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Bob Dylan: The Poet's Poet

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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.

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