Shakespeare In The Alley

I went to see the production of The Tempest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) a few days ago. This production is part of something called The Bridge Project, organized by the director Sam Mendes, in which British and American actors collaborate on new productions of, this time around,  Shakespeare. Mendes has paired As You Like It and The Tempest for this season of The Bridge. Sam Mendes is something of a Bob Dylan aficionado: if you have seen his movie Truly, Madly, Deeply, you can enjoy hearing Alan Rickman, playing a ghost, reciting the opening lines to Tangled Up in Blue to a sleeping woman who in fact has red hair. (Thanks to commenter below, I stand corrected on this! It seems more honest to strike it out this way instead of just removing it.)  And although I have not seen the As You Like It, I’ve been told that there is a fairly obvious and affectionate Dylan parody in one of the songs. I hoped for an allusion of some kind in The Tempest. And it occurred to me only now that I may have found it.

Not Caliban, played here by Ron Cephas Jones, but what he’s kneeling upon, which you should be able to make out as sand. The stage setting is dominated by a circle of sand intended to give a physical space to Prospero’s magic. Prospero observes and manipulates the action from outside the circle, and enters it to interact with those he is manipulating. Need we look any further? Aren’t these characters on this island silhouetted by the sea? And aren’t memory and fate the materials Prospero must work with to bring his plot about? He repeatedly provides characters with the stories of their own pasts, and then engineers their fates. And finally Prospero’s own tools and identity, staff and book, driven deep beneath the waves as he determines his own fate, by relinquishing his past and those inscrutable powers of his. Well, I would like to say that Mendes has provided the circle of sand where Prospero may serve as ringmaster.

I may be tireless and lunatic in my desire to find companionship in La Vita Dylan, but I wonder if anyone else who has seen this production finds any substance to my flight of fancy here.

You Can All Live With Me And A Host Of Other Fine People On Montague Street

I’m happy to announce that the inaugural issue of a new print journal devoted to the work of Bob Dylan is now available for public consumption. Montague Street will be published semi-annually, and, in the words of its editors:

Our commitment is to soliciting critiques and examinations of Dylan’s work that can enjoy a respectable shelf-life and provoke lively discussions in the here and now.

The editors realize that competing with the indispensable resources Derek Barker provides in Isis, or the up-to-the-minute newsgathering of Expecting Rain is futile. It’s been a while since a strong print journal on Dylan has been up and running in the US, and the editors hope to fill that hole. Each issue will feature an assembly of writings on a theme as well as separate pieces on a variety of topics. Issue One features Oh Mercy as the theme, to honor the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, as well as a close reading of Masked and Anonymous, an interview with two New Yorkers who have provided invaluable service to generations of Dylan audiences, and other pieces. Contributors to this issue include notable Dylan writers Stephen Scobie, Lee Marshall, John Hinchey, and  Andrew Muir, as well as strong new voices, bound quite handsomely . You can read more about Montague Street, and order a copy if you like: http://www.montaguestreetjournal.com/ (this URL may work better if you copy and paste instead of clicking–thank you, and sorry for the nuisance, am working on it)

I know a lot about this because I’m one of the editors. I am especially happy with the name of the journal, since I grew up about 10 blocks from the Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, New York, featured in photos on the cover and inside the journal (taken by our gifted art director, Jesse Tobin). Is this the street from which stairs lead to a basement? We do not presume to answer.

Discovering how many excellent people come flying out of the woodwork when you invite them to donate their time and energy to writing about Bob Dylan was probably the greatest pleasure of the many hundred hours of work this project demanded. Now is the best part, though, getting feedback and responses from more good people we haven’t met yet,  and starting and nourishing conversations worth having.

The people responsible for Montague Street:

Nina Goss and Lucas Stensland: Editors

Jesse Tobin: Art Director

Charles Haeussler: Business Manager

Visit Montague Street if you’re interested, and let us know what you think.

