Once when I was in high school, my father was driving me somewhere and I put on Disc 1 of Bob Dylan’s box set, “Biograph,” which I had sneaked into the CD changer in the trunk. “The Times They Are A’Changin’” came on. By the second chorus, Dad snapped: “Ooh! The times are changing! The times are changing! What a novel observation! When in the past millennium have the times NOT been changing?” Whatever. Great song.
By then, it had been three years since Bob Dylan played my bar mitzvah.
I wasn’t too involved in planning my bar mitzvah. I learned my Torah portion and helped pick my necktie (Jerry Garcia, baby). That was about it.
So when the service ended and the party started and a weathered old man in a broad-brim hat and a southern gentleman’s clothes stepped on stage, my only thought was that he looked kind of sad. There was a band with him — three other guys. Then my friends started asking me about the weird old guitar guy: “Why’d you hire such a weird band, Adam?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t chosen. I thought he was weird, too.
Then they started playing — something laid-back, bluegrassy, traditional. Immediately, the room shifted: The band was amazing. Even the kids felt it.
I think one of the parents recognized him first, but word spread very quickly: “That’s Bob Dylan!” People started buzzing. Girls started squealing. The same kids who had been teasing me about the weirdo on stage were now mobbing me: Had I known? How had I not told them? Did I understand what this meant? The answer to all three was a smile and a shrug.
At 13, Bob Dylan meant about as much to me as George Washington: He was a guy I’d heard of who did some stuff a long time ago. But now he was at my bar mitzvah, and when he started playing, Sarah Birnbaum started gawking at the stage and jumping up and down, hands clasped, braces gleaming. At that point, I began to get it: Something amazing was happening.
Sarah and I had known each other since kindergarten. One day during outdoor recess in sixth grade, I decided that I had a crush on her. My bar mitzvah was a year later, and by then I had laid in enough hormones to make the crush real.
So, at my bar mitzvah party, when Sarah grabbed me and hugged me in front of everyone I know because she was so excited to see Bob Dylan, in that moment, I became a Bob Dylan fan.
While I was enjoying this giddy, electric, totally authorized touching of Sarah, my friends mobbed my father, seated at a table, to tell him how “totally sweet” this was. He grinned and held up his hand for them to high-five.
“How’d you do it, Mr. Bloom? How’d you do it? How’d you get Bob Dylan?”
My Dad brushed them off. “Go on, boys. It’s Adam’s party. You won’t have any fun standing here, watching me not dance.”
So they ran over to me. “Ask your dad how he got Bob Dylan. He won’t tell us! Do you know what it costs to get Bob Dylan?”
“A million dollars, probably!”
“No! That’s retarded.”
“Whatever — it’s a lot.”
“Go ask him!”
My family wasn’t opulently wealthy, by any stretch. My parents were both lawyers, but we didn’t have Microsoft money or AOL money or even Netscape money.
So I was curious, too — how had my Dad gotten Bob Dylan to play my bar mitzvah? I wandered over.
“Hi-ya, shtoonk! Having fun?” My dad held up his hand and I punched it, our customary greeting.
“Yeah, Dad.” I looked back at my friends. They were leering at me, wide-eyed, like I was about to pull the sword from the stone. “So, um, Dad, everyone wants to know — how did you get the band?”
“Don’t worry about it, teivel. Go enjoy your party.”
That was it. My friends accepted that they weren’t going to get an answer, I didn’t care that much, and after a few months, it was just that thing that happened: “Remember when Bob Dylan played Adam’s bar mitzvah? Crazy.”
Dylan, incidentally, was amazing. I didn’t really understand how amazing until years later, when I was more familiar with his music.
After warming up, he played a killer hora — still the only version I’ve ever heard with a piano solo — and wowed my Israeli cousin, Dina, with his perfect Hebrew. During dinner, he played “Jokerman” and “Froggy Went A’Courtin’.” He refereed an instant classic game of Coke and Pepsi. He sang lead on “The Electric Slide,” transitioned into a cover of “Shout,” and then played “Emotionally Yours” as a slow dance. I danced with Sarah. Great set.
