Se muestran los artículos pertenecientes a Agosto de 2010.
Penetrating Aether: The Beat Generation and Allen Ginsberg’s America
by Sean Wilentz
Aaron Copland’s first important musical project after Billy the Kid was to write the score, in 1939, for a film by the innovative director Lewis Milestone, made from John Steinbeck’s novella about hard-luck migrant workers in California, Of Mice and Men. Copland had been trying to break into film work since 1937 but was still known in Hollywood as a composer of modernist art music and hence was considered too difficult for American moviegoers. Thanks in part to his good friend Harold Clurman of the Group Theatre, who had relocated to Hollywood, and inspired in part by Virgil Thomson’s film work, Copland finally got his foot in the door, received the Steinbeck assignment, and produced a score in his new style of “imposed simplicity” (although without the obvious borrowing from folk music or cowboy songs). The film won immediate critical praise, as did Copland’s accessible adaptation of modernist techniques—including, daringly for the time, dissonance—to his score’s wide-open, pastoral evocations. The following year, Copland’s music for Of Mice and Men earned him two Academy Award nominations and the National Board of Review Award.
Late one night in 1940, Jack Kerouac, not yet out of high school, saw Milestone’s film—possibly in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, but most likely in Manhattan’s Times Square—and left the theater envisaging phantoms flitting out of sight beneath the streetlamps. The movie, as well as the ghostly aftermath, stuck with him, particularly its rackety opening scene, carried along by Copland’s dramatic music. Fifteen years later, Kerouac described it in the “54th Chorus” of his large clutch of poems Mexico City Blues:
Once I went to a movie
At midnight, 1940, Mice
And Men, the name of it,
The Red Block Boxcars
Rolling by (on the Screen)
Twenty years after Kerouac wrote those lines, on a crisp scarlet-ocher November afternoon at Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg visited Kerouac’s grave, trailed by a reporter, a photographer, a film crew, and various others (including the young playwright Sam Shepard). Dylan had performed the night before at the University of Lowell, on a tour of New England with a thrown-together troupe of new friends and old, including Ginsberg, which called itself the Rolling Thunder Revue. Ginsberg, who became excited when the tour buses reached the city, met up with some of Kerouac’s relatives and drinking buddies and tried to immerse Dylan’s entourage in Kerouacian lore. Shepard, who had joined the troupe ostensibly to write the screenplay for a movie Dylan planned to make of the tour, duly recorded in his travel log the names of real-life Lowell sites described in the Duluoz Legend—Kerouac’s collective, Faulknerian name for the autobiographical novels, revolving around his fictional alter ego Jack Duluoz, that constituted the main body of his work. But at Edson Cemetery, Ginsberg recited not from Kerouac’s prose but from poetry out of Mexico City Blues, including “54th Chorus”— invoking specters, fatigue, mortality, Mexico, and John Steinbeck’s boxcar America, while he and Dylan contemplated Kerouac’s headstone. And when Dylan included footage of the event in the film he made in and about the Rolling Thunder tour, yet another complicated cultural circuit closed, linking Kerouac listening to Copland and watching Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1940 with the scene at Kerouac’s grave in Renaldo and Clara in 1977.
Dylan knew the poems, Ginsberg later claimed. “Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959,” Dylan told him. “It blew my mind.” It was the first poetry he’d read that spoke his own American language, Dylan said—or so Ginsberg said he said. Maybe, maybe not. Without question, though, Dylan read Mexico City Blues and was deeply interested in Beat writing before he left Minneapolis for New York. (Like other Beats and hipsters, his friend Tony Glover ordered a paperback copy of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch from France, where it had been published by Olympia Press in Paris in 1959 as The Naked Lunch— uncertain whether the book, deemed obscene by American authorities, would clear customs. The book indeed arrived, and Glover lent it to Dylan, who returned it after a couple of weeks.) And Dylan’s involvement with the writings of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the rest of the Beat generation is nearly as essential to Dylan’s biography as his immersion in rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and then Woody Guthrie. “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was all pretty much connected,” Dylan said in 1985. “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti … I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic … it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.”
Dylan’s connection to Kerouac was mainly artistic. After he arrived in New York, he now says, he quickly outgrew the raw, aimless, “hungry for kicks” hipsterism personified by Neal Cassady’s character, Dean Moriarty, in On the Road. Aimlessness would never suit Dylan. And by the time Dylan had begun making a name for himself, Kerouac had begun his descent into the alcoholism and paranoia that would kill him in 1969, at the age of forty-seven. Dylan never met him. But he still loved what he called Kerouac’s “breathless, dynamic bop phrases,” and always would. He could relate to Kerouac as a young man from a small declining industrial town who had come to New York as a cultural outsider more than twenty years earlier—an unknown bursting with ideas and whom the insiders proceeded either to lionize or to condemn, and, in any case, badly misconstrue. Now and then, over the years to come, recognizable lines and images of Kerouac’s would surface in Dylan’s lyrics, most conspicuously in the song “Desolation Row.”
Dylan’s continuing link to the Beat generation, though, came chiefly through his friend and sometime mentor Allen Ginsberg. Dylan’s link with Ginsberg dated back to the end of 1963, a pivotal moment in the lives and careers of both men. Thereafter, in the mid-1960s, the two would complete important artistic transitions, each touched and supported by the other. On and off, their rapport lasted for decades. And in 1997, in New Brunswick, Canada, Dylan would dedicate a concert performance of “Desolation Row” to Ginsberg, his longtime comrade, telling the audience it was Allen’s favorite of his songs, on the evening after Ginsberg died.
As with Dylan’s connection to New York’s Popular Front folk-music world, his connection with the Beats had a complicated backstory. The origins of the Beat impulse, like those of the folk revival, dated back much further than the 1950s, let alone the 1960s, to the days of Dylan’s childhood in Duluth and Hibbing. For all the obvious differences between the Beats and the folk-music crowd—the Beats’ affinities were with the arts of Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake, and Charlie Parker, and not Anglo-American backwoods balladry—the Beat writers found themselves, early, locked in conflict with some of the same liberal critical circles around Partisan Review that decried, for different reasons, the folksy leftism of the Popular Front, including its high-or middlebrow version in Aaron Copland’s music. Out of that conflict emerged Beat artistic ideas that Dylan admired, remembered, and later seized upon when he moved beyond the folk revival. Even though Dylan invented himself within one current of musical populism that came out of the 1930s and 1940s, he escaped that current in the 1960s—without ever completely rejecting it—by embracing anew some of the spirit and imagery of the Beat generation’s entirely different rebellious disaffiliation and poetic transcendence. Dylan in turn would make an enormous difference to the surviving, transformed Beats, especially Ginsberg, each influencing the other while their admirers forged the counterculture that profoundly affected American life at the end of the twentieth century.
Although they were distinct and in many ways antagonistic, the folk revival and the Beat scene shared certain ancestral connections in the Depression-era Left, and this may help explain why the liberal critics thought the Beats were so contemptible. Jack Kerouac’s feel for some of the texture of lower-class life and for what he called “the warp of wood of old America”—his appreciation of “the switching moves of boxcars” in Steinbeck, Milestone, and Copland’s Of Mice and Men—provided one set of similarities. Along with several others in the Beat orbit, including Ginsberg, Kerouac joined the left-wing National Maritime Union in order to ship out with the merchant marine. (Working at the NMU’s headquarters on Sixteenth Street was Ginsberg’s troubled mother, Naomi.) On the West Coast, Gary Snyder brought some of the traditions of Pacific north-woods radicalism into his Zen poesy. But the most powerful link was through Ginsberg, who would always be the most political of the Beat writers. In his poem “America,” which he wrote in 1956, soon after the McCarthy Red Scare, Ginsberg confessed that he had sentimental feelings for the Wobblies, described being brought as a boy to Communist-cell meetings, and chanted in praise of the anarchist martyrs of the 1920s Sacco and Vanzetti. The allusions were not merely historical.
