We’ve known for years that Bob Dylan borrowed melodies from older songs, and that particular songs and poems inspired him to write his own lyrics. In a nearly 12,000 word essay in the just published book, “Kerouac On Record: A Literary Soundtrack,” I detail just how extensively Dylan made use of Jack Kerouac’s writing in some of the songs Dylan wrote for Highway 61 Revisited. You can read an excerpt from my essay at Rock’s Back Pages.
Here’s a bit of what you’ll find there:
‘No rhyme, all cut-up, no nothing, except something happening, which is words’
I couldn’t have written those songs back then. If I had just come out and sung “Desolation Row’ five years ago I probably would have been murdered – Bob Dylan to Nat Hentoff, autumn 1965, unpublished interview for Playboy
Following the 3 May 1965 publication of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, the publisher, Coward- McCann, a subsidiary of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ran full-page ads in the Sunday Times Book Review, the daily New York Times, the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. If you were in New York, and dug Jack Kerouac, it would have been hard not to know that the “King of the Beats’ had a new novel in the stores.
Hi Lo Ha (the house Bob Dylan had just bought in Woodstock, New York, was where Dylan said he wrote the rest of Highway 61 Revisited in the six weeks between the 15 and 16 June sessions in Manhattan where “Like a Rolling Stone” (which he’d written in early June) was recorded, and the late July and early August sessions at which the rest of the Highway 61 Revisited album was completed. (Dylan, ever the poet, said that in one interview, but in another with Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone he said he wrote the Highway 61 song “Desolation Row” “in the back of a taxicab” in New York.)
More interesting than where the songs that comprise Highway 61 Revisited were written is that just six weeks after Desolation Angels was published, Dylan used the book as a major source of raw material for his new songs. “Desolation Row” took the first half of its title from Kerouac”s new book, and Dylan seems to have gotten the idea for the song’s main theme from Kerouac as well. In Desolation Angels, Kerouac writes about “Surrealistic Street,” and describes a wild cast of characters that he sees out on skid row. What is “Desolation Row,” as Dylan describes it in his song, if not a dark, at times horrific version of Kerouac”s “Surrealistic Street”?…
In a 12,000 word essay, “Bob Dylan’s Beat Visions (Sonic Poetry),” that appears in the upcoming book, “Kerouac On Record: A Literary Soundtrack,” I explore how Bob Dylan was profoundly influenced by the Beat writers, and especially Jack Kerouac.
The book is being published by Bloomsbury and will reach book stores online and off on March 8, 2018. Rock’s Back Pages will be publishing an excerpt from my essay, and the April issue of Mojo magazine (see full review below) includes a rave review that says in part: “Among the strongest in a strong lot are Michael Goldberg’s examination of Dylan’s lit roots and Kerouac’s own musicological piece — ‘The Beginning Of Bop’ – that attempts to capture jazz in words – and succeeds.”
Nice to be mentioned in the same sentence as Kerouac!
In addition my Dylan piece, I also have an interview with writer (and one time rock critic) Richard Meltzer in which he talks at length about Kerouac.
The book also contains essays on the influence of Kerouac on a number of musicians including Tom Waits, the Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, Patti Smith and others. And there are excellent pieces about the influence of jazz on Kerouac’s writing style.
As we get closer to the publication date I’ll share more about this fascinating book.
Great review by author Simon Warner, who wrote the excellent “Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture.”
Beat Spontaneity Meets Punk Insolence
By Simon Warner
Delivered in a sparky, yet splintered, patois, falling somewhere between Beat spontaneity and punk insolence, Michael Goldberg’s The Flowers Lied picks up where 2014’s True Love Scars left off, as the second part of the ‘Freak Scene Dream’ trilogy carries his narrator protagonist Michael Stein into further labyrinths of neurotic insecurity, a campus caper where boy might meet girl but where the roses of romance are snared with the jagged thorns of rejection and betrayal.
