Take What You Need You Think Will Last: Sean Wilentz Discusses Bob Dylan, Beat Culture, And More On 92nd St

images-1I think my favorite collaboration between Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is For You Babe, which is not more than a wild ditty. It hardly even qualifies for an outtake. Guitars play  ferociously sunny chords, Bob sings lines in and out of the music, not much intelligible except “Oh, babe, for you!” and he sings these nothings with great Pan-like ardor, and then Ginsberg begins a cheerful chant. He lists what he’ll bring: his eyes, his sacred cow. It’s all completely pointless and completely delicious: Bob’s voice soars and darts like a swallow, you wonder what serious folly will come out of Ginsberg’s mouth next, the music gets in your bones, it’s over too soon. In this whatever-it-is there is love and humor and a kind of primordial physicality of voices and music. Whenever I hear it, I am so happy that Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg met each other.

images-2Yes, this is fanciful and childlike, and a trivial moment in the story of Bob Dylan and Beat culture, Beat aesthetics, Beat writers. And fortunately for that story, Sean Wilentz has taken it on. Sean’s prominence as an American historian runs parallel to his prominence as a chronicler of Bob Dylan, and that alone is a condition worth exploring. One would not say that esteemed historian Sean Wilentz also has contributed important work to the study of Abraham Lincoln. That is an absurdity, because it is an apposite dressed up as a comparison.  Why do we marginalize Sean Wilentz’s liner notes for Live 64 and not his editorship of a book of essays on Lincoln? Oh no, I’m on my soapbox. Rewind.  It’s still a long trip to 92nd St from Princeton, but Sean Wilentz’s remarkable altruism delivered him up to room S-280 to offer  a concrete and detailed picture of the moment in time when the Beat culture and Bob Dylan intersected. Prof. Wilentz very generously provided our Tuesday night class with a preview of one chapter of his upcoming book on Bob Dylan’s America. The book, to be published in September 2010, will map  the several Americas that helped form the many Dylans. The chapter whose draft he presented to us covered Dylan’s relationship with Beat culture in general, the complex relationship between Beats and Folks, the particular relationship between Dylan and Ginsberg.

images-3images-4A simplistic description of a first-rate historian would be a person with a capacious and organized memory,  a relentless appetite for story, and a scrupulous judgment for the quantity and veracity of facts that are required to narrate a viable story. We got a fine demonstration of this with Sean’s opening to his talk.  He wanted to begin with a segue between  the chapter in his manuscript before the one he would present. The earlier chapter discussed Aaron Copland  as a populist innovator. Copland’s score for the 1939 film version of Of Mice and Men was understood to be daring, likely the very first movie score to use dissonance. One person who watched this movie absorbedly was Jack Kerouac. So absorbedly, that fifteen years later, Kerouac described the moment the movie made its impression in his Mexico City Blues. 22 years after Kerouac’s memory made it into his poem, his poem made it into Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara: it’s Mexico City Blues that Ginsberg recites to Dylan at Jack Kerouac’s grave in the footage often reprinted as still photos and therefore familiar as an incident in Dylan’s life and art to people unfamiliar with the movie.

Transmission, collaboration, influence, respect, performance, and What Remains: these are the themes that turn this sequence of events leading from a movie in 1939 to a movie in 1978 into a plot. And these are themes that can bind the history that Sean related in the body of his talk, in which Dylan is seen in prime Protean mode, synthesizing in performance and in composition the two cultures,  folk  and Beat, and then synthesizing himself  way past both worlds, and still bearing the genetic strands of each of them. And Allen Ginsberg along for more than one ride.
images-8What Beat writers did with syntax, with narrative, with conventional vocabularies of *serious* literature–all the many ways Beat writers created escape routes specifically for prose and poetry, was not Sean’s focus.  Instead, he drew a clear picture of the complex  cultural and political theaters of the late 1950s and early 1960s, in which Folks and Beats both fought the Rising Tide of Conformity, both “shared disdain for materialism and convention.” The Folk contingent sought a high ground where social relations and individual voices  were not the tools of the masters of war and of commerce, and not the victims of a morally bankrupt legal system . They built this high ground from a nearly lost world they saw as the spring of authenticity. They came together and they created in a spirit of purpose: sing the right songs, write the right songs, and do right, and a current will form that may beat back the tide of corruption and greed and passivity. Bob Dylan wore sloppy farmer’s jeans and a clean flannel shirt such as a poor man might wear to church, and he  bore the expression of a young man facing down the cankered world his elders have handed him.

images-6The Beat contingent sought escape. In-your-face escape. They had several getaway cars. For example, poetry  that showed language can be real without being realistic, moral without being clean, and crazy without being irrational. They formed communities based on appetites for each other, for adventures in experience, for adventures in consciousness.  Bob Dylan wore cigarette-leg jeans, leather jackets, and bore the expression of a young man who has seen entire universes only he can chart for the rest of us if we’d only stop asking him stupid questions and let him get on with his work.