“You can manufacture faith out of nothing”–Bob Dylan

Worried Blues is often where I go when I want to feel a landsmann connection with Bob Dylan. The very first time I listened to it, I heard a man who truly understood my world and my life: “I’m depressed about being worried.” I don’t much care that the song traces to a sweet-faced woman named Hally Wood, and maybe further back to Leadbelly. “I got the worried blues, lord.”  Fretting out loud about  anxiety piled upon melancholy is the existential verity of a happy Jewish life, and Worried Blues is where I can reach through a song and say, “Hail, friend,” to Bob Dylan.

Luckily, we can do better up at the 92nd St Y than my impertinence, and last night we enjoyed the company of Seth Rogovoy, author of the book, Bob Dylan: Prophet/Mystic/Poet, now available in hardcover from Scribner’s. I had tracked down Seth through his active and engaging blog, and he very generously agreed to make a trip into the city to discuss his work with our class. I did read the book prior to meeting him –and to comply with what I believe is now a law governing bloggers and electronic commerce, I reveal that I bought the book myself at the Barnes and Noble on Lexington Avenue and 86th Street.

I confess that I feared the book would make uncompromising and suffocating claims for Dylan’s essential Jewishness, and I am happy to be proven wrong. The book tells the story of Dylan’s career as a story of the demands of  being called to prophecy. In one person may coexist a certain vision of life’s conditions, a certain gift of articulating the vision, and a goading conscience that fights vagaries of one’s own energy and will and the attention span of one’s audience to persist in yoking the gift to the vision. The work of the yoking, and not just the privilege of the gift, becomes the arc of a life. Prophecy may be described this way. If  Jewish history,  scripture,  and ritual have provided one prevailing vessel for lives that play out these characteristics, then Seth Rogovoy does a fine and sane job of showing how Bob Dylan’s work can pilot this vessel of prophecy, and make room for Dylan to pilot other vessels.

Rogovoy’s talk began engagingly, way down on earth, in high school where he found Bob Dylan only after enjoying the spiritual sustenance of John Denver and Seals and Crofts. And *found* Dylan in that very big way that demonstrates what I had heard Christopher Ricks say a few weeks ago: “You don’t discover Dylan, Dylan discovers you.” It was Planet Waves that did it. And since I am eager to start a crusade that yanks this album into  center stage as a thing of greater beauty and depth than it’s generally granted, I was delighted to hear that Planet Waves was the door for Seth Rogovoy on which was written  Say Friend and Enter. My delight turned to bitter vindictive envy when Rogovoy told us that he saw Renaldo and Clara in the actual movie theater. Twice.

Back to Planet Waves. Rogovoy noticed that Dylan’s publishing company was newly named Ram’s Horn Music. The ram’s horn is the ancient instrument,  called the Shofar, used to call Jews to repentance on different holy days. “The call to repentance,” Rogovoy said, channeling the energy of his original epiphany into our little room on 92nd St. “How much was apparent to me,”  he said, that Dylan’s music is itself a call to repentance. What do prophets do? They call to repentance, as a universal and communal act.   They “wake people up.”  Wake them up to their own accountability for the fallen state of the world. The Ram’s Horn called Rogovoy to a possible field of meaning for his relation to Dylan’s songs.

When Rogovoy’s personal life, as an adult, took him into intense and intimate study of the teachings and beliefs of his Jewish heritage, he could not hold back the fecundity of this field of meaning. “The texts I memorized as a schoolboy were the lyrics of Bob Dylan.” And as an adult, he is startled and, in a way, awoken by the sounds of these phrases in the Jewish scripture and teaching. What happens then is the growing desire to tell a story with the harvest he’s reaping of all these connections: Ezekiel and The Wicked Messenger.  Amos and Long Time Gone (which I had the great pleasure of playing for him upon learning he’d never heard Bob’s actual performance). Priestly blessings and Forever Young. Judges and Tombstone Blues. He talked about these connections with a spiritedness that was never proprietary–he relived the pleasure of discovering these echoes. I asked him if he was able to recall the early emotions he had as this field of meaning grew with the new discoveries. Did he feel a new intimacy with the artist who already spoke so powerfully to him? Or did Dylan’s art now have a new authority to it imputed by the seeding of the scriptural matter? Rogovoy answered,”Both.”

