[sixties-l] Liaisons Dangereuses (Bob Dylan)

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Mon Jul 02 2001 - 16:38:49 EDT

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    July 19, 2001

    Liaisons Dangereuses



    Positively 4th Street:The Life and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez
    Richard Farina
    by David Hajdu
    328 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
    published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    (order book)

    Down the Highway:The Life of Bob Dylan
    by Howard Sounes
    527 pages, $27.50 (hardcover)
    published by Grove


    Bob Dylan wrote "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" in the summer of 1962, in a
    matter of minutes, on Wavy Gravy's typewriter, after reading William
    Blake. "That song kind of roared right out of the typewriter," Wavy Gravy
    "It roared through him the way paint roared through van Gogh."
    Wavy Gravy, in case you are wondering how to become a Ben & Jerry's
    ice-cream flavor, was the Merry Prankster who introduced young Dylan to
    everybody hip in Greenwich Village in the early Sixties, from Allen
    Ginsberg to Lenny Bruce to Thelonious Monk. He was also heard to whisper,
    during Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the
    Lincoln Memorial in 1963, "I hope he's over quick, Mahalia Jackson's on
    next." And he later served as master of ceremonies at the 1969 Woodstock
    music festival. Bob Dylan actually happened to be living in Woodstock at
    the time of this pep rally, but chose to perform instead on the Isle of
    Wight, off the southern coast of England, for $50,000 plus expenses,
    although he would manage to make it to Woodstock the Sequel, in 1994, for
    Anyway, Wavy Gravy's 1962 intuition of afflatus accords with Dylan's
    own. "The songs are there," the boy genius told Sing Out! "They exist all
    by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down." If "Hard Rain"
    painted itself, "Like a Rolling Stone" would come to him in 1965 like "a
    long piece of vomit." To Robert Shelton he explained in 1966 that "anytime
    I'm singing about people and if the songs are dreamed, it's like my voice
    is coming out of their dream." Much, much later, after being baptized in
    the Pacific Ocean, a born-again Bob would credit God. And then vandals
    stole the handle.
    One thinks not only of Saint Teresa ravished unto Transverbation by a Spear
    of Gold, and of Yeats seized by automatic writing, but of Ormus Cama in
    Salman Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Ormus, a modern-day
    Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope and the river god Oeagrus, the
    incarnation of "the singer and songwriter as shaman and spokesman"hears the
    music of the future Thousand and One Nights before it shows up in everybody
    else's ears. Tunes the rest of us are doomed to dance to somehow get
    channeled to him in advance, from an otherworldly jukebox, through the
    stillborn body of his dead zygotic twin (probably an Elvis reference). If
    he sometimes messes up the words, it's because he lives on the wrong end of
    a popular music wormhole "at whose extreme fringes lurk hairy charismatics
    with much the same psychiatric profiles as the self-impalers at the heart
    of Shiite Muharram processions: denizens of the psychotropics of Capricorn,
    the lands of the sacrificed goat."

    But I see through your eyes
    And I see through your brain
    Like I see through the water
    That runs down my drain.

    Ormus, one of Rushdie's trademark metamorphs, seems to me a closer analogue
    to Dylan in his lonely bus on his Never-Ending Tour, picking up coded
    transmissions through the fillings in his teeth from hobo minstrels,
    protest troubadours, tambourine existentialists, Mystic Bards, and Brother
    Bobs, than, say, the "American Brecht" that John Clellon Holmes once called
    him, or the "Hebrew Boddhisatva" of Allen Ginsberg, or "an Elvis of the
    mind" (David Hajdu), or a "rock-and-roll Zarathustra" (Jim Miller), or a
    "rock-and-roll Rimbaud" (Miller again, but the French poet is also
    mentioned by many other English majors).
    Rimbaud? Only if you've never read either the Illuminations or Tarantula.
    Only then can you pretend that when Dylan gave up "finger-pointing" protest
    music for a Fender Stratocaster at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, it was
    the same as Rimbaud giving up revolutionary politics after the slaughter of
    the Paris Communards in 1871. To be sure, Arthur and Bob were equally
    scornful and equally opportunistic. ("To whom shall I hire myself?" asked
    Arthur. "What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking?
    Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?In what blood shall I
    walk?") But when Rimbaud no longer had anything fresh to say, he stopped
    making albums.
    Given that I'm about to contribute to the literature of hyperventilation on
    the overwrought occasion of Dylan's sixtieth birthday, you ought to know
    where I stand. Because Joan Baez loved him a lot, I have to assume that he
    is not as much of a creep as he so often seems. But I'm entitled to doubts
    about anybody whose favorite Beatle was George. And don't tell me it's all
    about the music. The whole Dylan package has been marketed as attitude,
    wrapped in masks. Music is about music. Biographies are about behavior.
    Caring about the music is what makes our interest in the behavior more than
    merely prurient. If you'd really rather not have known that Picasso was
    nasty, brutish, and short, you're a better person than I am, although we
    both have a long way to go before we're as good as Joan Baez.