Ginsberg’s readers know about his mother, Naomi, the loyal Communist who took him to those cell meetings, as immortalized in his poem “Kaddish.” But Naomi’s was not the only left-wing political influence inside the Ginsberg household. Ginsberg’s father, Louis, taught high school in Paterson, New Jersey, and was an accomplished mainstream lyric poet whose verses appeared in the New York Times and other respectable places. In his youth, though, the elder Ginsberg, then a Eugene V. Debs socialist, published poetry in Max Eastman’s Masses and its successor, the Liberator. He then gravitated, in the late 1920s, to a loosely organized association called the Rebel Poets, co-founded by the “proletarian” novelist Jack Conroy (who wrote The Disinherited and was an influence on, among others, John Steinbeck and Richard Wright). Louis did not join his wife in the Communist Party, which added to his air of moderation. Yet, like his fellow New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams and other non-Communists, he published work in the Communist-leaning monthly New Masses. And he shared in the widespread outrage that led him to contribute a poem, “To Sacco and Vanzetti,” to a commemorative volume published in 1928, shortly after the two convicted anarchists were executed.
Hints of the Beats’ left-wing genealogy lasted through the 1960s and beyond—thanks, again, chiefly to Allen Ginsberg—and it made some difference to Dylan, who, whatever his thoughts about politics and political organizations, never lost his attraction to rebels and outlaws. The day after the Rolling Thunder Revue left Lowell, Ginsberg wrote a letter to his father:
Beautiful day with Dylan, beginning early afternoon visiting Kerouac’s grave plot & reading the stone … —We stood in the November sun brown leaves flying in wind & read poems from Mexico City Blues… Dylan wants to do some scene related to Sacco & Vanzetti when we get to Boston.
Boston’s symbolic significance needed no explication between son and father: Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed there in 1927, for the murder they allegedly committed in nearby South Braintree seven years earlier. It is plausible that Dylan kindled to the idea of performing “some scene” about them—a reprise, perhaps, of one of Woody Guthrie’s song tributes on his album Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti, composed and recorded in 1946-47 at the prompting of Moe Asch, though not issued until 1960. But nothing came of the idea. By the time the Rolling Thunder Revue reached Boston, Joan Baez, one of the troupe’s stars, had even ceased singing the Alfred Hayes-Earl Robinson anthem, “Joe Hill,” about the Wobbly organizer and songwriter executed in 1915—a song she had featured at earlier stops during her allotted solo portion of the show. Baez and Dylan did share the vocal on “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” Dylan’s rewrite of “Joe Hill.” Traces of the old radical America persisted, long after Dylan had moved beyond writing topical songs. But Dylan had transformed those traces completely, as he transformed everything.
Dylan had hardly come to the Beats in search of a new political cause; rather, he was taken (as he had been before he left Minnesota) with their play of language as well as their spiritual estrangement that transcended conventional politics of any kind. In this sense, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the others served Dylan a bit as rock and roll did—as something he had picked up in Minnesota, returned to, and absorbed anew after he had passed through the confining left-wing earnestness and orthodoxy of the folk revival. Ginsberg sensed Dylan’s disquiet about politics when the two men first met, and it was one reason why he found Dylan so compelling. “He had declared his independence of politics,” Ginsberg later recalled, “because he didn’t want to be a political puppet or feel obligated to take a stand all the time. He was above and beyond politics in an interesting way.” Although he could not help himself, at first, from regarding Dylan, as he later put it, as “just a folksinger,” Ginsberg had heard some of Dylan’s songs and understood them as something much grander than imitative folk art or political storytelling, “an answering call or response to the kind of American prophecy that Kerouac had continued from Walt Whitman.”
Dylan, for his part, could not yet have known—few if any of the Beats’ young admirers did—how the original core members of the Beat generation had been hard at work for years before they established their reputations in the late 1950s. The Beat generation and its aesthetic had their own long foreground; the major Beat writers began to forge their friendships and find their literary voices in the same 1940s America that produced the Almanac Singers and Appalachian Spring. And the conflicts of the 1950s and early 1960s between the Beats and the liberal intellectuals— the most poignant, ambivalent, fateful, and intellectually interesting of the conflicts—began in the spring of 1944, nearly a decade before anyone had even heard the phrase “Beat generation,” when the Columbia College freshman Allen Ginsberg signed up to take a Great Books course with the eminent literary critic and Partisan Review intellectual Lionel Trilling.
Ginsberg arrived at Columbia in 1943, having taken a solemn vow that he would dedicate his life to serving the working class, but he would soon change course. He fell in with another student, Lucien Carr, who introduced him to his older friend (and fellow St. Louis native) William S. Burroughs and to a Columbia dropout, Jack Kerouac, who was living on Morningside Heights with his girlfriend, having been honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy on psychological grounds. In conversation with Ginsberg, Carr formulated the aesthetics of what he called, borrowing from William Butler Yeats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, above all, Arthur Rimbaud, the “New Vision”—a Left Bank bohemian transcendentalism, at once Edenic and decadent, based on shameless self-expression, an unhinging of the senses, and renunciation of conventional morality.
Carr would, before long, become caught up in a bizarre honor murder that landed him in prison for two years, and he would never become a full-fledged author. But out of the New Vision, his friends built ideas about spontaneous renderings of direct experience that became the foundations of Beat writing. And through Ginsberg (whose run-ins with Columbia authorities over relatively minor incidents would lead to a year’s suspension and delay his graduation until 1948), those ideas came into direct contact and conflict with Trilling’s more measured conceptions of literature.
“In the early years, I tried to be open with him,” Ginsberg later told his friend the journalist Al Aronowitz about Trilling, “and laid on him my understanding of Burroughs and Jack—stories about them, hoping he would be interested or see some freshness or light, but all he or the others at Columbia could see was me searching for a father or pushing myself or bucking for an instructorship, or whatever they had been conditioned to think in terms of.” In fact, Ginsberg and Trilling actually shared some important ground, over and against important currents in American culture, which had the effect of making their disagreements all the more rancorous. Both were estranged from the cult of scientific reason and the consumerist materialism that seemed to be swamping the country during the years just after World War II. Both had rejected the submission of art to any strict ideology or party line; despite Ginsberg’s sentimental gestures (and an abiding sense of himself as a radical, no longer Marxist, but Blakean) neither teacher nor student had any use for Communist/Popular Front left doctrine. Both recoiled from the regnant academicism of the so-called New Critics, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, who called for the formalist “close reading” of literature, to the exclusion of history, morality, biography, or any other contextual considerations—thereby turning literary analysis, according to Trilling, into “a kind of intellectual calisthenic ritual.”
Yet if Ginsberg and Trilling both saw in literature an escape route from tyranny and torpor, they differed sharply over literature’s spiritual dimensions and possibilities. In his repudiation of literary as well as political fellow traveling, the anti-Stalinist Trilling looked to poetry and fiction to affirm a skeptical liberalism, founded on what he called “the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity and difficulty.” He was especially drawn to probing the ironies and ambiguities in the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other practitioners of what he called “moral realism”—defined not as merely “the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life.” Trilling’s work took readers outside the traditional insight of literary criticism into essentially philosophical considerations of good and evil, nature and civilization, commitment and evasion.