In Rogovoy’s book, the inventory is extensive and more often than not, the connections are unforced. I don’t think I’ll ever hear  Yom Kippur  in Not Dark Yet, and the connection between Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window and the life of David is highly provocative and will take a while to sink in. He works hard to place Slow Train Coming, Saved, and other gospel material in the context of Jewish theology, to support the argument that Dylan’s *conversion* had subtle but unmistakable ambiguities in his theological language. That Dylan’s work in 79-80 is  spiritually complex and not simplistic, I agree with. I would like to see more work done on this, to do deeper justice to Dylan’s addresses to Jesus, and  his experience of being revived because of a relation with the figure he conceives in Jesus, and the imagery of crucifixion in the songs and the sermons. This section of Rogovoy’s book invites more listening and thinking.

The chronological structure of the book sometimes locks Rogovoy into a summary and familiar listing of Dylan’s output and activities, and loses the momentum of the story of what contemporary prophecy may look like. The summary, though, is a reasonable overview, which takes into account other influences and sources.  I can see the book being a useful introductory text to less informed but curious and serious  listeners who wish to get an accessible comprehensive overview of Dylan’s career through this lens of Judaism. In this regard, the book makes a nice companion to Scott Marshall’s Restless Pilgrim, and although I fear this pairing may not please Seth Rogovoy, I mean it as praise to two worthwhile books on Dylan and spirituality.

Rogovoy’s talk of course could not cover the range of examples in the book, and Rogovoy also shared biographical information on Dylan and Jewish life, showing video clips. Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons?

Oops! Wrong photo!

Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons? Rogovoy used clips of these to illustrate Bob Dylan’s somewhat public presence in this community. This generally makes me feel uncomfortable because on the one hand, it’s got vestiges of *outing* to it,  which causes me  confused and inarticulable discomfort, and on the other hand, I just love Bob’s modest and awkward presence on these makeshift television sets, and his impeccable timing in responding to the rabbi’s excited spiel.

Most interesting was Rogovoy’s unearthing a source for the notorious Grammy speech, which is another unquenchably and bizarrely captivating performance piece. More Buster Keaton, I think, than Charlie Chaplin? Well, Rogovoy found the Orthodox text (commentary not scripture) in a book of blessings intended for newcomers to Orthodox observance in which appears “Even if I were so depraved my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.” That Dylan was able to unreel this text, make small changes to suit that moment and the rhythm of his speech, and then to own that passage…remarkable. To find the Grammy speech flippant or just more enigmatic kookiness from the supreme enigmatic kook, is not something I can ever do. And I thank Seth Rogovoy for bringing this material to my attention.

Rogovoy used a phrase I intend to steal and use at every possible opportunity: he referred to the “unaccountable heft and profundity of Dylan’s work.” That is simply beautiful and true, and I believe Christopher Ricks himself would give the thumbs up to the felicity of the phrase. What Seth Rogovoy does best is not to prove that Bob Dylan is 83% Jewish in 1987 or 59% Jewish in 2002. What he does best is show us what it looks like for Seth Rogovoy himself to be grateful for the unaccountable heft and profundity.  Read the book as an affecting personal narrative as well as for the useful inventory of allusions, and if Seth Rogovoy is speaking in your area, I strongly recommend making the trip to hear him, he’s very much in-the-moment himself as a speaker, and instantly sympatico for other passionate and committed Dylan listeners.

Trapped Out There On Highway 5

I got to hear Bob Dylan sing High Water (for Charley Patton) on both nights I attended his New York shows. Center stage and nothing between Dylan and the audience but the thin microphone stand. High Water is a song that gets just plain bigger every time I hear it .  It holds more and gives more. The verses begin with staccato brisk recitations of the words, and then open up and slow down. By the last line of each verse, and then the “high water everywhere” refrain, the phrasing takes us  back to the big muddy, the high water is everywhere, and we’re pulled by the singer into the current no one can fight.  In the music you can actually hear the vocal struggle to pull out of the current, and then the current pulling the singer back down, and of course us with him. Live, the song can be blistering and triumphant, or it can be steady and unyielding.  It is generous and embracing–we’re all in the high water.

