Friday, January 6, 2017


     I was delighted when Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature last month.  Some writers continue to question the Swedish Academy’s choice but Mark Ford, in his New York Review of Books piece, “Why He Deserves It,” makes a strong case for Dylan’s worthiness. And Joyce Carol Oates, Bernard-Henri Levy, Salman Rushdie and Billy Collins, among others, agree with Ford.

     “Most song lyrics don’t hold up without the music and they aren’t supposed to,” Collins says in an interview. “Bob Dylan is in the ‘2% club’ of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and guitar and his very distinctive voice.”

     Allen Ginsberg always embraced Dylan as a poet. “I heard ‘Hard Rain’ and I wept,” he tells interviewer Jeff Rosen in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, NO DIRECTION HOME.  “Because it seemed like the torch had been passed to another generation of Beat illumination…  I was knocked out by the eloquence of ‘I’ll know my song well before I start singing.’”

      Jonathan Lethem, whose 2006 Rolling Stone interview might be the best piece of Dylan journalism to date, says in the October 2016 issue of Vulture:

      “…(H)e’s the bard of the age so I didn’t find it either to be a shock or objectionable.  It was almost like, Let’s graduate him to the highest award we can think of and be done with it. 
     “If I could quibble,” he continues, “it would be with the Nobel committee’s specific citation of him as a ‘poet.’” Disagreeing with Collins (about terminology but not Dylan’s merit), he continues,  “A lot of Dylan’s writing dies on the page (but) that’s beside the point…  He’s in the oral tradition.  His work isn’t meant to look like a Wallace Stevens poem. But I like the fact he’s kicked up a controversy again, because controversy is intrinsic in his identity and his accomplishments.”
     I like it too.  But in my view, the controversy is a tempest in a teapot.  The Nobel Literature Committee honored Dylan, in their words, for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.” In NO DIRECTION HOME, Dylan recalls influences from that tradition: Hank Williams, Johnny Ray, Odetta and the astonishing John Jacob Niles (crying and playing Appalachian dulcimer.)  Muddy Waters, Peter LaFarge, Dave Van Ronk, Cisco Huston.  And Woody Guthrie!
     Pablo Picasso’s assertion that “good artists borrow, great artists steal” surely applies to Dylan as he absorbs Guthrie’s tone -- his stance and his themes -- or as he reworks Niles’ “Go ’way From my Window” into “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”  Lethem, in “The Ecstasy of Influence,” shows that purloining previous works to create new ones is quite natural. And for nerdy fans like me, awareness of these “thefts” is delightful. There’s pleasure in hearing musical allusion – Fats Domino’s impact on McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” vocals, say, or Mendelssohn’s presence in John Williams STAR WARS score – just as awareness of literary allusion entertains good readers.  With Dylan the influences are manifold and, therefore, even more fun to catch.
    For Lethem, again, Dylan’s genius isn’t about the words literally on the page: “The action is in the almost theatrical power of his embodiment of his language. Not in poetry per se.”  For the vocal compositions to have their full impact you have to see and hear them performed.
     The physical beauty of the songs -- listening to them performed live without yet seeing them played and sung -- was my first supercharged experience of Bob Dylan. 

     Barely 13 years old, standing outside Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August 1965, I was puzzled when those inside booed “Like a Rolling Stone.” It was one of only two Dylan tunes I knew, and I loved it. Not only was it the number 1 song on my favorite AM station, this anthemic rant against the poverty of privilege made me move and groove, blissfully unaware of Dylan’s roots in a more orthodox folk world that was shocked by his latest electrified incarnation.
     The other Dylan song of which I was aware was “Positively Fourth Street.”  I won the record in a WMCA “name it and claim it” contest and I played the grooves off it.  The rock that I knew and loved at the time was about holding hands, never dancing with another and, when really complex, falling for leaders of gangs. Now, here was a song about betrayal -- damned if I even knew what that was at 13 – which made the angry tone of Dylan’s vocals stand out.  But Al Kooper’s lilting organ fills were downright gleeful, or at least they made me feel that way.  What an amazing contrast!
     Devouring this embodied rock and roll, setting my hi-fi on replay or listening to Dylan on my transistor radio (after all, the songs “had a beat we could dance to”) happily coincided with eighth grade English classes covering rhyme and meter. That made the songs even more powerful for me. I connected them to poetry.  I even discovered that both singles were written in second person, a rare voice in rock lyrics.
     And encouragement from English teachers – not the maudlin, sanctimonious kind going on about “rock poems” in Frederick Weisman’s HIGH SCHOOL, but really cool ones – led me back in time to the pre-electric Bob Dylan. That Dylan wrote and performed "protest” songs, classical ballads such as “Boots of Spanish Leather” (featured since 1996 in the Norton Anthology of Poetry) and imagist confessional lyrics.
     I already knew the giddiness of dancing “’neath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” from The Byrds “folk rock” cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But eating trail mix with my pals Ricky Newman and Harriet Moss, in Harriet’s basement after school one day, I discovered “Chimes of Freedom.”
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
                                                                           Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsake’d                                                    Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake                                                                                                                                   
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

LBJ had barely begun his relentless bombing of Vietnam as we memorized “Masters of War.”
Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

     And this is where the “new poetic expression within the songwriting tradition” begins to take shape.  Bob Neuwirth observes on the DONT LOOK BACK commentary track: “No one had heard these kinds of (political) songs outside of union halls and labor rallies.  But there they were.

