Peter Stone Brown has never had to force himself through a Bob Dylan song.
But this May, onstage at the Ardmore Music Hall, playing as part of a local bash for his bard's birthday, that's the foreign territory he crossed into.
His body just hurt too much. Singing was an effort. Even singing Dylan.
Brown, a thin, reserved man of 67 with wild white hair, is a gifted writer and songwriter, a mainstay of Philly's music scene since the 1970s. And he's perhaps one of this country's preeminent "Dylanologists" — self-made scholars of all things Robert Zimmerman.
That night in Ardmore, Brown was building to a lyric in Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine": "Arise, arise, he cried so loud / in a voice without restraint."
But Brown could not arise.
"Do the song, get off the stage, and go home," he kept telling himself.
Later, the diagnosis: stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The Dylanologist is dying.
Peter Stone Brown went home to his rented room in a big old Victorian in West Mount Airy, into the embrace of his record collection and his books, the ephemera of a life spent two steps removed from the big time.
He grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, and then in Millburn, N.J., where he can remember staring at the Manhattan skyline, and wishing he was in Greenwich Village. "With all the poets," he said.
When he first heard Dylan, something opened up in 12-year-old Peter Stone Brown.
Something that stayed with him as he became a DJ with WXPN in the 1970s, and a rock critic at the alternative weekly the Welcomat. He was a champion of local talent, his record collection a guidepost for young artists. There was a taste of success — a self-penned album, Up Against It, that made it to the Americana charts.
"It didn't go as far as I would have liked," he said. "It got some reviews, though."
All along, there was Bob.
Brown's devotion to Dylan was chronicled in Haddonfield writer David Kinney's 2014 book The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob. How he once carted a record player into his therapist's office and played the 7½-minute Dylan tune "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" instead of articulating his feelings. ("I felt like I wasn't getting through to the guy," he explained.)
There was the time the stars aligned in 1974, when his brother, Tony, a New York musician, was tapped to play bass on the original Blood on the Tracks recordings. But Dylan, ever mercurial, re-recorded the album, and for so long, most of Tony's bass lines — and Peter's closest connection to his idol — existed only on bootlegs.
And there was that night in 1982 when Peter and Bob finally came face-to-face at a New York gala. "Like the [Joan Baez] song 'Diamonds and Rust': He has these intense blue eyes where he can just look right through you," Brown said.
Brown shook his hero's hand, and walked away.
Darkness at the break of noon
Brown already knows how to live while dying. In 1990, he was mugged at a Broad Street gas station. The bones of his face were shattered. And he thought his future was, too: a blood test while he was recuperating revealed HIV.
"In a race against time in a rifle sight," he sang in a song he wrote in response, "what do you do when it's not gonna be all right?"
But he's lived, and he's written, for nearly another three decades. He never compromised. While he never made much money, he did make a life — one he's proud of.
On Sept. 30 in Manayunk, Peter Stone Brown will take the stage again. It's billed as his final show. And his friends, all those he's championed and played with and shared a love of Dylan with, will be there next to him.
"He's always stuck to his guns — to be authentic, and real, and determined to do the best work he can," said Kenn Kweder, who's on the bill. "He's not a superficial cat."
The headliner is still finalizing his set list. This time, he won't be playing much Dylan — he'll leave that to his friends. This time, maybe for the last time, Peter Stone Brown will play his own songs.