Midnight Rambling

One person’s sleeptalk is another’s collectible recording


| November-December 2011



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A spread from The Dream World of Dion McGregor

In the early 1990s, I heard a curious audiocassette that was shared among my musician friends in San Francisco. It contained recordings of a man called Dion (rhymes with lyin’) McGregor, who talked vociferously in his sleep. The 10 dream recordings were not the yelps of someone waking in fear, though those sounds existed, too. The dreams spun out bizarre stories that entered my brain as music, with their repetition, rhythm, and Tourette-like utterances.

From a dream called “Our Town”: “Oh yes, tongues wag in this town. They wag, yes! From the highest banker right down to the lowliest sweeper in the tradesman store. Tongues wag. Yes they do. And they’ve got a lot to wag about. Hmmmph! Well, take old Mrs. Smith-Rhonson . . . [her son] has hands, and elbows, and arms, and no wrists!” Experiencing McGregor’s dreams in real time, as if I were crouched next to his slumbering form, was like being cuffed to the crazy guy on the bus—exhilarating and creepy.

The tape had been copied from a 1964 LP called The Dream World of Dion McGregor (He Talks in His Sleep). When I first heard the recordings, I didn’t know McGregor’s background—that he was a lyricist who had lived in New York in the 1960s; that he was a savvy couch-surfer, bon vivant, and cinema fanatic; that Michael Barr, his roommate and song collaborator, had recorded McGregor’s dreams on a reel-to-reel as potential lyrics—I just felt uncomfortable, eavesdropping on someone’s nightmares, yet wanting to know more.

I recently gleaned some answers from a book version of The Dream World, which was published the same year that the Decca LP came out. The book contains 70 dream transcriptions, with a cover by Edward Gorey, and the contents are charming—if you think a lonely tale of perching on a chimney in a cityscape of other peopled chimneys has charm.

Sleeptalking occurs in a half-awake state, much like that of sleepwalking, writes Valentine Wolf Zetlin in the book’s introduction. He notes how unusual it is to sleep-talk at length, as McGregor did, and with such narrative coherence.

In the book’s preface, McGregor does not psychoanalyze himself, preferring to offer the dreams as artifacts. He plays sly, writing, “You may not believe this, but I’m one of those people who really values his privacy.” He explains that he knew he was a sleeptalker but hadn’t heard his dreams until one particular morning.