Not that this is any mere love story: it’s the tale of the would-be rock ‘n’ roll writer who still believes that his new journalistic prose, and his passion for Dylan and Beefheart, can lead him towards some kind of elevated self-fulfilment. But will an enthusiasm for the Stones or the New York Dolls, a blind belief in the existential promises of the electric guitar, be enough to compensate for wretched affairs and failing friendships?
Achingly self-conscious, riddled with agonising self-doubt, Stein has the flavour of a re-cast Holden Caulfield, as this raw-nerved rite of passage travels some way from Salinger’s immediate post-war world and places itself in the early 1970s at a moment when the hippie dream seems to have lost its enticing glow.
The very title of the novel is a comment on the fact the hopes and dreams of the Sixties have largely evaporated and Stein feels caught on the lip between the fading utopian buzz and a decade hurtling towards a state of nihilistic disillusion. Writerman, as he styles himself, is keen to reject the cynicism of the age but the pallor of personal crisis tends to cloud his day-to-day judgement.
Goldberg’s skill in this dark comi-tragedy is to energetically convey his feelings – the gauge on the emotional candour button is set to 9 – and he does this through a variety of techniques: a version of the gonzo syntax, occasional stream of consciousness ramblings and a secondary internalised narrative providing commentary on his own inner curdlings.
For readers who recognise the names – the rock stars, of course, but also the great rock writers of the day, like Christgau and Willis, who also pepper the pages from time to time – this is an engaging affair, as hot music, the powerful influence of music criticism and the spice of emotional turbulence become entangled in a tornado of twisting moods: the brief elation of a Fender lick is quickly balanced by a carousel of catastrophe; the ups are fleeting, the downs last longer.
The Flowers Lied, like its predecessor, has an edgy, fractious manner, but once you get used to the frenetic style, the prose moves forward with impressive vigour and the story, quite self-indulgent in many ways, has a definite resonance for a certain generation. The fact that this second instalment ends somewhat in mid-air might be a criticism, but it certainly leaves you hungry for the concluding episode, due in 2016.
Simon Warner, author of “Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture”
It was sixty years ago, on October 7, 1955, that Allen Ginsberg stood in the Six Gallery, a gallery/poetry space that artist Wally Hedrick had opened on Fillmore Street in San Francisco in 1954, and read his radical and epic poem “Howl” for the first time.
Hedrick had to convince his friend Ginsberg to appear. “[Hedrik] asked him to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery,” according to Wikipedia. “At first, Ginsberg refused. But once he’d written a rough draft of ‘Howl,’ he changed his ‘fucking mind,’ as he put it. The large and excited audience included a drunken Jack Kerouac, who refused to read his own work but cheered the other poets on, shouting ‘Yeah! Go! Go!’ during their performances.”
Ginsberg was second to last on a lineup that also included Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Philip Whalen, Michael McClure and Kenneth Rexroth.
Michael McClure later wrote: “Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America…”
In addition to being one of the seminal works to come out of the Beat movement, “Howl” influenced numerous poets around the world, both at the time and continuing right up to today. But it also had a profound impact on many rock musicians including a young Bob Dylan, whose songwriting was clearly influenced by Ginsberg’s electric writing in that poem, which begins:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”
On October 10th, the 60th anniversary of that first reading of “Howl” will be celebrated during a nine hour event, Still Howling, at the Wonder Inn in Manchester, England, that will run from 2 pm until 11 pm.
Participating will be Ginsberg biographer (and Beat expert) Barry Miles, British poet Michael Horovitz who appeared along with Ginsberg at the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, Ginsberg guitarist Steven Taylor, who accompanied Ginsberg for 20 years (and a member of The Fugs for the past 30 years) and the British actor George Hunt, who will read “Howl” in its entirety. MCing will be CP Lee, author of “like the night: Bob Dylan and the road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall,” and a former senior lecturer at the University of Salford.
There will be an afternoon symposium featuring Miles, Horovitz, Taylor, Peter Hale of the Ginsberg Trust and poets Christina Fonthes and Elmi Ali, and others.
