Monday, October 17, 2016

Cutting Class Nobly: Toby Thompson on Bob Dylan


My reaction to Bob Dylan’s being awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature is, oddly, less public than private. It’s public in that in 1971 I published the first serious book about Dylan’s life, and since 1969 have written of his work fairly regularly. It’s personal in that Dylan’s lyrics, poetry, and prose have appended themselves to my deepest thoughts at least since college. “College” is key, for those who object to Dylan’s having won this great prize in literature do so from the erroneous position that he is not worthy of academic consideration—as if he and the generation he represents ever have strayed far from campus. That is, campus with a beat.

During the university terms of 1965-66, I, like thousands of other American undergraduates, balanced a rabid interest in literature and art with one as keen in the new music. That music—folk, blues, jazz, rock, and the mongrel, folk-rock—occupied our leisure time. Weeknights were spent reading in the dormitory or at the university library. But weekends were for playing and hearing music, at the coffee house or local bar.

Bob Dylan had done this, from 1959-60, in the coffee houses of Minneapolis’s Dinkytown, “a little [Greenwich] Village,” he wrote in Chronicles, which was adjacent to the University of Minnesota, where he was a freshman. Though he “didn’t go to class,” he claims, he appears not to have flunked out. He played music each night and spent his days reading under the tutelage of figures like Dave Whitaker, “one of the Svengali-type Beats on the scene,” and a hipster guru. Whitaker leant Guthrie’s Bound for Glory to Dylan, and said dismissively of Bob’s coursework that “it was getting in the way of his education.”

Dylan was a cutter—not of flesh, but of classes, umbilically linked to the university but not of it, preferring side channels for the acquisition of knowledge, and aligning himself less with the student body than with a subculture of hangers-on that has a long tradition in college towns. In 1966's Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth, the university professor and novelist, perfectly describes such cutters as belonging to a subclass of “those intentionally marginal souls—underdisciplined, oversensitive, disordered in both appearance and reality—whose huge craving for the state of artisthood may drive them so far in rare instances as actually to work at making pieces of art.”

Hangin’ Round the Ink Well

My senior year at the University of Delaware coincided roughly with Dylan’s recordings of Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, outtakes from which The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 is representative. I recall listening to Bringing it All Back Home with friends in the dorm. At least half of the songs, we thought, were poor rock and roll, with comic references to world history or literature that sounded as if plucked from survey courses. Subterranean Homesick Blues was unique, however, as it addressed both high school and college students’ main concern: how to grow up. Conversely, tracks like “Outlaw Blues,” “Bob Dylan’s 113th Dream,” “On the Road Again,” and even “Maggie’s Farm” were forays into rock that sounded sophomoric and badly played.

Songs that did intrigue were those that would become Dylan classics: “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “It’s Alright, Ma,” and of course “Mr. Tambourine Man.” These spoke to different levels of education Dylan had been receiving—not as a cutter in Dinkytown but by “cutting classes” on the larger campus of Greenwich Village.

A conceit of Barth’s postmodern metafiction, Giles Goat-Boy (originally subtitled The New Revised Syllabus of George Giles our Grand Tutor), is a vision of the world as a university close, and his division of it into East Campus and West Campus. GGB is a Cold War novel, anticipating the political strife, religious hysteria, and digital overkill of a later era in skirmishes where all are members of an eternal student body. For Barth, West and East campuses might have been the U.S.-and-West-European bloc versus the Soviet one, or Christianity versus Buddhism, but for Dylan it was Dinkytown versus Greenwich Village.

During the 1960s, the Village had many exciting facets, not the least of which was its role as a hub of artistic endeavor and leftist, political verbiage. But it also contained the campus of New York University. NYU, with its population of students, faculty, commuters, barroom intellectuals, class cutters, and renters (it remains the Village’s largest property owner), contributed mightily to the neighborhood’s culture. Washington Square Park, where folkies gathered to sing, was flanked by NYU buildings and served as a de facto university quad. Dylan sang there, and 161 West Fourth Street, where eventually he lived, was two blocks from NYU’s law school. Despite being, in Al Kooper’s words, “the quintessential New York hipster,” it was as if Bob still were crashed above Gray’s Drugstore in Dinkytown.

His early mentors were Village folkies like Len Chandler, Fred Neil, and Dave van Ronk. He’s careful to cite, in Chronicles, the influence of learned figures like Paul Clayton, Izzy Young, and the perhaps-fabricated Ray Gooch, whose book-lined apartment Bob describes as a miniature university atheneum. Gooch’s flat had “a dark cavern with a floor to ceiling library . . . the place had an overpowering presence of literature and you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness.” There Dylan read assiduously for at least part of each day, and in Chronicles his recitation of titles read or dipped into is like a course list for World Literature. Gooch and Dylan’s other tutors were educated men: Clayton had a PhD in English from the University of Virginia, and van Ronk was well read in history and politics. Dylan was a cutter by inclination, but whether he cut their informal classes is not known.

