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Monday, January 24, 2011

The Day the Poet Came to Town

Fifty years ago today (or at least, that's the best guess that most musical scholars and the subject's own reminiscences can come up with), on January 24, 1961, Bob Dylan--who'd left his given name Robert Zimmerman behind at college in Minnesota--arrived in New York City. That very day, he started hitting the folk clubs in Greenwich Village; the photo above may well have come from a set he performed later that very day at the Café Wha?, with Fred Neil and Karen Dalton, who were once pillars of the early 60s New York folk scene. Maybe the 60s had already begun with the Beatles discovering their own potential in Hamburg, or with the election of the self-consciously youthful John F. Kennedy to the presidency. But Bob Dylan's arrival in New York City deserves as much of a shot at the "start of the 60s" title as either of these, or any others for that matter as well.

I'm writing this from Hawai'i, and on the flight over I finished this book by Sean Wilentz. It's wonderfully informative, often fascinating, idiosyncratic, deeply historical, and thoroughly opinionated; with the possible exception of that last one, those terms describe Dylan quite well as well. (Not that Dylan himself is without opinions; only that as an artist, rather than a crusader or a critic, he's approached opinions as things better explored and then discarded, rather than long held to.) Wilentz jumps around Dylan's career, spending a great deal of time on both certain widely acknowledged landmarks (like the recording of Blonde on Blonde in 1966) and some mostly unknown little moments (such as his composition, recording, and abandonment of the classic song, "Blind Willie McTell"). Wilentz persuasively (most of the time, anyway) connects Dylan's ideas and imagery to random American moments ranging throughout the whole of the 20th century, and beyond: the "music for the masses" folk movement inspired by the Popular Front left of the 30s and 40s; the Beat poetry and attitude of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg of the 50s and 60s; the hymnody of the rural white South, and much more. He also skips over a whole lot--Dylan's Christian phase gets relatively little attention, and neither does his time with The Band. (And he calls Dylan's association with The Traveling Wilburys a basically a joke and a lark, while I can't help but think it was anything but.)

Still, in the midst all of those reflections and reminiscences (Wilentz himself, whose childhood was spent near Greenwich Village in the early 60s, appears both as a teen-ager and an adult more than once as part of Dylan's story), the books underscores one overarching point: namely, that Dylan's protean quality as a poet, as a singer-songwriter, as a "minstrel" and performer, encapsulated and opened up a crucial transformation taking place during the those years, exactly a half-century ago. The raw material, the ideological resources and artistic and musical fundamentals, the capacity to both make something new and to quickly tear it down, abounded in the rich, ambitious America of 1961. Take a smart, insanely talented, deeply self-critical shapeshifter from Minnesota, let him listen to both early rock and roll and postwar jazz and pop (Dylan confessed his early love for both Little Richards and Bing Crosby, both Ricky Nelson and Frank Sinatra), then shatter his world with Woody Guthrie and the power of folk music and the blues, and let him go. Let him go to to New York, and begin 50 years of becoming a symbol and a savior and a traitor to one way of seeing the world, one way of politics or art or belief, after another. His early sarcastic insistence that he's really just a "song and dance man" can't really be believed, any more than we can call the 60s "just another decade"...and yet, isn't it the truth as well? It just happened, like anything happens, as Dylan himself put it.

I'm not nearly as knowledgeable in Dylan's oeuvre as I'd like to be--but then, who is? There's just too much of it. And I got into Dylan too late anyway; I didn't really start listening to him until about 10 years ago, and that mainly because good friends kept calling me out on my ignorance. If I was asked today, what slice of all the sometimes harshly accurate, sometimes dreamily romantic, poetry that Dylan has given America over the past 50 years do I like best...well, I just couldn't say. "Political World"? "Desolation Row"? "Just Like a Woman"? "Tangled Up in Blue"? "With God on Our Side"? May I'll just stick one of the most American of his compositions, "My Back Pages": the story of once being certain, and then becoming confused--and paradoxically, getting younger all the while. (Besides, I love this all-star performance of the song.)

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now


Anonymous said...

Sean Wilentz writes a book about Dylan. Hm, a guy who is much better at writing about history than himself and his times writing a book about a guy who is much better at songwriting, singing and playing than explaining himself about songwriting, singing, and playing. Yet you say it works? Maybe this summer
-Western Dave

Russell Arben Fox said...

Well, it's not any kind of masterpiece, Dave--more like 200+ pages of Wilentz, a top American historian and a huge Dylan, free-associating. (Dylan and...Aaron Copland! Dylan and...the French classic, Children of Paradise!) And he really, really likes Dylan's output from the past 20 years, as he's turned to excavating (and plagiarizing?) all sorts of blues, folk, minstrelsy, and pre-WWII pop; he's willing to admit that none of it quite measures up to what Dylan put out in the 60s and 70s, but he's obviously got a soft spot for it all the same. I mean, he even defends Masked and Anonymous, which was apparently crap. But still, I learned a ton from it. So take that for what you will.