Bob Dylan: The Poet's Poet

I had the idea that I was hallucinating, that it was William Blake's voice coming out of the walls and I stood up and put my hands on the walls and they were vibrating

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on Issue No. 156
By |

Memory is a beautiful thing — as I get older I learn to cherish it. It seems so beautiful or ugly that it is often more than real. Sometimes the vision is lit up with imagination; sometimes the imaginings have the shapes of real acts and gestures we call experience.

Experience is physical matter — and there is no sense in hanging onto it. It is a pleasure to let memory pour through the consciousness like nuggets of gold and moss agates and crystals of quartz clicking through the fingers at a rock shop. One never plans to keep those stones but the pleasure of feeling them is lovely.

The autoharp Bob Dylan gave me early in 1966 sat on the mantelpiece for six weeks before I picked it up and strummed it. A black and magical autoharp. Afraid of music, I had always felt totally unmusical — except in appreciation. Bob had asked me what instrument I'd like to play (I was writing song lyrics). I said autoharp out of the clear blue though I had no picture of what an autoharp looked like. There must have been people playing them on farms in my Kansas childhood.

San Francisco poets were poor in 1965 and it was an impressive present and it committed me to music. There was the interest in writing lyrics and perhaps a new way to use rhyme.

Rock had mutual attraction for all; a common tribal dancing ground whether we were poets, or printers, or sculptors, it was a form we all shared. I spent a year and a half learning to play autoharp in an eccentric way and wrote songs like "The Blue Lyon Laughs," "The Allen Ginsberg for President Waltz" and "Come on God, and Buy Me a Mercedes Benz."

I bought an old amplifier and stood in front of the mirror whanging on the autoharp. Obsessed with John Keats' question: What weapon has the lion but himself, I tried to make it a song and sang it so many times so loudly that I wonder what the neighbors thought in those old days when acid rock was a baby.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

In December 1965, when we had been bombing Vietnam for eight months, Dylan read "Poisoned Wheat," a long anti-war poem of mine. One day as we were eating chicken, I handed him another copy. He left huge greasy fingerprints and he did it with complete aplomb. It seemed very non-materialistic and natural not to notice the blotches. It seemed right to treat works of art as part of the transformations of life. Later I gave the copy to a girl who wanted Bob's fingerprints.

The first person to play a Dylan album for me was the poet David Meltzer. It was Dylan's first album, and I heard it shortly after it came out in March or April of 1962. I could not understand what David heard in the album. In high school I knew people at the University of Chicago and in New York City who were singing like that — just some hillbilly-intellectual music that I'd gotten bored with earlier. In retrospect, Dylan must have shown a direct creative thrust without the "Art" self-consciousness of other singers.

Early in 1965 a friend of my wife Joanna came to visit and brought the Dylan album with "She Belongs to Me." The album had changed her life-image from a tragic loser to a proud artist. Joanna heard and understood Dylan at once and completely, I think.

In 1965 everyone had been after me to listen to Dylan carefully — to sit down and listen to the words and the music. I absolutely did not want to hear Dylan. I imagined, without admitting it to myself, that Dylan was a threat to poetry — or to my poetry. I sensed that a new mode of poetry, or rebirth of an old one, might replace my mode. In the long run, rock lyrics have sensitized many people to words and brought them to discover poetry.

At last I could not resist Joanna's demand that I hear the album. We had a banged-up record player in the hallway at the top of the stairs. Late at night, in the pale-gray hallway-light, Joanna sat me down in front of the speaker and told me to listen to the words. I began to hear what the words were saying, not just the jangling of the guitar and the harmonica and the whining nasal voice. The next thing I knew I was crying. It was "Gates Of Eden": "At dawn my lover comes to me/And tells me of her dreams/With no attempts to shovel the glimpse/Into the ditch of what each one means . . ."

I had the idea that I was hallucinating, that it was William Blake's voice coming out of the walls and I stood up and put my hands on the walls and they were vibrating.

Then I went back to those people who had tried to get me to listen and I told them that I thought the revolution had begun. "Gates Of Eden" and those other songs seemed to open up the post-Freudian and post-existentialist era. Everyone didn't have to use the old explanations and the mildewed rationalities any longer.

By the time I met Bob, his poetry was important to me in the way that Kerouac's writing was. It was not something to imitate or be influenced by; it was the expression of a unique individual and his feelings and perceptions.