     As soon as I do look back and discover the Dylan of protest songs, however, he astonishes again with the miracle of Blonde on Blonde. The first double album ever, as far as I know, stays ahead of a nascent counterculture with “Rainy Day Women” from which my pre-teen buddies and I discover that we “must get stoned.”
     When I hear “Visions of Johanna,” I can actually seejewels and binoculars hang(ing) from the head of a mule” – probably at the same time my parents inadvertently introduce me to Dada during trips to the Museum of Modern Art.  “To live outside the law you must be honest,” from “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” becomes a motto.  And “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the first song ever to take up an entire album side, opens me to the truth -- later affirmed by Leonard Cohen -- that the deepest romantic love, especially Chelsea Hotel romance, is in 6/8.
     I follow Dylan in the gossip columns (Rolling Stone had yet to publish its first edition), where it’s rumored that he’s been in a motorcycle accident.   Then John Wesley Harding is released and I discover Western outlaw heroes, St. Augustine, lonesome hobos, escaping drifters, and watchtowers from which you couldn’t even see Jimi Hendrix on the horizon.
     For me, at this point, Dylan isn’t (in what I think is Lethem’s sense) embodied yet. I haven’t completely felt his theatrical power. But that changes on February 24, 1968:  I sneak into a Carnegie Hall side entrance and watch a sold-out Woody Guthrie Memorial concert. The gods and goddesses of folk are there – Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Odetta, Richie Havens, Judy Collins, Arlo… And Dylan appears, with The Band.
     He’s the headliner on a show without one. He tears through “Grand Coulee Dam,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Mrs. Roosevelt” as though Guthrie wrote rock’n’roll.  The music is mesmerizing.  
     But, really, it’s the way Dylan stands.  He’s a reverse image of Woody, his hero. Where the Oklahoman’s guitar neck points to the sky, the Minnesotan’s points to the ground.  Like a divining rod.  As though he uses it to find life-giving water.
     It’s also the way Dylan approaches the mic to belt into it… like a jungle cat ready to strike.  His own body’s electricity makes his eyes twitch as he wails. The energy is so powerful the lyrics lose their meaning; I can’t take my eyes off of him.
     A few months before the concert, DONT LOOK BACK opens at the 34th Street East Theatre.  If memory serves, it’s still playing as I jones for another look at Dylan weeks after the show.  And there it is again in grainy 16mm black and white, almost as hyper-real as Dylan in the flesh: his handheld image, lithe, twitching, androgynous, divining and divine; I get my fix of Dylan in a cinema verite documentary as fresh as the music itself.
     A year later the ever-transforming bard appears on television, on Johnny Cash’s variety show, to promote Nashville Skyline.  Now he’s a crooner! He sings “Girl from the North Country” with Cash, another hero of his, and it’s a rare gem of a performance.
     After that, time, for the true fan, passes slowly.  I’m off to college more than a year later and, finally, New Morning is released. On a cold slushy day in Ithaca, I walk past the ghost of Richard Farina and the living spirit of Thomas Pynchon to a record store on Eddy Street, and discover still another side of Bob Dylan.
      Track One, “If Not for You,” is the first Dylan song covered by a Beatle.  The title track, “New Morning,” like the “weatherman” lyric in “Subterranean Blues,” becomes part of the Weather Underground’s lexicon.  “The Man in Me” later becomes the first Dylan song in a Coen Brothers film, sonically synonymous with THE BIG LEBOWSKY’s Dude. 
     “Day of the Locusts,” finally, seems most resonant today; it helps explain why the winner of 2016’s Nobel Prize for Literature was loath to attend the December 10th ceremony in Stockholm.  The song is about Dylan receiving an honorary Ph.D. from Princeton in 1970.  Its lyrics suggest that Dr. Dylan, whose commencement companion is David Crosby, took some sacramental medicine to celebrate: “The man standin’ next to me, his head was exploding/I was prayin’ the pieces wouldn’t fall on me.”  In the next verse, Dylan sums up his Princeton experience: “I sure was glad to get out of there alive.”  Yes, he writes, “…the locusts sang and they were singing for me.”  But were these creatures benign, like the song’s “birdies flying from tree to tree,” or deadly like Nathaniel West’s and Yahweh’s?
     The lesson of Princeton is don’t go to events where you have so little in common with your fellows that, “There (is) little to say, there (is) no conversation.” 
     Over the years, Bob Dylan attends Grammy presentations and Kennedy Center gatherings – where he can consort with musicians and perform instead of speaking about his music - but not the Academy Awards. (He’s in absentia when he wins an Oscar, in 2001, for “Things Have Changed,” his song in Curtis Hanson’s WONDER BOYS.)