    I wish that for just one time
    you could stand inside my shoes
    You'd know what a drag it is
    to see you

    Think of Positively 4th Street as A Little Night Music scored for dulcimer
    and motorcycle. Or a pas de quatre, with wind chimes, love beads, and a
    guest-appearance entrechat by Thomas Pynchon. As David Hajdu, whose
    biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life, is an ornament of jazz lit,
    rotates among his principals until at last they settle down to play house
    in Carmel and Woodstock, he is such an ironist among blue notes, so
    knowledgeable about their performing selves on stage, in bed, and in our
    mezzotinted memories, that he seems almost to be whistling scherzos. So we
    follow Bobby Zimmerman, aka Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, a Russian-Jewish
    college dropout who left Minnesota to look for Woody Guthrie, and Richard
    Faria, an Irish-Cuban altar boy from Flushing, Queens, who majored in
    literary ambition at Nabokov's Cornell, as they advance their careers by
    sleeping with Joan Baez and her sister Mimi, the singing daughters of a
    Mexican-American physics professor who trained cold war military engineers.
    And Hajdu also knows precisely where to stop the music, just this side of
    lapidary, in 1966, when a matched pair of motorcycle accidents, a zygotic
    twinship, killed off Faria two days after the publication of his only
    novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, and sent the
    substance-abusing Dylan into the first of his many gnomic seclusions.
    This countercultural Les Liaisons Dangereuses began on a Greenwich Village
    street corner in 1961, when an unknown Faria said to a little-known Dylan,
    "Man, what you need to do, man, is hook up with Joan Baez. She is so
    square, she isn't in this century. She needs you to bring her into the
    twentieth century, and you need somebody like her to do your songs. She's
    your ticket, man. All you need to do, man, is start screwing Joan Baez." To
    which an insouciant Dylan replied: "That's a good ideaI think I'll do that.
    But I don't want her singing none of my songs."
    It would end twenty-five years later, after Richard had dumped his first
    wife, Carolyn Hester, to get as close as he could to Joan by courting and
    marrying her teenaged sister Mimi; after Bob used Joan to get famous and
    then did everything he could think of to ridicule and degrade her, to which
    she responded with a love song, "Diamonds and Rust," that would have shamed
    any other cad this side of Dr. Kissinger's princely narcissism. After
    Vietnam, Watergate, and Ronald Reagan, when Brother Bob saw the Widow Mimi
    for the first time since Richard's death, and sought to comfort her with
    these apples: "Hey, that was a drag about Dick. It happened right around my
    thing, you know. Made me think."

    And love is just a four-letter word.

    Post-docs in Dylanology will most appreciate Hajdu's revisionist account of
    Newport in 1965. He blames the boos on a lousy sound system in worse
    weather. How could anyone have been surprised at Dylan's plugging himself
    in, when his new album, Bringing It All Back Home, with its hit single,
    "Subterranean Homesick Blues," had been on the charts for four months, and
    you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing "Like a Rolling Stone"?
    Assistant professors of Gravity's Rainbow will be delighted to hear from
    Tom Pynchon, who was a buddy of Richard's at Cornell, and best man at his
    wedding to Mimi in Carmel, to which he hitchhiked from Mexico because he
    didn't have a driver's license, and agreed to be interviewed for Hajdu's
    book by fax, and is quoted not only in a blurb for Been Down So Long ("This
    book comes on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with
    perfect pitch"), but also in a personal note to the needy author:
    But to you, wild colonial maniac, about all I can say is holy shit^. This
    thing man picked me up, sucked me in, cycled, spun and centrifuged my ass
    to where it was a major effort of will to go get up and take a leak even,
    and by the time it was over with I know where I had been.
    If you want comparisons, which you don't, I think most of Rilke.

