photo by Jake Kurdsjuk
I first met Peter in November of 2001. I flew 3 and a half thousand miles to sleep on his floor and catch a Bob Dylan concert at the Spectrum in the aftermath of 9/11 and the release of ‘Love And Theft’. I had just turned 18 and was beginning my first year at University studying English Literature. Not long before I’d learned to play guitar and Bob Dylan was probably the most important thing in my life at the time. Peter and I had met, less unusually now than then, on an online newsgroup called rec.music.dylan (RMD).
RMD was an example of one of the earliest means of communicating with other like-minded people. This was still the days of web 1.0 when sites were static and you left messages on guestbooks and it was way before Facebook and other social media platforms were born. RMD allowed Dylan fans to write emails and reply in a chain, creating a thread of discussion and it was accessible through a Mail client like Outlook. Back then (which for me was around 1999) it was a place for discovery (other than Karl Erik Andersen’s website, Expectingrain.com) where you could chat about Bob Dylan with other fans and piece together the puzzle. This was part of my window into discovering Bob Dylan. Yahoo groups also had the option for video or audio chat and functioned much like a YouTube live video works now. Peter was admin of a group called ‘Small Talk At The Wall’ on Yahoo and eventually I would join that group and take part in hootenannies with other musicians who liked Dylan, busking into the early hours of the morning.
In what now feels like centuries before platforms like YouTube or Spotify, a Bob Dylan fan began with ‘Expecting Rain’ on a morning to get the latest news, and for other more forensic and time consuming activities you could link off to other websites like ‘Dylanchords’, ‘Another Site of Bob Dylan’, ‘Interferenza’ (interviews) or the ‘Bringing it all Back Homepage’ or ‘I Happen To Be A Swede Myself’ or ‘Searching For A Gem’, and then of course there was Bobdylan.com maintained by Dan Levy. The rest of the time it was RMD. Later there would be Arthur Louie’s ‘DylanPool’ which was a whole other phenomenon that allowed people to bet on which songs Dylan would feature in his nightly setlist.
The closest thing to a Bob Dylan YouTube at the time was a website called TvTalkin.com where you could watch short RealVideo clips of Bob Dylan taken from VHS bootlegs. TV appearances and music videos featured there. Napster was hot then and filesharing was rife, aside from tape trading, as the way to share and discover more music. Many of those connections with people could turn you onto this stuff and it could happen on the newsgroups or through email correspondence. Time moved slower then, everything seemed more mysterious and exciting and you wanted to collect everything you possibly could.
Peter Stone Brown was a kind of mythical figure in that community, his name came up on ‘Expecting Rain’ with a link to purchase his CD Up Against It. Peter would appear on RMD normally to correct facts and set the record straight. He was authoritative, his responses often so direct that often people would mistake him for being cold. Sometimes that’s exactly what it was, because someone would post an inane comment or request and he just couldn’t take them seriously. Other times it would be passionate responses littered with musical references, and other times absurdist humor laced with a Marx Brothers flavour or he could switch with ease into a perfect Lewis Carroll style Jabberwocky dialogue.
If I recall correctly Peter and I probably first began correspondence in 2001, although I think I may have been on the newsgroup as early as October 2000. Our correspondence began with what would become a typical interaction from him with others – a grammatical correction.
That July I had been to see Dylan play at Stirling Castle with my Dad, it was my second concert (the first being Newcastle, September, 2000) and I hastily collected my thoughts and sent a review to Bill Pagel of Boblinks.com (a collection of all concert ephemera from setlists to reviews and ticket stubs). I probably posted this at RMD also, but anyway an email came from a email@example.com.
I don’t recall the exact details of the correspondence but it was in the following month of August when the correspondence quickly developed into critiques of Dylan’s new album ‘Love And Theft’ which had just leaked and a CDR had arrived in the mail direct from Philadelphia with my name on it. Peter obviously recognised a kindred spirit and that I had intelligence when talking about Dylan, but the sort of intelligence and expression that hadn’t fully formed as I didn’t care about typos or punctuation, I just wanted to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible in an almost stream-of-consciousness way. Perhaps Peter was reminded of his own enthusiasm and excitement in discovering Dylan and could see the same transformational process as it had happened to him. Peter used to tell me about the time he visited a psychiatrist, he wasn’t sure how to communicate to the shrink that there was nothing wrong with him and that in fact he’d been through a kind of revelation, Bob Dylan had opened his eyes and his imagination and his heart and he pretty much followed that through his life. He played the shrink It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) imploring the man to listen closely. He might have blown the shrinks mind, because he didn’t have to go back.