Taylor will collaborate with Horovitz, perform a solo set and give the British premiere of his short choral work, “Footnote to Howl.”
There will also be a series of musical performances, paying reference to Ginsberg and the Beats, by spoken word artist Heath Common, joined by the Lincoln 72s and Dub Sex front man Mark Hoyle, alt-folk singer-songwriter Chris T-T, whose debut album was called Beatverse, and the Isness.
The event is co-produced by Beat authority Simon Warner, who in 2005 organized a 50th anniversary celebration of the first reading of “Howl,” and Manchester-based installation artist Roger Bygott. “Roger proposed we try and do another [‘Howl’] birthday event,” Warner explained via email from Leeds, England, where he teaches at the University of Leeds. “A decade on seemed a good moment to return to this seminal moment in twentieth-century poetry.”
Warner has been a fan of ‘Howl’ since he first read it as a teenager. “At first Ginsberg’s poem seems like a dislocated explosion, a chaotic stream of consciousness,” Warner said during a 2013 interview. “But when you start to unpack the details and debate the reasons why the poet uses such a fragmented form, its treasures are many. Its language is rich and raucous, surprising, sometimes shocking. ‘Howl’ is one of the great modernist statements, to rank with masterpieces by Picasso and Brecht, Beckett and Eliot. Its truths lie in its dissonance, in its fragmented shards, in its huge rolling passion, its heartfelt gravity.”
It was in the late ‘70s that Warner discovered the Beats. “I first encountered the names of the Beats through publications like New Musical Express, a weekly magazine forging an alternative voice and confirming that there were links between popular musical expression and the ideas of those maverick American writers,” he wrote in his email. “But then I read Ann Charters’ biography of Kerouac, the first such book to profile the novelist, then came across a remarkable late 1950s compilation called ‘Protest,’ which gathered work by the Beats and the UK’s Angry Young Men, and ‘Howl’ was one of the featured items.”
While Kerouac’s “On the Road” is likely the most popular (and influential) piece of writing to emerge from the Beat scene, Warner thinks “Howl” – published a year before “On the Road” – is just as important a literary work, perhaps more important.
“I think that ‘Howl’ was a genuine game-changer in all sorts of ways,” Warner wrote. “Until then, this underground gathering of friends and lovers, largely unpublished novelists and poets, dubbed the Beat Generation, was essentially beneath the radar, largely anonymous. Ginsberg was desperate to escape the formal strictures of the academy when it came to poetry, but he was very nervous about expressing his most intense, inner personal feelings.
“Here was a Jewish, socialist, second-generation Russian immigrant and a homosexual man to boot, who was likely to upset the conservative WASP establishment on so many levels, at a time when anyone stepping out of line faced censure, the prospect of unemployment, even imprisonment,” Warner continued. “Ginsberg had devised a new observational poetry, a fractured, fractious consideration of contemporary America, a modernist view of a land ensnared in the post-war paranoia of Cold War politics.
“Yet there was also a deep humanity to the piece,” Warner wrote. “The poem was certainly a tremendously brave gesture and once it was read in the Six Gallery on October 7th, 1955, the padlocks of repression and inhibition were smashed. In short, ‘Howl’ introduced powerful and controversial ideas but also trumpeted, by name, those very writers who would become the key, published members of the Beat community, widely read and acclaimed in the decade that followed. It also opened up the possibility of the counterculture having a voice and, it might be argued, was actually a significant preface to what happened, socially, culturally, even politically, in the West in the 1960s.”
Warner is the author of “Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture,” and in that book he makes the case that the Beats, including Ginsberg, had an immense influence on rock music.
“The Beats had a tremendous impact on rock culture,” Warner wrote in the email. “Particularly that version of sophisticated rock music that emerged around 1965 and 1966, that time when Dylan went electric, when the Beatles entered a new era of musical and lyrical maturity.
