The scene is a hotel room in Sydney. The year 1966. Bob Dylan is slumped in a cane chair, his dark glasses on, and is "spaced out" to use the vernacular of the time.
His manager Albert Grossman is there too. Grossman, who looks like a bear with glasses, is at once paternal with just a hint of menace.
Members of Dylan's backing band, the Hawks, populate the room. The atmosphere is tense. In effect this is ground zero of a rock music revolution. The revolution revolves around the frail looking figure in the chair.
As he moves around the globe on tour, Dylan is re-writing the possibilities of pop music. At each concert he plays an acoustic set, followed by a set of electric songs played at a level Dylan would later say were, "f***ing loud".
Fans alternately cheer and boo. The concerts are so brutal that his drummer Levon Helm quits, sick and tired of the hostility. When he arrives in Sydney the media too is hostile. Dylan is on the edge. He is looking for allies.
Back in the room the only person not part of Dylan's tour group is Craig McGregor, a young Sydney Morning Herald journalist who has written a very positive story about Dylan. Now he has been invited to the inner sanctum. It is the kind of access most journalists could only dream about.
Grossman says to Robbie Robertson, "what are we going to do?".
Robertson, with Dylan remaining silent says: "Bob wants to play him the acetates (test pressings) of Blonde on Blonde."
And that is what happens. This is astonishing. In just 18 months Dylan has turned pop music on its head and created what we know as rock music. Now he is offering to show an unknown Australian journalist the next instalment.Dylan offers Australian journalist sneak peek of classic album
Talking to Craig McGregor and asking him to recount the mood and his feelings at the time, in the room, he goes quiet.
Then he reaches for a word: "Embarrassing, embarrassing for me at least."
"Why?" I ask.
He is hard pressed precisely to explain himself.
"It was really difficult. I didn't know the names of the songs. I couldn't hear all the words. Normally I like to let songs wash over me, then you come to know them," he said.
But none of that is here in this hotel room. One listen and then the expectation of reaction: no pressure.
Three sides of the record go by and then Robertson says, "what now?".
Grossman pipes up: "Bob wants him to hear all four sides."
The pressure is now at breaking point.
On the player goes Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Dylan delivers a song that even now is hard to describe, an ode to a woman or perhaps many women, that lasts over an entire side of an LP.
By this time McGregor says he is even more unnerved and "embarrassed".
"It helps to have the context of the song, but here I was being played this song trying to understand what it is about. I couldn't do it with this song."
"What happened?" I ask McGregor.
"I got up and mumbled how much I liked the songs. I walked towards the door, then I turned round. Dylan was slumped in the chair, head tilted to the ceiling.
"I felt a mixture of pity and remorse. Pity for Dylan and remorse for myself. It was a moment that should've led somewhere and didn't."
It is a searingly honest account. Walking away, a thousand things must have run through McGregor's head. What was it that Dylan had wanted? What had he expected? Endorsement? Did he want publicity?
"Did you write about what you had heard? It was after all a scoop of massive proportions," I asked.
"No," he says. "That would have been a dereliction of trust."
It is an interesting way of putting it. In retrospect this is classic Bob Dylan. At war with his own fans, he has co-opted the one person in Australia who has ears to hear what he is doing. McGregor may have thought he had failed some imagined test, but he was wrong.Chasing the Dylan legend from Sydney to New York
Later in the tour, McGregor gets a message from Dylan via another journalist. As he explains in his recently released book Left Hand Drive, the message is sharp but clear: "Come to New York man!"
It is an offer and a challenge.
McGregor will meet with Dylan again over the years. He writes and edits an authoritative book, Bob Dylan: A Retrospective. He catches up with him during Dylan's 1978 Australian tour.
As he describes it to me, they are walking down the street together. Dylan in a floral shirt, waist-coat, pants with knee patches and sneakers. A car full of young men rolls by.
"Jesus look at 'em. They let 'em out once a year," the men yell at Dylan.
McGregor is horrified Dylan seems relaxed, even unphased.
"This is just like Mobile," Dylan mutters.
McGregor understands immediately. Mobile is the location for one of Dylan's great songs on Blonde on Blonde. Located in the south of America, Mobile is claustrophobic, racist and full of red-necks.
Dylan is on the outer, where he likes to be. McGregor is still in the circle. He will record an interview with Dylan, one of the longest and most frank ever given.McGregor's empathy to 'the greatest songwriter since Homer'
"So what was it that led McGregor to Dylan's door in 1966, and what is it that keeps him coming back?" I ask. "Is it empathy?"
"It's a good word empathy, it's a strong word. When I listened to his music I had an empathy with his songs and music," McGregor said.
"What was the empathy?" I ask.
He is less clear about this. There is a moment of silence. I suggest he takes the question on notice, but then he offers a simple explanation.
"I regarded him as great songwriter."
It seems too simple. But for McGregor that claim has solidified and grown over the past 50 years.
"He's the greatest songwriter since Homer."
"What? That's a big call," I said.
"It's a great claim I know. I still think that. The Beatles were great, they were transformative ... they have nothing like the breadth of oeuvre or vision Dylan has," he said.
"That's true of even great songwriters like Joni Mitchell. Gershwin was a great songwriter, great musician but he was held back by the Tin Pan Alley traditions of the time.
"What Dylan has done, amongst other things, he has exploded the Tin Pan Alley tradition and exploded contemporary song-writing, so that it is now possible to write anything about anything at all in popular songs and that is an extra-ordinary achievement."
McGregor is warming to the task at this point and continues.
"The Psalms are moving, but they are usually regarded as part of a folk tradition, not the work of one artist or writer.
"If we want to go back to a single songwriter we have to go back to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, although there is a question whether they are the work of single songwriter or are they also the product of a very great folk song tradition."Like a rolling stone, Dylan continues to change
"So will McGregor go and see him this time on tour?" It is a stupid question really. "I haven't talked to him in a long time."
He will go, of course he will. But does he still have the empathy that he had in the 1960s and 1970s?
"Probably not. Empathy as I said is a very strong word. I don't have that instinctive empathy that I had with him for much of his career," McGregor said.
"For a start I have got older, Dylan has changed, every album he puts out is different from the one before. He's changed amazingly.
"I go along as an act of homage.. really. We go along as an act of homage to him as a songwriter, not to be transformed by his performance, by the concert itself. We go along to see what he's like these days and offer our admiration for him, that's about it."
It occurs to me Dylan would be appalled by this in so many ways, and yet it is also true that it is a perfectly understandable response from a generation to whom he has given so much.
There is too always the possibility with Dylan that something will happen, some glint of magic, something will be delivered that we cannot predict.
Roll on Bob. Roll on._Want more? You can read Craig McGregor's book Left Hand Drive_*