I remember stepping off the plane in Philadelphia in the fall of 2001. I headed to the baggage area and through arrivals where I had agreed to meet Peter. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what he looked like. I imagined a guy, smart casual, perhaps a smart jacket, shirt and smart pants, university lecturer-looking with enough edge to suggest someone who wasn’t too straight-laced. I thought of the press photo of him online.
Heading through arrivals with my case I saw this small almost Bukowski-like character in a checked shirt and shorts, curly hair with a white streak that reminded me of Susan Sontag. The car journey was a relatively quiet one, until we reached the city when I got a dose of the American way of driving, cries of ‘asshole’ and ‘fuck’ and car-honking ensued as we hit traffic.
When we arrived at Peter’s home (he lived in this huge 3 level house on Wharton St, in the UK we’d probably call it a town house) the house seemed alive in a dusty kind of way and I thought if I coughed the house might cough back. The hallway extended to the stairs but to the right of that you entered into a dining room type space that divided up the kitchen, the lounge and another room that sat just outside of the kitchen and housed a chaise lounge styled sofa and a coffee machine. The kitchen seemed like it hadn’t changed since the ‘50s and I would later encounter the odd roach after dark trying my best not to stand on one as it scuttled across the floor. There were instruments, amplifiers, magazines and newspapers, books and cables everywhere, all in a sort of chaotic order. One thing I learned about Peter pretty quickly was it might have looked chaotic, but he knew where EVERYTHING was, and he’d know if something had been moved even an inch and it drove him insane when he couldn’t find something.
There were two flights of stairs and between them a landing area where his roommate lived and where Peter’s bedroom and the bathroom were. I remember him once telling me a story about his cat and how he’d been away touring when he came home to find the cat in the bathtub. In the time since he had left (perhaps a couple of weeks) the cat had an intuition it was going to die and had gone to the bathroom, curled in the tub and stayed there. When he arrived home he found the cat there with a tumour on its face that had not been there when he left.
At the top of the second flight of stairs I remember walking into the anterior room of his office. Everywhere box files, cardboard boxes with paper work, a fridge and a coffee machine, coffee whitening stacked up and up above a cupboard door there was a photo of Bob Dylan at the Songwriters Hall of Fame standing next to his friend David Amram. Immediately Peter told me the story about that photograph and how he was there that night in 1982 and shook Dylan’s hand.
Next I think we must’ve walked into his office. Peter often reminded me that my first words on entering were “this is perfect”. And it was. For me it was a whole new world of learning. Wall to wall records, CDs, books, magazines, music ephemera and memorabilia. He had music of every genre alphabetised, he had his Dylan collection, official and bootleg. There were still packages and boxes he hadn’t even opened. There were two desks and two computers and a desk lamp, pretty much the same desks he’d later relocate to the house in Mount Airy. Strewn across these desks were more papers piled up, a box of plectrums and finger picks, unopened packages probably containing promotional CDs and Dylan bootlegs sent by Dylan fans far and wide. Above his computer on the wall a noticeboard, yellowing paper with faded pen and pencilled notes, with addresses and email addresses including a very specific one for Special Rider Music.
That day Peter kicked open a doorway in my brain and music, books and films came flooding in. It truly blew my mind. He had everything. It was a true transcendental experience. I didn’t have an older brother to turn me onto things, or intellectual parents or a home environment where the many questions a searching and intrigued young person can learn by asking and discovering. I had to do it all myself. I very much imagined that this was what Peter had in his youth. His brother influenced him greatly and turned him onto Bob Dylan, his parents were politically on the Left and they had all the great blues and folk records alongside all the great books. He probably knew who Leadbelly was through Pete Seeger and I think this was all way before Dylan.
