[sixties-l] Take What You Need

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri Jun 22 2001 - 19:41:12 EDT

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    Take What You Need


    by Ronald Radosh

    Post date 06.11.01 | Issue date 06.18..01

    Positively 4th Street:
    The Life and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez
    Farina, and Richard Farina
    by David Hajdu
    (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 310 pp., $25)

    Down the Highway:
    The Life of Bob Dylan
    by Howard Sounes
    (Grove Press, 502 pp., $27.50)

    No modern singer has been more of an enigma than Bob Dylan. As he travels
    across the world on what has come to be called the Never-Ending Tour, his
    fans, and historians of modern American culture, have come to realize that
    despite his staggering number of public appearances, we know very little
    about him. He defies the celebrity culture of our times: he does not appear
    on television talk shows, he rarely talks to the press, and in his
    infrequent interviews he seems more intent on sowing confusion than on
    casting light. For a biographer, certainly, Dylan presents a challenge.
    But there are ways around the man's opacity. David Hajdu has chosen to
    concentrate on a specific time and place, the heyday of the 1960s, when
    Dylan and his singing partner (and erstwhile lover) Joan Baez became the
    king and queen of the Great Folk Revival. Along with Joan's sister Mimi and
    her future husband Richard Farina, the four found their paths tumultuously
    crossing; and together they came to represent what so many (including
    themselves) regarded as the spirit of a new generation. Howard Sounes, by
    contrast, has chosen to write a conventional biography: a daunting task not
    least because four lives of Dylan have already been written. (But then
    Dylan's central conceit is that he has many lives.) Robert Shelton's and
    Anthony Scaduto's biographies appeared early in Dylan's career, and are
    limited and outdated, while the most recent biography, by Bob Spitz and
    numerous versions by Clinton Heylin, are historically insufficient or
    simply hagiographies written for the Dylan cult. Still, both Hajdu and
    Sounes have produced fascinating and finely written accounts of Dylan's
    life and times, while managing at the same time to provide interesting
    evaluations of his music and his cultural contribution.
    In the era of hip-hop, it is hard to remember that only a few short decades
    ago American culture was electrified by the discovery of a pop version of
    traditional folk music. (Perhaps "electrified" is the wrong word, as Dylan
    discovered at Newport in 1965.) In the late 1950s the big groups, all
    carrying on the tradition of the Weavers, a commercial folk group of the
    1940swere The Kingston Trio and their many imitators, including The
    Brothers Four, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Tarriers, The Easy Riders, The
    Rooftop Singers and, the revival's climax, Peter, Paul and Mary. Hajdu
    reports that in 1963 alone two hundred different folk music albums were
    released, and ABC-TV's weekly musical revue Hootenanny had eleven million
    viewers, and two dozen different folk music magazines were published, and
    one major market radio station went exclusively "folk," and a candy
    manufacturer even produced a Hootenanny candy bar.
    But Dylan did not begin his musical life as a folkie. Born in Duluth,
    Minnesota in 1941 but moving with his family at an early age to the small
    iron range town of Hibbing, Dylan received his musical education from the
    radio, where he heard the now- forgotten Johnnie Ray, and the country
    legend Hank Williams (whose songwriting and singing style would stay with
    him), and late-night blues shows broadcast from faraway Arkansas,
    Louisiana, and Chicago, which introduced him to Muddy Waters, John Lee
    Hooker, and Howlin' Wolf. Before the emergence of rock and roll, Sounes
    writes, "Bob had stumbled upon the basic forms of American popular music
    ... before Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Elvis Presley."
    Sounes provides the most complete picture to date of Dylan's adolescence in
    Hibbing (he interviewed virtually all of Dylan's childhood friends), and we
    gain a vivid picture of the impact upon him of the discovery of what we now
    call American roots music. But for Dylan, too, the sound of Elvis Presley
    was a transforming experience. In an interview many years ago, he remarked
    that "when I first heard Elvis's voice I just knew that I wasn't going to
    work for anybody and nobody was gonna be my boss. Hearing him for the first
    time was like busting out of jail."
