Singer/songwriter Mary Lee’s Corvette achieved a surprising breakthrough with a 2002 reinterpretation of Blood on the Tracks and she hasn’t stopped since, with her latest venture being a book that collects people’s dreams about Mr. Zimmerman
“Do you know that line from ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues,’ ‘I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours’? I came upon that and I thought, ‘Excuse me Bob, did you write that so I could do this book?’ It just opened up everything.”
While she doesn’t eat and breathe Bob Dylan, Mary Lee Kortes does dream about him, and if her new book is any indication, so do a lot of other people. DREAMING OF DYLAN: 115 DREAMS ABOUT BOB, published by BMG Books is a collection of subconscious visions of the man, conjured up from people around the world: a neurologist from Chicago; a social worker from Sweden; a retired corrections officer from Michigan; a dentist from France; a pastor from NYC; a senior analyst for New Zealand’s Ministry of Economic Development; and a plumber from Irving, Texas. Patti Smith’s got a Dylan dream and so does Please Kill Me’s Gillian McCain. While not in the book, it seems as though even Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon dreams of Dylan.
Mary Lee Kortes is a singer-songwriter, whose performance name is Mary Lee’s Corvette, and who achieved a surprise breakthrough with their 2002 song-for-song reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s classic LP Blood On The Tracks, recorded live at Arlene’s Grocery, located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Initially put out by Mary Lee herself, word of the recording quickly spread throughout Dylan’s circle of fans. Soon, the album was released to a wider audience and received great reviews, which led to a slot for Mary Lee, opening for Dylan at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom.
I sat down on a rainy day in Brooklyn with Mary Lee to discuss her new book and Blood on the Tracks.
PKM: In the foreword of your book, you write that Bob Dylan has been in the public consciousness for so long, it’s no wonder he appears in people’s dreams.
Mary Lee Kortes: When you wonder about something or someone so much, I think maybe you dream about it or them more. People are really passionate about him. If he was more forthcoming, maybe he wouldn’t be as interesting to people. Some people think they really know him and understand him.
PKM: Can you discuss your reoccurring dreams about having dinner with Bob Dylan?
Mary Lee Kortes: I had them about once a year – that was the only reoccurring dream I had. It was very gratifying that I got to meet him and I’m given everything I could ever want…in my dreams.
PKM: So you never got to dinner?
Mary Lee Kortes: We’d always make it to the restaurant, but we would never eat. He’d encourage me, validating and approving of me, he was kind of a fan. He liked my music. That was what was being communicated. It was as though it really happened. It felt real, like dreams do. It made me happy, I had this afterglow, my dream bliss, you know, “Aww, Bob Dylan likes my music! I should keep going! Wow, I think I will!” Thank you, Bob!
PKM: How did you go about finding your contributors and collecting their dreams?
Mary Lee Kortes: I posted something on “Expecting Rain“, a message board for the Dylan-obsessed. I got a bunch that way. And by just telling people and they’d email me. It was really fun! I have a couple friends with radio shows, like Mojo Nixon, who mentioned it on his show. I had a lot of help.
When I realized I wasn’t the only one having dreams about Bob, I thought, “That’d be a great book!” I got some visuals to go with it. I contacted several illustrators. I didn’t want a uniform look. I thought it should be somewhat chaotic, not too tight or orderly.
PKM: Were there other commonalities in people’s dreams of Dylan?
Mary Lee Kortes: A number of people dreamt that they were about to play music with him, when something goes horribly wrong. They realize, “Oh, I don’t know how to play drums!” Or they’re about to play guitar with him and realize they’re holding a toy guitar.
Along with letting us include a poem of hers about Dylan called “Dog Dreams,” Patti Smith also wrote an introductory paragraph, talking about how she and Sam Shepard were in bed one time, they woke up in the morning and they’d each had a dream about Dylan and how she’s performed or recited this poem many times since. And every time she thinks back to that morning in 1971 with her and Sam. It’s so lovely to have an original piece of Patti Smith’s writing in the book.
Another great thing about doing this book…Mitch Blank is a Dylan archivist…he now works in conjunction with the Dylan Museum in Tulsa. I met him years ago through my Blood On The Tracks album. So my publisher and I went down there for a meeting and looked at all the stuff they have. We brought a photographer I know named Daniel Root to take some photos of things, which are mixed in with visuals for the book.
PKM: Tackling any Dylan album, but such a personal one as Blood On The Tracks, must have been intimidating. How did you gain the courage to do it?
Mary Lee Kortes: Well, a few things. When I accepted the gig, I did it with such naivety. “Oh, I love that album!” And then I started listening to it. Then when I started rehearsing, I realized I didn’t know all the words to “Idiot Wind.” I don’t know all the words to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” What have I done? I almost cancelled twice. I just kept going and found a way to get comfortable singing them. “Idiot Wind” might be my favorite one to sing. It’s definitely the most emotional song. There’s so much anger in it. That’s what I feel. I put a lifetime of anger into the song when I sing it. It’s so cathartic!
I wanted to keep his phrasing, that’s part of what people want to hear – it was just finding a balance about tweaking his phrasing. I did decide to learn harmonica about three nights before the gig and it shows!
PKM: You didn’t plan to record your performance of Blood On The Tracks at Arlene’s Grocery. How did it come about?
Mary Lee Kortes: The night before, a friend told me I had to record it. So I grabbed a cassette on the way out. That was all I had, you know? I was afraid it was just going to be embarrassing. I listened to it a month later…at the beginning, I thought, “This is pretty good. The sound is real good. The singing is pretty good. You can tell the crowd is having fun. It was energetic and all that juicy stuff.”
PKM: You opened for Dylan once in New York, right? Did you meet him?
Mary Lee Kortes: Yes – at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I was doing my sound check and I turned around to say something to my drummer and I saw Tony Garnier [Dylan’s long-time bass player and band leader] standing back by my keyboard player. I know Tony…and next to him is a little guy in a cowboy hat and I saw those blue eyes! And he tipped his hat to me. It was really sweet.
I don’t really care about meeting him. I don’t want anything from him, you know. It’s not an issue for me.
PKM: To a certain extent, it’s a cliché, but a lot of writers talk about the writing process and that it “comes through you…”
Mary Lee Kortes: I never think that [laughter]. Maybe I’m too egotistical but I do not feel like a channel [laughter]. I wrote it!
I remember Springsteen once said, “If I know how I wrote something, it’s probably not that good.” That really speaks to me. I know for myself, I get an idea, I write it and then I can’t remember writing it so clearly…I walked to the park and had an idea for a song called, “Learning From What I Dream.” I don’t know why – I wrote the song, I don’t remember…I wasn’t in a trance, but I was so inside it, then it’s done. Like when you’re so focused on something, you don’t remember exactly how it happened.
PKM: Can you talk about the song you wrote called “Dreaming of Him”?
Mary Lee Kortes: The lyrics of the song are all based on dreams of Dylan in the book…like Dylan sitting in the backseat of a car, wearing a fur coat — one in which he’s running for president. There are a few fish dreams and several dreams that have to do with boating. In one, he’s teaching a class in boating.
Mary Lee’s Corvette will perform a reprise of Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks on January 24, 2019 at Joe’s Pub in NYC.