I went to the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley last night to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who has been one of my favorite performers since I first saw him at the Ash Grove – the west coast center of the folk revival of the sixties – when I was still in high school. He’s 84 years old now and needed some help getting his guitar plugged in and positioning the vocal mic. When he started singing, some of the high notes were a little frayed, but his musicality, humor and timing were intact. He made it clear that his nickname didn’t come from all his traveling but from the countless yarns he spins around, between and through the songs he sings. Stories about growing up in Brooklyn, discovering the rodeos at Madison Square Garden and trying to become a bronco rider himself at age fourteen; about unknown and famous folksingers from Bess Hawes to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan.
The audience, like me, tended toward the grey and wrinkled. Lots of beards and long white hair. A few canes and cowboy hats. Long, ethnic dresses and turquoise jewelry. I said to my friend George, who came with me, “Mill Valley, where the counter culture comes to die.” My irony masked my mingled nostalgia, grief and joy. Those feelings hit me full force when Jack sang “Bobby McGee” the song by Kris Kristofferson that became a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin. I had once run into Ramblin’ Jack at a party in the Hollywood Hills back in the early seventies. I had asked him to sing it and he did. I’ve never forgotten how it felt to be sung to by a legend. Last night when he sang it, my tears were right there. Of course, I do believe that “Bobby McGee” is one of the most beautiful songs in the American singer-songwriter canon. But Jack is a genius at singing stories and has a way of making a song like that stand for an entire life, a whole era. Same when he sang Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” I had once heard him call it a song by “my former son, Bob Dylan.” This was a reference to Dylan – before he got super-famous – having referred to himself as “Jack Elliot’s son.”
Last night he introduced it with a long tale of how he learned it while snowed in a cabin somewhere with a good supply of firewood, a bottle of Cutty Sark but only one record: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” which he listened to continually for three days. His finger-picking was as lively as ever, and he bit into the rueful intelligence of the lyrics more deeply than any young man ever could.
After the show, as we headed to George’s car, I saw that Jack was talking to some people by the stage door. I walked over and said something about loving his music since the Ash Grove days. He took my hand and looked at me, really looked. “Have we met?” he asked. I mentioned that long-ago party. He asked again, “Do we know each other?” then, after telling him I was an actor, he said “Did I meet you on that film? It was with Jack Nicholson in a railroad yard.” I said “No, I never met Nicholson.” Then, still holding his hand, I said what I really wanted to tell him all along. “Jack, you’re in my heart forever.”