Napoleon in Rags

Bob Dylan changed the popular music of his time and the music that followed, and the commercial release of a formerly bootlegged concert recording shows how he did it

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

"WISH I was Bob Dylan," Robert Creeley wrote in the late 1960s, a time when this seemed to be the wish of nearly everybody -- including, apparently, anthologized poets whose confinement to print gave them good reason to envy Dylan's immediacy and perceived social relevance. In the same poem ("In London," not one of the epigrammatic poems for which Creeley is famous but a series of notebook jottings whose loose tongue seems the result of Dylan's influence coupled with Allen Ginsberg's) Creeley also wished he could hear Dylan's "Tears of Rage" sung by the sweeter-voiced Joan Baez. This could be taken to mean that Creeley was one of the many who admired Dylan, even during his period of greatest influence and popularity, more as a songwriter than as a performer -- more as a voice than as a singer. If so, it hardly amounted to a slight. "He's got a subtle mind," Creeley decided in the poem, for all intents and purposes embracing Dylan as a fellow wordsmith, perhaps even a fellow poet.
I happened upon "In London" while paging through Creeley in search of another poem I recalled reading years ago, which darted to mind as I listened last fall to Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65759), a concert recording from a period when Dylan stood accused of betraying folk music -- and of jeopardizing such folkie ideals as nuclear disarmament and Negro voter registration -- for the sin of cupping his hands to his mouth to shout his lyrics above the big bang of a rock-and-roll band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Not exactly a new release and not exactly a reissue, Live 1966 is the first authorized edition of a performance in Manchester, England, that has been obtainable on one bootleg or another almost continuously since at least 1971. The recording location is so frequently misidentified as London's Royal Albert Hall that Columbia/Legacy has given its two-disc set the subtitle "The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert," in an effort to assure potential customers that this is the one they've heard so much about over the years. Like many rock bootlegs of the 1970s, the various pirate editions of Dylan's "Albert Hall" concert were often packaged in plain white sleeves; you knew you had the right show if toward the end, below the hum of the amplifiers and the snarl of Dylan and Robbie Robertson tuning their electric guitars in preparation for "Like a Rolling Stone," you heard an outraged audience member cry "Judas!"

I FOUND the lines from Creeley I was looking for in "After": "I'll not write again/things a young man/thinks, not the words/of that feeling."

The fourth line should be read as "of that feeling," because Creeley tends to accent the second word or syllable of a line, like a jazz musician accenting the second and fourth beats of a measure. That feeling of what a young man thinks -- what I felt in listening to Dylan as a young man -- was something I found difficult to recapture in listening to Live 1966. To throw one of Dylan's most famous aphorisms back at him, he was so much older then (older than I was, at any rate). He's younger than that now: his recorded voice of thirty-odd years ago sounds almost younger than I can remember ever being.

As a college student I was one of those who stayed up late debating the meaning of Dylan's lyrics, as though arguing fine points of Christian theology or of hexagrams from the I Ching. In the absence of printed lyric sheets the subject of the debate would sometimes be what his lyrics actually were. I remember that when John Wesley Harding was released, an agitated fellow English major spotted me in a classroom and barged right in, interrupting the lecture to ask me what symbolism I found in the trees behind Dylan on the cover. (This same friend was the only person I knew who fell for the canard that smoking banana peels was a cheap, legal high. The last I heard, he was translating French poetry and teaching English.) I also remember thinking even then that the claims for Dylan as not just a poet but the poet of the second half of the twentieth century were greatly exaggerated, and that they ignored the true nature of his impact on American culture as a singer and songwriter -- not necessarily lesser crafts.

Dylan obviously saw himself as a poet. He was steeped in poetry, even if when he burst onto the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 as a University of Minnesota dropout he tried to give the impression that he was a guitar-slinging Tom Joad whose lyrics spoke the wisdom of the common man. True, Dylan's early topical songs -- the ones that got him published in the period's folk bible, Sing Out!, and signed by Columbia Records -- were diligently modeled on Woody Guthrie. But the wordier songs he soon became identified with, such as "Gates of Eden" and "Desolation Row," with their breath-length measures and apocalyptic imagery, owed more to Allen Ginsberg than to Guthrie or any other folk singer. With these songs -- and with "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues," in 1965 -- Dylan put folk music, and then pop, in touch with the bardic strain of one branch of American literature. This strain is usually traced to Walt Whitman, though its actual origins may lie in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather, who took it verbatim from the Old Testament. To judge from the striking image of an orphan "crying like a fire in the sun," in "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," Dylan also knew his French Symbolists, and in his 1971 novel Tarantula as well as in his song lyrics he often aspired to surrealism. Something about the English language -- or perhaps the American character -- must be unconducive to dreaming aloud: like most American writers who have taken a stab at surrealism, Dylan fell victim to logorrhea.

Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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