These difficult proving grounds of the liberal imagination afforded little room for the kind of transcendent “freshness” and “light” that the young Ginsberg and his bohemian friends were proclaiming. In 1945, Ginsberg touted Rimbaud to Trilling as a prophet, “unaffected by moral compunction, by allegiance to the confused standards of a declining age.” Trilling duly read up on Rimbaud and reported that he found in the poet’s rejection of conventional social values “an absolutism which is foreign to my nature, and which I combat.” The idea that artistic genius arose out of derangement of the senses was, to Trilling, a dismal legacy of what he called the Romantic movement’s solipsistic, hedonist conceit that mental disturbance and aberration were sources of spiritual health and illumination “if only because they controvert the ways of respectable society.”
Trilling’s idea of transcending mundane reality through what he called great literature’s sense of “largeness and cogency” and of the “infinite complication” of modern life struck Ginsberg as, finally, a dodge, a retreat into conformism masked by intellectual ambiguity—a “cheap trick,” he told a friend years later, that Trilling performed to hide his own “inside irrational Life & Poetry & reduce everything to the intellectual standard of a Time magazine report on the present happiness and proper role of the American Egghead who’s getting paid now & has a nice job & fits in with the whole silly system.” In direct contrast, Ginsberg and the Beats developed an aesthetic that renounced intellectual abstractions and poeticized individual lived experience—what Ginsberg described in 1948, in a letter to Trilling, as “the shadowy and heterogeneous experience of life through the conscious mind.”
By the time the teenage Bob Dylan first encountered Beat writing a decade later, these literary skirmishes on Morningside Heights had turned into battles between archetypes that helped lead, in turn, to the culture wars of the 1960s and after. Beat and liberal intellectual became locked in an antagonism that established each as the opposite of the other in their own minds. Dylan, in Dinkytown, had no trouble deciding which side he was on, and in Dinkytown, far from the political trench wars of Manhattan, there was an easy overlapping between Beat bohemianism and the scruffy authenticity of the folk clubs. But when he arrived in New York, his head full of Woody Guthrie, he would discover that although the two worlds intersected, Manhattan’s cultural alignments were more convoluted.
In 1958, a resourceful entrepreneur, master carpenter, bohemian, and lover of poetry, John Mitchell, opened a coffee shop at 116 MacDougal Street, near Bleecker, in what was once a coal cellar and which more recently had sheltered a subterranean gay hangout, the MacDougal Street Bar. According to Al Aronowitz, Mitchell, a native of Brooklyn, had settled in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, where he befriended and, for a time, roomed with the celebrated crumbling old Village bohemian poète maudit Maxwell Bodenheim, shortly before Bodenheim’s shocking murder in 1954. Emerging as something of a neighborhood celebrity himself, Mitchell opened a Parisian-style coffeehouse, Le Figaro, on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker, saw it become an instant hit with the locals as well as curious tourists, then sold it at a handsome profit.
Mitchell soon had his eye on the space at 116 MacDougal, which was dank and cramped but perfectly located for another coffee shop. Unable to raise the ceiling, he lowered the floor and opened for business, featuring sweet drinks and dessert items as well as coffee. (Having a boozeless menu reduced costs and avoided the hassles with the police and the Mob that went with securing a liquor license—and it catered well to those bohemians whose drug of choice was marijuana, not alcohol. In any case, drinking customers could sneak in bottles stuffed in brown paper bags, or repair to the Kettle of Fish.) Mitchell invited the growing legion of Village poets who broadly identified with the Beat movement to recite their material and entertain his customers, in exchange for the proceeds collected in a basket handed around the audience. He called his new coffee shop the Village Gaslight, and among the poets who would read there was Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg’s breakthrough had come in San Francisco in October 1955, when a poetry reading in a converted old auto repair shop on Fillmore Street featured his first stunning recital of “Howl.” The poem’s publication, in Howl and Other Poems, by the local bookseller and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1956, followed by Ferlinghetti’s failed prosecution on obscenity charges, brought Ginsberg wide public attention and acclaim. The Beats and their West Coast friends and kindred spirits— who included the young poets Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia, as well as the older, surrealist-influenced Kenneth Patchen—launched an enthusiasm for Beat and Beat-style poetry that sympathetic critics labeled the San Francisco Renaissance.
Ginsberg, who had spent 1957 in Morocco and, later, Paris, returned in June 1958 to the United States, where Manhattan would remain his main base of operations for most of the rest of his life. The New York Beat scene of bars and coffeehouses flourished in the 1950s along the main thoroughfares of Greenwich Village west of University Place. (Neighborhood rents climbed so high as a result that artists and poets, Ginsberg included, took up residence across town, east of Cooper Square.) A New York circle was closed, uptown, in February 1959, when Ginsberg returned to Columbia for a highly publicized public reading with Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky and recited “The Lion for Real,” in honor, he said ironically, of Lionel Trilling. “It’s my old school I was kicked out of,” Ginsberg wrote to Ferlinghetti a week later, “so I suppose I’m hung up on making it there and breaking its reactionary back.”
All the while, a few blocks up MacDougal Street from where John Mitchell opened his Village Gaslight, the folksingers had been gathering in Washington Square. At some point either just before or just after the end of World War II, the story goes, a man named George Margolin began turning up on Sunday afternoons with his guitar in the square, to play union ballads and familiar folk songs (including “Old Paint,” one of the songs Aaron Copland had borrowed). By the early 1950s, Sundays in Washington Square had become the focus for folk-music enthusiasts from around the city. Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, obtained the necessary police permit for playing music in public, and in time flocks of folk instrumentalists and singers of every variety crowded the dry fountain at the center of the square. Alongside Woody Guthrie’s first great acolyte, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, there jostled the young Dave Van Ronk, and alongside him, the even younger Mary Travers, alongside whom were numerous others who, in the early 1960s, would lead the folk revival. Despite the blacklisting of Seeger and the Weavers, a New York folk scene had persisted with roots in the Popular Front cultural radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s—although it was also to prove more eclectic than its forerunner.
The continuing presence of Earl Robinson, Alan Lomax, and Seeger, among others, guaranteed folk music’s enduring connection to the 1940s Popular Front Communist worldview. (The Weavers proved resilient enough to enjoy a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, under the professional hand of their former manager, Harold Leventhal, late in 1955.) A few key institutions—above all Sing Out! magazine, cofounded in 1950 and edited by the politically orthodox Irwin Silber—carried on the Popular Front outlook. And the New York folk-song scene would always have a strong leftist bent, which deepened when the southern civil-rights movement began making headway in the late 1950s. But at almost every level, a growing portion of the folk-song community had no strict or formal political connections and demanded none of its artists and performers.
Moe Asch, the founder of Folkways Records, was the son of the important Yiddish writer Sholem Asch and came to the United States when he was still a boy. A leftist radical who was involved with the People’s Songs folk revivalists, Asch also kept his distance from Communist ideology—he once called himself a “goddamn anarchist”—and was happy to record strong music regardless of the performers’ politics or the contents of the songs. (It was Asch who, in 1952, released the influential six-LP collection Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by the eccentric filmmaker and occultist Harry Smith from previously recorded material.) Although best known for his folk recordings, Asch also worked closely with jazz musicians, including the pioneer of the stride-piano style James P. Johnson.
