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 my drain.
Ormus, one of Rushdie’s trademark metamorphs, seems to me a closer analogue to Dylan in his lonely bus on his Never-Ending Tour, picking up coded transmissions through the fillings in his teeth from hobo minstrels, protest troubadours, tambourine existentialists, Mystic Bards, and Brother Bobs, than, say, the “American Brecht” that John Clellon Holmes once called him, or the “Hebrew Boddhisatva” of Allen Ginsberg, or “an Elvis of the mind” (David Hajdu), or a “rock-and-roll Zarathustra” (Jim Miller), or a “rock-and-roll Rimbaud” (Miller again, but the French poet is also mentioned by many other English majors).
Rimbaud? Only if you’ve never read either the Illuminations or Tarantula. Only then can you pretend that when Dylan gave up “finger-pointing” protest music for a Fender Stratocaster at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, it was the same as Rimbaud giving up revolutionary politics after the slaughter of the Paris Communards in 1871. To be sure, Arthur and Bob were equally scornful and equally opportunistic. (“To whom shall I hire myself?” asked Arthur. “What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?—In what blood shall I walk?”) But when Rimbaud no longer had anything fresh to say, he stopped making albums.
Given that I’m about to contribute to the literature of hyperventilation on the overwrought occasion of Dylan’s sixtieth birthday, you ought to know where I stand. Because Joan Baez loved him a lot, I have to assume that he is not as much of a creep as he so often seems. But I’m entitled to doubts about anybody whose favorite Beatle was George. And don’t tell me it’s all about the music. The whole Dylan package has been marketed as attitude—wrapped in masks. Music is about music. Biographies are about behavior. Caring about the music is what makes our interest in the behavior more than merely prurient. If you’d really rather not have known that Picasso was nasty, brutish, and short, you’re a better person than I am, although we both have a long way to go before we’re as good as Joan Baez.
I wish that for just one time
you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
to see you
Think of Positively 4th Street as A Little Night Music scored for dulcimer and motorcycle. Or a pas de quatre, with wind chimes, love beads, and a guest-appearance entrechat by Thomas Pynchon. As David Hajdu, whose biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life, is an ornament of jazz lit, rotates among his principals until at last they settle down to play house in Carmel and Woodstock, he is such an ironist among blue notes, so knowledgeable about their performing selves on stage, in bed, and in our mezzotinted memories, that he seems almost to be whistling scherzos. So we follow Bobby Zimmerman, aka Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, a Russian-Jewish college dropout who left Minnesota to look for Woody Guthrie, and Richard Fariña, an Irish-Cuban altar boy from Flushing, Queens, who majored in literary ambition at Nabokov’s Cornell, as they advance their careers by sleeping with Joan Baez and her sister Mimi, the singing daughters of a Mexican-American physics professor who trained cold war military engineers. And Hajdu also knows precisely where to stop the music, just this side of lapidary, in 1966, when a matched pair of motorcycle accidents—a zygotic twinship—killed off Fariña two days after the publication of his only novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, and sent the substance-abusing Dylan into the first of his many gnomic seclusions.
This countercultural Les Liaisons Dangereuses began on a Greenwich Village street corner in 1961, when an unknown Fariña said to a little-known Dylan, “Man, what you need to do, man, is hook up with Joan Baez. She is so square, she isn’t in this century. She needs you to bring her into the twentieth century, and you need somebody like her to do your songs. She’s your ticket, man. All you need to do, man, is start screwing Joan Baez.” To which an insouciant Dylan replied: “That’s a good idea—I think I’ll do that. But I don’t want her singing none of my songs.”
It would end twenty-five years later—after Richard had dumped his first wife, Carolyn Hester, to get as close as he could to Joan by courting and marrying her teenaged sister Mimi; after Bob used Joan to get famous and then did everything he could think of to ridicule and degrade her, to which she responded with a love song, “Diamonds and Rust,” that would have shamed any other cad this side of Dr. Kissinger’s princely narcissism. After Vietnam, Watergate, and Ronald Reagan—when Brother Bob saw the Widow Mimi for the first time since Richard’s death, and sought to comfort her with these apples: “Hey, that was a drag about Dick. It happened right around my thing, you know. Made me think.”
And love is just a four-letter word.