    For those of us who are amateurs, that is, those of us who still enjoy the
    great songs but are inclined to believe that there are whole decades of
    Dylan more interesting to read about in Greil Marcus ("What is this shit?")
    than to listen to on our speaker systems, Positively 4th Street is a cohort
    story. I like cohort stories: about Partisan Reviewers, Abstract
    Expressionists, or the Beats; the New York Brat Pack or the Chinese
    Misties. I think it's terrific that young singers and songwriters, like
    young writers and artists, fester together in seedy nests or move in herds
    like thick-skinned ungulates across the inky savannas of the culture,
    dodging potshots from the great white hunters at Establishment media. So
    what if they hurt one another while the rest of us are waiting to see which
    one turns into a unicorn? My favorite Positively scene is when Bob, Joan,
    Richard, and Mimi visit Henry Miller, the Tropic of Cancer himself
    rusticating in Pacific Palisades, whom only Richard has read. Henry, of
    course, wants either Baez (or both), but has to settle for playing
    Ping-Pong with Mr. Tambourine Man.
    I also love their cover stories: Dylan, who grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota,
    with fine china and crystal, sterling silver cutlery, a spinet piano, and a
    chandelier, whose father bought him a pink Ford convertible and a Harley,
    whose only real job ever in the real world was as a busboy one summer at
    the Red Apple Cafe in Fargo, North Dakota, who told everybody in Manhattan
    that he had been raised in foster homes, had Sioux Indian blood, sang for
    his supper in carnivals from age fourteen, played piano on early Elvis
    records, picked up guitar licks from a New Mexico blues musician named
    Wigglefoot, wrote songs for Carl Perkins in Nashville, and earned
    walking-around money as a Times Square hustler.
    Faria, whose father was a tool-maker and whose first job out of college
    was at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency working on the Shell Oil
    account, advised the credulous that his father was a Cuban inventor and his
    mother an Irish mystic, that he had been born at sea, and run guns for
    Castro, and sunk a British sub for the IRA, and been expelled from Cornell
    for leading a riot, and slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow in case of
    Haven't we all fudged our rsums? But who knew that organized folksinging,
    like organized labor, organized religion, and organized crime, could be a
    medium of upward mobility?


    They'll stone you when you're riding in your car
    They'll stone you when you're playing your guitar
    But I would not feel so all alone
    Everybody must get stoned

