DYLAN: AN EXPLOSION OF POETRY
How "the tattered Napolean" rules the New Music with cool lyrics and the clash of elecronic Stirngs
LIKE MOST GROWN-UPS of the 1960s, I had until recently spent as little time as possible listening to rock-and-roll music. To me, rock and roll had seemed what I suppose the popular music of all younger generations has seemed to all older generations: too loud, too boorish, too dull. I had found my satisfaction instead in the usual moderate forms of jazz, in a dilettantish sampling of the classics and — my one concession to our changing times — in quite a lot of the new revival of folk music in America. Not long ago, though, I began to notice that not only many of the musicians who have interested and pleased me over the past few years, from
Bobby Dylan to the bright new Canadian star Gordon Lightfoot, but many of the writers about music whom I admire, from the American Nat Hentoff to the British Kenneth Allsop, were turning with increasing enthusiasm to some of the newer forms of rock and roll, and I decided to investigate what was happening for myself. To my astonishment, I have learned while many of the rest of us have had our backs turned and our radios off, “rock and roll” has quietly — well, 1 do admit that's hardly the word, but unobtrusively — become the most fascinating form of music of the 1960s. I’d go further, in fact. Rock and roll, in its newest manifestation, is now the most vital, exciting art form in America.
The operative phrase in that judgment-in-superlatives is, of course, “in its newest manifestation.” The kind of music I am talking about bears only a family resemblance to the real, hard-core rock and roll of the 1950s, the sound of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and his Comets. It shares with its forbear only the big, bluesy beat, and the electronic amplification of its instruments. (To that extent, incidentally, it is the real electronic music of today, succeeding in popularity where those experimenting in the classical field have failed.)
Most commonly, the new music of the 1960s is called “folk-rock,” and certainly it has seemed to grow directly from a marriage of the folk music of the 1950s, and the original rock and roll. But to the musicians who are playing it. I’ve learned, folk-rock is a highly unsatisfactory term. In fact, they point out, their music also draws heavily from jazz, from both urban and rural blues, from country and western, and, to a surprising degree, from classical forms. Where once popular music could be classified in a neat series of boxes, from cool, modern jazz on the one hand to daown-home country on the other, many of today’s young musicians tend to treat it all as one single spectrum; to find their new expression they dip recklessly into the best of any part of the spectrum. While the Fender bass player of a new group in Greenwich Village, for instance, is beating out a steady, whomp-whomp, Nashville backing, his lead guitarist may be playing riffs that sound like nothing so much as John Coltrane, and the harmonica man. standing eyeball to eyeball with the microphone, may be wailing away in the idiom of the Chicago blues. At one point during an amplified jam session in one Village club I happened into during the preparation of this report, the Fender-bass man of an exciting new group called the Blues Project, turned his guitar over to a relief man from the / continued overleaf
'IN THE NEW MUSIC THEY HAVE FOUND WHAT THEYHAVE BEEN MISSING '
continued / audience, and proceeded to play, to a steady, driving, rhythm-and-blues backing, an intricate, Mozartian flute solo. While this was, I think, the most extreme case of eclecticism 1 came across in my research, it was surprising only in degree. The music draws from all sources, and the only label that truly sums it up is . . . well, the New Music.
Important as the changes in musical form are, though, they are only one part of the New Music. More important are the changes in content. The central figure of those changes is Bobby Dylan. Dylan is, or was, until he moved into the New Music, the most successful folk singer of his or any other day, a ramblin’, wanderin’ minstrel who has become so enormously popular that, at the age of twenty-four, he can afford to do his ramblin’ and his wanderin’ in his own private Lockheed Lodestar, complete with two full-time pilots. Last November, Dylan came to Toronto, to perform a brace of concerts at Massey Hall, and I, along with more than five thousand other fans who had bought the concerts out three weeks in advance, arranged to see one of them.
It was one of the most enthralling evenings I have ever spent in a concert hall. For the first half, Dylan, a slim wistful figure in a grey checked suit, high-necked white sweater and polished black Wellingtons, stood alone, illumined by a single spotlight, working his way through some of his newest folk songs — Gates Of Eden; It's All Over Now, Baby Blue; Desolation Row; Hey, Mister Tambourine Man: layer upon layer of the haunting. poetic imagery that marks all his works, long complex lines of abstract symbolism, sometimes almost chanted to the unadorned strumming of his acoustic guitar. There was no ornament to his presentation, no patter, no cozening of the audience. His pale, poet’s face remained unsmiling. While flashes of a gay. goof-off, almost nonsensical humor often light up Dylan’s work, for at least the first part of that evening in Toronto he was in a serious mood. In return, his young fans were polite, attentive, even absorbed. But their enthusiasm was restrained. Only the misty, evocative Tambourine Man was recognized from its opening chords and greeted by applause. And that night, Dylan sang Tambourine Man badly, rushing it,
driving the poetic subtleties into a pattern of doggerel-eared rhythms, his voice tiring from an hour’s uninterrupted performing. As Tambourine Man ended, he turned wordlessly and walked off the stage for intermission, acknowledging nothing.