Post-docs in Dylanology will most appreciate Hajdu’s revisionist account of Newport in 1965. He blames the boos on a lousy sound system in worse weather. How could anyone have been surprised at Dylan’s plugging himself in, when his new album, Bringing It All Back Home, with its hit single, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” had been on the charts for four months, and you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing “Like a Rolling Stone”? Assistant professors of Gravity’s Rainbow will be delighted to hear from Tom Pynchon, who was a buddy of Richard’s at Cornell, and best man at his wedding to Mimi in Carmel, to which he hitchhiked from Mexico because he didn’t have a driver’s license, and agreed to be interviewed for Hajdu’s book by fax, and is quoted not only in a blurb for Been Down So Long (“This book comes on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch”), but also in a personal note to the needy author:
But to you, wild colonial maniac, about all I can say is holy shit…. This thing man picked me up, sucked me in, cycled, spun and centrifuged my ass to where it was a major effort of will to go get up and take a leak even, and by the time it was over with I know where I had been.
If you want comparisons, which you don’t, I think most of Rilke.
For those of us who are amateurs—that is, those of us who still enjoy the great songs but are inclined to believe that there are whole decades of Dylan more interesting to read about in Greil Marcus (“What is this shit?”) than to listen to on our speaker systems—Positively 4th Street is a cohort story. I like cohort stories: about Partisan Reviewers, Abstract Expressionists, or the Beats; the New York Brat Pack or the Chinese Misties. I think it’s terrific that young singers and songwriters, like young writers and artists, fester together in seedy nests or move in herds like thick-skinned ungulates across the inky savannas of the culture, dodging potshots from the great white hunters at Establishment media. So what if they hurt one another while the rest of us are waiting to see which one turns into a unicorn? My favorite Positively scene is when Bob, Joan, Richard, and Mimi visit Henry Miller, the Tropic of Cancer himself rusticating in Pacific Palisades, whom only Richard has read. Henry, of course, wants either Baez (or both), but has to settle for playing Ping-Pong with Mr. Tambourine Man.
I also love their cover stories: Dylan, who grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, with fine china and crystal, sterling silver cutlery, a spinet piano, and a chandelier, whose father bought him a pink Ford convertible and a Harley, whose only real job ever in the real world was as a busboy one summer at the Red Apple Cafe in Fargo, North Dakota, who told everybody in Manhattan that he had been raised in foster homes, had Sioux Indian blood, sang for his supper in carnivals from age fourteen, played piano on early Elvis records, picked up guitar licks from a New Mexico blues musician named Wigglefoot, wrote songs for Carl Perkins in Nashville, and earned walking-around money as a Times Square hustler.
Fariña, whose father was a tool-maker and whose first job out of college was at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency working on the Shell Oil account, advised the credulous that his father was a Cuban inventor and his mother an Irish mystic, that he had been born at sea, and run guns for Castro, and sunk a British sub for the IRA, and been expelled from Cornell for leading a riot, and slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow in case of assassins.
Haven’t we all fudged our résumés? But who knew that organized folksinging, like organized labor, organized religion, and organized crime, could be a medium of upward mobility?
They’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car
They’ll stone you when you’re playing your guitar
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned
Think of Howard Sounes’s Down the Highway, on the other hand, as a surveillance tape. Or maybe a trans-script of the black-box audio recovered from the crash site of the never-ending tour bus. Either lumbering way, it wants to be exhaustive, like a commission report or a Dreiser. (An American Tragedy comes to mind.) British journalist Sounes, who has also written a biography of Charles Bukowski, tracks Dylan from the four-year-old who used to entertain his family with a rousing rendition of “Accentuate the Positive” to the sixty-year-old who has authorized himself to sing “Forever Young” in a television commercial for Apple iMac computers. And besides mentioning every book, record, gesture, arrangement, or idea that Dylan ever stole in his lordly passage from Hard Rain to Sweet Jesus, Sounes will also name the names of every girlfriend, fraternity brother, business associate, disordered groupie, and discarded mentor or buddy; every musician at every gig or recording session; and every influence from Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, to James Dean, Marlon Brando, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Odetta, to Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon and Graceland’s Elvis and the Beatles and Saint Augustine.
