Bob Dylan's Late-Era, Old-Style American Individualism

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I tell Dylan about a bootleg CD producer Bob Johnston once sent me of him sounding drunk crooning "Yesterday" with Johnny Cash. His eyes open wide. "Me and Johnny would sit around hotel rooms in London and sing all kinds of stuff into a tape recorder," he says. "As far as I know those tapes have never surfaced anywhere. But they've been in a few films here and there. I don't really remember 'Yesterday.'" When I ask him if he thinks much about Cash, who died in September 2003, he turns somber.

"Yeah, I do. I do miss him. But I started missing him 10 years before he actually kicked the bucket."

"What does that mean?" I ask.

"You know," he says, "it's hard to talk about. I tell people if they are interested that they should listen to Johnny on his Sun records and reject all that notorious low-grade stuff he did in his later years. It can't hold a candlelight to the frightening depth of the man that you hear on his early records. That's the only way he should be remembered."

Dylan has become our great American poet of drifting, inheriting a baton that was passed from Walt Whitman to Vachel Lindsay to Carl Sandburg to Allen Ginsberg. It was Sandburg, in fact, who captured Dylan's imagination. The Illinois populist represented the poetic flip side of his endless fascination with Woody Guthrie. Just as Dylan famously sat at Guthrie's sickbed in Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, he spontaneously drove with friends from New York to Hendersonville, North Carolina, simply to bang on the screened-in door of his all-seasons hero. It was in early February 1964. Mrs. Sandburg greeted the stoned-out New Yorkers with Appalachian warmth. "I am a poet," is how Dylan introduced himself to her. "My name is Robert Dylan, and I would like to see Mr. Sandburg." The 86-year-old Sandburg had collected more than 280 ballads in The American Songbag, and Dylan wanted to discuss them. "I had three records out at the time," Dylan says, laughing at his youthful temerity. "The Times They Are a-Changin' record was the one I gave him a copy of. Of course he had never heard of me." After just 20 minutes, Sandburg excused himself. While Dylan felt it was a pleasant exchange, he didn't get to discuss "I'm a-Ridin' Old Paint" or "Frankie & Albert" with the bard. I ask Dylan whether it was worth the drive to North Carolina. "Oh, yeah," Dylan says. "It was worth meeting him. He was the Grand Ol' Man at the time. I always liked his poetry because it was so simple and poignant. You didn't need reference books to read him."

More famously, around this time Dylan forged a bond with Ginsberg, whose poem "Howl" Dylan had practically memorized line by line. "I like Ginsberg when he invented his own language," Dylan says. "When he put his — nobody I don't think did that before — language down on paper. There's definitely a Ginsberg-ian language. And I don't think anybody uses it, because nobody has ever caught on to it. But it's powerful, confident language. All that neon jukebox and lonesome farms and grandfather night stuff. The way he puts words together. The ways that, you know, he used the English vocabulary, sharp words that seem to sweat as you read them."

Ginsberg once told me a story about a night in the 1980s when Dylan raced over to his East Village apartment, hungry for a title to what eventually became the album Empire Burlesque. I ask Dylan whether he recalls the incident. "Yeah, of course!" he says. "I went over to see Allen. I think I played [the songs] to him over at his place at 5th Street and Avenue B. I played it for him because I thought he would like it. I never dreamed that Ginsberg would latch on to the pop-music world. I always thought they were jazz guys. I asked Allen what he would think a good title for this record was. And he listened. And he thought for a moment. And he said, 'Razzmatazz.'" Dylan laughs and says, "I was kind of speechless. It was not the kind of title that I was expecting. I wasn't sure about that idea. Later on, though, I realized that he might be right. I probably should have called it that."

When tabulating literary influences, Dylan summons the name Walt Whitman, for Leaves of Grass continues to inspire him. Toward the end of his life, Whitman was preparing a "Death-Bed" edition of Leaves of Grass, reflecting on the indignities and ragged joys of growing old. "I don't think the dream of Whitman has ever been fulfilled," Dylan says. "I don't know if Whitman's spirit is still here. It's hard to say if it holds up except maybe in a nostalgic sense. That westward-expansion thing has been dead for a while now. When Whitman started out, he had such great faith in humankind. His mind must have been destroyed when the War between the States fell at his front door. His vision, which was so massively phallic, suddenly must have become plundered, ruined and emasculated when he saw all that indescribable destruction."

We talk about Whitman serving as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., hospital during the Civil War, draining gangrene from a wounded soldier's limbs. "I think you can see the change in Whitman," Dylan says. "Before that and after that. He had the most grand view of America. Almost like he's America himself. He's just so big, and he's all that there is. The Greek Empire. The Roman Empire. The British Empire. All of European history gone. Whitman is the New World. That's what Whitman is all about. But it isn't the New World anymore. Poor man. He was hounded and mistreated, too, in his lifetime. And ridiculed. Emerson, Thoreau, all those guys, you don't know what they really thought of him."

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