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Life Arts    H3'ed 12/19/22

Review: Dylan: An Old Box of Basement Tapes

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Book Cover: The Dylan Tapes
Book Cover: The Dylan Tapes
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Dylan: An Old Box of Basement Tapes

by John Kendall Hawkins

"When he spoke, one of the typical expressions on his face was a half-ironic half-smile, as if he were monitoring his voice and not quite believing what he heard."

- Thomas Pynchon, Intro to Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Farina.

This article first appeared in Counterpunch on 12/16/2022

Like many aging Dylan fans, I was -- against my better judgment -- keen and eager for the release "any day now" of the Bard from Duluth's new opus magnum, The Philosophy of Modern Song. I have to admit that the title immediately led me to believe I was in for a gypsy's grift. A three-card monty. A little dazzle in the deck. Dylan a philosopher? I'm a philosopher and Dylan ain't no me. According to reader-response theory. I fought with some heavyweights -- Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and -- god help me, my fave at the time -- the pessimist Schopenhauer. Dylan couldn't even get the facts of Hurricane Carter's worries right. Saying the Number One Contender was in a cell reading Nietzsche and Wilhem Reich (as if you didn't have enough to worry about in prison). What's that? Oh, was it forkin' Joey Gallo with the Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich? Carter was about Buddha? f*ck it.

Anyway, I took the plunge. I laid down the hard e-cash. I downloaded the PDF from Kobo. Then, as it was my kid's birthday, I ordered the hard copy. Then I noticed that there was an accompanying audiobook that you could purchase, if you want to hear a galaxy of stars -- Jeff Bridges (Big Lebowski), Steve Buscemi (Happy Gilmore), John Goodman (O Brother Where Art Thou!), Helen Mirren (Caligula), Rita Moreno (Carnal Knowledge), Sissy Spacek (Carrie) -- read chapters from Philosophy, so I bought that, too. So the total splash out for this kit was close to $AUD 150.

I almost upped the ante and purchased some of that 12 year old whiskey from Dylan's Heaven's Door -- the distillery he opened up a few years ago, presumably with his Nobel Prize money. Based in Tennessee, where still waters run deep. Woulda been a nice set of drops to read or listen to Dylan by. It's good stuff, and the critical conclusions drawn on the wall aren't half wrong:

"A succulent, harmonious bourbon that hits all the right notes at the right moments for the category; a study of equal parts elegance and power."


Could sum up the Bard himself, right? But that would have set me back another set of C-notes, what with international shipping included. So, I didn't cave on that impulse. (Maybe at Christmas, I winked to myself.)

Well, I couldn't wait to get started, so I looked down the Table of Contents and saw he had a take on The Who's "My Generation," so I dived into that. It didn't take but a few seconds before I was pulling my head back and thinking, No way this is philosophy or, for that matter, accurate. Check it out:

You're looking down your nose as society and you have no use for it. You're hoping to croak before senility sets in"In reality, you're an eighty year old man being wheeled around in a home for the elderly, and the nurses are getting on your nerves.

Nuh. I started to get that old time queeze, like I got when I first heard Dylan's "Murder Most Foul" off Rough and Rowdy (2020). I pulled a frenzied Pete Seeger at Newport, and uncharacteristically sent that song off to Harvard as a nominee for the next year's Ignoble Prize award for its real bad medicine. In my estimation, "Murder Most Foul" was up there with the Gay Bomb, the 2007 Ignoble winner. I got butterflies in my stomach listening to Dylan's twisted understanding of the JFK thing in Dealey Plaza back in '63. I was a conspiracy theorist, but this song scared me straight. "Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl / Rub-a-dub-dub, it's a murder most foul." Say what? I guess I'm just not a Dylan sophisticate.

I won't assume that the rest of Philosophy is awful. I soon discovered that though I hated "Murder Most Foul," I soon fell under the powerful spell of Rough and Rowdy, and could definitely relate to many of its themes of decrepitude. (See my review.) I'll come back to Philosophy in early January. When my heels have cooled down.