Then there was Israel “Izzy” Young. An aspiring bookseller and square-dance enthusiast from the Bronx, born in 1928, Young had developed a passion for folk music and had struck up friendships with some of the more talented and creative Washington Square regulars. (Among them were John Cohen and Tom Paley, who, with Pete Seeger’s half brother, Mike, became the New Lost City Ramblers, and who recorded four albums of old-timey folk music, songs from the Great Depression, and children’s songs by the end of the 1950s.) In time, Young decided to rent a storefront on MacDougal Street for selling folk-music records and books. (In order to cover the lease, he cashed in a thousand-dollar insurance policy.) He called the place the Folklore Center and opened for business in March 1957.
Fiercely independent in his leftish politics, Young prized music over ideology. His store—located a few doors down from the cellar where John Mitchell would soon be showcasing the Beat poets—became a clearinghouse for musicians, record company men, scholars, and enthusiasts. Young was also something of a concert promoter. One of the founders of the Friends of Old Time Music, he helped arrange, in 1959, a regular concert series at Gerde’s bar on Fourth Street west of Broadway, which he called “The Fifth Peg at Gerde’s.” The bar’s owner, Mike Porco, undertook the venture as a lark, but when the music began attracting steady crowds, Young got squeezed out of the operation. Gerde’s Folk City was born.
Soon after, John Mitchell, having also noticed the trend, switched from using folksingers for turning the house between recitations by Beat poets to hiring folksingers regularly. By the time Bob Dylan arrived in January 1961, the Gaslight was the premier showcase for folksingers on MacDougal Street, and Dylan considered himself fortunate to break into the Gaslight lineup. In April, he secured his first important extended New York engagement, as an opening act for the blues great John Lee Hooker, at Gerde’s. But it was still a long way from the Village clubs to musical stardom. A little more than six months after Dylan premiered at Gerde’s, Young would lose money when he sponsored Dylan’s first theatrical concert, at Carnegie Chapter Hall, and only fifty-three ticket buyers showed up. Dylan’s big break only came months later, in September, when the New York Times critic Robert Shelton reviewed a show at Gerde’s, dealt quickly with the headline act, the Greenbriar Boys, and devoted his own headline and the bulk of his story to celebrating Dylan as the prodigious new talent on the folk scene. After playing backup harmonica on a recording session for the folksinger Carolyn Hester the day after Shelton’s article appeared, Dylan signed a five-year recording contract with Columbia Records, where the legendary John Hammond, who had worked with Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Big Joe Turner, would be his producer.
Relations between the folkies and the Beats in New York were not necessarily close or even harmonious. The Beats’ preferred music was, and always had been, jazz, from bebop to the free jazz experiments being undertaken by Ornette Coleman and others at the Five Spot on Cooper Square. On the West Coast, Kenneth Patchen had pioneered in reading what he called his “picture poems” to the accompaniment of the Charles Mingus combo. Kerouac appeared with a jazz group at the Village Vanguard on Seventh Avenue in 1958 and recorded readings of his prose and poetry with the saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims; he also collaborated with David Amram on the jazzy soundtrack, part spoken, part musical, for Robert Frank’s Beat movie Pull My Daisy. The folksingers shared the Beats’ disdain for consumerist materialism and conventional 1950s dress and mores, as symbolized by clean-cut, collegiate folk groups like the Kingston Trio, who had built on the earlier success of the Weavers. But the Beats had their own hip style that clashed with what the Afro-surrealist Beat Ted Joans (who for a time had shared a cold-water West Village flat with Charlie Parker) called, in 1959, the “silly milly” folksingers, “the squarest of squares,” with “their boney banjo-shaped asses.”
Still, as Moe Asch’s recordings showed, the Beat jazz scene and the folk revival sometimes overlapped. Folkies and Beats could not help interacting as poetry cafés and music clubs proliferated cheek by jowl on and around MacDougal Street—the Café Bizarre (located in what had been Aaron Burr’s livery stable), the Commons (which would later become the Fat Black Pussycat), the Bitter End, and many others. Dylan writes in his memoirs of seeing Thelonious Monk in one club, off-hours, sitting alone at the piano, and when Dylan informed him he was playing folk music up the street, Monk replied, “We all play folk music.” Among the jazz musicians who played at the Fat Black Pussycat were the pianist Sonny Clark and the tenor saxophonist Lin Halliday.
The folkies were hardly uninterested in the jazz they heard all around them, on records as well as in the clubs. Van Ronk started in New York as a self-described “jazz snob,” more interested in the jazz pioneers of the 1920s still to be found in the Village than in the earnest folk types. Dylan reports in Chronicles of listening at friends’ houses to all sorts of jazz and bebop records, by artists ranging from Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie to Gil Evans, who, he notes, recorded a version of Leadbelly’s song “Ella Speed.” (“I tried to discern melodies and structures,” he recalls. “There were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music.”) And at least some of the Beats listened to black rhythm and blues as well as jazz, just as the younger folkies like Dylan did. (Allen Ginsberg began his great poem about his mother, “Kaddish,” describing a midwinter Manhattan scene in 1959, in which, after a sleepless night, he reads the Kaddish aloud “listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph.”) All were influenced, in their sense of stagecraft and spontaneity, by the burgeoning Village Off-Broadway and experimental theater, ranging from Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre and the avant-garde productions at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre on tiny Commerce Street, to the first of the impromptu “happenings” in private apartments and lofts.
By 1961, the Beats and folkies also shared MacDougal and Bleecker streets with herds of tourists who would come to town to see the weirdos perform and get a whiff of bohemian danger. As recorded by the Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah in his collection of pictures and articles Kerouac and Friends, a more serious Beat scene persisted, in readings at the Living Theatre, in nighttime conviviality at the Jazz Club, the Cedar Street Tavern, and Riker’s Diner, and in book signings and parties at the 8th Street Bookshop, co-owned by my father and uncle, Eli and Ted Wilentz. But the Beats did not entirely disappear from MacDougal, even as the tourist trade burgeoned. (At the Folklore Center, Israel Young, an utterly indifferent businessman, would bolt the door when MacDougal got too crowded, to permit the folksingers to chat and to perform their songs for each other in peace.) Some of the poets turned into showmen, giving the customers all of the espresso and all the black-bereted soulful and titillating verse they could want. Some of the MacDougal and Bleecker cafés turned into vaudeville-like tourist traps, where cracked raconteurs and musical jabberwocks would appear on a rapidly changing bill with genuinely talented performers.
It was in one of those hole-in-the-wall MacDougal Street cabarets, the Café Wha?, that Bob Dylan performed on the same day he hit New York City in January 1961. The writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were already in his brain, though his search for Woody Guthrie was foremost on his mind. And, although it might have seemed different in some of the other clubs, there were signs that, just as the folksingers were getting popular, the Beat phenomenon was running out of steam.
On January 26, 1961—the same day, just after Dylan’s arrival in Manhattan, that Aaron Copland was narrating The Second Hurricane in midtown—a group of writers gathered at the apartment of the Belgian theater director Robert Cordier, on Christopher Street, to discuss (and, for some, to celebrate) the death of the Beat generation. Cordier’s friend James Baldwin—who especially disliked Kerouac’s work, considering it patronizing and ignorant in its projections about American blacks—was there. So were Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, William Styron, and the Beats Ted Joans, Tuli Kupferberg (later of the rock band the Fugs), and the Village Voice journalist Seymour Krim. A few of the non-Beats, particularly Mailer, found the Beats very interesting. But most of the writers had gathered to bury what was left of a movement that they believed had been thoroughly co-opted by the commercial mainstream. What had begun as an iconoclastic literary style (whether one approved of it or not) had become, the detractors said, just another fad, a subject fit for television comedies. (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a popular TV sitcom that featured a comedic “beatnik” character, Maynard G. Krebs, had debuted in September 1959.)
