By Tony Attwood
OK, before I offer you this Bob Dylan composition, with a recording of Dylan performing it, let me tell you that this is a piece of Beat experimentation undertaken with Allen Ginsberg during a set of recordings made in November 1971. If you would like to read more about Dylan and Ginsberg, Larry has provided us with an article on this very subject. There is also film of Dylan and Ginsberg at the grave of Kerouac in the movie Renaldo and Clara.
For details of Dylan and Ginsberg working together on these songs you might also be interested in the article on this site, on the song “Vomit Express”.
And to complete the package, another song from these sessions “Jimmy Berman Rag” has also been reviewed here.
I am told that this recording has Bob Dylan on guitar [actually on untuned guitar – and I suspect that was intentional], David Amram French Horn, recorder, piano; Perry Robinson, clarinet; Jon Sholle, guitar; Happy Traum, banjo; Surya, zither; Moruga, drums; and Ginsberg, Dylan, Peter Orlovsky and Anne Waldman on vocal.
As with other the other songs from this collection I am dependent on other people to provide the lyrics – so if you are brave enough to have a go here I’ll put them up.
It has often been said that a central part of the influence on Dylan that developed his interest in this form of composition for a while was “Mexico City Blues” by Jack Kerouac, written in 1959. Kerouac said of his work that it was a spontaneous composition in which memories, fantasies and dreams are all combined through free association. He was, he said, wanting to be seen as a jazz poet.
Here is part of the opening of Mexico City Blues
Butte Magic of Ignorance Butte Magic Is the same as no-Butte All one light Old Rough Roads One High Iron Mainway Denver is the same 'The guy I was with his uncle was the govornor of Wyoming' 'Course he paid me back' Ten Days Two Weeks Stock and Joint 'Was an old crook anyway' The same voice on the same ship The Supreme Vehicle S.S. Excalibur Maynard Mainline Mountain M erudvhaga Mersion of Missy
It is also reported that in 1985 Dylan commented, “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. 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 also spoke of Kerouac’s “breathless, dynamic bop phrases,” and it is said in many commentaries, found in Kerouac a person like himself – a person who came to New York as an outsider full of ideas.
Dylan and Ginsberg started in 1963 and continued until Ginsberg died in 1997 – in which year Bob dedicated a performance of “Desolation Row” to his friend, saying it was Ginsberg’s favourite Dylan composition.
It has long struck me (and of course many who have written on Dylan before me) that to fully understand Dylan we have to understand that Dylan was wrapped up not just in the revival of folk music, but also in the Beat scene – and these were two utterly different traditions. Also Beat was in many ways a left wing movement, with which Dylan has certainly not always been at all comfortable.
Besides which Dylan joined the Beat scene late on in its evolution by which time it had nothing to do with the working class tradition laid down by Woody Guthrie.
But I do think that contemplating the influence of the Beat generation along with Woody Guthrie songs, and Dylan’s keen interest in the blues and rock and roll, does lead to a fuller understanding of his lyrics. It takes us a long way away from debating who the Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was, and instead sees Dylan as a writer experimenting with words and phrases in the way that many contemporary artists experiment with colours and shapes.
It is maybe that experimentation, rather than the express meanings, that might give us a greater insight into Dylan’s compositions.