This is Betty Dylan
Maybe you've never heard of them, but this Writing
Lyrics and music by: Dan & Vickie Dubelman
Opening photo by
Track 01 — "This is Betty Dylan" (05:16)
Dan Dubelman wrote his first song when he was 4 years old. "Walkin' Through the Woods" went like this:
Walkin' through the woodsNobody's counted how many songs he has written in the 37 years since. A 1988 graduate of the Writing Seminars master's program in fiction, Dubelman got hold of an electric guitar when he was 13 and has never let go. For the last 10 years, he and his wife, Vickie, have been the heart of Betty Dylan, a band that has produced five recordings, won admirers among musicians and producers, and struggled to earn a living wage. You've probably never heard of them. The band operates on the fringes, which in many ways suits the Dubelmans. They are provocative, idiosyncratic, feisty about their independence, and creatively restless. Those qualities once defined rock 'n' roll musicians. Kevin Eggers, a longtime producer and the founder of Tomato Records, says, "They're pure kinds of characters, you know? Musical spirits like you don't get to see often these days."
Attempts to categorize the band's music always end up in Hyphen City: alt-country-punk-Americana-blues-roots rock under the influence of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and Grace Slick channeling Patsy Cline. Sort of. Kenny Aronoff, who has drummed for John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, Melissa Etheridge, and Smashing Pumpkins, has also drummed for Betty Dylan, and he's a fan. "Their music is not chiseled and clean," he says. "It's raw. Listen to it with your heart and you'll feel it. It's not to be analyzed, you know what I'm saying?"
Though if you favor analysis, here's Peter Guralnick, author of acclaimed biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke and a friend of Dan Dubelman's since the latter was a scrawny teenager at summer camp: "All of Dan's music reflects a keen intelligence and an irreverent sense of humor that reacts against orthodoxy of any kind. I think what drives his music, his writing, his sense of himself is not so much a reaction against what's wrong as a drive toward a vision of what's right."
Then there's Dan's mother, Elaine. She likes her Betty Dylan CDs: "I think they're very well done. I don't think I'm the target audience, though."
Forty years ago, rock 'n' roll put electric paddles to the barely beating heart of American popular music. The musicians who did it were animated by a defiant creative spirit; rebellion against the establishment; a do-it-yourself ethic; and the notion that once they heard it, millions of people would embrace music that was sexy, dangerous, homemade, and human in all its messy, earthy, vulgar, raucous glory. For about a decade, rock 'n' roll lit up American culture with its anger, irreverence, and wit. Then the voltage seemed to seep out of it. Nike appropriated a John Lennon song to sell shoes. The Gap used '60s bohemian patron saint Jack Kerouac to sell khakis. Corporations began to sponsor rock 'n' roll tours to sell more beer, cigarettes, and cars. Hipster cool got branded and commodified. Popular music, even punk rock, lost what was left of its edge. In 1968, "rock 'n' roll hall of fame" would have been a risible idea; today it's a middle-class tourist attraction in Cleveland.
But the times are changing again. Empowered by digital technology and a renewed hey-let's-put-on-a-show attitude, bands have begun to reassert a cranky creative spirit that looks familiar to veterans of the 1960s. And as part of it, Betty Dylan is maybe, just maybe, poised to break out of the margins and find a larger audience.
Early on a Saturday evening, the Dubelmans are trying to get out of their house in East Nashville to play a gig. Guitars in carrying cases are propped against an amplifier as their owners shower and dress. Dan emerges first. He's short, about 5'-6", and lean from intense two-hour tennis workouts seven mornings a week. He wears his hair shorn to stubble and a soul patch under his lower lip, and tonight he will set off his white shirt and white jeans with a battered black cowboy hat that's had most of the cowboy mangled out of it. Vickie has braided her dyed-red hair into pigtails. She favors skirts or pants slung low on her hips; tonight dark brown slacks reveal a tattoo south of her lower spine. Over her right collarbone she has more ink, a tattooed image of Venus. She climbs into towering platform shoes, and they begin to cart equipment to their truck.
"Did you bring the set list?" she asks.
Uh, no. Into the house to retrieve the piece of paper. Back out to the truck.
"Do we have a capo for your guitar?" Dan says. Back into
Dan began playing
at age 13.
"We do this every time," Vickie says, grinning. She and her
husband have matching gaps between their front teeth and a
relaxed, sometimes affectionately bickerish rapport with
At a riverside joint named Windows on the Cumberland in Nashville's 2nd Street arts district, Dan sets up his guitars while Vickie pulls out Betty Dylan posters, scrawls notice of tonight's performance on them with a felt marker, and tacks them up outside the club. She doesn't expect this gig to do much for their cash flow, but what the hell, they like to play and the club's owner, Boots, has called them his favorite band. "We're always suckers for people who think we're good," Dan says.