There is no way to second-guess poetry or to predict poetry or to convince a poet that the very best songs in the world are poetry if they are not. Bob Dylan is a poet; whether he has cherubs in his hair and fairy wings, or feet of clay, he is a poet. Those other people called "rock poets," "song poets," "folk poets," or whatever the rock critic is calling them this week, will be better off if they are appreciated as songwriters.

At a party after his concert at the Berkeley Community Theater in December, 1965, Dylan told me that he had not read Blake and did not know the poetry. That seemed hard to believe so I recited a few stanzas. One was the motto to "The Songs of Innocence and Experience" which begins: "The Good are attracted by Men's perceptions/And think not for themselves/Till Experience teaches them to catch/And to cage the Fairies & Elves . . ."

Bob was sitting on the floor and everyone crowded around him. Joanna, who has a tendency to go to sleep when she's pleased and in a crowd, started to sleep with her head in my lap. Someone told her in an ugly way that she ought to wake up — that if she didn't want to hear what was being said, there were plenty of others who would like her place close to Dylan. One wonders if those were honors being paid to a popular poet, or a worshipful voice in the crowd that the poet argues against.

In 1965 that first Dylan concert in the Bay Area was at the Masonic Auditorium. In those days the Masonic seemed huge and rather plush. It was the first time I'd heard Bob Dylan in person. The records were beautiful but this was better — an immaculate performance with inflections or nuances different from the albums. Dylan was purest poet. Like an elf being, so perfect was he and so ferocious in his persistence for perfection. There was a verge of anger in him waiting for any obstacle to the event.

After the Masonic Auditorium concert we went to the Villa Romano Motel, where Bob and the Hawks were staying, and met Al Grossman. He, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and I spoke for a while. Joan said that Allen and I should be Bob's conscience. It seemed a beautiful thing to say, though not clear at the time. Later Joan wrote that we should hold Bob in our consciousness.

A night or two later, after another concert, there was a party for Bob in San Francisco. Ken Kesey bounced through the door with a few of his Merry Pranksters. Ruddy with the vigor of good health, Los Gatos sunshine and acid, Kesey immediately hit Dylan with something like, "Hey, man, you should try playing while you're high on acid." Without a pause Dylan said, "I did and it threw off my timing." There was no way to one-up Bob or to get ahead of him at any level or any time. You knew that pop stars like Dylan or Lennon drove around in black cars and they were careful and they were very fast and they were staying where they were and they were not kidding.

Nine years later, on the plane going to Dylan's Philadelphia concert, I reread Robert Duncan's small book, Seventeenth Century Suite. Duncan has vowed not to commercially publish any of his new poetry for 15 years, so that no pressure would direct him to write anything other than what he wishes most deeply. By canceling formal publication he was essentially vowing to please only himself. Robert made an edition of 200 copies of Seventeenth Century Suite and gave them to friends for Christmas gifts.

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

How incredibly far it is from Duncan's private edition of Seventeenth Century Suite to Dylan's millions of albums. Both are fine poetry and though they seem poles apart, they almost touch in their subtle images and music. One can imagine the radiance and spectrum of the poetry in between.

It is a mistake to wonder which poetry will matter 30 years from now. We should wonder what is wrong if Dylan's songs do not mean something to us today. We are all moved by spiritual experiences. For some of us the spiritual experiences can be the grossest hit songs or the most kitsch painting. It is really a matter of whether we are ogres or elves — or something in between drawn one way or the other at one moment and another.

The Philadelphia concert made the Masonic Auditorium of San Francisco 1965 seem like a jam session in a small nightclub. The crowd was not in their late 20s and early 30s as friends in San Francisco had predicted — this was an audience of nice-looking, scruffy young people in their early 20s. The tri-sexuals and glitter bunnies were obvious by their absence. All in all, except for a number of bodies (making one think of the pictures of a Tokyo beach), one did not mind being there. There were some of the best people around, a part of the backbone of the future — the people with hope and some enthusiasm in a country run over for eight years by the War Machine.

The lights went down accompanied by a burst of enthusiasm from the 19,000 living souls.

To open the first set houselights came down into darkness very fast. Colored spotlights flashed to the stage and banks of colored lights shone. The Band and Bob Dylan almost ran onstage and began playing without a pause while the audience was still cheering their enthusiasm.

There were two thoughts that someone had imparted to me. One was that Bob was doing his old songs as rock for the new rock generation who did not know him well. The second was that Dylan was in danger of disappearing into his own creation; that as one of the founders of the giant rock scene he had spawned so many followers, imitators, and Dylan-influenced groups and movements that he stood in danger of blending in among his own offspring and hybrids — ending up in the public eye as another surviving folk-rocker.

