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Bob Dylan: The Poet's Poet

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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.

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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