Dubelman writes narrative songs and short stories and tends to recount his life in scenes. The Family Dubelman — Dan, mother Elaine, father Richard, and sisters Liz and Deborah — lived in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, across the George Washington Bridge from New York City. Elaine sang to all her children when they were infants, but Dan seemed especially enchanted by the sound. She recalls, "He would just look at me with his big eyes. He wouldn't go to sleep and I'd just go from one song to the next in this flat, off-key voice. He couldn't get enough."
Dick Dubelman, as everyone knew him, worked in film production, beginning as a cameraman and working his way up to directing and producing. But he started with television commercials for clients like Polaroid and Cracker Jack. When little Danny Dubelman was 5, Dick's partner, Bob Gage, wrote a Cracker Jack commercial with a part for him. The commercial ran for years and garnered young Dan a Golden Lion award from the 1970 Cannes Film Festival.
"My career peaked early," Dan says.
When he was in the seventh grade, Dubelman's parents bought him an electric guitar. He practiced all the time, learning songs from Deborah's record collection. Says his other sister, Liz, "I think we had a pretty chaotic life. My father was away a lot and it was pretty crazy. I think music helped Dan."
When he was 16, Dan saw a notice in the newspaper of a contest in Greenwich Village for Bob Dylan impersonators. He grabbed his guitar, a fake ID, and headed across the bridge. He didn't win, but he did meet professional guitarist Arlen Roth and convinced Roth to give him some lessons. At the time Dubelman was working an unpaid internship at Fox Recording Studio in New Jersey. When he brought in some new business one day, Fox rewarded him with a few hours of free studio time. Dubelman dialed up Roth, and Roth called a bass player named Jerry Jemmott and asked if he would play the session. Jemmott is a big-time bassist who has backed Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, and B.B. King. But something about this skinny Jersey kid appealed to him. "Dan wasn't the greatest singer or guitar player," Jemmott says. "But he had a lot of heart, a lot of conviction."
Dubelman has a gift for fostering friendships over many years. Jemmott remains a friend and has played bass on four Betty Dylan records. He introduced Dan to Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, drummer for Aretha, Steely Dan, and Paul Simon, and Purdie has become another longtime friend and collaborator. A few years ago the Dubelmans were recording in Bloomington, Indiana, when they helped Kenny Aronoff bring his drums in from the parking lot on a snowy day. Aronoff, too, has since appeared on Betty Dylan recordings. Guys who played in bands with Dan 20 years ago are still in touch. Says Marvin Etzioni, a producer in Los Angeles who counts himself among Dubelman's fans, "Musicians are attracted to someone who's doing something different, something beyond the mainstream. That can be very attractive to a five-star musician."
Back at Windows on the Cumberland, Betty Dylan opens its set with "Are You Happy Now," Vickie's love song to her husband: "Are you happy now / Knowing I'm completely yours / And I don't want to look no more / 'Cause I found you."
She is a powerful, expressive singer who can belt the doors off a bar but also curl her voice around a subtle blues shading. Dan's scratchy guitar launches Betty Dylan's slow, bluesy cover of "Folsom Prison Blues." It's 10:15 on a Saturday night in Nashville, people by the hundreds are prowling 2nd Street, and from outside the club they can hear Vickie's barrelhouse voice rocking the night. But inside there's maybe a dozen people listening, if you count the bartender, and at the end of "Folsom" two of them finish their beers and walk out. It's the kind of night that can drive a musician crazy.
Betty Dylan rolls into "Sheryl Crow," written by Dan. He has a limited voice, but he knows how to make expressive use of it on his own sly lyrics: "I'm an alcoholic, codependent, sex-addicted maniac / With free-floating anxiety / I'm a self-destructive, paranoid / Self-medicated narcissist with adolescent tendencies / I'm bipolar, anxiety addicted, unemployed and I'm in counseling / And Sheryl Crow is soaking up the sun / Sheryl Crow is having lots of fun / Rustling cattle in a miniskirt / Man that hurts."
After high school, Dubelman headed for Cornell, mostly, he says, because he loved the school's setting and "I figured I better take advantage of the mistake they made in letting me in." He enrolled in a creative writing workshop taught by novelist Allison Lurie, less to become a writer than to escape the oppressive reading requirements of his other classes. He began writing a novella that eventually would be titled American Trash, and after Cornell he sent part of it to graduate writing programs at Washington University and Hopkins. "I remember being in the shower and the phone rang. I heard, 'This is John Barth.'"