    Think of Howard Sounes's Down the Highway, on the other hand, as a
    surveillance tape. Or maybe a trans-script of the black-box audio recovered
    from the crash site of the never-ending tour bus. Either lumbering way, it
    wants to be exhaustive, like a commission report or a Dreiser. (An American
    Tragedy comes to mind.) British journalist Sounes, who has also written a
    biography of Charles Bukowski, tracks Dylan from the four-year-old who used
    to entertain his family with a rousing rendition of "Accentuate the
    Positive" to the sixty-year-old who has authorized himself to sing "Forever
    Young" in a television commercial for Apple iMac computers. And besides
    mentioning every book, record, gesture, arrangement, or idea that Dylan
    ever stole in his lordly passage from Hard Rain to Sweet Jesus, Sounes will
    also name the names of every girlfriend, fraternity brother, business
    associate, disordered groupie, and discarded mentor or buddy; every
    musician at every gig or recording session; and every influence from Buddy
    Holly, Hank Williams, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, to
    James Dean, Marlon Brando, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Odetta, to
    Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon and Graceland's Elvis and the Beatles and Saint
    Most of this you probably already knew from previous biographies by Anthony
    Scaduto, Robert Shelton, Bob Spitz, and Clinton Heylin, whose ferociously
    opinionated Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades has just been "revisited" and
    updated for the birthday party and is lots more fun than Sounes.* But some
    of it you didn't know, such as his second marriage to one of his
    African-American backup singers, Carolyn Dennis, to legitimize his sixth
    child, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. Moreover, after interviewing
    everybody in the vicinity at the time, Sounes also suggests that Dylan's
    famous 1966 motorcycle accident might not have been as medically serious as
    previously supposed, but more of an excuse to drop out, sober up, and
    recharge, after Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, and all that hash and all
    those amphetamines in Australia.
    In fact, while heavy drinking seems to have been Dylan's biggest problem
    for most of his career, he finally quit in the mid-Nineties1966 is
    associated in both books with everything from pot to speed to LSD and maybe
    even heroin, leaving Dylan "skeletal and green." (There is even a theory
    that "I Want You" from Blonde on Blonde was "about heroin" rather than a
    woman.) While we burned Dylan for fuel, he seems to have been running on
    fumes. The 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, to which Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Sam
    Shepard, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder signed on, though they can't be
    blamed for Renaldo & Clara, sounds in Sounes like a coke bust waiting to
    happen to a tabloid. And by Thanksgiving 1976, when the Band let Martin
    Scorsese film The Last Waltz, they even had a backstage snorting room,
    painted white and decorated with noses cut out of Groucho Marx masks, with
    a tape of sniffing noises.
    Hajdu tells us that in 1964 and 1965, while Dylan was typing those
    "prose-poems" that eventually added up to Tarantula, he got by on black
    coffee and red wine. But to compose what Baez thought of as his
    increasingly nihilistic songs, he chainsmoked marijuana. It's an odd
    division of labor enticements, sort of like Jean-Paul Sartre's staying
    sober to write his novels and Les Mots, whereas, for philosophy, he was
    usually doped up on a compound of aspirin and amphetamines called
    corydrane, stoning himself to kill God.
    So now ask yourself if Dylan's notorious indifference to the niceties of
    cutting a record, to the relative merits of a multitude of session
    musicians, to the desires and opinions of his fans and audience, to whether
    he had any business on a stage, taking their money, when he was wired out
    of his skull, or in a recording studio, martyrizing thugs like Joey Gallo;
    combined with his disdain for former colleagues, ex-friends, and previous
    incarnations, contempt for other artists like Harry Belafonte and Theodore
    Bikel who cared about causes he could no longer use, like civil rights, and
    surliness unto road rage; even his unintelligible weirdness on such public
    occasions as his accepting the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil
    Liberties Union in November 1963 with a monologue that empathized with Lee
    Harvey Oswald"But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt in
    me," which must be what inspired Jerry Rubin, five years later, to proclaim
    that "Sirhan Sirhan is a Yippie!"well, ask yourself if some of this might
    have owed as much to chemicals as it did to authenticity. Elvis
    envy! Don't think twice.
    Still, for those of us who aren't Dylanologists, there is much in Down the
    Highway that is wonderfully surprising. Did you know that Dylan's first
    song was about Brigitte Bardot? That his favorite film is Shoot the Piano
    Player, with Charles Aznavour? That his favorite artist is Marc Chagall?
    That his first wife had been a Playboy bunny? That Sid Vicious of the Sex
    Pistols seems not to have liked him? That Tiny Tim was a member of his
    Woodstock entourage? That after Jesus he took up sailing and boxing? That,
    with Bob's help and some high-grade pot, Paul McCartney not only discovered
    the meaning of life but also wrote it down? "There are seven levels."
    It takes a lot to laugh; it takes a train to cry.


    The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone
    Causes Galileo's math book to get thrown
    At Delilah^

    Joan Baez, or so Hadju quotes her mother, "always thought she was
    ugly."Even on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge in 1958, in her own mind, "I
    was still the girl the kids used to taunt and call a dirty Mexican," so
    "pathologically insecure about her appearance" that she mugged at cameras
    in self-defense, and so self-conscious about what she imagined to be the
    small size of her breasts that she always wore a light floral jumper over
    her bikini. Joan Baez? I saw her with my own eyes in Cambridge in 1958,
    after I'd heard her with my own ears one warm spring night when "All My
    Trials" came through the window into the basement of 14 Plympton Street,
    the office of the college newspaper. It was the purest voice I'd ever
    heard, like listening to the wild blue yonder. And when I rushed out to see
    what such a voice looked like, she was, of course, beautiful beyond the
    speed of light. And still is. Like her fellow pacifist Aung San Suu Kyi.