The second half, as they say, was something else: the New Music. Dylan entered first, carrying his wafer-thin electric guitar. Then the group that he had recently signed to accompany him in all his concerts, Levon and the Hawks, all but one of whom, coincidentally, come from around Toronto. Organ. Fender bass. Drums. Piano. Lead guitar. Everything boosted electronically. A microphone rested on the piano’s most resonant plane. The guitars were plugged into a battery of chrome-plated, suitcase-sized amplifiers, whose red control lights blinked on and off in the half light of the stage. “Visually,” a member of the audience remarked later, “it was like some kind of super-pop art. It reminded me very much of
a John Cage concert, all wild and surrealistic.” At Dylan’s signal, Levon and the Hawks exploded into sound like a squadron of jet planes, a leaping, rising, crushing wave of sound that pulsed the air and rocked the floor. In the balcony, I could feel the bass notes through the soles of my shoes. “I felt I could float right out of my seat and hang suspended above the stage,” a normally sedate critic said on the CBC a few days later, and, apparently feeling the same, the hitherto restrained audience burst into an answering roar of applause. Yet for all the throbbing emotion of the music, the audience remained physically quite still. No one stood. No one shouted. No one seemed, as even sane people sometimes seem in, for instance, discotheques, bound to writhe and wriggle and watusi in his seat. Instead, there was rapt attention. As Dylan, in his curious, Guthrie-esque accent, wailed the poetry of his lyrics into the microphone, the young fans
mouthed the words along with him, and the grown-ups, some looking simply puzzled, strained to hear through the din.
Now when all of the flower ladles want hack what they have lent you And the smell of their roses does not remain And all of your children start to resent you Won't you come see me Queen Jane*
You say you lost your faith But that’s not where it’s at You had no faith to lose And you know it*
And, moving to the piano himself, the lines from his Ballad Of A Thin Man that have become a catch phrase for Dylan and his music, Dylan speaking to the world and, as it happens in this verse, to journalists:
You walk into the room With your pencil in your hand You see somebody naked and you say, who is that man?
. . . something is happening here But you don't know what it is Do you, Mister Jones?*
(In all fairness to my own occupation, I ought to point out that Ballad Of A Thin Man also includes verses putting down, among other people, lawyers.)
“DYLAN,” wrote the American columnist and critic Ralph J. Gleason last year, in a burst of enthusiasm rare even for a San Francisco adult, “is the clown, the tattered Napoleon, [the] Don Quixote of today, riding across the neon-lighted jungle,
•Copyright 1965 by M. Witmark And Sons. Used by permission.
across the moon country past lines of empty drivein movies showing Vistavision pictures of what’s happening. The vision is apocalyptic, the images glowing, and he speaks to all men and women. There is something there for everyone, young or old, if only they will listen.”
And the point is, of course, they do listen. Dylan's popularity — forty - eight of his songs were recorded in one month this winter alone — is as if all the little teeny-boppers out there in fanland had suddenly decided to decorate their bedrooms with Jackson Pollock reproductions; as if the latest Alain Resnais film were to knock Bonanza off the Trendex charts. “He is the most popular single performer in America, perhaps in the world," says Ralph Gleason. Another U.S. journalist and critic, Jack Newfield, has called Dylan “part of the new cultural tradition in America — the opposite of High Culture, perhaps more significant and certainly more vital." Newfield went on to describe the new culture as “the culture of the streets,” exemplified, he said, by Charlie Parker in the 1940s, Allen Ginsburg and Lenny Bruce and William Burroughs in the 1950s, and in the 1960s by Dylan.
Yet even that description seems to fall short of measuring Dylan's impact on the American scene. Parker influenced jazz, but he didn't change its terms. Ginsburg influenced poetry and Burroughs influenced literature, but they didn’t change the terms other writers operated by. Yet Dylan has made his music a part of our times, and he has made the complex, o/igir-ridden, pressurized 1960s — the age of alienation — a part of his music, and therefore of popular music. Unlike any of the “street-culture” figures who preceded him, Dylan gets through.