It’s a song made for Dylan’s voice today, picking out words quickly like dropping rough stones one by one, and then the growls that come up from beneath the ground beneath the stage beneath his feet. And today we pay special attention to verse #5.  It begins like an old joke. An Englishman, Italian, and a Jew walk into a Bob Dylan song, and they’re reprimanded  by George Lewis,  a black American who was a New Orleans jazz trombonist , and whose career ran through Jim Crow, and just past the Civil Rights era. Or they’re reprimanded by George Lewes/Lewis, the Victorian writer who took up a sort of outlaw life  as the adulterous consort of a woman also named George,who was a better writer than himself. Or George Lewis is neither of these, but the name does trail histories of custom and liberty and making music and writing stories. It’s a George Lewis who tells the Englishman, Italian, and Jew, each with his own very different story of man and God and law, “you can’t open your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view.”  Reality has too many heads, and the human mind can only stand so much. And teacherly, paternally, condescendingly, this Lewis calls them boys.

And if you don’t get it in the opening lines, Dylan pulls out the big gun, and Charles Darwin himself gets called to the stage. Where he’s cornered on highway 5, the interstate running along the far west coast, north to south from Washington through southern California. Where the American west  basically stops, and traffic moves up and down between Canada and Mexico. Darwin’s trapped here, and the law, the Judge, tells its muscle, the High Sheriff, to hand him over, period. Dead or alive.  This High Sheriff carries a lot of weight: he brings us back to the album’s musical journey, with Charley Patton’s song “High Sheriff Blues,” and  High Sheriff being a post found both in the UK and the US, it links Darwin to his homeland and to the country where his ideas have been defendants in courthouses.  Darwin is lethal or he’s worthless, his death no stain on the hands of the law. “Either one–I don’t care,” is a line that seems almost intrinsically unflubbable, Dylan always gets it across as  a pitch black drawling sneer, always too cold and too believable to be just plain clever. And down in the flood  goes all kinds of histories, all kinds of *progress*. What does it mean for me to struggle through this high water? I’m reaching for certainties and salvation too, aren’t I.

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, listen to High Water (for Charley Patton), be grateful to Bob Dylan for giving us dark and fresh new ways of hearing the song live, and think about history and floods and progress.

“Tell Me About It”–Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks On The Psychiatric Couch, Sort Of

Well, I was all ready to wax and wane on The Inventions of Bob Dylan, a talk featuring Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz, sponsored by the august Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  The discussion ranged from Tennyson to Timrod to mortality to the essential blasphemy of great religious art to Whitman to Hebraism/Hellenism. I got all my notes right here at my elbow. And then I saw the video for Must Be Santa. God bless us all–the wig, the dancing,  the who-threw-the-glass, the cigar.  Two eminent scholars discuss this  artist of unparalleled fecundity and complexity, whose expressiveness illuminates single syllables and whose vision transforms our experience of the spiritual life.  And here he is, in a platinum blonde wig, doing what could be the hora.  And smoking a cigar, which, like a bell, tolls us back to the land of Freud and couches.

http://philoctetes.org/Past_Programs/The_Inventions_of_Bob_Dylan

The Philoctetes Center holds its talks on the top floor of a brownstone on East 82nd St. There was much to occupy one’s attention while waiting for the talk to begin. On the walls of this room were enormous metal decorations, like monstrous bundt pans.  People scurried about with great purpose, doing things with microphones and chairs. Someone scurried in with xeroxed papers and laid them on four chairs. Each paper read in large bold capital letters: RESERVED FOR GREIL MARCUS. I had just figured out  that the other three chairs were being held for Mr. Marcus’s food taster, juggler, and punka wallah, when a fresh scurrying broke out and I heard one staff member whisper to another “He’s not coming. Not coming.” And the papers were whisked off the seats, freeing them for ordinary buttocks of the realm. Professors Wilentz and Ricks manifested themselves, Prof. Wilentz quite as affable and comfortable as he was in the much more informal setting of our class at 92Y, and Prof. Ricks wearing a suit and no tie, which always has that Cosa Nostra look. They took places on facing couches, had little microphones clipped to them.