    It was rock and roll to which the young Bob Zimmerman kindled most. Much
    has been written about the shocking effect of the day when Dylan, who had
    made his reputation as the best up-and-coming folk singer and protest
    singer, in the style made famous by Woody Guthrie "went electric" at the
    Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Yet Sounes points out that his high school
    years were taken up by a series of rock bands in which he played. With two
    friends, Dylan cut a 78 rpm record in 1956, on which he sang
    "Be-Bob-a-Lula" and "Earth Angel" and played the piano. His chosen style
    for his bands was that of Little Richard and Gene Vincent, and his first
    guitar was a cheapie from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, a solid-body Supro
    electric. Dylan gave his first groups names such as "The Golden Chords" and
    "Elston Gunn and his Rock Boppers."
    His ambition in life, it said in his high school yearbook, was "to join
    Little Richard." After graduation, Dylan took a bus to Fargo, North Dakota,
    where under the name Elston Gunn he got a job waiting tables. Within a
    short time, he auditioned for Bobby Vee, a local rock and roller who was
    beginning to make a name. Vee took him on as a piano player for local gigs.
    Already at that early age he was a creature of fierce ambition: he told his
    friend John Bucklen that he was destined to become a "music star." In 1960,
    sitting on the lawn in front of the student union at the University of
    Wisconsin-Madison, he told me the same thing: "I'm going to be as big a
    star as Elvis Presley....I'll play the same and even bigger arenas. I know
    it." (I don't remember if I believed him.)
    But his parents had, well, parents' plans for their son. At the end of the
    summer of 1959, at their urging, he enrolled at the University of
    Minnesota. As most everyone now knows, the young student spent most of his
    time in the bohemian quarter known as Dinkytown, where he found a radical
    bookstore and a coffeeshop called the Ten O'Clock Scholar. Here Dylan
    learned that the most "advanced" music of the day, for young and
    avant-garde circles, was not Top Ten rock and roll but traditional American
    folk music. And here he came across a local hipster poet, as well as two
    white blues singers, "Spider" John Koerner and Dave "Snaker" Ray, who along
    with Tony Glover would gain a nationwide reputation in folk circles as the
    white singers who mastered an authentic Southern rural and black sound.
    In Dinkytown, the heroes were Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. At
    one of the local events, Dylan heard a record cut by a classically trained
    African American woman named Odetta Felious, and she (Dylan later recalled)
    "turned me on to folk singing." Dylan took his electric guitar and amp to a
    music store and traded them in for a folksinger's acoustic guitar. Dylan,
    you might say, went acoustic; and at Newport a few years later, when he
    rattled his folk fans with his electric set, he was in fact returning to
    his own roots.
    Contrary to what many people believe, Dylan was never genuinely political.
    His left-wing friends in the Minnesota folk crowd tried to interest him in
    the events of the day. They told him about the Fair Play for Cuba Committee
    and the movement to abolish HUAC. Dave Whitaker, Herschel Kaminsky (whom
    Sounes does not mention), and others did their progressive best, as Dylan
    was always in Whitaker's living room when he held meetings of the Socialist
    Fund, a Trotskyist group. They took Dylan to a screening of the anti-HUAC
    film Operation Abolition. But still Dylan, as Sounes writes, "remained
    steadfastly, frustratingly apolitical." He refused to write pro-Castro
    songs, in contrast to, say, Phil Ochs.
    In the hip subculture of Dinkytown, Dylan hung out with the politicals, but
    he stayed aloof. Indeed, as Sounes points out, when Dylan wrote what many
    called "protest songs," those songs were devoid of particular political
    content; they were taken up instead with universal themes, to which they
    owe their staying power. The few songs that were concretely political, such
    as the trite "George Jackson," and the biting ballad "Hurricane," about
    Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (whose cause Dylan later abandoned), and "Julius
    and Ethel," the unreleased ode to the Rosenbergs, are so artistically poor
    that they deserve to be forgotten. When many lent their names and their
    talents to anti-Vietnam advertisements and rallies, Dylan was not among
    them. In his interview with Happy Traum and John Cohen in Sing Out! in
    1968, Traum tried to get Dylan to comment on the meaning of the war in
    Vietnam and Dylan refused, remarking only that he knew a good painter who
    never saw the need to say anything about Vietnam.