So, I put The Philosophy of Modern Song aside. You shouldn't shop when you're hungry, they say, and you shouldn't review with a hair across your ass. In a probable coincidence, another Dylan book, from the University of Minnesota Press, was released somewhere in the same bracket of time: The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, and Lovers Talking Early Bob Dylan by the late Anthony Scaduto, and edited by Stephanie Trudeau, Tony's live-in love interest when he died in December 2021. She discovered a box of tapes in the basement and soon saw they were a heap of interviews with Dylan intimates that helped Scaduto write his duly-noted "journalistic" Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography (1972). So, The Dylan Tapes is essentially a spicy toast to the 50th anniversary of that biography, and Trudeau provides an introduction and afterword that are helpful contextual frames.

Scaduto had written several other biographies, including Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. He also was regarded as an expert on the Mafia, about whom he wrote frequently while a writer at the New York Post, where "his coverage earned him the nickname 'Tough Tony,'" writes Trudeau. For a moment I get the queezies again, recalling the lyric from "Murder Most Foul," where he sings, "You got unpaid debts, we've come to collect." Did Tony know? And how could Dylan know, as with Hurricane Carter? Is he a recidivist?

And then, at the end of The Dylan Tapes, there's a little tussle (no real spoiler alert) where Dylan gets tough with Tony, seemingly, if I read right, to imply he knew people who might break Tony's legs if he published certain material. And then, just a couple of years later, we get "Joey" (Gallo) and the seeing-it-coming-as-he-lifted-up-the-fork song. Another Dylan identification with? I wondered briefly, for my own good, had Dylan ever 'painted houses'? (And, while we're on the subject, how do you open up your eyes to the tune of an accordion? I scratched on that one for a while.)

The Dylan Tapes covers the period, from his teenage Hibbing days up to release of New Morning (1970). As the title suggests, Scaduto's taped interviews are with some of his closest intimates in that period. As Trudeau writes in the Introduction:

Scaduto captured the atmosphere, the emotions, and all the craziness of the 1960s"[He] captured a cultural and political era, seen through the life of Bob Dylan. He did so by using a prime journalistic technique: the interview"[His] "basement tapes" comprise more than thirty-six hours of conversations with Dylan, Joan Baez, Echo Helstrom, Suze Rotolo, John Hammond Sr., Phil Ochs, Izzy Young, Mike Porco, and so on. [Their] voices jump off the page, each person urgently revealing and talking of his or her time with Bob Dylan.

True all that. The voices are alive and there is no moss gathering on Dylan's stones here. The Dylan Tapes rather reminded me of my much enjoyed read of Larry "Ratso" Sloman's, Steal This Dream, a compilation of interviews centering around the life and activities of Abbie Hoffman, which I regard as the best book out there on the 60s Counterculture.

Sandwiched between Trudeau's Introduction and Afterword, The Dylan Tapes is organized in chronological section layers of unwholesome goodness: Girl from the North Country; Freewheelin' Dinkytown; Blowin' in the Wind; Hey, Hey Woody Guthrie; Mr. Tambourine Man; Boots of Spanish Leather; Positively 4th Street; Bringing It All Back Home; Like a Rolling Stone; Visions of Johanna; and, Another Side of Bob Dylan. These are helpful guideposts along the way and help one anticipate the period of Dylan's life that interviewees are discussing.

The Dylan Tapes is rich with small details that folks report that add up to a powerful cumulus cloud of dope smoke -- you know you're getting the skinny from these people. I've never read a Dylan biography all the way through. He wants his privacy, was my thinking, then he can have it. Besides, there's so much potential gravity there. I could never see Dylan throwing dollars down on Wall Street brokers or levitating the Pentagon.

But I quite like Scaduto's interviewing style. Reading his transcript of conversations, certain themes and leit motifs emerge worth noting: Dylan's response to the JFK assassination; his drug usage; insinuations of homosexual experimentation; women problems; fear and loathing of mobs; and, neurotic insecurity. I decided to note here and serve up Scaduto samplings of his search for identity; his short-lived voice of a generation days; Albert Grossman and the ka-ching-a-ling-a-ding-dong days; his love interests, Echo, Suze, Joan and Sara; and, Dylan's philosophy of music, as espoused by Carl Oglesby.