The gentleman introducing the talk explained proudly that the bundt pans were left over from the previous talk, in which author Brian Greene and scholar Elaine Scarry discussed the beauty of mathematics. There is nothing lightweight about the Philoctetes Center, as you can see.  I’m sorry I missed that talk, for what better way to introduce Bob Dylan than with a conversation on Facts, Truth, and Beauty with experts on physics and philosophy. The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone, or something like.

Profs. Ricks and Wilentz are a contrast in forms of amiability, and that kind of quick wittedness that is able to find exactly the object it needs at any moment without rummaging about. Prof Wilentz brings up Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd in connection with Christmas in the Heart, while Prof Ricks quotes Blake on the topic of appropriation (“Though they are not mine, I call them mine”).  Prof Wilentz plugs his son’s Web site, while Prof Ricks stands up to act out what happened when his elderly father attended one of his talks.  Those of you who’ve seen and heard Prof Ricks might agree with me that Christopher Ricks is ideally cast to play Christopher Ricks in The Christopher Ricks Story. I want to state here that Ricks in person is a welcome counteragent to the narrator  Ricks, whose  riffing and punning characterizes so much of Visions of Sin, and  pushes the book towards an archness that can leave those who don’t listen deeply to Dylan complacent in their resistance to his art.  In conversation, watched by a clock, there are checks and balances to Ricks’ riffs, there is his visible emphasis on the seriousness of what Dylan does and has done. The talk that ensued was well-served by  their matched wits, different styles, and a shared commitment to the self-replenishing work of listening closely to Bob Dylan’s music and finding things to say about it. The topic of The Inventions of Bob Dylan, moderated by Matthew von Unwerth, a scholar and a psychoanalyst-in-training, was supposed to be about “Dylan’s ongoing conversation with tradition.”  von Unwerth barely recited his introduction when Prof Ricks, not unamiably, put the kibosh on “inventions.” “Dylan doesn’t invent, he discovers.”  And so began a fine and discursive ramble through Perhaps The Discoveries of Bob Dylan and Other Things. There were swells of insight and feeling and a steady command of our attention.  A few of the swells:

Ricks says to von Unwerth, who related his affinity for Bob Dylan: “You didn’t discover Dylan, he discovered you. As he discovered all of us. Bob Dylan is not afraid of being just like everyone else.”  I like this twist on the commonplace of art’s universality. We hear ourselves named by great art, don’t we. It recognizes us as ourselves.

 

 

Wilentz:  “Bob Dylan is an historian unlike any other.”  And this comment refreshed the by-now tedious discussion of Bob Dylan’s channeling the vocabulary and music of bygone bygones.  How is he a historian? Because he can make the conditions of the past present in my attention. The world of Together Through Life summons a world that just doesn’t match up to the world I’m sitting in while I play the record. Village priests and ships in harbors and memories that overtake this moment right now, and Houston seems incredibly far away–one thing a historian can do is simply make you believe that the conditions of the past were  actual and livable, not the quaint compromises or ignorances of people who knew and had so much less than we do. Eliot came up a fair amount during the afternoon, so we can pull him in here too, with his famous comment on our knowing more than what people knew in the past–“yes, and they are what we know.” Perhaps one thing a historian can do is make this palpable.  Wilentz meant this in a less abstract way, of course, and he praised Dylan’s concrete historical knowledge: “Factually, he’s pretty good.”