    It was in Dinkytown that Dylan heard and was mesmerized by Harry Smith's
    Folkways Records Anthology of American Folk Music (which was recently
    reissued on CD by Smithsonian Folkways). In these records Dylan detected
    the true grain of rural American folk music, what Greil Marcus later called
    the "strange, weird" America that Dylan captured years later in the
    "basement tapes" in Saugerties, New York. "It's all poetry," Dylan said of
    the Smith anthology, "every single one of those songs." And it was around
    this time that Dave Morton, a student and a friend, presented Dylan with a
    copy of Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory, a book whose tall tales and
    contrived Okie idiom the aspiring young star would quickly adopt as his
    own. Within a day or so of reading the book, Dylan had memorized and sung
    Guthrie's "Tom Joad," which told the story of the main character in The
    Grapes of Wrath.
    In Woody Guthrie, as Hajdu observes, Dylan found a man who was Hank
    Williams, James Dean, and Buddy Holly rolled into one: "a literate
    folksinger with a rock and roll attitude." Determined to meet Guthrie,
    Dylan set out for New York. His journey took him first to Madison,
    Wisconsin, where there was a thriving folk scene as well as a heavy
    left-wing presence. Unfortunately, Sounes only interviewed one Madison
    source, my college roommate Marshall Brickman, who freely admits that his
    recollection of Dylan is skimpy. Sounes has Dylan playing piano in our
    apartment in Clymer Place, which could not be true, because we did not have
    a piano.
    He also has Dylan attending a Pete Seeger concert in Madison, adding that
    "Bob was the most significant young artist Seeger reached." For this story,
    Sounes relies on the memory of Seeger, who is now well into his eighties.
    Seeger told Sounes that "it was at one of these concerts around '58 that
    Joan Baez heard me [in California] and I think I was singing in the
    University of Wisconsin and Bob was there. I think there was a picket line
    outside from the American Legion calling me a dangerous Communist. [Bob]
    once told me he was at that concert."
    Seeger is wrong. As it happens, I was an officer of the Labor Youth League,
    the Communist student group at the university, as well as a founder and
    president of the Folklore Society. Seeger's very first concert was
    sponsored by the LYL, and received much publicity as well as a small picket
    line and protest from the veterans' organization and conservative student
    groups. And the concert took place in 1957, when Dylan was still a high
    school student in Hibbing, and definitely not in Madison. Sounes should not
    have relied upon Seeger. Dylan was in Madison in January 1961, and from
    there he went on to New York, driving with Fred Underhill, then one of our
    crowd. After a few months in New York, he returned west for a while, to
    Minnesota, says Sounes, but in fact to Madison, where he stayed again for a
    few weeks at the apartment of Danny Kalb and Paul Breines.
    It was in New York that Dylan met Woody Guthrie, and also
    John Lee Hooker, and Guthrie's young sidekick Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and
    Liam Clancy, the ballad singer and lead voice for the Irish folk group The
    Clancy Brothers. Both Sounes and Hajdu make a point of how, even at the
    start, Dylan invented a new identity for himself, depicting himself as an
    orphan whose origins were ambiguous and who (like his hero Guthrie) was a
    drifter and an itinerant singer. He would "tell ridiculously improbable
    stories about his past life," Sounes writes. He said that he looked Semitic
    because of the Sioux blood in his family.
    Hajdu confirms that Dylan would tell his friends that he used to be a coal
    miner and the like. Even in his personal interactions, he was a teller of
    the tallest tales. As Hajdu writes, "transformation has always been part of
    the American idea; in the New World, anyone can become a new person." The
    irony of Bobby Zimmerman's "metamorphosis into Bob Dylan lies in the
    application of so much illusion and artifice in the name of truth and
    authenticity." Indeed, Dylan learned more than mannerisms and styles of
    speech from Guthrie; he learned also how to re-create himself. For the Dust
    Bowl balladeer, after all, was not a poor Okie in childhood; he came from a
    fairly middle-class family, and much of his own self-portrait was equally
    fictional. And Ramblin' Jack Elliot was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, born
    Elliot Charles Adnopoz, who mimicked Guthrie's style and performed his
    songs, and who changed his name to disguise his Jewishness, later
    sarcastically calling himself "the last of the Brooklyn cowboys."