Alias Anything You Please

Perhaps no other facet of Dylan's performance career interests fans and detractors alike than his shape-shifting elusiveness. When he's gone from us, we can verily say, he wore a face like a mask. Each album was "another side." He lived a Joseph Campbell lifestyle, and all that was left is a Panama hat. It's fairly certain that Bobby (as he's called throughout the book) was aware of his intentional need to dodge behind an assortment of personae.

Zimmerman became Dylan, maybe a reference to the Welsh poet, maybe not. In The Dylan Tapes, he scoffs at that notion, "No, not at all. It just came to me. I knew about Dylan Thomas, of course, but I didn't deliberately pick his name." Then he took on a series of front names, most notably Elston Gunn, Blind Boy Grunt, Bob Landy, Robert Milkwood Thomas, Tedham Porterhouse, Lucky Wilbury, Jack Frost Sergei Petrov, Zimmy, and, to top it off, he was born with the Hebrew name Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham. God said to Avraham.

In 1960, after meeting up with Minneapolis musician Gretel Hoffman at the Ten O'Clock scholar coffeehouse in the Dinkytown section of the city, and befriending her husband, David Whitaker, Bobby was encouraged to invent identities. Hoffman tells Scaduto,

I remember we talked about that he worked at styling his language. And that he was acting. He said he was building a character that would sell. That was the general impression. And this was something that was just so far from the Bobby of two years ago, who was equally an actor, but not as self-aware of himself as an actor.

Whitaker then gave him Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory, to read, and soon Dylan was donning the hard times, but with a guitar to tell about his rough living. He rode the rails with Big Joe Williams (another Scaduto theme). This was a transformation from the Steinbeckian persona he wore in his Hibbing days. Hoffman says, "When I first met Bobby, he claimed he was an Okie"that he was an orphan, and that he'd been on the road for years as a piano player"and just starting to play the guitar."

His albums were shifting poses, from folk to folk-rock to country & western, drawing in more and more identities -- or, as cynics might say, markets. Today, you could argue that the only white market he hasn't at some point found a foothold in is the LGBTQIA+ market. All of Scudato's early recorded voices speak of Dylan's shyness, paranoia, and mercurial nature; how he was hard to pin down. How he borrowed from everybody. "He was just like an ink blotter, just absorbed everything," Sid Gleason told Scaduto. Gleason and his brother Bob were long-time Woody Guthrie fans who arranged with Greystone Hospital for the dying legend to spend weekends at their place; guests, including Dylan, would come over and they'd cheer each other up. [An Aside: Scaduto relates an interesting and amusing anecdote as to how Woody ended up at Greystone after being arrested for vagrancy.]

It's worth keeping in mind that inkblots are used for projective testing during psychiatric evaluations. Dylan probably summed it all up in his debut performance as the mysterious character in the movie, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (from which his megahit, "Knockin On Heaven's Door" derives):

Voice of A Generation

Bobby never really wanted to be the voice of a generation and felt at least partially conned into it by the folkies who kept getting floored by his songwriting ability, Scaduto says. The folk scene was stale; lots of excellent musicians but little energy in the lyrics. Probably it was inevitable that Dylan "went electric." He started out that way in Hibbing. But what the folkies wanted was a "conscience" of a generation from someone barely out of his teens. And when he began to get mobbed -- mostly by girls, Beatle hysteria style -- the shy paranoiac couldn't hack it, according to Scaduto's Joan Baez. She elaborates:

Scaduto: Did Bobby have an idea he could break down some of these barriers? Or that he could calm down these kids who were ready to tear his clothes off?

Baez: I think he eventually learned some of that. But certainly, at the beginning, when we did concerts together, he didn't understand it. Because it's a conflict. I mean, you want the people to scream and holler and love you and climb up on the stage and pull out your hair. You want that because it's irresistible to an ego, because ego doesn't understand it. It has nothing to do with love. It has nothing to do with anything genuine. It's just hysteria.