Ricks claimed the Christmas album is not really “religious” and a woman quickly pointed out that the album ends on the word “amen.” “But it still does not have the depth of really religious songs,” said Ricks. Which led him to this fascinating observation: “All great religious art has to be accusable of blasphemy.”  Now this seems to satisfy the notion that great art ignites revolutions in consciousness. Great art is not safe, it is not more-of-the-same-me-in-the-world. In Ricks’ view, these revolutions would be “discoveries” and not “novelties”, not the intoxication of a trick, but real blasphemy–a calling into question of received truths. I admire very much, I enjoy and learn from, writing on Dylan by authors whose religious lives are fed by his work, in ways that are different from my own spiritual life. I’m thinking of Stephen Webb, Michael Gilmour, Stephen Hazan-Arnoff. And while these writers feel their religious consciousnesses are animated, or refreshed, or challenged to new ways of being religious, they do not see themselves in contest with Dylan’s songs. I venture to say that Ricks’ idea appeals to atheists who wish to make good sense of the sensuous power of great religious art. If I can feel that the Sistine Chapel, George Herbert’s poems, and Bob Dylan’s songs rouse and transform me, despite that the traditions called upon in these works do not themselves answer the big questions of my life, it would be consoling and aggrandizing to believe that these works are somehow deeply transgressive of the traditions. I say take up a maybe (maybe not) harder challenge, and start with the human commonality (Prof Ricks likes this word) from which springs the spiritual impulse and the Sistine Chapel and In the Garden.

Wilentz: On the issue of appropriation/plagiarism, Prof Wilentz is wonderfully–inspiringly–irritable. Bob Dylan “inhabits” everything he steals. Foreign material becomes his. Prof. Wilentz talked of Confessions of a Yakuza, “My old man’s  like some feudal lord, he’s got more lives than a cat.” Well, the phrase “feudal lord” refers to something in Japanese  culture and history that is “completely different” from what it would mean to an American audience. This seems obvious, but I think Wilentz is pointing to the way an alien twig, when grafted onto one of Dylan’s songs, needs a botanist to show us where the graft begins and ends. The phrase calls attention  to itself, while it also scans and rhymes along with the other verses, and then supports the images in Floater of the fatigue that power can induce. Prof Wilentz did say he sometimes wishes Bob would credit some of his sources some of the time.

There was more, much more, to this winding road, and I was told the talk was streaming on YouTube but I can’t find it there. A Q&A session that, like all question and answer sessions, had almost no comments worth the interruption of the featured speakers.

Here’s the moment I’ll not ever forget. Christopher Ricks held up the paperback of Visions of Sin, and made great witty sport of the fact that the photo of Bob on the cover, in the stairwell of Cafe Wha? I believe, was also used in the CD of No Direction Home-and the cigarette in his mouth was airbrushed from the reproduction on the CD. We all had a good laugh at that Puritanical nonsense, and then Sean Wilentz said, with a warmth both mild and serious, “I wish he would quit smoking.” And Ricks’ wit left him for one moment–you could see it leave his face–and he said, “Yes, I do too, I wish he would quit smoking.”  And that, my little Neptunian, is what it looks like when you actually share the same time-space continuum with an artist whose work can marshal the forces of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination: you are blessed in ways you can’t find words for, and you’re too close to mortality for comfort.

And I feel certain that both Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz would have much  preferred to be cast as extras in the Must Be Santa video than be asked to explain Bob Dylan. Watch it yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLZ8LPIh4Xc&feature=player_embedded

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.

Tuesdays on 92nd St, We Do Not Abjure Educated Rap

images At left, Pace University, a hall of learning located on the southernmost protuberance of  Manhattan. It is a long and arduous journey from here at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, to 92nd St and Lexington Ave; even if you get a seat on the express, the subway is crowded at all times of the day. After a long day of pedagogy and bureaucracy, the chair of Pace’s English department, Walter Raubicheck, offered his time to our little Dylan crew uptown. Our class this Tuesday involved Walter’s presentation on Mr Tambourine Man, primarily the poetic life of the song. Full disclosure laws compel me to reveal that I have known Walter for several years through the Dylan meet-up group (next meet-up Monday 11/9 6 PM Kettle of Fish 59 Christopher you can meet Walter yourself!).  Acquaintances or no acquaintances, discussing assonance, Keats, and consciousness with strangers at 9 PM on a weekday speaks of Walter’s  energy level and generosity.