When I left Peter’s after that first visit I left with a case full of CDRs, Dylan bootlegs, albums I should own and a mixtape called Redwood Tree River Favourites. He was one of the first people in my life to really open my eyes to the immensity of knowledge out there, to the beauty of Art, Music and Film. And he knew it. My friendship with him filled me with excitement because he was a kind of mentor to me, he listened to my music as I developed as a songwriter, he would offer suggestions and advice and notice the smallest detail. He would suggest songs and artists I should check out. He was a huge Soul music fan as well as Country and it wasn’t all restricted to Bob Dylan. He turned me onto a plethora of people including Aretha Franklin, Garland Jeffreys, Howard Tate, Tim Hardin, Bobby Womack. I remember one mixtape of Soul he made me included Out of Left Field by Percy Sledge, Get It While You Can by his friend Howard Tate, Everybody Loves A Winner by William Bell. He turned me onto the Baroque pop of the Left Banke too, Walk Away Renee, Pretty Ballerina. All these songs hit me right away and expanded my consciousness.
My friendship with Peter grew over 18 years. Although we didn’t see each other on a day to day basis in the real world as it were, we were in contact everyday online. I pushed him to get an official website set up and designed that and first put it online in 2002. Eventually over the course of years this would become the blog which now hosts all of his writings.
I visited him again that same year and he showed me Philadelphia and I met some of his friends, we played a gig with his friend Larry Broido an exceptional guitar player and then I saw New York City for the first time. We drove up the New Jersey turnpike which for me was greatly symbollic because I’d been listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ since I was about 12 years old. We walked and walked. I think during that visit I met his brother and sister-in-law for the first time in Brooklyn. I remember watching The Godfather for the first time, he had a version that played chronologically, and we shared our mutual admiration for the Sopranos. I found out about the writer Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon Johnson from him because he had his Dad’s books up on the shelf in the living room.
He would come and visit me in the UK in 2004 and I took him to Durham and Northumberland, I wanted him to see castles and cathedrals and I booked a gig for him in Newcastle and later we took a train to a Dylan convention in Northampton. In 2005 I would visit him again in the States and we saw Dylan in Camden, New Jersey, with his friend Seth at a baseball park with Willie Nelson also playing. During this same trip Peter was taking part in a film, So Many Roads, by Dutch filmmaker Jos de Putter where he traced the stories of Bob Dylan fans. Later Peter would feature in another book about Dylan fans called The Dylanologists.
It wouldn’t be until 2011 during my dissertation year for my MA in Film that I would see Peter again. I stayed probably two weeks. We played guitar, watched a lot of cable TV, he showed me The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pasolini, but probably jet-lagged I think I struggled to stay awake. I remember once we stopped off to look the SS United States which I’d seen before and always wondered about. It was anchored in the harbour, decaying and rusting. I always thought it was an incredible sight to behold this fallen behemoth Titanic-like piece of engineering, just sitting there in a sort of post-apocalyptic pose.
Soon enough 2011 turned into 2017, that year I moved to Italy briefly to teach English and Peter put me in touch with someone he knew there who became a good friend and who I shared many great adventures with, including a 10 hr drive up to Luxembourg to see a Bob Dylan concert. Soon 2017 became 2018 and with that came the news of Peter’s cancer diagnosis. In the previous couple of years he’d had some health issues and it’s likely the cancer formed part of this and just wasn’t detected until some pretty serious shit went down, where he was rushed into hospital. The news shook me up, he Skyped from the hospital and before he’d even told me I knew it was something bad. I felt numb and really just didn’t process it for a little while. Within several weeks thanks to Peter’s friend Mike I was on a plane to Philly and took part in a concert celebrating Peter’s music. I think he gave one of the best performances I’d ever seen him give, everything was as it should be. The whole experience for me was a whirlwind and I remember on the night of the concert Peter was highly stressed but supremely grateful that friends had pulled together for him.
I would return again at the end of April 2018 and spend around 10 days with Peter. I wanted to try and be around him as much as possible and we did a lot of great things together. We played some more music, both of us picking on guitars. He played me some songs of his I’d never heard and I recorded everything we played. We headed up to New Jersey with his friends Seth and Dan to a film festival where we got to see some rare and unseen Dylan footage presented by his manager Jeff Rosen. Peter had been in touch with Jeff a lot over the years, and even been commissioned to write liner notes for Tell Tale Signs. Although Jeff likes to be incognito it was obvious who he was and nice to make his acquaintance. He asked Peter what he thought of this years Dylan footage, and Peter muttered in typical Peter fashion, “Mmmmm, last year was better”. We all laughed as did Jeff and that was that.