    This is the woman that Dylan and his coke-addled cohort chose to humiliate
    on camera in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back, on their 1965
    concert tour of England. She is also made to symbolize, in both books, a
    phony folkie subculture which Dylan, of course, would rile and rock and
    raunch and roll. "The virgin enchantress," Hajdu calls her, as well as
    "Glinda, the Good Witch of the North." How precious her flock, those
    middle-class flower children of a Harvard-educated twelve-string banjo like
    Pete Seeger. What poseurs, like a bunch of Bambis at some hootenanny salt
    lick, or a seminar on creative nonviolence at a Quaker meeting of
    vegetarian carpenters. Over such a quilting bee, the hermit-monk Dylan
    would ride roughshod, not sidesaddle, on his Golden Calfthe Biggest of
    According to Hajdu the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 was "a popular summer
    attraction for the suburban leisure class of the postwar boom economy." And
    "the nascent discontent on college campuses" in 1962 was "a mobilization in
    the name of political and moral principle that was also a fashion trend and
    a business opportunity." And, by 1965 at Newport, if Baez and Dylan weren't
    around, "no one poolside seemed to know which way to point his lounge
    chair." Actually, I remember sleeping on the beach because we couldn't
    afford a motel.
    Sounes, who is English and may not know any better, arches his eyebrow at
    1963 Newport because the setting itself "underscored the gulf between the
    proletarian roots of the music and the privileged lives of most of the
    performers and the majority of the audience." I guess he missed Dylan,
    later on, at Royal Albert Hall in London. And it's this same summer he's
    talking about when he speaks of "antiwar sentiments then in vogue." Would
    that they had been in vogue, months before the assassination of John
    Kennedy, when the only Americans yet in Vietnam were still called "advisers."
    But more schematic than the books have been the reviews of them, everywhere
    from The Washington Post to the online magazine Salon, buying into an
    antithesis between folkies and rockers and plunking down in belligerent
    favor of the snarl and the stomp, as if we couldn't listen to both; as if
    in fact we hadn't been listening, not only to Seeger and Odetta and Baez,
    but also to Motown and James Brown and the Drifters, even before Bob Dylan,
    while nursing his hurt feelings that Carl Sandburg had never heard of him,
    was so stunned to pick up the Beatles on his car radio singing "I Want to
    Hold Your Hand" that he was moved to the Bob equivalent of a Gettysburg
    Address: "Fuck! Man, that was fuckin' great! Oh, manfuck!"
    Never mind the failure of anybody to take Joan Baez's Quaker pacifism
    seriously, from Joan Didion in 1966 to Jonathan Yardley in 2001. Never mind
    whose career looks more honorable and who's really posturing at the end of
    an atrocious century, those acoustic guitar players who went south for
    civil rights and tried to stop troop trains with their middle-class bodies,
    or the Macho Rubbish Rehab Ramblers with their amplified electric chairs
    and enough attitude to trash a hotel room and gang-bang a groupie. Never
    even mind that a whole lot of things are also always going on besides
    popular music; that there is news, too, on the wounded radio.
    Mama's in the fact'ry
    She ain't got no shoes
    Daddy's in the alley
    He's lookin' for the fuse

    Besides telling us that "folk music is a bunch of fat people," these are
    the thoughts of Citizen Bob, the summer after the Kennedy assassination:
    All I can say is politics is not my thing at all. I can't see myself on a
    platform talking about how to help people. Because I would get myself
    killed if I really tried to help anybody. I mean, if somebody really had
    something to say to help anybody out, just bluntly say the truth, well
    obviously they're gonna be done away with. They're gonna be killed.
    To which he added:
    You can't go around criticizing something you're not part of and hope to
    make it better. It ain't gonna work. I'm just not gonna be a part of it.
    I'm not gonna make a dent or anything, so why be a part of it by even
    trying to criticize it? That's a waste of time. The kids know that. The
    kids today, by the time they're twenty-one, they realize it's all bullshit.
    I know it's all bullshit.
    I'm not surprised he found God in 1979. It was a very Seventies thing to
    do, like Rolfing, Arica, acupuncture, and biofeedback. Like tantric yoga
    and the hot tubs of Esalen. Or Jonestown and EST. Like pet rocks, WIN
    buttons, smiley faces, and swine-flu vaccine booster shots. It led directly
    to power ballads and Ronald Reagan and the Last Tango on Mr. Sammler's
    Planet. Meanwhile, some of the rest of us were required to think about the
    women's movement, and read Toni Morrison, and poke at the meaning of a
    James Baldwin sentence: "If I am not who you say I am, then you are not who
    you think you are."
    Baez has recorded this exchange with Dylan, in March 1965: "I asked him
    what made us different, and he said it was simple, that I thought I could
    change things, and he knew that no one could." It was a puerile thing to
    say, a species of adolescent fatalism, a waste of our precious time. No
    wonder he's back on the bus. If we really have to choose between, on the
    one hand, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and the world exactly as it is and
    ever shall be, or, on the other hand, such Sixties folkie fantasies as
    social justice, racial harmony, peaceable kingdoms, and of course Joan
    Baez, well, where do I sign?
    Just like a woman.

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