    In Greenwich Village Dylan found his element, and Joan Baez.
    Unlike Dylan, Baez never disguised her origins or her family ties. She had
    begun to thrive in the bohemia of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the
    coffeehouses near Harvard University, such as the soon-to-be-famous Club
    47. (Dylan also visited the scene.) For super-serious young people in those
    days, jazz was perceived to be excessively intellectual and insufficiently
    rebellious; but folk music offered a link to real people and an
    anti-intellectual stance. Hadn't Seeger himself dropped out of Harvard in
    the 1930s to search for the real America?
    Hajdu marvelously tells the tale of the mid-1960s. Rather than approach his
    subject in a purely biographical fashion, he narrates the story of a group
    of people who, in the course of fashioning their own individualities,
    transformed American music by creating a new genre called "folk-rock." The
    music of Baez and Dylan, and of Richard and Mimi Farina, provided the
    anthems of the baby-boomers. (Adulation of their work united Newt Gingrich
    and Bill Clinton, who have both heaped praise on Dylan.) When Dylan was
    just emerging as a significant figure in the Village folk scene, Baez had
    already been discovered, and with her majestic soprano and her earthy style
    of standing shoeless, long hair flowing, as she sang old English ballads
    and Appalachian folk songs, she was perhaps the best-known folksinger in
    America. Richard Farina was a talented writer, raconteur, and rambler who
    is remembered today largely for his death in a motorcycle accident on the
    very day of his greatest success, at the publication party for his novel
    Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which came complete with a blurb
    from his college friend Thomas Pynchon.
    Hajdu makes a convincing claim that it was Farina who can be rightfully
    called the creator of folk-rock. While Dylan was still singing straight
    acoustic folk-style songs, Farina felt the growing sterility of the music
    and sought to blend its best parts with American rock and roll. By 1961,
    Hajdu writes, Farina told folkies gathered at the famed Gaslight in
    Greenwich Village that "the problem with folk ... was that it needed a
    beat." Traditional American music, he argued, sounded like nursery
    rhymes. Grabbing a stack of plates from a waitress, he flipped them upside
    down. "American folk music is square on the beat," he proclaimed, and he
    began to pat out a four-quarter time pattern with his left hand and a
    three-quarter pattern with his right. Fred Neil, who wrote some very
    beautiful folk songs and later the standard "Everybody's Talkin'," noted
    that none of the folkies could keep up with Farina: "he delivered the goods
    and knocked everybody out." Neil was right. Listen to Farina's "Hard-Loving
    Loser," recorded with his second wife, Mimi, who is Joan Baez's sister, and
    you will recognize in the lyrics and in the music the style that Dylan soon
    adopted and that The Byrds perfected.
    The strength of both these books is to penetrate behind the music
    so as to provide a sense of the artists' lives. And the story is not a
    pretty one. Dylan was ready and willing to ride over everyone on his way to
    stardom. Indeed, Hajdu suggests that his personal relationship with Baez
    was undertaken solely to advance his career. Baez had been impressed with
    Dylan's songwriting, and was one of the first to see something special in
    him. Dylan was indifferent to her music; he found her voice too pretty, and
    without roots in blues, gospel, or jazz. What interested him was how she
    got so famous. The first time he met her, he played her the first song he
    ever wrote, "Song to Woody," although he told everyone that he did not want
    her to record it. Fred Neil told him: "Man, what you need to do, man, is
    hook up with Joan Baez. She is so square.... She's your ticket, man. All
    you need to do, man, is start screwing Joan Baez." And Dylan responded:
    "That's a good idea. I think I'll do that. But I don't want her singing
    none of my songs."
    Having been introduced to the world by Baez at her concerts in 1963, Dylan
    brought her with him to London for his British tour a few years later, only
    to refuse to let her appear on stage with him, and generally treat her
    viciously and hurtfully. By then Dylan was seeing Sara Lownds, whom he
    later married; Baez discovered the truth when Dylan took sick and she found
    Sara by his bedside at the hospital. And yet, by Baez's own word, she had
    used others on her own way to stardom. She had engaged in a bitter sibling
    rivalry with her very gifted and ambitious sister Mimi, whom she constantly
    discouraged. And by introducing Dylan and tying his rising star to herself,
    Baez had guaranteed a place for herself in American musical
    history. (Hajdu had the benefit of Baez's cooperation, which included
    copies of family letters in which her relationship with Dylan is discussed.)