The major Beat writers, meanwhile, were going their own ways. Two months after the meeting at Cordier’s, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky set sail for Paris, in part to locate William Burroughs and in part to escape the malign publicity directed at them and their friends from critics high and low. Over the next two years, Ginsberg and Orlovsky would circumnavigate the globe, visiting Tangier (where they would finally find Burroughs), Greece, Israel, and East Africa, before reaching India, where they spent fifteen months in holy seeking before they ended their travels in Japan and headed home. The somewhat younger poet Gregory Corso, who had joined the Beats’ inner circle in 1950 and whose City Lights volume of poems Gasoline, published in 1958, had greatly impressed Dylan in Minneapolis, had been sidelined by an addiction to heroin and alcohol. With Kerouac devoting most of his time during these years to drinking, writing, and living with his mother in Northport, Long Island, and Orlando, Florida, the Beat generation would never be the same.
Bob Dylan, who has said he “got in at the tail end,” had read the Beats in Minneapolis, but apart from preparing him for the open road that he found in Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, the literary effects on his early lyrics are difficult to discern. The Beats’ performance style was something else again, or so Dylan has recalled. “There used to be a folk music scene and jazz clubs just about every place,” he remembered a quarter century later. “The two scenes were very much connected, where the poets would read to a small combo, so I was close up to that for a while. My songs were influenced not so much by poetry on the page but by poetry being recited by the poets who recited poems with jazz bands.” The poetry on the page that mattered, he has said, were “the French guys, Rimbaud and François Villon,” to whom he turned after reading Ginsberg and the others.
As the Beat presence in the Village faded, MacDougal Street became, more than ever, a showcase for the folk revival. Not that Dylan forgot the Beats, or failed to connect with the Beat writers and artists who remained in town. He still adored Allen Ginsberg’s work and had a special kinship with the oft-incarcerated jazz poet Ray Bremser (whose “jail songs” he cited, along with Ginsberg’s love poems, in the last of the “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” free verse he substituted for liner notes on his third album). What he later called the “street ideologies” of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, and the others still signaled to him the possibility of a new form of human existence. At some point in 1963, he met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the two discussed possibly publishing a book of Dylan’s writing, alongside Ginsberg’s and Corso’s volumes, in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. Still, Dylan’s literary breakthroughs, taking him outside the idiom of traditional Anglo-American balladry, would come from other sources and experiences, not least from hearing Micki Grant sing Marc Blitzstein’s translation of “Pirate Jenny.” The Beat influence would rekindle only after Dylan had established himself as a rising star—the greatest young folk songwriter in the Village and, for that matter, in the country—when he met up with Allen Ginsberg.
In December 1963, Ginsberg and Orlovsky, having at last returned to New York from their travels, took up temporary residence in Ted Wilentz’s family apartment above the 8th Street Bookshop, while they looked for an apartment of their own. It was, coincidentally, a moment of national trauma. The inauguration of President John F. Kennedy (less than a week before Dylan’s arrival in New York and the writers’ gathering in the Village to bury the Beat generation) had elevated new hopes for a great cultural as well as political change. It seemed as if the nation had suddenly decided, as Norman Mailer put it, “to enlist the romantic dream of itself” and to “vote for the image in the mirror of its unconscious.” But now Ginsberg and Orlovsky came back to the Village less than a month after President Kennedy’s assassination.
Although he would later deny it, Kennedy’s murder hit Dylan as hard as it did everyone else, and maybe more than most. Three weeks later, receiving an award from the established left-wing Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Dylan expressed his deep discomfort with the well-dressed, older audience—well-intentioned people, he perceived, who were on the sidelines and who wanted to change the world but at a safe distance. He identified more, he said, with James Forman and the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who were putting their bodies as well as their goodwill on the line in the southern freedom struggle. Anyway, he declared, switching course, he did not see things in terms of black and white, left and right anymore—”there’s only up and down,” he said. Then he shocked everybody by confessing that, speaking as a young man, he could imagine seeing something of himself in the president’s young assassin. Gasps, then boos and hisses followed, and Dylan stepped down. Unable to articulate his feelings any better than that—some reports say he had drunk a good deal of wine to fortify himself before the speech—Dylan seemed to be at loose ends.
While Dylan brooded and stumbled, Ginsberg and Orlovsky tried to pay Kerouac a visit in Northport—but Kerouac’s formidable French-Canadian mother, Gabrielle, who despised Kerouac’s Beat friends for what she thought they had done to her Ti Jean, turned them away. A transfiguration of the Beat generation would, though, commence at month’s end, without Kerouac. Al Aronowitz, who had written extensively about the Beats for the New York Post, was now writing about Dylan—more or less, he admitted, in order to become part of his inner circle. Aronowitz got word of a welcome-home party for Ginsberg and Orlovsky, to be held at Ted Wilentz’s Eighth Street apartment on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, when the bookshop’s distracting holiday season was done. Aronowitz thought it would be interesting to bring Dylan along to meet the author of “Howl.” (As it happened, Dylan preferred “Kaddish,” which Ferlinghetti had published as part of his Pocket Poets Series soon after Ginsberg and Orlovsky had left for Paris, in 1961.)
Weeks earlier, at a party in Bolinas, California, Ginsberg, on his way back to New York from India, had heard Dylan on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—and, he later said, wept with illuminated joy at what he sensed was a passing of the bohemian tradition to a younger generation. At Wilentz’s apartment, Ginsberg and Dylan discussed poetry, and, according to Aronowitz, Ginsberg came on sexually to Dylan. (“Allen was really a flaming queer,” Aronowitz later said.) Dylan, unfazed, invited Ginsberg to join him on a flight to Chicago, where he was scheduled to play at the august Orchestra Hall the following night. Ginsberg declined, worrying, he recalled, that “I might become his slave or something, his mascot.”
Dylan had already been experimenting with writing free verse, without intending that it would serve him as lyrics. Not long before he met Ginsberg, he poured out a poem about the day of Kennedy’s murder, which concluded:
the colors of friday were dull
as cathedral bells were gently burnin
strikin for the gentle
strikin for the kind
strikin for the crippled ones
an strikin for the blind.
Pulled together, the lines would form part of what Dylan called the “chain of flashing images” that soon went into “Chimes of Freedom”—marking both Dylan’s reconnection to Beat aesthetics and the transformation of those aesthetics into song. And in 1964 and 1965, Ginsberg and Dylan influenced each other as both of them recast their public images and their art.
D. A. Pennebaker’s cinema verité film about Dylan’s concert tour of En gland in 1965, Dont Look Back, includes several scenes of Dylan and his entourage in his suite at London’s Savoy Hotel. In one of them, Dylan squats on the floor amid a gaggle of English folkies and hangers-on, and slurring his words, he converses with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s old recording mate Derroll Adams, who had relocated to England and who suggests that they get together “and I’ll turn you on to some things.”
“Okay. Are there any poets like Allen Ginsberg around, man?” Dylan asks.
“No, no, nothing like that,” Adams replies. He pauses for a split second. “Dominic Behan.”
“Hey, yeah, yeah, you know, you know,” Dylan says, then the name sinks in and he sounds repulsed. “No, I don’t wanna hear nobody like Dominic Behan, man.”