Baez felt a responsibility to the people she sang for who, during that era, were hungry for leadership that could feed the emotions of largely young people who were looking for hope and fight-back against The Man and his MIC values. In her last time singing with early Bobby, at a Madison Square concert, she attempted to convey the importance that he held for the kids listening to him that night and suggested that they go as the Queen of Peace and the King of Rock and Roll. She tells Scaduto:

Baez: "he always put down whatever sounded like a theme as bullshit. But the fact was, that night the kids had been pleading for "Masters of War," ["With God on Our Side"], any song that he'd ever written that meant something, that he's going to be a social conscience for them. And he knew immediately what I meant when I said I'd be peace queen and he'd be rock-and-roll king. He said, "Hey, hey man, I heard those kids. I heard them, right. I can't be responsible for those kids' lives." I said, "Bobby, you rat. You're going to leave them all with me." He said, "Hey, hey, take them if you want them, but man, you can't be responsible." It didn't mean he didn't love them, you know, I think he was just afraid. And he meant it and that's the last time we ever sang together.

Scaduto: Why was it the last time you ever sang together?

Baez: Because of that.

But Bobby wanted none of it. In fact, shocking to the ears, Scaduto tapes Carla Rotolo quoting Bobby: "I remember him saying once about his 'Masters of War' song, for example, saying it's just a whole big put-on, a whole crock of sh*t. That's what they wanted." I sagged to hear this, for I thought this song was the perfect complement to Abbie's attempt to levitate the Pentagon. Sad.

This Madison Square moment could be construed as a complement to the notorious Newport Folk Festival fiasco. Some of his followers felt that he had personally and intentionally created the sound problems that had driven many listeners into a rage, especially folk stalwart, and proud 'commie bastard,' Pete Seeger. The myth went that Seeger couldn't hack Bobby's rejection of folk. Pete had been convicted of contempt of Congress in 1961 and sentenced to hard time in The Man's penitentiary system after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Committee (HUAC). [Read his HUAC responses here.] He was a stand-up guy for the People.

Folks said Pete went nuts at the noise and may have wanted to commit a little manslaughter. Todd Haynes, director of the Dylan film, I'm Not There (2007), used descriptions of the event from Scaduto's biography of Bobby to stage the re-enactment. But years later Seeger spoke to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now about what happened:

"Sell Out" Days

Naturally, once word spread that Bobby had 'fucked up' Newport and given the finger to the folkies, the cries of "sell out" began in earnest. But, really, Scaduto counterindicates, Dylan was more interested in "making it" -- indeed, in becoming the next Elvis. Gretel Hoffman's husband, David Whittaker, who'd given Dylan a copy of Bound for Glory, had this exchange with Scaduto:

Whittaker: I remember him saying, Hammond says that one day you're going to be more famous than"-than"-who was it? "Blue Suede Shoes," the rock-and-roll singer who is still famous?

Scaduto: Elvis.

Whittaker: Than Elvis, yeah. "Hammond says I'm going to be more famous than Elvis," he said. Then his first record came out, and then his second. And the Minneapolis side of Great White Wonder was recorded at my house, I think. In one of these sessions. Somewhere on it he shouts "Whitaker, Whitaker," and this was recorded"-we recorded that on a trip he made then"-the last one before he took off.

Elvis was no folky. He was one for the money, two for the show"

It didn't end there. Scaduto locates where and when Bobby "threw it all away" and, instead of enhancing his mystique and record sales by putting out a decent album after Nashville Skyline, he dashed out a double LP, Self Portrait, full of other people's songs, especially Paul Simon, who some rumorists say wrote "I Am A Rock" with Dylan in mind. The exchange between Scaduto and Carl Oglesby, a radical and musician, goes like this:

I'm disappointed in what he's trying for the next record.

Why? Have you heard it?