     Of course, there may be more to it. “Masters of War” is still in Dylan’s repertoire on The Never Ending Tour. It’s hard to imagine a poet who will “stand over (war-makers’) graves ‘til (he’s) sure that they’re dead” traveling to Sweden to get a prize, no matter how lofty, named after the inventor of dynamite.  But he doesn’t turn down the award, after all, as Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964; that might seem disrespectful to its many worthy recipients and suggest false modesty. Instead, he sends Patti Smith to the ceremony, where she performs “Hard Rain:”
     As I look back over the 46 years from Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his Princeton Ph.D., his prolificacy during the first decade in which he writes staggers me. The magnitude of his body of groundbreaking work seems as significant as his personal embodiment of it. So does its diversity. Back in 1971, while Dylan’s still in the first fifth of his career, he provides another cinematic delight.  His music for Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID not only contains the classic (yet ever-changing) “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” it underscores his own performance in the film as an enigmatic character named Alias.
     On August 1st that same year, I see Dylan, embodied again, at the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden.  He performs “Hard Rain” and “Times… Changing.”  Then he teases and delights, playing the intro to “If Not for You” to ease not into that song but into “”Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”  Identical chords for different aspects of romance! So physical! So musical! And Dylan, in a denim jacket and jeans, flanked by George Harrison and Leon Russell, is radiant. As Woody Allen once said, “I’m vibrating like a tuning fork.”
     In early fall, still 1971, Dylan releases “George Jackson,” his elegy to Black Panther Jackson, who was shot dead by a San Quentin Prison guard. It’s an inspiring reminder of Dylan’s unabated and often revolutionary iconoclasm. Light years, it seems to a 19 year-old, from his “protest” period, yet further to the left than anything he’s done.
     And the hits keep on coming! Street Legal features “Changing of the Guard,” a song that will become Patti Smith’s best Dylan cover.  Blood on the Tracks contains Dylan’s most evocative narrative verse songs yet, “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Desire features the saga of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and an ode to New York mobster Joey Gallo, along with a couple of the most tender love songs he’s written.
     Just before Desire’s release I see the embodied Dylan anew, at his Rolling Thunder Review’s “Night of the Hurricane,” a benefit concert to get unjustly convicted middleweight Carter out of prison. Again, we’re in Madison Square Garden.  The band is stellar – Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Scarlet Rivera, Neuwirth, Ginsberg, T-Bone Burnett (later of Coen brothers fame) and a host of studio musicians. Dylan’s vocals are crisp. The show abounds in theatricality, with its star in whiteface make-up.
     And then, as if in a dream, I meet him.  Still with a penchant for gatecrashing, I get into the Felt Forum after-party by reading the guest list upside down and claiming to be Michael Ochs, Phil’s brother. (Sorry Michael, I hope you got in, too.) The room is filled with heroes: McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Baez, Sam Shepherd, members of The Band, assorted New York literati. There’s an overabundance of charisma. Yet when Dylan enters, time stands still, all goes quiet.
     I lose my idol in the crowd, then, to my amazement, find him standing next to me at a buffet table. It’s a moment I’ve fantasized many times. We make eye contact. I say, with remarkable ease, “That was a great show!” And Dylan responds with his signature Iron Range rasp:  “Thanks, man. I love playin’ New York.  Because audiences are honest.  If you’re not good they let you know it.  But if you are they let you know that, too. And, yeah, they did seem to like it tonight.” 
     He was so authentic, so present.  I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready for a connection.  So my response must have seemed like Ralph Kramden getting caught by Alice doing something really harebrained; “Homina-homina-homina-homina,” I think I said.
     Over the next four decades, the hits continue.  “Jokerman,” “Unbelievable” and “Things Have Changed” stand out for me among the literally hundreds of unique, genuine and even groundbreaking songs the Nobel laureate writes between our brief encounter and the present. There will no doubt be more.

     I continue to be deeply moved as Dylan embodies his music.  The concerts I attend -- a MILLER’S CROSSING post-production crew outing to Jones Beach, a show in Anaheim, one in Toronto, another at the Hollywood Palladium – are grand moments. Yes, of late, he sits at a piano for much of the show and sometimes his voice tires after a few numbers. But he’s still electrifying. It’s still theatre. And he continues to:
…build a ladder to the sky and climb on every rung/                                                 (and he stays) forever young.