Dylan mutters the name again, contemptuously, “Dominic Be-un.” A sodden English voice, off camera, spits out: “Dominic Behan is a friend of mine…”
“Hey, that’s fine, man,” Dylan says, evenly enough, “I just don’t wanta hear anybody like that though.”
It’s no wonder that Dylan was annoyed. A couple of years earlier, he had lifted the melody of Behan’s song “The Patriot Game” for his own “With God on Our Side,” and the word was going around that Dylan had plagiarized him—even though Behan himself had based his song on a traditional Irish tune, “The Merry Month of May.” But Behan, the brother of the playwright and novelist Brendan Behan, was also part of the Irish working-class equivalent of the folk revival in the United States. Dylan, having gone as far as he was going to go with the folkies, had been turning elsewhere, to his own variations on rock and roll (as the musical world would soon discover) and to American bop prosody as it was sliding into late-1960s hippie ecstasy. (Later in the scene, he would badly outmatch the latest British folk sensation, Donovan, laying down “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” as a kind of response to Donovan’s impromptu performance of his ditty “To Sing for You.”) Intensely restless in the spring of 1965—still performing his old material, solo, on acoustic guitar and rack harmonica, but with his mind roaming—Dylan was on the cusp of something new, and he wanted to hear Ginsberg’s poesy.
As it happened, unknown to Dylan (and as Dont Look Back does not reveal), Allen Ginsberg had just flown to London from Prague, suddenly ejected by Czech authorities as a corrupter of youth—he was now a year shy of forty—a week after a massing of a hundred thousand students, with rock bands blaring, had proclaimed him the King of May, as part of the revival of an annual festival that the Communists had suppressed for twenty years.
In the movie’s next scene (shot, according to the transcript of the film, the following day), all is calm in the hotel room—and there, out of the blue, though only fleetingly on camera, is Ginsberg, seated and chatting softly with Dylan. The sequence is utterly fortuitous, spooky in its timing given what has just happened onscreen: Dylan asked for Ginsberg, and all of a sudden there he was, seemingly conjured up out of the vapors but in fact thanks to the apoplectic commissars of Prague. (Pennebaker confirms that nobody had any idea that Ginsberg was coming the night that Dylan brought up his name with Derroll Adams.) An important moment in Beat lore merged with an iconic moment in Dylan’s career—although explaining all of that in the film would have taken the focus off Dylan and, in any case, would have taken too long. Instead, the camera records the hippest of 1960s friendships—and makes possible a clever piece of image making, joining the singer as poet in the same documentary frame with the poet as cultural hero.
Over the two years since Dylan and Ginsberg had met, their connection had become a public fact as well as an artistic and personal alliance. It started off quietly enough. During part of the summer of 1964, Dylan stayed at the country retreat of his manager, Albert Grossman, on Striebel Road in Bearsville, New York, just west of Woodstock. Ginsberg, breaking away from various engagements in New York (including a campaign to legalize marijuana), spent some time with Orlovsky at Grossman’s, where Dylan taught him how to play a harmonium that Orlovsky had lugged back from India. In September, Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and one of Ginsberg’s rare girlfriends, the young filmmaker Barbara Rubin, were part of Dylan’s entourage at a concert in Princeton, New Jersey.
The following February, Dylan appeared on Les Crane’s nationally broadcast, late-night TV talk show, dressed not in his customary suede and denim but in a modish suit and performing with an accompanist, Bruce Langhorne, who played an acoustic guitar with an electronic pickup. Between songs, Dylan bantered with Crane about a collaboration he had undertaken with Ginsberg—”sort of a horror cowboy movie,” Dylan deadpanned, that Ginsberg was writing and he was rewriting, and that would take place on the New York State Thruway. “Yeah?” asked Crane, who seemed to get the put-on but was willing to play it straight. “Are you gonna star in it?”
Dylan: Yeah, yeah, I’m a hero.
Crane: You’re the hero? You play the horrible cowboy?
Dylan: I play my mother (audience laughter).
Crane: You play your mother? In the movie?
Dylan: In the movie. You gotta see the movie (audience laughter).
Three months later, Ginsberg appeared in the movie that Pennebaker was making about Dylan. By then, Columbia had released Bringing It All Back Home, its back cover illustrated with photographs taken by Daniel Kramer in Princeton, including one of Ginsberg wearing Dylan’s trademark top hat and another of Rubin massaging a weary Dylan’s scalp. To top it off, and seal the symbolism, a small photo showed Dylan smiling impishly, wearing the same top hat Ginsberg was wearing in the first picture. The two shared an odd 1960s bohemian crown, with intimations of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And just in case the message wasn’t clear enough, Dylan wrote in the album’s liner notes:
given up at making any attempt at perfection
the fact that the white house is filled with
leaders that’ve never been t’ the apollo
theater amazes me. why allen ginsberg was
not chosen t’ read poetry at the inauguration
boggles my mind / if someone thinks norman
mailer is more important than hank williams
In early December, in San Francisco, Dylan stopped by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights, where Ferlinghetti was staging what came to be called the Last Gathering of Beat poets and artists (five years after the “funeral” at Robert Cordier’s apartment). A dozen or so Beat writers turned up, including Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and Michael McClure. Dylan, who had by now released “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” and was touring with his backup musicians, would play that evening at the Masonic Auditorium, having performed the previous two nights at the Berkeley Community Theater. He had had fun the day before at a press conference where Ginsberg asked a hipster question: “Do you think there will ever be a time when you’ll be hung as a thief?” (Dylan, taken aback momentarily, smiled and replied, “You weren’t supposed to say that.”) Now he would mingle with Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s friends at one of the Beat scene’s literary headquarters, accompanied by his band’s lead guitarist, Robbie Robertson. The two musicians headed straight for the store’s basement in order to avoid the crush of fans and not to intrude on what Dylan thought ought to be entirely the Beats’ occasion. When the hubbub subsided, Dylan posed for some pictures in the alley that adjoined the store, alongside McClure, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Robertson, and Orlovsky’s brother, Julius.
Dylan had thought that some photographs of him with the poets might look good on the cover of the album he had just begun recording, which would become Blonde on Blonde. Even though the pictures, some of them made by the young photographer Larry Keenan, did not appear on the album, they would be widely reproduced in books as well as future Dylan record releases, affirming Dylan’s place among the poets and theirs with him.
The Beats’ gathering over, and the concert done, Dylan headed south with Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and McClure, riding in Ginsberg’s Volkswagen van (bought with the proceeds from a Guggenheim Fellowship) to San Jose, to meet up with the band for another concert before finishing off the tour with concerts in Pasadena and Santa Monica. Dylan had given Ginsberg a gift of six hundred dollars, enough to purchase a state-of-the-art, portable Uher tape recorder. (Ginsberg, in gratitude, taped one of Dylan’s concerts in Berkeley, as well as approving members of the audience, to show Dylan that the hostility his new electric music had received from reviewers was undeserved. Rebutting charges that Dylan had sold out his fans, Ginsberg later remarked: “Dylan has sold out to God. That is to say, his command was to spread his beauty as widely as possible. It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox.”) Dylan also presented McClure with an Autoharp, on which the poet would soon be composing in what was, for him, an entirely new kind of sung verse.
