“Tell Me Mama” – Native Nomads/”Tell Me Momma” – Bob Dylan: A Short Story.

A Very Strange Young Man

If anyone saw the very strange young man walking on down the street a few days after Halloween, they could be forgiven for figuring he was some freak who had decided he liked the get up he had put together for the holiday and had decided to wear it a little longer. The resemblance was uncanny really. Everything was correct: the carefully disheveled curly hair, the slight hook of his slim nose, fragile cheekbones, elegantly wasted frame and his intensely cornflower blue eyes. It helped that he was the double of the old folk singer he was impersonating, the rest was just dress up. The kid was sitting outside the Imperial Coffee House accompanied by a disinterested husky, and a rapidly cooling cup of black coffee. As I walked closer the resemblance became more intense. I had only ever seen the real deal once, and that was from a distance, and besides he was much older then; this man was much younger than that now.

It was not just the way this young gun looked. It was the way he held himself. It was the same way I had seen him compose his limbs and stance in all those iconic photographs snapped almost six decades previously. His legs were not long but skinny, crossed awkwardly, and poured into cigar-leg black pants. He wore a white shirt, buttoned up to the chin, with a little flounce at the wrist, showing off delicate pale fingers that seemed to be missing something and so were flailing around looking for a guitar or a smoke. He wore a flimsy black neck scarf which was more decorative than practical, and a long black jacket, cut somewhere between dandy and highwayman and hung fashionably open. His elbow rested on his thigh, and the other hand curled like smoke around his cup of coffee. This was a man composed entirely of angles and wandering thoughts.

It is one of life’s rare pleasures to sit outside coffee shops watching the world go by with an ink and paper magazine purchased at an improbably retro but thriving newspaper shop. My mama always told me to follow my happiness. Mamas are like that. They like to tell you at least a hundred impossible things before you even get going in life, and watch then you struggle for them hoping you might just nail one of them before they kick the bucket. I made point too follow my happiness, for what it was worth.

I thought that the doppelganger-for-a-famous-artist object of my intrigue would be gone for sure by the time I had purchased both magazine and coffee, but he was still there when I returned. He hadn’t moved at all, he was still holding onto a mostly full cup of coffee and staring out into the crowds of passersby with a look of nonchalant concern.

There were only two tables outside, but the other one was empty, so I sat down and allowed myself a small glance back up at this strange young man. It was hard not to smile as I opened the music magazine and started to read. Some bright young things were being interviewed about their new track, Tell Me Mama, so I pulled out my cellphone and fired up the music, a little sound spilling out from my headphones. It rocked and rolled like a ship on high waters, a Depeche Mode-esque trip with a heavy Pink Floydian bassline. I forgot about the folk-singer impersonator opposite me and sipped at my latte. I was lost in the good bass and the driving beat and the lonesome wail of a man hoping to be saved from some desperate existential electropop fate, when the thin face of the man who looked like a famous folk singer loomed over the top of my magazine. He appeared to be trying to get my attention. Now, it is one thing to have a wry smile at a young man trying on a pose, but another to interact with him and attempt not to say anything about it. I groaned inwardly and slapped the magazine down onto the pretty wrought iron table.

“What are you listening to?” the fake folk singer asked, sliding down into the empty chair opposite me, his husky trailing the leash, and settling down beneath my feet to nose at my boots. “Bascom, leave her alone!” he commanded. As I looked up into those brilliant blue eyes with thoroughly pinned pupils, that thin nervous sneer playing across his lips, the resemblance was more than impressive, it was downright creepy. I could almost believe that this was the old goat himself, except this boy was no more than twenty-five years old, there was not a wrinkle on his face, and his hair was full, thick, a deep rich brown color that betrayed no hint of dye, and his body was lean and hard, not old and bent.

Tell Me Momma, by the Native Nomads,” I replied, pushing the magazine towards him and offering him an earbud. “I’m going to get another cup of coffee. You look like you could use a fresh one.”

“I got no money, and there’s nowhere here even to blow some harmonica for a buck. The waitress gave me this one for free. She said she liked my costume. I don’t know what she was talking about.” His voice was perfect. The upwards drag of the lilt, the slight lisp, the geeky unsure phrasing. I felt myself wishing I had my guitar with me so I could put it in his hands and see just how good his schtick got.

The pose was almost perfect, but this was too far. I began to wonder if this kid had lost his damn mind, or if he was just messing with me, playing it up because he could see how amused I was.

“Oh come on now!” I replied, laughing. “That is a bit too much, Mr Zee. You had to take it too far, didn’t you? I guess you are a natural foil for the old superbrain. Tell me, Papa, what is wrong with you this time!” I sang it as well as I could. My impression was lackluster, but close enough. The kid smiled. “Hey, Mama! I like it. It has….possibilities.” I snorted.

“I’m serious. I’ll write my version of the song right now if ya have a paper and a pen. I bet I could. It rolls right along, don’t it. Carries you with it. It is a whole groove. Neat. You know that is the trick, take something good, and make it into your own. I did it with the song a couple of years back in ’62 or so. Rearranged it, gave it a new tune. People loved it. The guy who got there first wasn’t very happy with me, though.” He gave me a small, slightly embarrassed laugh.

I pushed a pen and paper towards him, playing along. I mean, that ‘following happiness’ thing means something. It is a real thing. It is not phony, even if that old folk singer himself might be the biggest phony of all time. If pretending to be this relic from the 60s made the boy happy, who was I to rain on his party. He started to scrawl across the paper, “Tell Me Momma.”

The kid paused and looked at the date on the music magazine. “What’s the date today,” he asked guardedly. “November 3rd,” I replied, “That would be 2022, not 1962, just in case were you were wondering.”

He looked at me and raised the magazine to the side of his face, as if to shield his words from the street. “How do I get back? I can’t stay here. I have to play for some guys from a big record label about 58 years in the past. One moment I was chasing Bascom here, down Jack Kerouac Alley, the next. Boom. Here I am, with you here future-geeks, trying to get back home. I knew I shouldn’t have done all that damn chanting with those beat boys. It might have been the dope I guess. Who knows. I just know I need to go. I need to be gone.”

“For crying out loud! You aren’t joking are you?” I yelped.

“Do I make it then? Tell me, gypsy mama. Do I sell a million?”

“More than a million, kiddo. Much more. You do great. You need to go back.”

“Tell me, Momma. How do I do it this time?” The Native Nomads played through the headphones. I shook my head. “I don’t know why you think I have any answers,” I replied. You might as well ask the dog.” Old grey Bascom got up and ran back towards Jack Kerouac Alley. “Look out, kid! You are gonna write a hit!” I yelled after him, but the kid and the dog were gone.

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