“Artists from the Doors to Jefferson Airplane, the Stones to Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead to Van Morrison and Cream, acknowledged the influence that writers like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg had had on their sensibilities, opening their consciousness and encouraging them to be more adventurous artistically.”
The contest, which is part of the Louder Than Words literary festival, is named after the acclaimed British guitarist Wilko Johnson, best known as a member of Dr. Feelgood in the ‘70s; early this year Johnson’s collaboration with Roger Daltry of The Who, Going Back Home, charted at No. 3 in the U.K.
“It’s named after Johnson because it is a competition for young writers and Wilko Johnson was a teacher – he has an English degree from Newcastle Univeristy,” explained Louder Than Words co-curator, Simon Warner, author of “Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture.”
“In addition, he [Johnson] is a capable and committed wordsmith in his own right,” Warner said. “Beyond that, too, he is a respected, avid and obsessive reader – appreciationg words associated with music and in books and journalism, national and international.”
The winner will be chosen by a “panel of high calibre judges drawn from related industries – writing, the academy, the music business,” Warner said.
The winner will be announced on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 and the award will be presented at the festival on Sunday, November 16, 2014.
The winner will receive: a full weekend festival pass, a complete set of 100 titles from Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 album series, and will be published on the Rock’s Back Pages website.
Louder Than Words will take place November 14-16, 2014 at The Palace hotel in Manchester, England.
As described on the Louder Than Words website, the festival includes “’in conversation with’ sessions, panel discussions, interviews, workshops, performances and casual opportunities for engaging with performaners, authors, editors, publicists, reviewers, press, artists and aficionados.”
[I just published my rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love Scars.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book in the new issue. Read it here. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]
Fantastic review by Simon Warner, author of “Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture.”
TRUE LOVE SCARS
Michael Goldberg (Neumu Press)
Review by Simon Warner
The great rock novel? The pursuit of that ultimate piece of fiction that distils the primal energy, the ecstatic power, the neurotic craziness, of popular music has been something of a holy grail in recent decades and, in True Love Scars – a deeply ironic nod to Buddy Holly’s ‘True Love Ways’ – one-time Rolling Stone journalist Michael Goldberg is the latest contender for this Lonsdale Belt of rock‘n’roll writing.
His protagonist Michael Stein is a Californian teenager in the later 1960s, tangled to distraction in the sound and image of his hero Bob Dylan, a paradoxical blend of cocksure kid and deluded hipster, bruising his fragile ego in the choppy shallows of high school romance, then sabotaging his increasingly complicated love tangles in a haze of drug indulgence and casual disloyalty, and all to a backbeat of Highway 61 Revisited, the Stones and the Doors.
It’s the story of a disaffected geek and self-imagined king of cool who turns out to be much more naïve nerd, as his promising upward trajectory hurtles into reverse. But True Love Scars, the first part of Goldberg’s ‘Freak Scene Dream Trilogy’, is as much about style – the way he tells the tale – as it is about content. Penned in a staccato amphetamine grammar, its narrative is fractured and deranged, often unsettling but frequently compelling, an unsparing portrait of the teen condition: assured then despairing, would-be sex god then impotent has-been, from erection to dejection, an only child battling the wills of his domineering father and interfering mom in the anonymous, suburban fringes of Marin County.
Goldberg’s work recalls a number of those post-war stylists who have tried to capture the uncertainties of adolescence into adulthood, the lure of escape and the quest for forbidden fruit. It has elements of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a flavour of Richard Fariña and his smart college satire Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up to Me, and more than a dash of that frenetic gonzo gabble that Hunter S. Thompson utilised to frame the madness of the modern world as the American dream unravelled, around the very time that Stein is doing his incompetent best to grow up. The great rock novel? Perhaps we still await it but, for sure, this writer has made a creditworthy tilt at this literary crown, and produced a very good one.
Simon Warner is the author of Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture. He’s a lecturer, Popular Music Studies, School of Music, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom
[I just published my rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love Scars.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book in the new issue. Read it here. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]