The curators of a new Bob Dylan exhibition called “Forever Young” now showing at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, faced a daunting task: finding as much interesting and hitherto unknown material about a living and active artist.
However, the most intriguing material they wished to include was unobtainable. These were dozens of hours of lost homemade films about Dylan, produced at the end of the 1960s while he was spending time in the New York home of Sali Ariel, now a 69-year-old artist living in Herzliya, and her then-husband Terry Noble.
At the end of the 1960s through the early 1970s, Ariel was part of Dylan’s entourage at the heart of New York’s bohemian crowd. She used to spend entire evenings with him, documenting everything on videotape. The recordings accompanied her and her husband at the time when they immigrated to Israel. “There were between 50 and 80 recordings,” Ariel told Haaretz, relating to the lost treasure.
“We kept them in shoe boxes, noting the dates and adding a few words. We screened the tapes once at the house of artist Claes Oldenburg. When I separated from my husband in 1976 I didn’t think of taking them from him. A few years later I wanted to view them and asked him for the tapes. By then he was religious with a family, and refused to let me view tapes in which we were documented naked and smoking. He also wanted to protect Dylan’s privacy and not breach his trust. When I pressured him again he told me he’d burned them all. I don’t know if that’s true. He died in 2000 and they might be in his children’s possession. Anyway, these were old recordings which probably got ruined if no one looked after them.”
The two young Jews from America were married in Sweden in 1967. They came to Israel but returned to the United States shortly afterwards, in 1968, setting up in a one-room apartment at the edge of the West Village in New York. Among the circle of extreme left revolutionary yippies Noble was known as “one-legged Terry” (he had lost a leg in an accident while working on a kibbutz in Israel), as well as a Zionist. The couple met Dylan through a friend called A.J. Weberman, “who was Dylan’s stalker,” says Ariel.
“He looked through Dylan’s garbage and published articles based on what he found. At first Dylan was angry, but ultimately these searches made Weberman a familiar name on the New York scene. "Celebrities in those days were quite exceptional and eccentric characters,” she says, laughing. “That’s how the idea was born that Terry teach Dylan Hebrew and that they play chess together. Dylan didn’t learn much from him – Terry spoke Hebrew with difficulty – but Dylan did learn about Israel and how to play backgammon, a game Terry learned before we met, when he was in Israel in the early 1960s in jail for stealing motorcycles.”
In the course of their acquaintance, relates Ariel, Noble planted the idea of Zionism in Dylan’s head, honing his Jewish identity. In the apartment shared by the couple, who had a stormy relationship, Dylan met Rabbi Meir Kahane, Israeli blues-rock musician Danny Litani and radical Jewish-American social activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. On adventures with Dylan they met John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Kinky Friedman.
‘I didn’t fawn over him’
The two videotaped every moment. “I taped them playing music, playing backgammon, smoking, talking, walking the streets,” she says. “In those days that was a new and idealistic art form and we were at its forefront. Every person is the TV director of his own life who can produce his own films about himself. In those days cable TV was only at its beginning, and no one had thought of or had the technology for YouTube. Facebook and YouTube represent the fulfillment of that dream for me.”
She describes her former husband as an eccentric and blunt character, but very charismatic and funny. “Everyone who met him either loved him or hated him. Dylan surrounded himself with interesting people like that. He liked hanging out with Terry since Terry attracted all the attention, allowing Dylan to withdraw and remain quiet, which he liked. He started hanging out more and more in our apartment. He came every day for an hour or two after finishing recording in the studio and before going home.
"I’d tape them sitting on the bed playing backgammon and talking, Terry clad only in his white underpants, with his amputated stump covered in elastic bandages and Dylan wearing one of his silly hats, in his brown leather jacket and a scarf. One was fully dressed and hidden while the other was more-or-less naked.
“Between 1969 and 1971 we set out from the apartment on videotaping excursions through the streets of New York. My role was as cameraman and director with our newly invented half-inch portable video, and I taped them constantly.”
What was your relationship with Dylan like?
“What Dylan liked about me was that I didn’t fawn over him and was quite indifferent to his music and fame. I’m not a musical person and don’t go to concerts. I opposed the groupie phenomenon. Once, Dylan was there playing a sound track for a movie about our trip to Nebraska and I, considering myself the director, asked him to do a fade-out of the music, or in other words, to stop playing. Later my husband was angry with me, saying I was the only person in the world who’d ever told Dylan to stop playing.”
What did you like about Dylan?
“First of all, he was Bob Dylan. I wasn’t immune to that and I really loved him. He’s a sweet person, sincere, open, vulnerable and sensitive. I took care not to pierce his armor. He liked sitting with us peacefully, speaking softly and saying words of wisdom.
In an article Noble wrote in 1987 for a periodical called Counterpoint, a scanned version of which went online, he wrote that Dylan liked listening to people, explaining that “the reason Bob wanted to get to know me was that I was Jewish and he collects Jews ... His problem with being Jewish himself is that being Jewish is not very American. And Bob Dylan is the most American person I have ever met. Even today, when most of his fans are 40 and over, he represents young America, which is Christian while he is Jewish. And that’s a problem for him and for us.”
“We used to ask him what it was like to be so famous, and he’d say things like ‘when I was young I really wanted it and worked hard for it. But once you get there it’s different, you don’t want it anymore – you’re not the same person who wanted it earlier.’
“As soon as people in our group realized that Dylan was a permanent guest at our apartment they also came visiting. That’s how we introduced him to Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bob Fass. We opened sort-of a cultural salon. Many people who wanted to meet Dylan ‘happened to be passing by our house.’ Terry introduced him to these people, including Rabbi Kahane.”
How was the link with Kahane established?
“At some point everyone knew we were friends with Dylan. Someone representing Kahane contacted us, saying he wanted to meet Dylan. Terry was very Zionist in those days, walking around with a kippa [scullcap] on his head – being Israeli and Zionist were regarded positively then. Kahane was busy mainly with protecting Jews on the New York subways, emulating the success of the Black Panthers. This was a proud defense movement and no one regarded it as something negative.
“At that time Dylan connected with his Jewish roots and was very pro-Israel, talking about his wish to visit the Western Wall for his son’s bar mitzvah. Terry encouraged him in that and it happened. Terry then came to Israel, changing his name to Tuvia Chaim. Dylan visited him every time he came to Israel. Terry was his guide, taking him to Jerusalem, to kibbutzim, to the north and the West Bank.”
Who won at backgammon?
“I can’t remember anymore. I was, and still am, the best player, but I was usually occupied with other things, like making coffee for everyone, baking hash cookies and knitting kippot for Terry. I also followed them around, videotaping them. Clearly I was on the wrong side of the feminist revolution. One evening we were watching the Super Bowl with Dylan and others in Abbie Hoffman’s apartment in the East Village. The men were all in the living room watching the game. The women were all in the kitchen, baking and serving hash-laced brownies, talking about the wonderful smell of fresh laundry. But then, we were saying: ‘Look at us. Is this what we’re talking about?”