Yeah. He threw it all out. He went to the studio and did a bunch of old Eric Andersen songs and a lot of Simon and Garfunkel stuff.

Dylan did? Why?

There were twenty-six sides, and they all came out shitty. And he threw it away.

Why was he suddenly doing somebody else's songs?

I don't know. He spent the summer with"-last summer with Paul Simon out on Fire Island, and apparently he's been grooving on Paul Simon's craft or something.

Oh horrible.

Journalism's not always neutral or objective. The refreshing sounds of a piano-driven New Morning followed that same year (where The Dylan Tapes ends.)

Some folks say that Dylan began to "sell out" when he hooked up with Al Grossman as his agent. Grossman would charge $1000 per song to quote its lyrics in a book, which Scaduto declined to do. ("The sellout is completely engineered by Al Grossman," says Izzy Young.) As Bobby made more and more money, his detractors got louder and louder, culminating in a kind of rage when Bobby wouldn't play at Woodstock, though he lived not far away from the site. John Belushi (and Christopher Guest) would later ramp up the sense of betrayal when he acted as the MC on the National Lampoon Woodstock album, Lemmings.

Way over the top or ".

Of course, there are other ways of looking at his situation, and Scaduto is there to record it. Scaduto talks with Izzy Young, who ran the Folklore Center, a combination record and music shop, folk library, folkie booking center, and general hangout. Young produced folk concerts and was a member of the board of Sing Out! Stephanie Trudeau tells us,

Izzy Young was instrumental in launching the young Bob Dylan, but when he talked to Scaduto, Young clearly felt some bitterness. Young spoke to Tony about Dylan's scathing, hateful "Positively 4th Street" that had everybody in the Village asking if it was about them.

Young "wisely" points out the pressure on songwriters like Dylan and the hazards of new fortune, with its need to jettison people who helped get you in a position to succeed. Young explains in detail to Scaduto:

Yeah, this is how it works. So, the artist has to start from a point. Eventually they accept you, and keep accepting you forever. All you got to do is tickle a few nerves and pat them on the head, and we're with you forever. But the instant you make it into the mass thing, then you have to say goodbye to the starting group no matter what it is. And that's what the sellout is, really. People think I'm bitter about Dylan. Now every song is a production, every song has a lot of money riding on the song. It's the same thing with Dylan.

"..

Dylan didn't start it, but it really comes after him, like in Woodstock. On one side they're getting, grabbing, grubbing all the money. On the other side, they're the sensitive artists. Now with Dylan what I found is"-to this day the kids will not accept the fact that he's a sellout. I do not understand this"-

Ka-ching-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding. Said the Property of Jesus.

"Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them"

Some of the best interviews in The Dylan Tapes are with his love interests -- Echo Helstrom, Suze Rotolo, Joan Baez, Carol Hester and Mikki Isaacson. Some of their remembrances are real ear-openers and always of import with respect to the story of Bobby's beginnings. Here are some excerpts from the interviews:

Echo Helstrom

Echo said of Bobby, "He didn't want anybody to know anything at all about him." And she wrote a song for him, "Boy From the North Country," in response to his song for her (she presumed). She could not find the song for Scaduto. They made love often:

When you said he'd come and see you and make love to you, would this be in your parents' house, your house?

Oh, anyplace. On the road. In the woods.

Bob was a bad motorcycle driver, worse even than Lawrence of Arabia. Bobby

hit a little kid with his motorcycle"there was nothing he could do about it because the little kid came running out from between two parked cars. And he didn't even see him until he was there, and he said he remembered this little kid's orange rolling across the street.

Luckily, the child was not badly hurt, but Bobby gave the bike away.