He had for the most part eschewed academic writing (even “Hard Rain” with its Surrealist-Symbolist take on “Lord Randall” might be excused as hipster wigginess), but on Home, songs like “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” were decidedly English majorish. I had written a term paper for my Modern British and American Poetry class on Dylan’s work through Another Side of Bob Dylan. But these songs were something new. Aside from their generational kick, they spoke to our fiercest literary concerns at university—ones that in ‘65-‘66 were widely shared.

Girl by the Whirlpool

We stood amused by Barth’s postmodern take on Biblical-and-hero’s-journey themes in GGB, but The White Goddess, by British poet and novelist Robert Graves—subtitled A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth—was our touchstone. Graves’s thesis was that to be a poet one must sacrifice all to the muse. She was woman tripartite: maiden, mother, and the crone who laid one out at death. To consort with her one must ultimately die–after being flayed, impaled with a mistletoe stake, and nailed to an oak. All true poems were about the goddess. This was muse worship at its grisliest.

Dylan would give a nod to Graves in Chronicles. “I read The White Goddess [in Gooch’s library], by Robert Graves, too. Invoking the poetic muse was something I didn’t know about yet. Didn’t know enough to start trouble with it, anyway.”

By 1965 he was ready. Lyrics such as “My love she speaks of silence, without ideals of violence / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, yet she’s true like ice, like fire,” and “You will start out standing, proud to steal her everything she needs ... but you will wind up peeking through her keyhole down upon your knees,” are pure Graves. These lyrics are redolent of academic theorizing; despite his protestations, Dylan respected and respects people of learning. (A Princeton professor is his website’s historian-in-residence, and Bob holds at least two honorary PhDs) The following year he’d sing, “You’ve been with the professors, and they’ve all liked your looks, you’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books,” while acknowledging that in the streets of Juarez, “they got some hungry women there, and they’ll really make a mess out of you.” He’d started his death march away from cutter-chat toward service to the muse.

In ‘60s rock such service might be no more pretentious than hymns like “Oh, Donna” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Or in Dylan’s case, “Queen Jane Approximately” or “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” But on Highway 61—which The New Yorker’s David Remnick called recently “the best rock album ever made”—with the exception of “Desolation Row” and its string of literary/historical references, he’s rescinded academic concerns for a move toward the “mercurial” visions of Blonde on Blonde.

Here Dylan finds his mature voice. Here he moves past the literary posturing of Robert Graves to a pure vision of love and its consequences, in language that is elusive, referential, Dada-istic, absurd, irreverent, Miles-Davis-cool and steeped in mythical allusion. The results are breathtaking.

It’s instructive to watch Dylan via The Cutting Edge negotiate Blonde on Blonde’s stations of the cross. Its preliminary tracks are like penitential drafts of an undergraduate thesis, but Dylan is past any fealty to honors status. He’s moved to an unconscious praising of the muse. Though working in a midnight studio in Nashville, he might as well be, as Graves writes of the goddess, “Seeking her out at the volcano’s head / Among pack ice, or where the track had faded / Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers; / Whose broad high brow was white as any leper’s / Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips / With hair curled honey-colored to her hips ...” On Blonde on Blonde Dylan couches his praise in service to real women–pop goddesses or their rarified superiors, as in “Visions of Johanna” and the incomparable “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

Twenty Years of Schoolin’

Like Dylan, I graduated from university concerns in May of 1966 and spent the summer touring Europe. About then, Barth published the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” in which he predicted the end of literature as we knew it, particularly realistic fiction. Everyone was tired and the decade’s party had hardly begun. Barth was moving toward the fabulism of his first short-story collection, Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. Had he been listening to Bob? Switch “Fiction” to “Songs” in his subtitle and it would fit Blonde. With the late ‘60s looming something was happening and . . . That was how many of us who’d left West and East campuses felt.

In July, I received news of Dylan’s motorcycle crash while reading Graves’ The Greek Myths by the Aegean Sea. First reports were that he was dead; second, crippled for life. In fact, like the fertility kings of that very coast, he was reborn. Or in Barthian terms, he’d abandoned his Greenwich Village campus for the Arcadia of Woodstock. There, as The Cutting Edge predicts, his ascension to emeritus was assured.

No more fitting cutter of academic dross might be found to wear this year’s Nobel laurels.


Toby Thompson is author of Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota (UMP), Saloon, and The '60s Report. He is associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. He has also written for numerous magazines including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and Esquire.

"Toby Thompson was there first." —Greil Marcus

"Well worth the attention of anyone who has fallen under the spell of the boy from the North Country." —Los Angeles Times

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