Often, the people to whom he is getting through don’t quite understand how it happens. Dylan’s poetry is, I think, what Marshall McLuhan would call a cool medium: the songs themselves are the message. “I can take one sentence like that one from Baby Blue,” a young mother of my aquaintance was saying not long ago. “You know, the one about ‘Yonder stands your orphan with his gun / Crying like a fire in the sun,’* and it just hits me — as a woman. I can’t explain it, really: there is this mother who’s been deserted by her man, or lost her man in some way, and the child is crying for his father, and yet the woman knows that the child’s grief compared to hers is . . . well, like a fire in the sun. It’s all there in those short lines. It’s poetry, I suppose, and it gets to me in a way that no poetry I took in college ever could.”
On a more official level, British author and critic Kenneth Allsop calls Dylan simply “the most remarkable poet of the sixties. ‘She wears an Egyptian ring / That sparkles before she speaks / She is a hypnotist collector / You are a walking antique.’* What does it mean? What does it matter? It arrows, as poetry should, beyond the compartment of literal meaning, and impales, he is himself.”
THE HOTTEST ITEM on the long-playing record market in Canada this winter, if New York trends are any indication, will likely be The Baroque Beatles Book, which, while not quite a part of the New Music, illustrates an important point about the New Music’s origins. The Baroque Beatles Book is a collection of Beatles tunes, from I Want To Hold Your Hand to Hard Day’s Night, played in mock-Bach, mock-Mozart and mock-Handel fashion by a selection of classically trained musicians, and early in the winter it was
selling so fast in New
continued on page 39
“When you don’t like something, you gotta learn not to need that something”
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York that Elektra, the company that distributes it, needed three disc-pressing plants to keep up with the demand. The point it makes about the New Music is that whatever adults may have thought of their mops of hair, their royal honors, or their maniacal young fans. The Beatles have been, aM along, remarkably gifted composers; in the classical form of The Baroque Beatles Book, their melodies stand up superbly. As well, of course, with their irreverence for authority, and their sense of vitality, The Beatles hold very much the same brief for life as Bobby Dylan—Dylan has been called not only the American Yevtushenko but the American John Lennon — and, perhaps, it was inevitable that the most popular group in the world and the most popular single performer would somehow get together.
The inevitable occurred in 1964, when Dylan traveled to England, heard and became absorbed by the Mersey sound, and began to wonder about how his own music might fit into it. Until then, Dylan had been— as Kenneth Allsop points out he still is—very much his own man, and to a certain extent a misunderstood one by his public. Many of his early songs dealt directly with topical subjects; he seemed to speak not only to the restless and dissatisfied young people who were buying his records, but for them. Blowing In The Wind was a searingly lovely outcry against racial injustice; Don’t Think Twice a cool put-down of the clichés of romantic love. He was the heir of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, the voice of protest, the poet of distrust. “I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’, ” he wrote in one early Dylan song called Hard Rain, “I saw a room full of men with hammers a-bleedin’In his wake, inspired by his success, came a whole shoal of new writers and singers of protest songs — Phil Ochs, Mark Spoelstra, Tom Paxton, Peter La Farge: the broadside movement of the 1960s — the movement that appeared to end in near-caricature with the recent hit Eve Of Destruction, by Barry McGuire. Yet as the protest movement swelled to its most important, Dylan, the man who had inspired it, seemed almost to turn his back on it. “Songs can’t change the world, ’ he told a reporter. “I’ve never written a political song . . . When you don t like something, you gotta just learn not to need that something.” No one could own him, no one could classify him, he seemed to be saying. He spoke lor no one but himself. He just wrote what he felt. He wasn’t out to change the world, but to express what he saw, in the way he knew how to express it. And the more imitators he inspired, the more he withdrew into his own, private, poet's world, a world of increasingly subtle symbols, of image piled on image, of songs like giant abstract paintings. “He
is the Chagall of today’s music,” says the Canadian folksinger and writer Ian Tyson. “You just can’t write songs today without being influenced by him.”
The precise moment of birth of folk-rock, the New Music, is usually considered to be the recording session for Dylan’s fifth album of his own
songs, Bringing It All Back Home. The first side of the record was Dylan alone, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, blowing, as he has always done, occasional choruses on the harmonica. The second side, like the second half of the Toronto concert, began with a loud, sliding twang from an electric guitar—dawn of the
new age! — and these words, to Subterranean Homesick Blues:
Johnny’s in the basement Mixing up the medicine I’m on the pavement Thinking about the government* And on and on — sung by Dylan
•Copyright 1965 by M. Witmark And Sons. Used by permission.