######

Suze and Carla Rotolo

Suze Rotolo was Bobby's girlfriend during his early days in Greenwich Village. She was, by all accounts related in the book, cute, quiet, artistic, sensitive and supportive of Bobby. But Bobby "needed" to be the center of her life and absorbed her energy. Carla, for whom Dylan originally had the hots, was tired of Dylan's intrusive presence in her apartment that she shared with Suze. Suze doesn't say much many years later about the break-up; she proves to be a resistant interviewee. But for some reason Scaduto raises the possibility that Dylan was having a homosexual affair. It goes like this:

Scaduto: No, the thing is that"-

Suze: I know he was, when he met [the East Side poets -- Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ed Sanders] he was excited about them, about Allen Ginsberg, his poetry, the kind of a guy he was, et cetera. If it went to a homosexual thing, personally, factually I don't know.

Scaduto: I don't want to imply it. If I'm going to mention it at all, I'm going to say it outright. What I'm trying to avoid is implying it through ignorance.

Suze: No, I really can't help you because there are too many rumors that I wouldn't know. Because that's normal. And you wouldn't tell the girl you're going with that you're having an affair with a man, right?

But Scaduto interviewees tell of the mounting tension in their relationship. It's probably best described by Dylan himself in his angry young song, "Ballad In Plain D." In the song, Dylan largely excoriates Suze's older sister, Carla, for the pressure that led to the break-up. Suze doesn't say much many years later about the break-up; she proves to be a resistant interviewee. But Scaduto's talk with Carla is revealing. She tells us that Dylan rued attacking Carla so viciously in the song and sought her out to apologize:

Why did he make you out to be such a b*tch in "Ballad in Plain D"?

Because he felt I was responsible for it. Who knew?

The parasite stuff.

The song, such an absolute screech. I was going to sue the pants off him. I decided"-my lawyer said, don't even bother, don't even, you know, really. Because parasite, the parasite is someone who feeds off somebody. And I was the only person who was working at that time. f*cking Bobby, of course, he makes me the parasite when I was working. A couple of times. He came looking for me. Later on.

######

Scaduto:

Attempting to freeze Dylan into a statue of Tom Paine or a wood carving of a latter-day Moses, blowing us the newest version of the Ten Commandments on a mouth harp, is absolute nonsense. Dylan's songs are a search for his salvation, for his solution and no one else's. They may touch a universal chord but that was not his intention.

His Philosophy of Music

The most recent brouhaha in Dylan's "mercurial" life (he's a Gemini, after all) is the outrage felt by fans who ponied up almost $600 for a "signed" copy of The Philosophy of Modern Song. Aside from the insanity of it all, having me wonder how much Moses might have made had he offered up God-signed copies of The Decalogue, it turned out that the signatures were machine-autographed. Probably, anybody who splashes that kind of cash for a scrawl of ink on paper deserves what they get. The Guardian virtually rolled its eyes with a snarky headline: "Musician says he had vertigo when he used autopen on books advertised as hand-signed." Vertigo? What, like Alfred Hitchcock and the Bell Tower scene? Naturally, the old cries of Money Grubber were reanimated, and the Nobel Prize winner was quick to apologize (kinda) and Simon and Schuster, his publisher, said they'd cut checks to repay the dupid fans who bought in; some of whom, may have been willing to pay the price as an investment on its value rising exponentially as soon as the Bard carks it. f*ck 'em, I say.

In the end, and as we near The End, what the Dylan phenomenon meant is anybody's guess. For my money, the best guesstimate of his value, and "meaning," came in The Dylan Tapes from the mouth of Carl Oglesby, radical theoretician, writer, folk singer, and songwriter. He was a former president of Students for a Democratic Society. Oglesby sums it up succinctly:

The best thing Dylan's got going for him is his hype, his con, or his whatever"-his Sphinx-like ambiguity. You can never be quite sure the guy's not putting you on, no matter what he does. That means the interpretation of his songs becomes an interpretation of oneself. Consequently, his songs remain permanently contemporary.

No sense in talking to me, we might hear his ghost one day say, it's the same as talking to you. If Ol' Mr. Alias Anything You Please wore more of Joseph Campbell's Masks of God than maybe anybody else, it can be construed as a mirror image of our own "mercurial" culture, reactionary, fad-driven, masked balls badly in need of Mardi Gras.

The Dylan Tapes is an engaging, entertaining and worthwhile read.

#####

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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