Most of this you probably already knew from previous biographies by Anthony Scaduto, Robert Shelton, Bob Spitz, and Clinton Heylin, whose ferociously opinionated Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades has just been “revisited” and updated for the birthday party and is lots more fun than Sounes.* But some of it you didn’t know—such as his second marriage to one of his African-American backup singers, Carolyn Dennis, to legitimize his sixth child, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. Moreover, after interviewing everybody in the vicinity at the time, Sounes also suggests that Dylan’s famous 1966 motorcycle accident might not have been as medically serious as previously supposed, but more of an excuse to drop out, sober up, and recharge, after Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, and all that hash and all those amphetamines in Australia.
In fact, while heavy drinking seems to have been Dylan’s biggest problem for most of his career—he finally quit in the mid-Nineties—1966 is associated in both books with everything from pot to speed to LSD and maybe even heroin, leaving Dylan “skeletal and green.” (There is even a theory that “I Want You” from Blonde on Blonde was “about heroin” rather than a woman.) While we burned Dylan for fuel, he seems to have been running on fumes. The 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, to which Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder signed on, though they can’t be blamed for Renaldo & Clara, sounds in Sounes like a coke bust waiting to happen to a tabloid. And by Thanksgiving 1976, when the Band let Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz, they even had a backstage snorting room, painted white and decorated with noses cut out of Groucho Marx masks, with a tape of sniffing noises.
Hajdu tells us that in 1964 and 1965, while Dylan was typing those “prose-poems” that eventually added up to Tarantula, he got by on black coffee and red wine. But to compose what Baez thought of as his increasingly nihilistic songs, he chainsmoked marijuana. It’s an odd division of labor enticements, sort of like Jean-Paul Sartre’s staying sober to write his novels and Les Mots, whereas, for philosophy, he was usually doped up on a compound of aspirin and amphetamines called corydrane, stoning himself to kill God.
So now ask yourself if Dylan’s no-torious indifference to the niceties of cutting a record, to the relative merits of a multitude of session musicians, to the desires and opinions of his fans and audience, to whether he had any business on a stage, taking their money, when he was wired out of his skull, or in a recording studio, martyrizing thugs like Joey Gallo; combined with his disdain for former colleagues, ex-friends, and previous incarnations, contempt for other artists like Harry Belafonte and Theodore Bikel who cared about causes he could no longer use, like civil rights, and surliness unto road rage; even his unintelligible weirdness on such public occasions as his accepting the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union in November 1963 with a monologue that empathized with Lee Harvey Oswald—“But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt in me,” which must be what inspired Jerry Rubin, five years later, to proclaim that “Sirhan Sirhan is a Yippie!”—well, ask yourself if some of this might have owed as much to chemicals as it did to authenticity. Elvis envy! Don’t think twice.
Still, for those of us who aren’t Dylanologists, there is much in Down the Highway that is wonderfully surprising. Did you know that Dylan’s first song was about Brigitte Bardot? That his favorite film is Shoot the Piano Player, with Charles Aznavour? That his favorite artist is Marc Chagall? That his first wife had been a Playboy bunny? That Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols seems not to have liked him? That Tiny Tim was a member of his Woodstock entourage? That after Jesus he took up sailing and boxing? That, with Bob’s help and some high-grade pot, Paul McCartney not only discovered the meaning of life but also wrote it down? “There are seven levels.”
It takes a lot to laugh; it takes a train to cry.
The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
Joan Baez, or so Hadju quotes her mother, “always thought she was ugly.” Even on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge in 1958, in her own mind, “I was still the girl the kids used to taunt and call a dirty Mexican,” so “pathologically insecure about her appearance” that she mugged at cameras in self-defense, and so self-conscious about what she imagined to be the small size of her breasts that she always wore a light floral jumper over her bikini. Joan Baez? I saw her with my own eyes in Cambridge in 1958, after I’d heard her with my own ears one warm spring night when “All My Trials” came through the window into the basement of 14 Plympton Street, the office of the college newspaper. It was the purest voice I’d ever heard, like listening to the wild blue yonder. And when I rushed out to see what such a voice looked like, she was, of course, beautiful beyond the speed of light. And still is. Like her fellow pacifist Aung San Suu Kyi.