    Reading Hajdu's fascinating account of the personal lives of these
    extraordinary folkies, one is constantly reminded of how much they
    functioned in an alternative version of the show-biz world. Farina married
    one of the folk revival's first stars, the beautiful Texas singer Carolyn
    Hester, whose mentor was Buddy Holly. It was through Hester that Farina
    gained his own entry into the world of folk music. Later, with their
    marriage on the wane, Farina made a move on Joan Baez's teenaged sister,
    courting Mimi when she lived with her parents near Paris, writing to her
    after he left, and eventually convincing the sixteen-year-old girl to marry
    a man who was twenty-five years old.
    Hajdu traces Dylan's early protest songs to the influence of Suze Rotolo,
    the woman whom he was seeing when he met Baez. (She is the dreamy girl on
    the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.) She urged him to write songs such
    as "The Death of Emmet Till" and to concentrate on social commentary and
    political dissent. "Was he honoring his muse by carrying on Suze's kind of
    work?" Hajdu asks, "Or much as he had changed instruments, jackets and
    names before, was he adopting something new for the potential glory in it?"
    It is a fine question. One answer comes from Dylan's Minnesota folk friend
    Tony Glover. Upon hearing Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Glover
    asked Dylan why he was writing such tripe, which did not have the power and
    the soul of the black-based blues to which they thrilled in Dinkytown, and
    sounded more like an inauthentic Seeger-style call to action. Dylan told
    him: "It seems to be what people like to hear."
    By 1962, however, Dylan was moving away from (in Hajdu's
    words) "tuneful intimations of Seeger and Guthrie toward a bolder style
    with the bite of rock and roll." Indeed, Dylan himself saw "Blowin' in the
    Wind" as a "lucky classic song ... one-dimensional," and despite its
    amazing popularity, he seemed not particularly proud of it. He may have
    written "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" about a North Dakota farmer driven to
    violence, but it is told "in blues-style AAB refrains." And while "A Hard
    Rain's a-Gonna Fall," still viewed by Seeger as Dylan's most lasting song,
    seems to be about the danger of nuclear fallout, it transcends and dilutes
    its political content with words that, as Hajdu observes, "provoke feeling
    and thought as well as action." Dylan, in a single ballad, could combine
    Seeger's protest, Blake's poetry, Child's ballads, and American folk music
    to produce something new and different. For this reason, his songs endure
    long after the immediate issues of their time have been forgotten.
    The story of the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 has been told and retold,
    always in the same mythic manner; but Hajdu is the first to look carefully
    behind the myth and to reconstruct what really happened. The event also
    featured Richard and Mimi Farina, who planned to be accompanied on electric
    guitar by Al Kooper, heading a full band that featured hard-rocking
    songs. They did perform, but in the pouring rain, without electric
    amplification. When it was Dylan's turn, he appeared with members of Paul
    Butterfield's electric blues bland, including Kooper on keyboards and Mike
    Bloomfield on electric guitar. Dylan himself came dressed not in his
    folkie work clothes, but in a black leather blazer and motorcycle boots,
    holding a Fender Stratocaster, the Buddy Holly model. "Maggie's Farm,"
    "Like a Rolling Stone," and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to
    Cry," were performed with the band; but Dylan concluded with an
    unforgettable acoustic version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," and "Mr.
    Tambourine Man," which the Byrds would make into a pop hit.
    It became, Hajdu tells us, "one of the most enduring myths of
    popular culture" that Dylan was booed off the stage by folk fans, having
    insulted the folkies with a radical turn to rock, and that, having heard
    the boos, he returned to seek absolution with two acoustic songs.
    Backstage, it is said, Seeger tried to cut the electric cables with an axe,
    fuming about Dylan's betrayal of folk music. But Hajdu shows that all of
    this is false. By the time Dylan appeared at Newport, he had already
    released his electric album Bringing It All Back Home, as well as the
    single "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and "Like A Rolling Stone" was
    already becoming a rock anthem, and was a Top Forty hit on AM radio.