images-12Here is another building, it’s the house where Keats died in Rome. Let’s say that a difference between a great poet and a lesser poet, is that the voice of the great poet gets past so much insulation in us and finally reaches that chamber where we actually *hear* a single human speaking into us. And let’s say that one way we recognize this greatness isn’t only in encounters with the art, but in uncanny dropoffs of time: Keats’ death was prolonged and painful and mainly conscious, and the awfulness of this suffering rings through the windows of this house like a real feeling, not because the painful death of a decent young man is by default a tragedy, but because the young man’s living self is something we can meet in his poetry, and so his death can be a strange true pain to us now. How did I end up on the Spanish Steps??  We need to get to the jingle jangle morning…

images-13 Walter introduced his talk by reading from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. As you can see at the left here, a nightingale is a rather meager and  drab bird to withstand the weight of so much enduring Romantic thought and feeling and beauty. And those little wings have to carry it high, by the light of the moon. Before arguing for a connection between  Mr Tambourine Man and the Romantic tradition, Walter reminded us that Dylan himself is “self-taught” in literature. He referred to an interview Dylan gave to  Robert Hilburn in which the topic of traditional English poetry came up; Chronicles also offers tastes of his fluency. Walter’s point here being merely to establish a legitimate sense of tradition, rather than to impute grand precocity to Dylan’s naively captivating song. Mr Tambourine Man is no more naively captivating than Keats’ Ode.

Keats’ nightingale represents the effortless and thought-less freedom the speaker, weary from consciousness of the sheer facts of human mortality, will never know. The nightingale represents the “predicament” of the speaker, and then for one moment, transports the speaker from his predicament. Or transports the predicament away from the speaker? The tambourine may serve the same purposes in Dylan’s song. The tambourine calls to  the singer in his weariness, his numbness, his inertia and exhaustion. Then the tambourine, like the nightingale’s song, offers the short-lived “energy to pull the speaker out of his psychic state.”

images-7 And so in both the poem and the song, there is a speaker/singer  awoken through his own attention to a sound. It’s a sound he listens for and hears with peculiar openness, and so it is not a general alarm that awakes him, but a personal address. In both the poem and the song, the speaker/singer needs this address in order to “get access to that level of psyche”–from which poems and songs are seeded. It isn’t the endstop of freed consciousness the nightingale and the tambourine provide, but these sounds open a portal to  language and music, so the consciousness can be articulated and shared. Shared. Let me show you what something I have felt is like, I want you to feel it too.

images-2The song’s first two stanzas  may be a catalogue of everything the singer wants to free himself from, and the pleas to be freed. Branded on his feet, as though seared with a brand, to join a herd of other weary, numb, blind creatures.  The patterns of sound and the voice’s careful cadence entrance us as the tambourine begins to entrance him. Hands can’t feel to grip. Toes too numb to step. Single syllables are an effort. The infinitesimal pauses between words are a nanosecond long enough to convey the effort of singing. But there’s the swirling ship, the promise of air in the sibilance. And the voice soars to announce he’s “ready to go anywhere.” He’s already moved away from being part of the branded herd, and is ready for his own parade.

Walter pointed out that Dylan rarely performs the 3rd verse. The ragged clown behind. We talked about why that may be so, since the omission of that verse is so consistent it invites a little speculation beyond throwing up our hands at Dylan’s idiosyncrasies. We  wondered if that verse, with Dylan’s self-portrait of the newborn artist, laughin spinnin swingin, is too personal? That it moves away from the universal in the song?  Walter pointed out how much he enjoys the lines that reassure: don’t be afraid, it’s not aimed at anyone, there’s no “negative motivation” here. There’s benevolence  and generosity in this inspiration.