Later, he did a version of “Song to Woody” but changed the lyrics. I can’t remember all of it, but it included the lines:
I’m singin’ you this song
But I can’t sing enough
‘Cause there’s not many men who sang the Torah portion that you sung.
Years later, I learned about Woody Guthrie and what he meant to Bob, and that “Song to Woody” was the first song Bob wrote. I couldn’t believe he’d change the lyrics for some kid’s bar mitzvah. Or that the kid was me. I still can’t believe it.
My mom loved it. She strolled right up to Bob, beaming. She said something, he leaned down, smiled and said something back, and she laughed. Then she fetched me to come meet him. Bob Dylan.
“Excuse, me, Bob, I promise to stop interrupting you–I just wanted to introduce you to my son, Adam. This is his party.”
“Yeah,” Bob Dylan said. He leaned down and extended his hand. “How do you do?”
I shook Bob Dylan’s hand. “I’m fine,” I managed.
“OK,” Bob Dylan said to me.
“Thanks for — thanks,” I said to Bob Dylan.
“Mm-hmm,” Bob Dylan said to me.
“Well,” my Mom said to Bob, “I don’t want to keep you. I just wanted to thank you again for being here. Truly. It’s such a wonderful day for us. We’re so honored you could share it.”
Bob nodded. At that point I realized I was still holding his hand. Or he was still holding mine. Then he looked at me again from under the shadow of that broad-brimmed hat, and I won’t forget what he said to me next.
I couldn’t hear it. Something like, “Seem nice. You’ll do alright.”
Then he stood up, signaled the band, and they went into what I learned later was “Bessie Smith” from The Basement Tapes, a rarity. My father, coincidentally (I think), loved Bessie Smith. He was never much of a Dylan fan, though.
My father was a complicated, difficult man. Grumpy, depressive, demanding, incredibly intelligent and remarkably funny. A wonderful teacher to me. He died of cancer a few years ago.
It’s hard to know what to say to a dying parent. You want to use the time wisely, but what is there to discuss? If your parents knew the meaning of life, they would have told you before arriving in hospice. My assembled family never had so many conversations about the weather as when my father was dying.
“It’s a beautiful day, Paul. Do you see?” my Mom would ask.
“Yeah, Dad. It’s lovely out,” my sister would add.
Dad would grunt a little, and go back to sleep.
The truth is that parents die with secrets, and that’s what you want to ask about. What are you taking with you? What are you not telling me? The problem is they’re secrets, so you don’t know what to ask.
But I knew. I wanted to ask my Dad how he got Bob Dylan to play my bar mitzvah.
One October afternoon, when Dad was near the end, we were sitting around the hospice and I asked my Mom if she knew how Dad got Bob Dylan to play my bar mitzvah.
“Cookie,” she said. “For months, the only thing your father did to help plan your bar mitzvah was sign checks.”
“And help me practice,” I added.
“Yes,” Mom said. “And help you practice. But he didn’t lift a finger to help me. And then one day, out of the blue, he says ‘I’ll book the band.’ I said, ‘That’s OK, Paul — I’ll do it.’ Because I didn’t want him to screw it up or forget — you know. But he said, ‘I’m paying for this immovable feast, I’ll pick the band.’ OK. Then the day comes and Bob Dylan shows up! I mean, whoo! I asked him about it later and he said, ‘All the bills are paid, Marge, that’s all you need to worry about.’ So I don’t know how he did it.”
A few nights later, I was alone with my father in his hospice room. He was trying to sleep and I was trying to read a book, and neither was going well.
After a few minutes, I crossed the room and stood next to his bed.
“Dad . . . Dad . . . I know you’re tired, but . . . how did you get Bob Dylan to play at my bar mitzvah?”
He looked me right in the eyes.
Then he grunted a little, and went back to sleep. A few days later, he was gone.
So, I don’t know how he did it, or why he did it, but my Dad got Bob Dylan to play my bar mitzvah. And because of that, Bob’s music became the soundtrack of my life. And if I get that in exchange for my father keeping a secret, then I say, fair trade.