“Stinking traitor,” the crowd yelled hotly. “Turn it off”
as one long musical line, over (he driving rock-and-roll rhythm of the amplified band, the talc of “the man in the trench coat,” who “says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off The dope business? Crooked cops? Alienation? What was it about? What, as Kenneth Allsop says, did it matter? It arrowed; it impaled. The sound and the poetry seemed to react together like magnesium and water.
All, however, was not to go smoothly. For the first few months of the year, many folk fans were still baffled by the New Music. In midJuly, Dylan took his electric guitar and his amplified band to the World Series of folk music, the Newport Festival, and, in the first public performance of his material, was booed. The prophet had been denied by his own people. “Stinking traitor,” yelled the crowd. “Turn it off.” After three numbers, Dylan walked off the stage; then, in answer to the pleading of the master of ceremonies, returned to play It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. The folkniks were baffled, even hurt; they felt betrayed. Pete Secger was outraged. Sing Out, the vest-pocket Variety of folk music, didn’t know whether to fold or go fishing. “To many," wrote one Sing Out correspondent, “[the new sound] was not very good rock, while other disappointed legions did not think it was very good Dylan.” One page farther on, though, another correspondent reported simply, “Dylan doing his new stuff knocked me out.”
And in August, Dylan staged his first full concert since his venture into rock and roll, at Forest Hills, New York. This time, the booing turned perilously close to rioting, with, on the one hand, the Mods who had been weaned on the folksy Dylan, and, on the other, the Rockers, who thought Dylan had finally discovered what music was really all about.
Gradually, though, the music triumphed. For every folk fan the New Music lost, it seemed to attract at least one other from other disciplines. By October, when Dylan gave his first New York City concert of the year—in Carnegie Hall—he had a stronger following than he’d started with. “It was like a Save-Bob-Dylan Rally,” reported The Village Voice. As for Dylan himself: “I haven’t changed a bit.” he said. “I just got tired of playing the guitar by myself.”
And so. it turned out, had quite a few other young musicians. Many of the people who took instantly to the sound of the New Music were the kind of instrumentalists w'ho back up other artists in recording sessions: the guitar player you were in fact hearing when you thought you were listening to the self-accompaniment of some long-haired blonde sing thirtyone verses about an axe killing that happened down by the greenwoodside-e-o in 1792. They were the real musicians of the folk business, and they had just grown too bored with the steady plunk-plunk of John Henry and his seemingly inexhaustible descendants. In the New' Music, they found the excitement they’d been missing.
In California, a group of five young longhairs called The Byrds, most of them reformed folk singers, reached back for Tambourine Man, which Dylan recorded with acoustic accompaniment, and set it to electric guitars and tambourines, singing in delicately shaded close harmonies. Tambourine Man, perhaps the most beautiful of all Dylan’s compositions (“Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind’’*) sold three million copies as a single, and turned The Byrds into the biggest group since The Beatles. For their first LP, The Byrds used four other Dylan numbers, all done to a rock-and-roll sound.
In New York, folk idols from Judy Collins to Joan Baez began to experiment with a rock-and-roll beat and electronic accompaniment. (Some of their experiments will be issued on records early this year.) Erik Darling, a banjo and guitar virtuoso who, to judge from the liner notes in my folk collection, has been adding the real sound to everyone since Cisco Houston, took his Rooftop Singers holusbolus into a new group called Project X. which appeared in its first fullpage advertisement in Billboard in December, wearing masks.
Trumpets, for heaven’s sake
In Canada, Gordon Lightfoot. a gifted song writer in his own right, had a near smash with a Dylan tune called Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, the rocking accompaniment to which, included, for heaven’s sake, trumpets. You Were On My Mind, a song written by Sylvia Tyson of the Canadian duo of Ian and Sylvia (and earlier recorded in a folk version by them), was redone as rock and roll by a San Francisco group called We Five, and soared to the top of the charts. Ian and Sylvia themselves released two singles in the new idiom, one of them backed by a nineteenpiece band.
Everywhere, folk clubs and coffee houses began to install electronic equipment, and began to find a new and more vital interest in the music they were able to present. On the streets of Greenwich Village, wrote J. R. Goddard in The Village Voice, “the Beatle haircuts hung out in droves, grabbing snatches of the groovy bleep bloop from inside [the clubs].”
At the same time, working from the other direction, rock-and-roll groups began to assimilate some of the literacy and the vitality of modern folk music. While such Canadian rock-and-roll performers as David Clayton Thomas, working with their own songs, still don’t sound quite like T. S. Eliot set to music, they have begun to show some of Dylan’s influence. Hit parade tunes—even ignoring occasional unfortunate mutations like Eve Of Destruction—began to turn away from the problems of acne and Saturday dates, and speak, often movingly and sometimes even poetically, of life; the lyrics of rock and roll began to count.
