutionary sing-alongs and their tambourines and all that ‘Go, man, go!’ crap. Christ, I don’t know how many times I heard Ginsberg read Howl. We went in heavy. Saturation. By 1958, I’d say the ratio of undercover Company men to genuine bohemians in Greenwich Village was about two to one.”
“But . . . wasn’t this sort of FBI territory?” I ventured. “Domestic surveillance and such?”
“FBI!” He snorted unpleasantly. “Would a G-man learn how to play the dulcimer? Take classes in the dulcimer, for six months? Deirdre!” He hailed the reluctant bartender. “Deirdre! Another Long Island Iced Tea, if you would. Thank you, sweetie.”
“You bet your ass. I was in a medieval folk trio called Tyme Out of Mynde. Tyme Out of Mynde, with y’s where the i’s should be! That’s sacrifice, pal. That’s doing your duty. But you know, when I first saw Zimmerman in the Cafe Wha?, right there things began to get wonderful.”
“He was — ”
“Oh, he was a graceless little monkey then, of course. Tobacco-stained fingers, chubby cheeks, no manners at all. And that voice! Like Woody Guthrie left out in the rain for a week. And such silly-billy music he made at first, all about being an old boxcar-jumper with holes in your hat. So derivative, so false! But, you see, that was the whole point.”
Now I was interested. “What was the whole point?”
“He had no identity! None! Just this greedy, untethered intellect slipping about in the realm of myth and symbol. Like a dreamer, but wide awake. I couldn’t have imagined better conditions for the creation of a first-class artistic spy. Can you see the magic of it? He wanted an identity, and I had one ready for him! He would be the bard, the Pied Piper. He would take all of this shambling, up-all-night disaffection, this shapeless totality of kooks and bums and hedonists, and lead it right into the river. Ha!” He slapped the surface of the bar, and I nearly fell off my stool. “So I put him on the payroll.”