This is the woman that Dylan and his coke-addled cohort chose to humiliate on camera in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, on their 1965 concert tour of England. She is also made to symbolize, in both books, a phony folkie subculture which Dylan, of course, would rile and rock and raunch and roll. “The virgin enchantress,” Hajdu calls her, as well as “Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.” How precious her flock, those middle-class flower children of a Harvard-educated twelve-string banjo like Pete Seeger. What poseurs, like a bunch of Bambis at some hootenanny salt lick, or a seminar on creative nonviolence at a Quaker meeting of vegetarian carpenters. Over such a quilting bee, the hermit-monk Dylan would ride roughshod, not sidesaddle, on his Golden Calf—the Biggest of Boppers.
According to Hajdu the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 was “a popular summer attraction for the suburban leisure class of the postwar boom economy.” And “the nascent discontent on college campuses” in 1962 was “a mobilization in the name of political and moral principle that was also a fashion trend and a business opportunity.” And, by 1965 at Newport, if Baez and Dylan weren’t around, “no one poolside seemed to know which way to point his lounge chair.” Actually, I remember sleeping on the beach because we couldn’t afford a motel.
Sounes, who is English and may not know any better, arches his eyebrow at 1963 Newport because the setting itself “underscored the gulf between the proletarian roots of the music and the privileged lives of most of the performers and the majority of the audience.” I guess he missed Dylan, later on, at Royal Albert Hall in London. And it’s this same summer he’s talking about when he speaks of “antiwar sentiments then in vogue.” Would that they had been in vogue, months before the assassination of John Kennedy, when the only Americans yet in Vietnam were still called “advisers.”
But more schematic than the books have been the reviews of them, everywhere from The Washington Post to the online magazine Salon, buying into an antithesis between folkies and rockers and plunking down in belligerent favor of the snarl and the stomp, as if we couldn’t listen to both; as if in fact we hadn’t been listening, not only to Seeger and Odetta and Baez, but also to Motown and James Brown and the Drifters, even before Bob Dylan, while nursing his hurt feelings that Carl Sandburg had never heard of him, was so stunned to pick up the Beatles on his car radio singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that he was moved to the Bob equivalent of a Gettysburg Address: “Fuck! Man, that was fuckin’ great! Oh, man—fuck!”
Never mind the failure of anybody to take Joan Baez’s Quaker pacifism seriously, from Joan Didion in 1966 to Jonathan Yardley in 2001. Never mind whose career looks more honorable and who’s really posturing at the end of an atrocious century—those acoustic guitar players who went south for civil rights and tried to stop troop trains with their middle-class bodies, or the Macho Rubbish Rehab Ramblers with their amplified electric chairs and enough attitude to trash a hotel room and gang-bang a groupie. Never even mind that a whole lot of things are also always going on besides popular music; that there is news, too, on the wounded radio.
Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
Besides telling us that “folk music is a bunch of fat people,” these are the thoughts of Citizen Bob, the summer after the Kennedy assassination:
All I can say is politics is not my thing at all. I can’t see myself on a platform talking about how to help people. Because I would get myself killed if I really tried to help anybody. I mean, if somebody really had something to say to help anybody out, just bluntly say the truth, well obviously they’re gonna be done away with. They’re gonna be killed.
To which he added:
You can’t go around criticizing something you’re not part of and hope to make it better. It ain’t gonna work. I’m just not gonna be a part of it. I’m not gonna make a dent or anything, so why be a part of it by even trying to criticize it? That’s a waste of time. The kids know that. The kids today, by the time they’re twenty-one, they realize it’s all bullshit. I know it’s all bullshit.
I’m not surprised he found God in 1979. It was a very Seventies thing to do, like Rolfing, Arica, acupuncture, and biofeedback. Like tantric yoga and the hot tubs of Esalen. Or Jonestown and EST. Like pet rocks, WIN buttons, smiley faces, and swine-flu vaccine booster shots. It led directly to power ballads and Ronald Reagan and the Last Tango on Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Meanwhile, some of the rest of us were required to think about the women’s movement, and read Toni Morrison, and poke at the meaning of a James Baldwin sentence: “If I am not who you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.”
Baez has recorded this exchange with Dylan, in March 1965: “I asked him what made us different, and he said it was simple, that I thought I could change things, and he knew that no one could.” It was a puerile thing to say, a species of adolescent fatalism, a waste of our precious time. No wonder he’s back on the bus. If we really have to choose between, on the one hand, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and the world exactly as it is and ever shall be, or, on the other hand, such Sixties folkie fantasies as social justice, racial harmony, peaceable kingdoms, and of course Joan Baez—well, where do I sign?
Just like a woman.
July 19, 2001