•Copyright 1965 by M. Witmark And Sons under universal copyright convention. Used by permission.
And, perhaps most significantly, new groups built solely around the New Music began to be formed everywhere. The New Music is to today’s generation what jazz has been to earlier generations — both the musicians and the fans. The intensity of interest in events like the Dylan concert in Toronto is the intensity once offered only to jazz. Today, while jazz seems to have painted itself into its own esoteric corner, the new, bright, young musicians are finding their medium of expression in the New Music, in the framework of rock and roll. To the avid reader of liner notes for the New Music, it sometimes seems as if about two thirds of the graduating class from the Juilliard School of Music this year has gone down to Greenwich Village to plug in with the Blues Magoos or somebody. They are playing the New Music, they say, because they enjoy it, and their sense of enjoyment is coming through.
One group that typifies the New Music and the people who are playing it is The Lovin’ Spoonful, four young longhairs who take their name from a Mississippi John Hurt blues phrase. The Spoonful’s lead singer and harmonica player is John Sebastian, a native of Greenwich Village who spent most of his teens in Italy. Sebastian learned harmonica from his father, a classical harmonicist—he was in a Larry Adler bag—who plied his profession in Europe during the 1950s and early ’60s, playing annual concerts at, among other places, La Scala Opera House. With The Spoonful, the younger Sebastian cups both his instrument and the microphone in his hands, as if to squeeze every last drop of electronic overtone out of the whole ensemble, and blows some of the funkiest sound you can imagine. The lead guitarist of The Spoonful is Zal Yanovsky, a native of Toronto, who, after dropping out of school at fifteen, going to Israel to live on a kibbutz, returning to Toronto to live in a laundromat, was a part of such various folk groups as The Halifax Three—he was in an Erik Darling bag—until he discovered the New Music. Joe Butler, from Long Island, The Spoonful’s drummer, has been a professional musician since he was fifteen, with every sort of music from a twist band to an accordionist’s act and is in the group, he says, “because I was the only cat around the Village who didn’t have a guitar.” Steve Boone, the electric-hass player, is six foot three, and, as Yanovsky says about him, “would take a long time to fall down.”
The Spoonful have already had one hit record, Sebastian's Do You Believe In Magic, and seem on their way to at least one more—Sebastian’s Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind. In a few short months, riding the crest of what’s happening, they have shot from obscurity to fame; they have more concert and club dates than they can handle, from Washington to Hawaii, at rates starting at about two thousand dollars a night. They are not nearly as poetic as Dylan and not nearly as crass as Bill Haley; they make, with their rock-
and - roll, amplified instruments, one of the most vital, joyous, pleasant sounds I heard—at least since The Byrds. They are a part of the New Music, and I could listen to them, and it, for hours.
THE LOVIN’ SPOONFUL got their start at a small Greenwich Village club called The Night Owl. The Night Owl is now one of the well-springs of the New Music, and one night early this winter, in the course of preparing this article and enjoying myself in New York, I turned up in its crowded main room to see what was new.
What was new, it developed, was the Magicians, a recently formed group of extraordinarily accomplished musicians who had just released their first single record. But, since The Night Owl features not one and not two but three rock groups every night, I was forced to wait quite a while until I could get to hear them, and there were a few moments that served to remind me there is still quite a lot bad to be said about rock and roll.
I won’t bother naming the group that was playing at the time. There were five men in it: lead guitar,
rhythm guitar, electric piano. Fender bass and drums. The bass player was the leader. He had the longest hair I’ve ever seen on a rock - and - roil musician. I mean, he was grotesque. He looked like Charles II getting out of bed in the morning. A plastic kewpie doll hung from the nuts of his guitar. And his group was terrihle. Too loud, too dull, too boorish. I was worried.
Jac Holzman came in. Jac Holzman is a very important guy in the New Music. He is president of Elektra records. It was he who thought up The Beatles Baroque Book, among other things. This night, he was just back from England, and he had his little seven-year-old son with him. Though Holzman himself looks like a graduate student at Cornell, his little son is really in the folk-rock bag: his hair hangs down below his neck. A teeny-weeny-bopper, I suppose
Anyway, Holzman came and sat down at the table I was at and began listening to the group King Charles was leading. He listened for about fifteen minutes. Then he turned and said to no one in particular, “All their songs are like matzoh balls. No leaven.”
And that’s what the real New Music has. Leaven. ★