    Moreover, the audience in Newport that day had already heard electric
    music. The Butterfield Blues Band had played their set, as had The Chambers
    Brothers, and they had received enthusiastic responses. What people were
    really booing, Hajdu reports, was the poor sound quality, since Newport was
    not set up properly for electric instruments. Many people heard only
    feedback and noise, and could not hear Dylan's singing. As Jack Elliot told
    Hadju: "The music was good. It sounded like horseshit." Others disagreed,
    noting that Dylan's band had not rehearsed together, and so the quality of
    the performance was what infuriated others.
    Oscar Brand, a figure in the New York folk scene, told Sounes that "the
    electric guitar represented capitalism ... the people who were selling
    out." Seeger now claims that he was upset, but only because the volume of
    the instruments drowned out what he saw as the socialist message of
    "Maggie's Farm." What was clear was that Dylan's acoustic song "It's All
    Over Now, Baby Blue" was a swan song to the end of the folk revival.
    Indeed, Irwin Silber, an executive with the left-wing organization People's
    Artists and the editor of Sing Out!, wrote an open letter to Dylan in which
    he condemned him for losing contact with the people, for writing
    introspective songs instead of political songs and filling them with
    maudlin and cruel sentiments. Some would say that Dylan's lyrics"there's
    something happening and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"were
    his response to Silber. True or not, it was incontrovertible that Dylan was
    moving to a place far away from the world of the folk revival, and from
    artists like Seeger.
     From that point on, America's enchantment with folk began to disappear. A
    few acts, such as Peter, Paul and Mary, would stay together, largely as
    nostalgia trips through the music of the generation's youth; but the future
    was rock and roll. By 1964, the Beatles had hit America. Richard Farina had
    decided to give up music altogether and to make his mark as a writer. On
    the day Farina died, April 30, 1966, which was Mimi's twenty-first
    birthday, Dylan was in Denmark with Levon Helm and the Hawks, who were soon
    to re-create themselves as The Band, on a grueling drug-soaked and
    liquor-soaked European tour, playing hard rock and drawing huge crowds.
    When he returned to America, Dylan, too, would have his life changed on a
    motorcycle. On July 29, driving on a road in Woodstock, New York, Dylan had
    an accident. Here Sounes picks up the story, doing his own part to separate
    myth from reality. Stories abound about Dylan's accident. Through careful
    investigative reporting, Sounes establishes that a minor skid caused Dylan
    to lose his balance and to fall off the bike, and that, contrary to reports
    handed to the press, he did not break his neck, fall unconscious, and
    almost die. He was not even taken to a hospital; instead, his wife drove
    him to a doctor's home office fifty miles away, a one-hour drive over
    country roads, "not a journey for a man in dire need of medical help." But
    the result was something that Dylan desperately needed: an excuse to draw
    the first part of his remarkable career to a close.
    The following few years turned out to be the period in which Dylan was
    personally most at peace, the years in which he lived something closest to
    what most people would consider a happy family life, visiting friends and
    raising his young children in Woodstock. It was, as Sounes puts it, "a
    relatively quiet domestic life." At noon Dylan would drive down to West
    Saugerties, where with members of The Band he would write and record the
    hauntingly beautiful songs that became The Basement Tapes, songs that were
    closer to the Harry Smith anthology than to what he had been singing on
    tour. John Wesley Harding was an even greater achievement in this
    vernacular musical mysticism.
    In 1970 Dylan moved back to Greenwich Village, a particularly ill-judged
    choice for a famous man zealously guarding his privacy. His home on
    MacDougal Street was an invitation to his obsessed fans. Sounes gives us
    more details about the sordid A.J. Weberman, who made his reputation as a
    "garbologist" by rummaging through Dylan's trash to find more information
    about his hero. Weberman exemplified the view of those '60s radicals who
    felt that Dylan had sold them out, while Weberman himself was a convicted
    drug dealer who spread the rumor that Dylan was a heroin addict. In 1974,
    Dylan moved from New York to Malibu, California, where he purchased twelve
    acres overlooking the Pacific, and spent millions of dollars trying to
    design a fantasy house that would include one of the first cars he ever
    bought, which was to be suspended from the ceiling of the living room. Its
    highlight was a Russian-style onion dome made of copper: Dylan thought that
    it would help him see it from anywhere, and thus find his way home. All
    this bizarrerie did not prevent him from producing one of his finest
    records, Blood on the Tracks, in 1975.