Then Dylan flew back to New York to resume work on his new album and prepare for a grueling tour of the continental United States, Hawaii, Australia, Europe, and Britain, which would culminate in his historic concerts at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Ginsberg, after a brief trip to Big Sur, returned to Los Angeles (where he met the Byrds and the record producer Phil Spector), then took off in the van headed east. Orlovsky drove; Ginsberg dictated poetry into the Uher recorder, which he had called, musician-style, his “new ax for composition.” As the Volkswagen gyrated between Lincoln, Nebraska, and Wichita, Kansas, Ginsberg compressed radio announcements, highway advertising signs, pop lyrics of the Beatles, the Kinks, and Dylan, always Dylan, and the bleak farming landscape into verse, and composed, as taped spoken stanzas, the lengthy “Wichita Vortex Sutra”— one of his greatest poems and, along with Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, the most powerful literary response to America’s mounting military intrusion in Vietnam.
Dylan and Ginsberg’s friendship was close and respectful but also complicated, as the New York poet Anne Waldman has explained. Fifteen years Dylan’s senior, Ginsberg was hardly old enough to be a father figure, but Dylan sometimes cast him that way, as the patriarch of the entire hip cultural family. (In the film he made from the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, Dylan actually had Ginsberg play a role named Father.) Yet Dylan garnered by far a larger audience with his music than Ginsberg did with his poems, and Ginsberg became such a devotee of Dylan’s that, during the Rolling Thunder tour, Waldman recalls, members of the troupe “joked that Ginsberg was Dylan’s most dedicated groupie.” Ginsberg’s homosexuality and obvious desire for Dylan added an additional layer of tension and even curiosity. Certainly, by the 1970s, Dylan had eclipsed Ginsberg as a cultural, and countercultural, star; at times, especially during the Rolling Thunder Revue, Ginsberg seemed practically to be nipping at Dylan’s heels, wanting but never quite reaching the aura of rock-and-roll adulation and glory. At these moments, Dylan, and not Ginsberg, seemed to be the more powerful man in the friendship, the older brother if not the father. On Dylan’s part, Waldman writes, there was “a bit of taunt and tease in the relationship whose intimacy I notice[d] Ginsberg deeply enjoy[ed].” And, one might add, there was a bit of pathos on Ginsberg’s part.
Still, in their odd tandem, Dylan and Ginsberg helped each other complete transitions into new phases of their careers after 1963. Part of the transitions had to do with image. Masters of self-protection and media presentation, Dylan and Ginsberg entered into, if only tacitly, a mutual-reinforcement pact. By the time they met, Dylan was already on the move artistically, yet that move had its risks. Trading in the soulful, Steinbeckian leftishness depicted in his portrait by Barry Feinstein on the cover of The Times They Are A-Changin’ was bound to confuse and even offend a portion of Dylan’s young pro-civil-rights, ban-the-bomb folkie base, as well as the folk-revival old leftists. The falloff became obvious when Dylan’s second album of 1964, Another Side of Bob Dylan—which included the completed “Chimes of Freedom”—did not crack the Top 40 on the sales charts. (By contrast, The Times They Are A-Changin’ had broken in at number twenty on the charts.)
Having Ginsberg as his visible ally helped Dylan negotiate the shift, as well as his return to rock and roll on the three albums that followed Another Side in 1965 and 1966. To be sure, Ginsberg and the Beats, with their mysticism, sexual frankness, and individualism, were politically unreliable as far as the Popular Front veterans were concerned. And some of the Beats (though not Ginsberg) shared a resentful view that the folk musicians, Dylan included, had shoved them aside at the very beginning of the 1960s. But Ginsberg was enough of a leftist to satisfy the younger folkies. (Joan Baez—Dylan’s lover through part of this period, and disconcerted at Dylan’s growing detachment from politics—asked Ginsberg and McClure late in 1965 to act as Dylan’s conscience.) As a cultural revolutionary, antibourgeois seer, and antagonist of the academy, Ginsberg commanded respect on the left. Above all, Ginsberg stood for literary seriousness, on a level far above what even the most talented folkie lyricist, let alone rock and roller, could hope to attain.
Dylan, meanwhile, helped Ginsberg make his transition from Beat generation prophet to a kind of older avatar of the late-1960s counterculture—for the poet, a new kind of fame. If Dylan did not open the doors to the widest pop markets, he beckoned to audiences that no poet of the traditional sort could hope to reach—baby boomers, fully twenty years younger than the Beats, who listened to Top 40 radio and crammed into places like Orchestra Hall in Chicago and Carnegie Hall in New York to hear their hero Dylan perform. Apart from Andy Warhol, no artist on the New York scene in 1964 and 1965 was as shrewd a molder of his pop public image as Dylan—and for Ginsberg, himself a great self-publicist and promoter of his poet friends, the association with Dylan was one of the catalysts that transformed him into a celebrity emblem, young America’s wild-haired poet.
None of this means that the connection between the two men was merely or even mainly about cultural marketing. Ginsberg wrote only a few brief verses in 1964 (complaining, in one of them, about the distracting telephone, “ringing at dawn ringing all afternoon ringing up midnight,” and callers hoping to cash in on his celebrity), but in his poem of Prague in 1965, “Kral Majales,” written during the unexpected flight to London where he immediately linked up with Dylan, he sprang to life as one of the Just Men who denounced lying Communists and lying capitalists, and who was chosen King of May “which is the power of sexual youth.” Later, Ginsberg talked seriously with Dylan about future joint projects, possibly including a record album of Ginsberg’s mantras.
In one of the culminations of “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg, having already declared the Vietnam War over but still hearing the blab of the airwaves about death tolls and new military operations, wrote of how, at last, the radio bade new promise:
Angelic Dylan singing across the nation
”When all your children start to resent you
Won’t you come see me Queen Jane?”
His youthful voice making glad
the brown endless meadows
His tenderness penetrating aether,
soft prayer on the airwaves.
Five years later, Ginsberg would finally record with Dylan, performing mantras, William Blake songs that he had put to music, and at least one song that Dylan and Ginsberg wrote together. Ginsberg would, for the rest of his life, see Dylan’s work (and not the Beat generation jazz experiments he linked to Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth) as aligned with his own practice of vocalizing poetry, in a vernacular, idiomatic, self-expressive form.
Dylan, for his part, was determined to make his own artistic break from the topical, folkie Left when he recorded Another Side in a single afternoon and evening on June 9, 1964, telling the journalist Nat Hentoff, “There aren’t any finger pointing songs in here … From now on, I want to write from inside me … for it to come out the way I walk or talk.” Combined with a renewed attachment to Rimbaud, which he had affirmed to his friends months earlier, Dylan’s dedication to writing from within—to capturing what Ginsberg had called, nearly twenty years earlier, “the shadowy and heterogeneous experience of life through the conscious mind”—placed him within the orbit of the Beats’ spontaneous bop prosody even before he returned to playing with a band on electric guitar.
Dylan’s transition, although rapid, was not flawless. Another Side— written amid a coast-to-coast concert tour, riding with friends and exploring the country in a station wagon; followed by his final breakup with Suze Rotolo; followed then by his first concert tour of Britain and a trip through Europe that ended in a village outside Athens—contains the occasional poetic clinker. (From “Ballad in Plain D”: “With unseen consciousness, I possessed in my grip / A magnificent mantelpiece, though its heart being chipped.”) The album is not uniformly successful in its experiments with what Ginsberg described as “join[ing] images as they are joined in the mind”—efforts influenced by sources as diverse as Japanese haiku and what T. S. Eliot called the “telescoping of images.” “Howl” had evoked “horrors of Third Avenue iron dreams” and “the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”; Dylan’s “My Back Pages”—a strong, expressionist song about looking back and moving on—offers apprentice images of “corpse evangelists” and “confusion boats.”
