Ezy Reading: Finding Dylan Among The Insane Strangers

Evan Kanarakis

Undoubtedly a highlight of my time in America over the last two years has been the opportunity to take part in one of my favourite pastimes: driving into new towns and, all tourism ‘must-sees’ out of the way, proceeding to secure a feel for the real heart and characters of a place. In my experience this is often best done (and most enjoyably accomplished) by exploring the deepest, darkest dive bars on offer. It’s in these glorious hellholes that authenticity resides.

Gradually, over the course of a few hours and with the aid of plenty of whisky and beer you quite simply get to know folks. From Dee’s Café in Pittsburgh to Johnny’s Bar in Manhattan, Carolina’s in Bangor and The Mean-Eyed Cat in Austin the conversations have frequently rolled on into the wee hours without pause. Being an Aussie certainly helps to open things up — people hear the accent, want to hear about the place and then need to figure out exactly what the hell it is you’re doing in Anytown, U.S.A. They’ll tell you of how sad they are “about that Crocodile Hunter guy dying, he was a fuckin’ hero” and, nodding solemnly, you’ll share your regret for the loss of that glorious madman Knievel. Pleasantries soon shift from one round of drinks to the next to more substantive banter -roots, experiences, hopes and fears- and it all becomes a wonderful blur of insight and connection that may just as happily end at 4am with a handshake and a farewell or mark the beginning of a new and lasting friendship. You don’t (often) find this if you’d just checked into a Holiday Inn and sulked around the hotel lounge all night getting your ear chewed off by some chubber from Wisconsin who only wants to rail on about how pissed he was when he couldn’t find buffalo wings on any menu during his first and last trip to Australia the previous summer (and yes, this was the conversation that first prompted me to leave the hotel bar behind).

But it isn’t always reassuring and cheerful truth that is found. Many tales are of falls from grace and intense tragedy, like the homeless fellow in New Orleans whose stepmother had unexpectedly kicked him out of the house he’d grown up in when his father finally succumbed to cancer. There was the sad Irish gal in Burlington, Vermont who had arrived in the United States three months earlier to start searching for a missing brother who, mentally disturbed, had disappeared somewhere between San Antonio, Texas and Montreal, Canada. And there was the Mississippi cop I encountered in Kansas just a few months ago who eagerly told me of his family’s Ku Klax Klan roots before matter-of-factly assuring me, “But don’t get me wrong now, Evan, I ain’t no racist, I just don’t care much for ni**ers and Mexicans…”

None of this is revelation. We’ve all met new characters in the most random of locations during the course of our lives that have enriched us by the encounter, no matter how brief. Some personalities stay with us, others are lost in the haze of another hangover, mystery names and an unknown number in my mobile phone that eventually gets deleted a few weeks later with a personal promise to ease up on the scotch after midnight.

This past October — the 4th, to be exact — I caught Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello in concert in Portland, Maine. It was a cracking gig. Costello was engaging from start to end in an acoustic performance, and that old lion Dylan had me captivated, his aging frame supported well by one of the tightest backing bands I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live. When he sang Highway 61 Revisited the spirits of an entire audience soared.

But for all the connections made that night by talented musicians to receptive audience, it was the mad strangers I met who made the night all the more worthwhile. I can’t really remember the names but I think one was a lobsterman called Ike, and there was a phone number for an ‘Angie’ on a coaster in my jeans pocket when I finally came to the next day. At Three Dollar Dewey’s, a bar named for a hooker’s asking price in days long gone we moved from the Dylan soar to an almighty roar. I remember the evening in flashes, not because we were just dumb, addled drunks –though in part we were- but because it was such a joyous sensory overload of new faces and new stories and the hum of yet another new adventure. I had willingly lost myself once again in the belly of an American dive bar night.

Ezy Reading will be back in February!