images-8“Take me disappearing.” We take this kind of originality in language for granted sometimes. This clause is just wrong grammatically, and it wakes us up to what’s happening to the singer: absurd to ask someone to take me…nowhere. They’re with me, so it’s not nowhere….  But of course we never quibble with this, because we’re already on that razor’s edge of passive and active, of internal and external, of here and not here, that the singer wishes me to be balanced on as he goes through it. And Walter pointed out the participles throughout the song: vanished, swirling, laughing, spinning, swinging, driven…  There are many verbs in this song that are not active. Remember, we are on the razor’s edge of passive and active. Walter pointed out the dark and frightening places the singer has to get through before ending up on that windy beach. Through those smoke rings of his own mind, there’s a frozen, haunted, deformed, twisted, sorrowful world. How fast does he get through this? Not fast enough not to notice the cold and the fear and sorrow. And remember that he’s been appealing to the tambourine man repeatedly, to play for him. To get him where he needs to go, even though he knows he has to get through the haunted places first. This is just not about intoxication, it’s about facing a kind of awakening. It’s a fairly brave song, not so much a song about a euphoric dropping out. The beach is not calm. The sky is too sharp and bright. Only the singer  knows what circus sands look like. Memory and fate are drowned, but he still knows there’s a past and a future, a today and a tomorrow. Only one hand waves free.  Picture the difference between two hands and one: there’s something childish, puerile, cliched about dancing on a beach waving both your arms over your head. There’s something oddly graceful and dignified about one hand waving free. And a touch of restraint. Remember this song is about consciousness. Not unconsciousness.

images-15Walter brought us back to history and Tradition, and the nightingale in Jokerman. Walter hears in this song Dylan distancing himself from the Romantic figure of the 60s. He’s got that freed awareness, but without truth, what good is it?  The grown up Jokerman’s dance is a little sinister, a little grotesque, more ambiguous, more un-inviting than the boy’s dance on the windy beach.

The song more than others takes me through smoke rings of other images that have become indelible parts of the song. images-11 This portrait of a girl by Lucian Freud, it just is haunted frightened trees to me. The line in the song just is this portrait. The branch is perfectly lovely and unfrozen, but her face will be afraid forever and the tree can’t protect her.  I visit this girl often in MoMA, and as soon as I see her, I hear the song, and I stand there for a moment hearing the song and looking at her and wishing I could give her the song to help her.

images-16 Then there’s Rudy. This is what the song conjured for me the first time I really paid attention to it, and what it conjures, effortlessly, every time I hear it. At the end of the Circe episode in Ulysses, Leopold contemplates the passed-out Stephen, is overcome by tenderness for the boy, the tenderness leads him to a vision of his dead son, Rudy. The Rudy he sees is an 11-year old boy, wearing a Roman helmet, and an Eton suit, and reading a book “right to left”– obviously reading Hebrew,  Bloom’s native/ancestral language. In this image is collapsed history, empires, civilization, and the weight of what Bloom sees in the son he has lost, the past and the future he  lost through the death of his son.  The moment of human love has enough weight to collapse time in this way.  Bloom endures a sudden awakening to a consciousness of time larger than the present, and there is the sleeping  young artist, and there is benevolence and compassion and strangeness, and there is magnificently compressed and astonishingly communicative imagery. Much here that echoes in Mr Tambourine Man. And there is a beach, and there is sand, and there is a diamond. Here’s the passage itself:

… shadows… the woods

… white breast… dim…

(He stretches out his arms, sighs again and curls his body. Bloom holding his hat and ashplant stands erect. A dog barks in the distance. Bloom tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant. He looks down on Stephen’s face and form.)

BLOOM (Communes with the night.) Face reminds me of his poor mother. In the shady wood. The deep white breast. Ferguson, I think I caught. A girl. Some girl. Best thing could happen him… (He murmurs.)… swear that I will always hail, ever conceal, never reveal, any part or parts, art or arts… (He murmurs.) in the rough sands of the sea. a cabletow’s length from the shore… where the tide ebbs … and flows…

(Silent, thoughtful, alert, he stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)

BLOOM (Wonderstruck, calls inaudibly.) Rudy!

RUDY (Gazes unseeing into Bloom’s eyes and goes on reading, kissing, smiling. He has a delicate mauveface. On his suit he has diamond and ruby buttons. In his free left hand he holds a slim ivory cane with a violet howknot. A white lambkin peeps out of his waistcoat pocket.)

My favorite performances of the song are three. One is the studio version on Bringing It All Back Home, because of the care, the fastidiousness of the voice. He will get this across to me, this impossible  vision. He is patient and loving with his song and with his listener. Two is the Isle of Wight performance. This is the nightingale Keats heard. Third is a performance in Memphis, April 25 2006. He found the darkest rhythm in his own soul to get this song across. To get it across years and years, to bring anyone who was listening to wherever it is he was going.