Still, Another Side was, by any measure, an artistic breakthrough. Typing and scribbling on notepad paper from London’s Mayfair hotel, Dylan composed lyrics in bursts of wordplay, including little narratives and collage-like experiments. Writing on the other side of what would eventually become the lyrics for “To Ramona,” he tried out little riffs, some of which would turn up in “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” and some of which would be discarded. (The latter included a pair of couplets set off in alternating lines, one on the left about getting his monkey to do the dog atop a lumberjack log, the other on the right, about joining Ingmar Bergman in singing “Blowing in the Wind,” written out as if each couplet was coming in from a different side of a set of earphones.) In their finished form, the album’s simpler songs of love and anti-love—sung to the cracked-lipped Ramona, to the gypsy fortune-teller of Spanish Harlem, and about the unnamed watery-mouthed lover who turns him into a one-night stand—show an inventiveness in language, narration, and characters far more sophisticated than anything on Freewheelin’. Whatever its slips, “My Back Pages” contains interesting turns about “half-wracked prejudice” and ideas as maps, along with its unforgettable chorus about being younger than before.
Above all, there is “Chimes of Freedom”—an expansion of the free verse lines that Dylan had written about the day President Kennedy died, but reworked into a pealing of thunder and lightning for all the world’s confused and abused, one dazzling image following another: “majestic bells of bolts” supplanting clinging church bells in “the wild cathedral evening,” flashing, tolling, striking, tolling, as “the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder.” Making music out of nature’s sights and sounds had attracted Dylan before, in his mystical song “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” (just as Jack Kerouac tried to render the ocean’s roar as poetry in his book Big Sur, published in 1962). But in “Chimes of Freedom,” strong metaphors replace similes; sight and sound uncannily merge in the flashing chimes; and a simple story of a couple crouching in a doorway turns into a hail-ripped carillon—and a song of tender empathy as well, far outside the old politics of left and right, black and white.
A year later, Dylan divulged his indebtedness to the Beats. In March 1965, the same month that Columbia Records released Bringing It All Back Home, with its encomiums to Ginsberg, Kerouac published Desolation Angels, his last great novel of his experiences inside the Beat generation circle. Part of the Duluoz cycle, the book covered events and developments in 1956 and 1957: Ginsberg’s unveiling of “Howl,” the San Francisco Renaissance, Kerouac’s growing disillusionment with his Beat friends, his bringing his mother out to California from Lowell and then his plunge into the weirdness and mystery of impoverished Mexico, only to have his Beat friends, the Desolation Angels, catch up with him. In early August, Dylan recorded “Desolation Row” for his sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited, and the correspondences with Kerouac, beginning with the title, were too exact to be coincidental.
Various readers have plucked out lines in the novel—Kerouac’s descriptions of the poet David D’Angeli (Philip Lamantia) as “the perfect image of a priest” or of all the authorities who condemn hot-blooded embracers of life as sinners, when, in fact, “they sin by lifelessness!”—that turn up verbatim or nearly so in Dylan’s song. The ambience of “Desolation Row” is reminiscent of Kerouac’s Mexico, a mixture of cheap food and fun (and ladies for hire) but with “a certain drear, even sad darkness.” After the recording of the song was done, Dylan suddenly decided to add a swirling, Tex-Mex acoustic guitar run, played by the visiting Nashville sideman Charlie McCoy, which dominates the track’s sound. Later, asked at a press conference to name Desolation Row’s location, Dylan replied, “Oh, that’s someplace in Mexico.” Decades after that, when he returned to play the Newport Folk Festival in 2002, Dylan and his band performed “Desolation Row” in the style of a Mexican border song.
“Desolation Row” presents a kind of carnival (the critic Christopher Ricks calls it a “masque”) of fragments, shards of a civilization that has gone to pieces, in a modernist tradition that runs from Eliot’s Waste Land to Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Curious listeners have had a field day claiming particular references in every line, beginning with the very first, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” Clearly, some would have it, this alludes to the Hanged Man tarot card that turns up in the opening section of The Waste Land; not at all, others retort, it’s about a notorious lynching that occurred in Dylan’s birthplace, Duluth, in 1920, when his father was just a boy, and when, indeed, postcards of the two hanged blacks were made and sold as souvenirs. Who knows? With its repeated images of drowning and the sea—in references to the Titanic, Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Nero’s Neptune, Noah’s ark and the great rainbow—the song almost certainly echoes The Waste Land’s repeated invocations of death by water. But no matter. Here on “Desolation Row” (conceivably a Beat-influenced updating of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row) it is enough to see the characters from the Bible, Shakespeare, folktales, the circus, and Victor Hugo, most of them doomed, as well as Albert Einstein disguised as a noble outlaw, sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet—strange sights and sounds, but all too real, everything a symbol of itself, viewed by the singer and his Lady looking out on it all, detached, from inside Desolation Row.
In all of its strangeness, the song mocks orthodoxies and confining loyalties of every kind—loyalties to religion, sex, science, romance, politics, medicine, money—which the singer has rejected. The least mysterious verse (although it is mysterious enough) comes next to last. Crammed aboard the damned Titanic, the people are oblivious to what is happening; instead, they shout an old reliable left-wing folkie tune (made popular by the Weavers), “Which Side Are You On?” T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, respectively the author and the editor of The Waste Land, struggle for command of the ship; but it is all a laugh to the calypso singers; and down beneath the dreamlike sea where lovely mermaids flow, and where (simple) fishermen hold (simple) flowers, thoughts of Desolation Row are unnecessary. Neither strait-minded politics nor modernist high art will save the ship from crashing and going down.
In 1985, a review of mine for the Village Voice of Kerouac and Friends, Fred McDarrah’s collection of photographs and articles related to the Beats, mentioned how writers and critics have differed over when and why the Beat generation disappeared. Soon after the piece was published, Al Aronowitz, whom I’d never met and never would, phoned to inform me that the Beat generation died the minute that he introduced Ginsberg to Dylan in my uncle’s apartment. Self-dramatizing though he was, Aronowitz had a point—for by the time Dylan recorded “Desolation Row,” he had found his way out of the limitations of the folk revival, having reawakened to Beat literary practice and sensibilities and absorbed them into his electrified music. He had thereby completed (according to Ginsberg himself) a merger of poetry and song that Ezra Pound had foreseen as modernism’s future. Thereafter, it would be Ginsberg who sought artistic enlightenment from Dylan, turning his long-line verse into musical lyrics, and at times even becoming—as he did during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975—the willing mascot he had initially feared he might become. At the beginning of the 1970s, Ginsberg persuaded Dylan to collaborate on some studio recordings, the best of which, “September on Jessore Road,” would not be released until 1994, a few years before Ginsberg’s death. Finally, Ginsberg would partially fulfill what one punk rock musician from the 1980s called his firm desire “to be a rock star,” by working with, among others, Joe Strummer of the Clash and Paul McCartney.
The changing of the guard, though, had occurred between when Aronowitz said it did in late December 1963 and the recording of “Desolation Row” a little more than eighteen months later. On the day he made Another Side in June 1964, Dylan recorded a version of a new song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but he wisely decided it was too important to include on an album completed in a one-off session. He played the song twice at the Newport Folk Festival in late July, to rapturous applause and cheers. And by the middle of autumn, he had written two more compositions that sang of bread-crumb sins and of walking upside down inside handcuffs, which completed the transition. He tried out the new songs on the road in Philadelphia, Princeton, Detroit, and Boston. Then, on Halloween night in New York City at Philharmonic Hall, he sprang them on an audience that included Allen Ginsberg (who had brought along with him Gregory Corso)—and, coincidentally, this author.