    The "Rolling Thunder" tour started in the same year, but it was a bad
    scene. From Sounes we learn that the tour retained its own cocaine dealer.
    At this point Sounes's account of Dylan's life provokes a grim comparison
    with the decline of Elvis Presley. Surrounded by yes-men, managed by an
    unscrupulous producer who had little concern for his art, and becoming a
    parody of himself, Presley faded out amid the pharmacological perquisites
    of fame; and no one had the courage to tell him the truth. Certainly
    Dylan's life of Malibu decadence, replete with the services of the renowned
    palimony lawyer Marvin Mitchelson ("about $60 million later," he told
    Sounes, "I knew every song he ever wrote")--was not exactly what Woody
    Guthrie had in mind.
    It was corrected for a time by what Sounes calls Dylan's "enthusiasm for
    Jesus Christ," which culminated in what seemed to be a genuine conversion
    to Christianity. But the conversion came with a price. Keith Richards
    mocked him as the "prophet of profit." Ronnie Hawkins, the founder of The
    Band, told Dylan that as soon as he found that his new albums were not
    selling, "you are gonna be an atheist." Sounes describes shows at which
    Dylan lectured angry audiences that he would not sing "filthy mouth stuff"
    and if they wanted rock and roll, they should see Kiss and "rock 'n' roll
    all the way down to the pit!" A final tour performance was cancelled owing
    to poor ticket sales, proving that "Satan did his work in the box office"
    (as Sounes mordantly remarks). And still Dylan managed to write some
    extraordinary songs.
    By 1981, in any event, Dylan's Christian phase was over. In the years that
    followed, his music became more and more indifferent, and he became more
    and more of an official national treasure. Eventually he even received a
    Kennedy Center award from President Clinton, and just this spring he won an
    Academy Award. His acceptance speech at the Oscars was a little crushing to
    hear, as he recited the names of the suits behind the record and the movie.
    He sounded like every other Tinseltown type. He sold "The Times They Are
    A-Changin'" to the Bank of Montreal, and later to an accounting firm, for a
    commercial; and one of his old protest anthems became a jingle for life
    insurance. A hard rain had a-fallen.
    Reading about Dylan's life, one is struck by the magnitude of his
    unhappiness. The failed marriages and the scores of women were signs of a
    complete absence of personal tranquillity. And then there is all the
    weirdness. Sounes reports that Dylan stays only in small motels, demanding
    that dogs be allowed, and windows be open so that he does not have to use
    the air conditioning; and after a tour appearance he rarely leaves his room
    and simply has his staff bring him whatever he requires. He seeks out
    friends when he needs them, but when they seek him out they are often
    ignored or rebuked. His touring manager and old friend Victor Maymudes, who
    was with him from the beginning, was fired when Dylan did not like the way
    Maymudes's daughter ran a coffee shop that he financed. Even to his
    children, Sounes writes, he "seemed to be a driven, introverted, and
    insular man consumed with a monomania for his music."
    And yet he managed to wrench some fine music out of the mess of his life,
    songs of power and beauty, haunting reflections on aging, love, and the
    ironies of life. His most recent recording, Time out of Mind, stands with
    the best of his work, not least because it reaches back to his roots in the
    rough, compassionate, and profoundly true universe that Harry Smith
    captured in his anthology. For Dylan is himself one of the giants of that
    universe. As Sounes writes, "he was by now as much a part of the folklore
    of American music" as any of the people to whom he raptly listened in
    Minnesota when he first played the Anthology of American Folk Music on 33
    rpm records. No other contemporary American singer even approaches his
    accomplishment, in his words and in his music. The man who kept inventing
    himself, the trickster tangled up in blue, turns out to have been a hero of
    RONALD RADOSH's memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New
    Left and the Leftover Left, has just been published by Encounter Books.

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