Later we also caught Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams at Ardmore Music with his friends Dorothea and Seth. We were all astonished at Larry’s undiminished effortless brilliance on guitar and violin, he even played a Soul song he’d co-written with William Bell. There were some noisy people at the back of the room near where we sat which became almost unbearable and it was always entertaining to watch how Peter dealt with these situations – it infuriated him. We discovered they were corporate people who were involved in a film project for Larry and Theresa Williams, they clearly weren’t there to listen to the music, they were there to drink and schmooze. It reminded me of Peter’s method of shushing people at Dylan concerts. If he had to speak to one of these “assholes”, he’d usually say: “Is Bob Dylan interrupting your conversation?” It always seemed to work.
I spent some time during that trip digitising all these tapes he had from his days as a DJ with WXPN. He’d interviewed George Jones, Bob Marley, Carl Perkins, Ry Cooder, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For years I’d been trying to encourage him to put them online as he hadn’t transcribed all of them.
During that last trip we drove upstate to visit Peter’s brother and sister-in-law. They live in a beautiful and peaceful place, where it wasn’t uncommon to spot an eagle or hummingbirds up close. We sat out on the porch on an evening, smoked a lot of cigarettes and I tried to get a sense of the book Peter had always wanted to write about Bob Dylan. I tried my best to capture everything he said and hope someday it will help build towards the book that – based on all of his writings – he’d probably already written and just not realised it.
In September of 2018 Peter was asking when I might return. I knew deep down what it meant, that time was short and he knew it. He was sleeping more and more, he was online less and less, his email responses became shorter and shorter, and daily contact would often skip to every couple of days. He was still posting on his Facebook page but the YouTube videos seemed more poignant, more imbued with meaning. Towards the end of September, The Parting Glass appeared followed by Not Dark Yet and Danny Boy. It was difficult, I had just been with my partner to visit her parents in Sweden for the first time and had just started a new job, so I was trying to work out a way to get there that would work for us. I guess I hoped for November and in the end it was November when I visited. Peter died on October 5th and his memorial was held November 9th at the Ethical Society in Philadelphia.
I have never witnessed a memorial like it. Dan Montgomery read a beautiful speech and performed You’re Not There, CP Lee transformed into Lord Buckley and Jake Kurdsjuk spoke about his friendship with Peter and performed What Do I Do. After the performances people got up to speak about Peter and they just kept getting up, it was astonishing. At the end Peter’s brother gave a very beautiful speech and included in it a piece of poetry Peter had written as a boy. It was full of the imagery and amazement of the mystery of life and knowing its meaning and it reminded me of why Peter loved the music of Van Morrison so much. He was always yearning to find that magical place, or in Van Morrison’s words, from one of Peter’s favourite songs:
I want to go out in the countryside
Oh sit by the clear, cool, crystal water
Get my spirit, way back to the feeling
Deep in my soul, I want to feel
Oh so close to the One, close to the One
Close to the One, close to the One
And that’s why, I keep on singing baby
My hymns to the silence, hymns to the silence
Peter’s songs were hymns in a way, they were observations, prayers, justifications, songs of yearning to connect. Connection was everything to him. He was always trying to get “back to the feeling”. Even in his prose, the situation was the same, to find peace to be able to create.
At the end of my last visit, Peter, his brother Tony, and I, took a trip up near Bear Mountain. I took a photo of them both and a photo of the three of us. We looked over at the view of the Hudson river below and the hills behind it. We watched a cargo train that must’ve been 2 miles long slither along the hillside close to the water’s edge. I didn’t realise the symbolism of this place until later or why we had driven up here. Later we would return to Tony’s home and I would watch as they played guitar together singing George Jones’ ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ among others.
Wherever you are, you are always close. I hear your voice, I remember your words and your wisdom. I appreciate the friendship you gave me in all its honesty and its love and I will treasure it for my lifetime. Your encouragement of my music, your mentoring and teaching, helping me grow. Yours was the great friendship of my life and for you I’ll keep on singing my hymns to the silence.