Dubelman picked Hopkins, enticed by a teaching fellowship
and the chance to study with Barth. At the department's
welcome reception, another student, David Lipsky, A&S '88
(MA), sized up the wiry, long-haired Dubelman: "I thought,
What is this rock 'n' roller doing at Johns Hopkins? The
rest of us were thinking about John Updike and Toni
Morrison and he clearly was thinking about Buddy Guy."
|Farm Aid 2004, Betty Dylan's biggest gig: "It was so beyond our dreams."||
They became best friends. Dubelman remembers feeling
intimidated by his classmates at Hopkins and finding it
hard to write anything new. But he kept at his music. Says
Lipsky, who would go on to write an acclaimed account of
life at the U.S. Military Academy titled Absolutely
American: Four Years at West Point, "I'd be at his
apartment struggling over a sentence or a paragraph and
he'd walk out and say, 'Hey Lip, come here, I just wrote a
song.' It was incredibly cool."
After Hopkins, Dubelman returned to New York City. Times were lean. A coffee shop turned him down for a job because he didn't have enough coffee experience. He sold advertising on maps for a while, which earned him trade-out dinners at expensive Manhattan restaurants; he'd take girls there on dates, then ask if they had any cash for the tip. But he put together Dr. Dan's Music Show, a band with his friend Jerry Jemmott on bass, made a record, and began getting gigs at major clubs like the Village Gate, Wetlands, and the Lonestar.
In the summer of 1994, the band went on the road, but Dubelman found the experience disillusioning. They were constantly broke, booked into clubs in Western mountain towns that seemed to have no young people during the summer. The bass player — another guy, not Jemmott — kept taking all his clothes off, to the alarm of the nice people who occasionally put the band up. Dubelman got sick of gigs in empty clubs, sick of no money and the smell of stale beer and his shoes sticking to the floor. In 1995 he disbanded Dr. Dan's Music Show and headed for Los Angeles.
In L.A., he landed work in television as the Fox Kids Network's manager for online entertainment. Part of his job was maintaining a Web site for the animated series Casper the Friendly Ghost, and one day in 1996 he got a call from a woman at the show's producer, Universal. Her name was Vickie Durand, and she loved his voice on the telephone. Before long she met him for a business lunch.
Vickie had grown up in various places around California and Nevada, lots of various places. She says that by the time she got to 10th grade she had attended 22 different schools. Her parents would split up, reconcile, split up, reconcile. An only child bounced from parent to parent and house to house, she would amuse herself by singing, putting together little shows, and making her friends sing harmony. Though from an early age she had a big voice, it didn't occur to her to join a band until she was in her mid-20s. With her first husband, she enjoyed brief success with a group called Venus Con Carne. In the early days of her deepening friendship with Dan, neither revealed they had played in bands. "I didn't want her to think I was a flaky musician," Dan says.
One day, Vickie's husband came home and announced that he had been having an affair and wanted a divorce. Devastated, she went into the desert of Joshua Tree National Park for three days. She says, "When I came back, I went to Dan's house and I never left." They married the next year.
Dubelman had an L.A. band, Dr. Dan and the Perscriptions (a typographical error that stuck). Vickie began sitting in, singing backup at first, then lead on a few songs. "It didn't take me long to take over," she says. When they were pondering names for a new group, "Betty Dylan" just popped out of her.
They began landing gigs around Los Angeles. One night at the Roxy, producer Etzioni heard them and told Dan, "I like you and Vickie. Why don't you really strip it down to the two of you?" He started working with them on a new record, co-writing the title track of what became American Trash and encouraging them to package the CD with Dan's novella. American Trash got some airplay, and Dan thought who knows, maybe Betty Dylan had a future. "You're on the radio, and they play a Beatles song, then they play Betty Dylan. And you know, you always think that one thing is going to break you through."
By this point he had all but given up on a career in music. He and Vickie had good jobs in the entertainment industry. They owned a condominium in Westwood, drove a Lexus, employed a house cleaner, and had their groceries delivered to the door. But they decided to give Betty Dylan a shot. They quit their jobs, sold their condo and all but their guitars, bought a 31-foot motor home they called Homey, and took off. "It's like we joined the circus," Vickie says.
For the next few years, they rolled from coast to coast, performing and recording wherever and whenever they had the chance. They issued a string of home-brewed CDs: Flame, Brand New Key, Heart Land, Abdicate the Throne. They won an online talent search and appeared at the 2004 Farm Aid concert, joining the finale with John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. "All we could do was laugh, it was so beyond our dreams," Vickie recalls.
But commercial success didn't follow. One club gig after another became a grind. So when they had the opportunity to buy a house in Nashville, they took it. They parked Homey in the backyard and settled into relative domesticity.