Dylan a grown man . . . a young man still, but a man. The elfish lightness of foot is gone and the perfection of timing is replaced by sureness; the nasal boy's voice replaced by a man's voice.

Another poet's singing came to mind: Allen Ginsberg at the 1966 Human Be-In singing his strange "Peace in America — Peace in Vietnam." Ginsberg introduced me to Dylan in 1965.

Now Dylan is official culture — like Brecht and Weill. He played "Mr. Jones" — in 1965 a glove thrown in the public face, a statement of revolt; now it is Art.

I could not take my eyes off the lights, hypnotized by the spots of amber, lavender, blue, red that kept playing on Dylan. The banks of lights up above the bandstand stage to the right and left kept bleeding and blinking off and on in time with the drama and melody of the songs. Bright lights kept popping in the blackness — intensely bright and silvery white in their flash. Flashbulbs! It seemed crazy that anyone sitting three blocks from the bandstand in darkness would be setting off flashbulbs. It seemed demented.

"My God, it is a long way since the Avalon Ballroom," I thought. A long way since the lightshows by Tony Martin and Bruce Conner and the smallness of the dance floors and the tribal dancers of 1966. We felt so crowded together, transpersonal and magical in those days. In Philadelphia what I saw was gigantic! The incredible subtlety of the earlier lightshows was surpassed by the blending of colors, the motility of the spotlights and sheer candlepower. The devastating volume of the music made it unpleasant trying to pick Dylan's words out of the roar.

One became aware that the enormous volume of the amplified music mimicked, as it bounced off the walls, the roar of the crowd. The music became a response to itself. The effect would trigger in the audience a response to the music. Loud cheering. When it happened I wondered if that was entertainment or ethological manipulation — or if entertainment could be ethological manipulation.

I loved what I could hear of Dylan's new love songs — they seemed inspired. The melodies, lost in the amplified blare, were not impressive but I was able to hear: "May you always stay courageous/Be forever young . . ."

In the darkness at the end of the concert, the audience lit matches and cigarette lighters, making a Milky Way of wavering lights and cheers — a universe of tiny flaming stars.

If a scholar goes seriously into an analysis of the poetry convergent with the rock movement there will be interesting contrasts between Lennon, Kerouac, Dylan and Ginsberg. The whole thing started with the poets of the Fifties. It was an alchemical-biological movement, not a literary one. An English group with shiny jackets called the Silver Beetles took Jack Kerouac's word "Beat," grew their hair out and became The Beatles. It was beautiful! Bob Dylan's "Dylan" is from Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet so popular in the Fifties. Allen Ginsberg asked if I'd heard that Dylan was titling his album Planet Waves. I asked Allen what he thought of that. Allen said, "Charming! Delightful! Great!" I think so too. Allen's last book was Planet News. There's plenty of room for feedback back and forth.

At the Toronto concert, Marshall McLuhan and his wife were in the audience. McLuhan told me that he had played Dylan albums to a poetry class that morning. McLuhan believes that rock & roll comes out of the English language — using its rhythms and inflections as a basis for melody. (Exactly what I believe — and also that it comes out of the Beat mutation or has the same root.) The future of rock, he felt, would be the same as that of the language; that it would have ups and downs as the language does.

As a mode, the ballad and story-song seem mined out, I said. Anyone can write a story-song in almost any manner and it becomes uninteresting to listen to. McLuhan felt it is the background, not the mode, that gives out. The background is violence, and Dylan was singing violently. "Violence is the result of a loss of identity — the more loss the greater the violence."

Sitting among 19,000 people McLuhan said, "Gravity is like acoustic space — the center is everywhere."

I told Marshall that I wanted to go out into the hallway in the last set of the concert when Dylan and the Band played "Like a Rolling Stone." The night before I had been carried away and wept so hard that I did not want to have the experience again. This was my third concert and the incredible volume of the speakers was beginning to undermine my nerves.

I first heard "Like a Rolling Stone" when Joanna and I were driving in an open MG across the Arizona-California desert with our daughter curled up asleep behind us next to our Russian wolfhound and our pet black-and-white rat sleeping in his cage on the floor of the sports car. The moon was on the horizon. A song never hit me so hard except as a child when my mother sang to me. Much of our poetic sensibility may have its origins with cradle songs — I remember my mother singing songs from Disney cartoons and movies and reciting Mother Goose.

