Bob Dylan for Sale
For years, Ric Kangas spoke to writers only to tell them to go away, he did not want to be bothered. He knew what they wanted to talk about--his famous friend, the one he knew almost 50 years ago before they went their separate ways. Kangas says he just didn't want to live in the worn-out yesterday, nor did he have any interest in living his life in the long black shadow of a towering giant named Bob Dylan. So when they came, those writers and critics prophesying with their pens, Kangas hid to keep from being seen. Only once did he allow himself to be interviewed, a decade ago for a book titled Dylan in Minnesota: Just Like Bob Zimmerman's Blues. The author paid Kangas handsomely to talk about his Hibbing, Minnesota, high school buddy. The guy gave him five pounds of Wisconsin cheese. Kangas liked that.
But Kangas, now living in Southern California, can no longer stay hidden, nor does he want to. His name's been out there for about a year now, ever since he showed up in Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home, which debuted in September 2005 on PBS-TV and DVD. Kangas shows up for a few moments and not much more; he's a pit stop along the way to the bigger and better. But Kangas provided the documentary, and its accompanying two-disc soundtrack, with one of the most invaluable additions ever made to the Bob Dylan songbook: a track called "When I Got Troubles," recorded in Kangas' house in 1959, when Dylan was a high school kid by the name of Robert Zimmerman transitioning from wanna-be rock-and-roller to would-be folk messiah.
The song comes from an old Scotch magnetic tape made in May 1959, when Dylan and Kangas were hanging out in the latter's bedroom messing around with Kangas' reel-to-reel recorder, into which they had plugged a relatively high-end Shure microphone. There are at least four songs on the tape on which Dylan can be heard, including one on which he sings background and another track Kangas likes to call "The Frog Song," since, well, that's about how Dylan sounds as he tries to sing and swallow the microphone at the same time. For years, the tape was kept in a box in a piece of luggage Kangas took with him as he moved across the country--from Minnesota to New York to California to Hawaii to Tennessee--working as stunt man, musician, even as an Elvis impersonator. He called the keepsake "The Suitcase Tape."
But today, it resides on Maple Avenue in the offices of Heritage Auction Galleries, which will sell the tape in an October auction filled with music and movie memorabilia--including the guitar Elvis Presley bought while stationed in Germany, a piece of the car in which James Dean was killed and Kurt Cobain's acoustic Martin that now belongs to singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord. There is no telling for how much the tape will sell, though somewhere in the mid-five figures isn't a stretch.
As it says in the liner notes to the No Direction Home soundtrack, "When I Got Troubles" provides "a rare audio snapshot and most likely the first original song recorded by Bob Dylan." Another song from it, "I Got a New Girl," is briefly heard in the movie, but the so-called "Frog Song" is a heretofore unheard Dylan cut from the same period. The tape may not be the Holy Grail--it's no more than seven minutes long and as rough as a country road--but it's close enough. And some who've heard the entire 90-minute tape--Heritage's Garry Shrum and Doug Norwine, and local radio institution George Gimarc--claim there are possibly 10 or so more fragments on which they think Dylan can be heard, though Kangas insists, no, that's just him.
"These are kids learning how to play guitar, learning how to use the tape recorder," Shrum says. "It's rough. But Ric's a couple of years older than Bob, who was 16, 17 at the time, and it's nice to hear where people start at. But there are also just bits and pieces on the tape. You'll get something, then another piece will drop in where Ric taped over it, and you're like, 'Aw, geez, was that Bob?' But Ric also says he has more tapes he hasn't listened to, and he doesn't know if Bob's on 'em. So I was like, 'Is he playing with me or waiting to see what happens at the auction?' But if he does, great. I'm ready."
This is not the first time Kangas has tried to sell the Dylan tapes: Last year, when the documentary was being released, he put them on eBay and was asking for a minimum of $1.5 million--a price tag even he acknowledges as ridiculous, but that was the point.
"I had no intention of selling them," he insists. "It would have been nice for that much money, but I really just wanted people to be aware I had them, to create buzz."
Kangas says he was working at a bank in the San Fernando Valley when he told a colleague, who has a side career as a musician, about the tapes. It just so happened that this friend knew Jeff Rosen, Dylan's longtime archivist and business manager, so he mentioned it to Rosen. A few days later, Rosen called Kangas--with what Kangas describes as a mixture of cynicism and indifference in his voice. He wasn't buying it--at least till he came by a few days later, heard the tape and figured, yeah, it was the real deal.
Then he asked to interview Kangas for the documentary he was working on--Rosen actually did most of the shooting for No Direction Home, which Scorsese was hired to essentially edit in 2003 and '04--and made a deal to use the tape. Kangas got the entire Dylan back catalog on CD, some upfront money paid against advance sales of the soundtrack and a brand-new Fender Stratocaster. He had asked for a guitar used and signed by his old pal, but Rosen told him that wasn't gonna happen. (When reached via e-mail for his account of what happened, Rosen wrote only, "I prefer not to comment. Sorry.")
Kangas had hoped to come to Dallas for the auction next month, but a recent ankle surgery will keep him on the sidelines; besides, he has no job to pay for a trip like this at the moment. Which, no doubt, is why he's choosing to sell the tape at this late date. The investment is due to pay off at long last.
"George [Gimarc] made me a CD, so I have a copy of the songs," Kangas says. "A lot of it's garbage. We would play our guitars and open our mouths, and garbage came out. A couple of years after we made the tape, I was mature enough to try to sell my songs. I moved to New York and Nashville but never made a living. During that time Bob was starting to formulate as a songwriter. He matured earlier than I did and turned out to be a pretty good songwriter. But, yeah, I wanna sell it now. I will leave that in the expert hands of Doug and Garry. I think it'll do quite well. But it's a card game now, and the hand has not been dealt."
Kangas pauses for a moment. "Hey," he says. "That sounds like a Bob Dylan song, doesn't it?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.