"Years Ago We'd Hang Around": Bob Dylan, Zachary, and Me

By Frank Cruz

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Bob Dylan. My mom had a few of his greatest hits collections, and I loved them, but she wasn’t deep into it. In high school, when I met Joel Levin of The Briar Rose Ramblers/Far From Kansas, that changed. Joel helped me get deep into Dylan. But before that, Dylan was elusive. Beyond the hits, he remained out of reach to me. You gotta remember, it was a lot harder to get your hands on music back then, unless you had the money to go buy it, which we didn’t.

But I loved the idea of Dylan so much that in junior high I borrowed the “Collected Lyrics” from the public library in my hometown. I poured over those pages the way a kid might approach the King James Bible. You know it’s important but you usually can’t make much sense of it.

I had actually heard only a handful of the tunes in the giant book, but the words were what really mattered to me. Even just the titles. I remember reading “Ballad for a Friend” in that book, all those years ago. I know I read it because I wrote my own song as a teenager (nothing like Dylan’s) and borrowed his title. My first rock band, 19 Stars (I’ve never been good with band names), played our “Ballad for a Friend” at cafes around Ventura.

Dylan never released “Ballad for a Friend” on any of his studio albums, so for me it only existed in a book on a library shelf in Oxnard. It was a name that I stole and repurposed for my own ends.

In 2010, a year after Zachary was killed, Dylan’s released a record called “The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964.” It’s a collection of solo acoustic tracks he performed as songwriting demos for his publishers, so they could sell the songs to other artists. That was how I first heard “Ballad for a Friend.”

Listening to the song for the first time in 2010, I couldn’t believe my ears. Dylan’s voice, from 1963, telling my story from 2009. Somehow, incredibly, this song, written 20 years before I was born, and 40 years before Zachary was born, had known all along what was to be our fate—my son and me. All that time, our story had just sat there in black and white: in a book on a library shelf in Oxnard. Anyone could have read it. Anyone could have known. We just didn’t know what we were supposed to be listening for, I guess. I guess people rarely do.

I went home and learned Dylan’s song right away and taught it to Chris. It was the second song finished for our LP, Ofrenda. I made a few minor changes to Dylan’s lyrics, because they felt so personal to me, and they practically wrote themselves while we were recording his song. With apologies, Mr. Dylan. And thanks.

“I had no better friend than he…”

Frank Cruz created a series of "lyric photos," like the one above, on his band's Instagram in the run-up to the release of Ofrenda in 2014. Click here to view the complete series.