Positively 4th Street:The Life and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña,and Richard Fariña
by David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 328 pp., $25.00
Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan
by Howard Sounes
Grove, 527 pp., $27.50
Bob Dylan wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in the summer of 1962, in a matter of minutes, on Wavy Gravy’s typewriter, after reading William Blake. “That song kind of roared right out of the typewriter,” Wavy Gravy remembers. “It roared through him the way paint roared through van Gogh.”
Wavy Gravy, in case you are wondering how to become a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream flavor, was the Merry Prankster who introduced young Dylan to everybody hip in Greenwich Village in the early Sixties, from Allen Ginsberg to Lenny Bruce to Thelonious Monk. He was also heard to whisper, during Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, “I hope he’s over quick, Mahalia Jackson’s on next.” And he later served as master of ceremonies at the 1969 Woodstock music festival. Bob Dylan actually happened to be living in Woodstock at the time of this pep rally, but chose to perform instead on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England, for $50,000 plus expenses—although he would manage to make it to Woodstock the Sequel, in 1994, for $600,000.
Anyway, Wavy Gravy’s 1962 intuition of afflatus accords with Dylan’s own. “The songs are there,” the boy genius told Sing Out! “They exist all by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down.” If “Hard Rain” painted itself, “Like a Rolling Stone” would come to him in 1965 like “a long piece of vomit.” To Robert Shelton he explained in 1966 that “anytime I’m singing about people and if the songs are dreamed, it’s like my voice is coming out of their dream.” Much, much later, after being baptized in the Pacific Ocean, a born-again Bob would credit God. And then vandals stole the handle.
One thinks not only of Saint Teresa ravished unto Transverbation by a Spear of Gold, and of Yeats seized by automatic writing, but of Ormus Cama in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Ormus, a modern-day Orpheus—the son of the muse Calliope and the river god Oeagrus, the incarnation of “the singer and songwriter as shaman and spokesman”—hears the music of the future Thousand and One Nights before it shows up in everybody else’s ears. Tunes the rest of us are doomed to dance to somehow get channeled to him in advance, from an otherworldly jukebox, through the stillborn body of his dead zygotic twin (probably an Elvis reference). If he sometimes messes up the words, it’s because he lives on the wrong end of a popular music wormhole “at whose extreme fringes lurk hairy charismatics with much the same psychiatric profiles as the self-impalers at the heart of Shiite Muharram processions: denizens of the psychotropics of Capricorn, the lands of the sacrificed goat.”
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down …