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Sean pointed out that the two cultures did share roots in the Depression-era political left, and Ginsberg’s own history illustrates this Allen Ginsberg’s father was a poet with strong socialist orientation, strong enough that the omission of his “leftist political stuff” from his published collected works is noteworthy. Ginsberg’s mother was ardently Communist and deeply opposed her husband’s political stance. So we do have one of the two sustaining pillars of the Beat movement growing up in a crucible of the left wing political culture that was explicitly foregrounded by the Folkies.

images-9Bob Dylan enters this crowded stage in 1961, and as Sean Wilentz put it, “Manhattan was more complicated than Minneapolis.” The brisk and certain trajectory of Dylan’s ascendance in 1961-1963 is a story that can always feel freshly strange and exciting, and more so when we look at these complications, the choices facing him. By 1961, the great work of the Beat writers had been done, and on January 26, 1961, 2 days after young Bob Dylan’s arrival, a group of NY writers held a discussion titled The Death of the Beats. The Folk world was the Here and Now for Dylan, but as Sean put it, “Ginsberg and Kerouac were in his brain.”  Then Dylan gets into Ginsberg’s brain, via A Hard Rain’s A -Gonna Fall. When Ginsberg heard the song, it seems an extraordinary thing happened. It is easy to say that he heard The New Great Thing, or that he heard the hiss of the torch being passed, and gallantly let go his end of the torch.  He did hear, as Sean put it, “the merger of poetry and song Pound predicted as the future of poetry.” But Ginsberg heard the singularity of Dylan’s art, not merely the realization or culmination or continuation of artistic ideals that he himself helped to define and put in play.

images-10images-11In the space of 15 Internet minutes you can find plenty of text, images, and film footage to document the long-running respect and different kinds of collaboration between Ginsberg and Dylan. I’m fascinated by the peculiarity of the relationship, even more than the matter of the collaborations. Allen Ginsberg in 1963, when he finally met Dylan, was not merely a renowned American poet, he was a notorious American poet: he renewed poetry with a legitimate originality,  he made reading a poem a truly unsafe act, and he was Jewish and gay and traveled anywhere he liked and tried on ways of being that intrigued him. He really was Out in a way that may no longer be possible . And then the story more or less goes that Ginsberg Meets Dylan, and acknowledges the greater artist, adores the greater artist, follows the greater artist as long as he is welcome. Ginsberg’s love is repaid with Dylan’s respect and affection and a more enduring welcome than he offered many others in his different circles. Sean talked about Dylan’s making it possible for Ginsberg to become a “cultural avatar” in the years after his own creativity was not enough to sustain his relevance.

images-12That’s a true enough history. I like the story that’s illuminated by this history: in this story, it’s the compass of Ginsberg’s spirit that becomes visible. The intrinsic freeness of Ginsberg’s spirit answered Dylan’s music, by becoming infinitely hospitable to Dylan’s art.  Desolation Row may have satisfied Ezra Pound’s dreams of the art of the future, but its Beat heritage was conspicuous to Ginsberg and he could have laid his worship right there and left it.  Yet Ginsberg did not just worship Dylan as an obvious heir–he met him right away as a singularity unbound by laws, and Dylan’s new ways of being and creating only fed Ginsberg’s availability to his art. There were partings and detours for sure, but the transparency of this inspiration is clear to anyone seeing Ginsberg’s interviews in No Direction Home.

images-14Where are relations like this elsewhere in the history of art? There is this wonderful circle to me, where Ginsberg’s fearlessness and spiritual appetite wrote Howl in the first place, and then this fearlessness and appetite is what heard, really heard Hard Rain. I learned from the story of this relationship that we use the same instruments to create with and to hear with.

www.frankbeacham.com is where you can find an excellent review of Sean Wilentz’s talk, with extraordinary photos. I recommend The Beat Reader in the Viking Portable Library Series for a good introduction to this stuff, and Bob is included in the anthology. Sean Wilentz’s book will be out in September 2010. I look forward most eagerly to the chapter on Delia and Lone Pilgrim.

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One thought on “Take What You Need You Think Will Last: Sean Wilentz Discusses Bob Dylan, Beat Culture, And More On 92nd St

  1. I’m very interested in the connection between Dylan and Ginsberg, but have a somewhat different take on it. I apprenticed to Allen at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado in the summer of 1981 and had the chance to talk with him quite a bit. Personally I think that as a writer, Allen’s early work such as “Howl” and a handful of other poems is much better poetry than Dylan ever wrote (as much as I love Dylan and greatly esteem the quality of his lyrics) (and by the way, when Dylan did try to write straight poetry outside the structure of a song his writing lacked the spark of his great songs), nevertheless Allen had a way of being humble with other writers he respected. He always talked of Kerouac as though Kerouac’s writing was better than his own (I very much disagree). In terms of Dylan he said back in the mid 60’s that at the same age i.e. about 24 or 25 Dylan was writing much better than he himself was. (But Allen’s great work begins when he’s 29). He also told me that when he first heard Dylan he felt that Dylan was doing something very original and could feel the affinity with his own work. Allen liked fame to quite a degree and fantasized about being a rock star and dabbled in music during the period way past his early poetical peak. I really don’t believe that he saw Dylan as his artistic superior at all except in the fact that Dylan’s medium gave him a much larger audience. (I think the comment about Dylan’s writing better at the age of 24/25 was indicative of this assessment).
    I wish I could have attended the talk or your class, but my schedule makes that impossible. Thanks for writing your blog. Be well, Mark

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