Bob Dylan's Greatest Collaborations

Dylan sang well, putting on extra temperament, and I wondered if he consciously or unconsciously put force behind his lines about professors and critics.

After the concert there was a moment to introduce McLuhan and his wife to Bill Graham and Barry Imhoff and Dylan before Bob and the Band went back onstage for their encore.

Pouring sweat, his face puffy, his eyes partially blanked by the concert he'd just delivered, Bob smiled as much as he could. In the auditorium almost 20,000 people were screaming and yelling for him to come back so he could reconnect them briefly to the godhead.

When Dylan and the Band ran back onstage, Marshall said that this was his first rock concert. Graham replied: "I wish I could say the same thing!" Bill had been concerned because everything was going too well. There is a theater superstition that if small things don't go wrong then something major will.

Dylan has slipped into people's dream baskets. He has been incorporated into their myths and fantasies. They worry about him: whether he is understood, what his next album will be like, if he is appreciated by the press, whether he might get a cold and how he performs his pieces.

My particular fantasy is that he is underpaid. I would not stand in front of 20,000 people and those lights and amplifiers and do what he is doing for all the dollars in the world or for a stack of gold records.

Bob is a prisoner, of his fame and fortune. When he says, "I'm anyone who lives in a vault . . .," he means himself. He is a real poet who lives the poems that he sings. A low of people who hold Dylan in their dream baskets think the songs are a confection — that they are cute and sweet the way Rod McKuen is. But everything I've seen convinces me that Bob is the real thing, that he is no joke, that he has no answers, that he is a poet, that he is trapped most of the time.

The several new songs that I heard in the concerts were domestic (about wife and home) and inspirational. I hope this is the direction that Dylan is going. It would be good to see lots of young Americans put back on their feet — not through renewed faith in the old values that have been shot down, but through greater awareness of themselves on an earth that was once beautiful — and that still has pockets of beauty. I'd like everyone to begin to get some sense of what, and who, they are — and a further sense that something can be done to elevate the vicious mindlessness of politics and bio-environmental destruction and the extinction of the species of living plants and animals. A lot of the poets are moving in that direction — Ginsberg, Snyder, Duncan, Creeley, Waldman.

Thinking of Dylan's poetics I had brought along some books as background material: Seventeenth Century Suite by Robert Duncan, poems by Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, Black Music by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Kafka's "Josephine The Singer."

10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs

In Black Music, published in 1968, Baraka says that the content of white-rock, anti-war and anti-authoritarian songs generalizes "passionate luxurious ego demonstrations"; that the artists want to prove that they are good humans though in fact, Baraka contends, they are really sensitive antennae of the brutalized and brutalizing white social mass. Baraka insists that is a cop-out and the music is still wealthy white kids playing around. We should remember Baraka's viewpoint; it may be narrow but light sometimes passes through a thin slit. The Beatles did not write anti-war songs. When asked about that they replied that all their songs are against war. There may be some beams of light in that crack too.

In Toronto I read Kafka's "Josephine The Singer." A mouse-narrator relates an account of a woman-mouse named Josephine who is a singer. She proclaims herself a great artist and the other mice congregate to hear her at the risk of their lives. But nothing will satisfy her ambition. She has a coterie of worshipful followers. Many of the mice people, however, are not at all sure that what she does, as fascinating and important to them as it is, is singing. They think that it may only be "piping" and perhaps it is her childishness (as she reflects simple attitudes of her people back to them) that is attractive: "Here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of the usual thing." Josephine demands freedom from the labor quota of the mouse people. But no matter how much they love or worship her they will not free her from the work law. Josephine disappears — perhaps has gone into hiding — to force people to accept her demands. Anyone interested in Dylan and/or poetry should look at the piece.

I thought of the creation of a demigod and prophet that took place in the multicolored spotlights and amplification and banks of stagelights — better known to the modern world than Plato or Confucius or Buddha; watched by thousands with millions wishing to see him in other cities. One can become a statue of one's self, mimicking what one is in eternity. Immortality (or its substitute) can be turned off and on and directed by voice over wires and captured on disks of black plastic. There is the possibility that the background has swallowed up the object and that we are in the process of whiting-out. If so, I think we stand in need of it.

"Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be the expression of the imagination; and poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an everchanging wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them . . ."

Said Shelley in 1821 in A Defense of Poetry.

This is a story from the March 14, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 156: March 14, 1974