Late in their gig at Windows on the Cumberland, Dan leans into the mic and requests another round of beers for the band. Next on their set list is the Beatles' "Get Back," followed by "Turn This Thing Around," a bluesy song Dubelman wrote and first recorded with Dr. Dan's Music Show. The set ends with "Brand New Key," the 1970s Melanie hit that sounded a lot less sexy when Melanie sang it. Dan and Vickie thank the sparse audience, then pack up fast because the next band wants to set up.
The Dubelmans knew going in that the club's owner wouldn't be paying them anything. After paying for their beer and parking and giving 10 bucks to the drummer, for the night they are in the red $32. But they got to play music. They're not unhappy.
The next day, the Dubelmans drive to the house of their friend Michael Webb, a touring keyboard and bass player with a studio in his garage where Betty Dylan has been recording a new album. Two pet pigs, Pearl and Jimmy Dean, root around in the backyard. Pearl once had a part in a movie, and Jimmy Dean appeared on an album cover. "These pigs get more show business than we do," Webb says.
The record, tentatively titled Don't I Know You From the
Future, isn't finished. Neither is Under the
Covers, an album of Betty Dylan performing other
people's songs. The Dubelmans talk about making a record of
Vickie singing torch songs, and a hard-rock record in Los
Angeles. But they keep diverting their time and creative
energies to other projects. Some cover the mortgage, like
commercial Web design and writing scores for the Internet
videos produced by Liz Dubelman's company VidLits. Some
don't, like little films they've been making lately,
political spoofs and music videos and an Internet film
based on one of Dan's short stories. It can seem at times
as if the focus has gone out of Betty Dylan as a band.
|The Dubelmans have gone back to living in Homey, their RV. They missed their nomadic life.||
But maybe not. Four decades after the last pop culture
revolution, musicians again confront a corporate
entertainment orthodoxy that has little room for the
provocative, the quirky, or anyone deemed unlikely to fit a
mainstream radio format or generate huge sales from the
racks at Wal-Mart. The response has been for musicians to
embrace the Internet and create their own new performance
space that's redefining what it means to be an artist.
Musicians still make records and play gigs, but they're
also creating their own promotion and radio airplay on Web
sites like MySpace, making videos and airing them on
YouTube, and nurturing fan bases that show up at their
Viewed in this light, little Betty Dylan films on the Internet look more like a band finding its way in an emerging music culture that has a déjà vu feel to it. Spend an hour on a random sample of bands' MySpace pages and you'll find that much of this new creative output is raw, amateurish, and self-indulgent, which means it is reminiscent of the homemade tapes and impromptu free concerts and figure-it-out-as-we-go concert production that brought forth the epochal music of the '60s.
Predicting the epochal — now there's a loser's game. But something new is taking shape, and Betty Dylan might have figured out what it is. Michael Catalano thinks so. A former touring musician, Catalano is now executive director of a company that operates two cable television channels in Nashville. He thinks artists melding music and video and Internet performance into some kind of new hybrid are, indeed, the next big thing. "I spent 25 years in the music industry," he says, "and when I met Dan and Vickie, I thought these guys have got something. They seem to have an understanding of how the Internet works with music and with television, and a real good grasp of what the technology is moving towards."
Their musician friends are betting on them, too. Kevin Eggers says he wants to take them down to Austin, Texas, and produce a record. Jerry Jemmott says simply, "It's gonna happen for them." They just need perseverance, he says, because the business always has its ups and downs. "You have times when you fly, times when you walk, and times when you take the bus."
For now, the Dubelmans are taking the RV. They recently sold their house and have gone back to living on the road in Homey. The proceeds from the sale will keep them going for a while, and they look forward to a more nomadic existence. Says Vickie, "You wake up one day and you're in a forest, and the next day you're in a truck stop, and the next day you're overlooking the ocean. The sounds are different, the smells are different, the foliage is different."
The day after their Windows on the Cumberland show, they had to pay for a modest Mexican dinner with a second credit card after their first one was refused — they'd run up expenses getting the house ready to sell. Their upcoming club gigs in Kentucky and Indiana probably wouldn't help with that credit-card debt. Doesn't matter, says Dan. "Money's nice, but it doesn't change anything. It's not like I want a record company to come to me and say, 'You're a pretty good artist. I think you're worth x number of dollars.' It means more to me that John Barth thought my writing was good than some record guy thought he could make money off of me."
Beyond those Midwestern gigs and a trip to Los Angeles, Dan isn't sure what comes next. He's been working on some film scripts, a couple of television projects, including a comedy called Hippies and Rednecks Unite, and some promotional work for an independent film. And there are all those Betty Dylan albums awaiting completion. He's comfortable without much of a plan. "Everything that's worked has been by accident," he says. "It's like falling backwards into the universe." Then, sounding just like a musician circa 1967, he says, "It's really been a strange trip."
Dale Keiger is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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