Perhaps it’s the unseasonable cold we’ve been having lately here in the SF Bay Area, or perhaps it’s all this talk of Dylan and Baez and love and NYC in 1963, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Jim and staying warm and new beginnings. The early ’60s was a more innocent time for Jim and Dylan. They were both full of boundless energy, promise and ambition, just beginning to do great things, dreaming of spotlights. It was the time before fame and infamy; 1963 was also the year I was born.
It’s no secret that Jim and I always had a rocky road. There was the very big deal of our age difference and the very different stages we were at in our lives, our individual temperaments, and the impact (mostly negative) that it had on my family. True to his nature, he was alternately defiant and remorseful about it all. He talked about the “dark times” and how he wanted us to be together in the light.
Meanwhile, I was struggling to pay for my last two years of college with scholarships, edit magazines, look for work, keep body and soul together. And all the while this crazy, demanding, genius of a man was asking me to marry him when he wasn’t weeping in his whiskey about his ex-wife. It was all so romantic and overwhelming and downright possessed.
A few months after Jim gave me “Coat” he gave me this picture of him wearing it in NYC in 1963. This is what he wrote on the back of the frame. “On my birthday – 2-3-85 / For the coat I wear in this photograph shall forever be yours – as I am now & always will be – Your Jim / P.S. This photograph was taken by David Gahr about the time you were 4 or 5 months old. I love you “lots”.
To add to the challenges, Jim had very little money and virtually no assignments coming in. It really, really bugged him that he couldn’t lavish me with fancy clothes, flowers and jewelry, wine and dine me, even though I didn’t care much one way or the other; I’m not the most materialistic bear in the woods. And, if I do want something, I’m more than willing to go work for it myself to make it happen. It’s just the way I was brought up.
Jim was struggling mightily just to make rent and re-build his shattered reputation and all those burned bridges with his friends, other photographers, his connections in the media and music industries, so even a night out once a month or so, say, at Washington Square Restaurant Bar & Grill or Mulhern’s in the Marina had to be calculated carefully. And we always drove my zippy little 5-speed VW Rabbit everywhere to save wear and tear on his poor old “Truck.”
But despite it all or maybe because of it, Jim had mastered the art of the meaningful gesture, the perfect present, given with impeccable timing and lovely words. And that was how he came to give me “Coat.”
So it’s our first Christmas together in 1984, Jim and I were going to visit one of his only real collectors at the time (who shall remain nameless to protect the obscenely wealthy). Jim had casually tossed a heavy dark-blue wool coat I had never seen in the back seat of my VW as we headed off to see Mr. Deep Pockets in Pacific Heights, deliver him his latest prints, drink wine we couldn’t afford, that sort of thing.
After we had parked, while we were still standing on the street outside his two-story condo with the insane views of the Marina, Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands, Jim told me to grab the coat from the back. He took it from me with a flourish and held it open to reveal a patch of royal-blue satin fabric sewn onto the lining with this inscription embroidered onto it:
This coat came into
my life 3 years
before you were born
May it keep you warm
long after I am gone
"Coat" today, with Jim's lovely inscription.
It was so lovely and spare, like some of Dylan’s strongest work, where he blends simple truth with raw emotion put into only the words that were needed, nothing more.
And then I put it on. As I was a bit taller than Jim – something he never failed to delight in – it fit me perfectly. With Jim’s trademark directness, he called it “Coat.” Of course. It was a simple name for a classic Abercrombie & Fitch navy wool overcoat that he bought in 1960. “Coat” was heavy, made of thick wool and incredibly warm, with the coolest hood to keep the rain and snow away. It was 24 years old and looked brand new. At once practical and dressy and, since vintage was really kicking in at the time, also quite chic. “Coat” was perfect.
Dylan, in his not-warm-enough coat, trying to fight the chill after they walked to the cafe in 1963.
Jim told me it was one of the first really nice pieces of clothing that he’d ever bought for himself to keep him warm doing the New York winters and now it was my turn, even though I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to end up in NYC. Jim said he saw me going to NYC from the moment he met me. He knew it before I did.
He also knew that, as a typical California girl, I was going to struggle with the New York winters. And I did, in fact, I’m convinced “Coat” was one of the few things that kept me from freezing to death on those late nights riding the A train way back uptown to my sublet in Washinton Heights before I moved down to the Village in 1987.
So what’s this all have to do with Bob Dylan? Not so very much, I suppose, except that sewing poetry into your one great coat and then giving it to the present-perfect girl of your dreams strikes me as a very Dylan-esque thing to do.
Girl Of The North Country (excerpt)
By Bob Dylan
If you’re traveling in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was the true love of mine.
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she’s a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds.