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September 26, 2008


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When, as now, there's the danger that the vulnerable young will glorify madness (and romanticize suicide, its ultimate consequence), it's vital to insist, as you do, Larry, that writing is a rational act. Dylan's use of drugs in the 1960s explains nothing; he was part of his time, so of course he took drugs, and as this was part of his experience, it naturally fed his writing. But what distinguishes Dylan from a host of others is that (in Nietzsche's terms) he could not only tap the Dionysian springs but he had the Apollonian ability to turn the raw materials into coherent works of art.

Thanks, David. As always, your comments are not only welcome and interesting but also extremely valuable in helping me think through my own views.


cheers. i was just thinking today that an important moment for me as both an appreciator of art and as a developing artist myself was the moment i realized dylan's work (i think i was listening to "ballad of a thin man" at the time) was not the nonsensical ramblings of a drugged out hippie, but highly ordered, organized, and creative wildness, beauty, and ultimately truth.

i prefer sober dylan, anyway (i.e. "brownsville girl", "mississippi", "blind willie mctell").

Thanks, Christopher. I think you're absolutely right. Dylan's words are odd random ramblings. They make sense. I join the legions of those who tried to make sense of them in a book I'm writing now.


While conjuring mental pictures of Jack Kerouac stoked on benzedrine hunched over a typewriter cranking out "On the Road" and Ken Kesey envisioning the character Chief Broom during a peyote experience and subsequently writing passages of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" under the influence of various drugs, I came to realize that these images were made anachronisms by the very presence of those drugs themselves. I say this because it's my belief that the literary aesthetic was changed by drugs, and books and writing were incapable of communicating this new sensibility.

Following the Merry Pranksters’ summer 1964 bus trip to New York City to celebrate the publication of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey paused to take stock of where the road he had been traveling since his introduction to psychedelic drugs had led him and to consider where that road ought and might lead in the future. It didn’t take Kesey long, if he hadn’t already made up his mind, to conclude that, no matter where else the journey into the future might take him, writing novels was no longer going to be part of his itinerary.

For Kesey, the novelistic form had come to seem too restrictive and too static. It was simply no match for the dynamism of the psychedelically inspired artistic visions that now danced through his head. What he had begun envisioning as the next step in what he termed the “Neon Renaissance” was a more boundless and real form — something more liquid, more kinetic, more participatory, and decidedly more real and lifelike than the comparably static act of putting words on a page for people to read.

Years later Kesey would point to the psychedelic bus Furthur as the apex of his art, saying: “When people ask what my best work is, it’s the bus. Those books [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion] made it possible for the bus to become. I thought you ought to be living your art, rather than stepping back and describing it. [The bus] is a metaphor that’s instantly comprehensible Every kid understands it.”

Kesey would credit Neal Cassady with inspiring his loss of interest in writing and his quest for new artistic frontiers during the 1960s, saying: “I saw that Cassady did everything a novel does, except he did it better ’cause he was livin’ it and not writin’ about it.” So “instead of publishing words,” Kesey determined to publish “a way of being in the world.”

Such were Cassady’s powers and influence that he had a similar effect on other artists and musicians around the same time. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia said, Cassady “was the first person I met who he himself was the art. He was an artist and he was the art also." As such he “represented a model to [Garcia] of how far you could take it in the individual way. In the sense that you weren’t going to have a work, you were going to be the work.”

In these observations from this novelist and musician, one gains not only a flash of insight into what Kesey and others during this period of time sought to achieve but also a sense of the defining artistic vision of American psychedelia and its music in the mid-1960s. For what Kesey and Garcia were talking about was some thing or vehicle — the words artistic or literary form or, for that matter, any other words don’t and won’t ever do it justice — that would enable people to realize a state in which they could become the sort of living metaphor that Cassady epitomized to them simply by being or becoming themselves.

For Bob Dylan this new aesthetic (the true psychedelic style) was to supremely manifest itself in his albums beginning with Another Side (somewhat) through Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as well as his live electric performances in 1965-66.

Critic Leslie Fiedler, in speaking of the work of poet and musician Leonard Cohen, offered a defining description of this style:

In (his) “Beautiful Losers,” for instance, the sort of vision evoked by psychedelics, or bred by the madness toward which their users aspire, is rendered in a kind of prose appropriate to that vision — a prose hallucination and even, it seems to me, hallucinogenic, a style by which it is possible to be actually turned on.

This style manifested itself quite strikingly in Bob Dylan’s version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” on Bringing It All Back Home. If, on one level, the song could be understood as “an ode to a dope dealer” and embody “a traditional romantic vision,” it became something much more on another more metaphorical level.

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

If one were to “analyze” the song in the traditional exegetical manner, what emerged would be a picture of “Dylan lilt(ing) of absolute liberty in an infinite present time severed from the past; this was the transcendentalist fantasy of the wholly, abstractly free individual, finally released from the pains and distortions of society’s traps, liberated to the embrace of nature and the wonder of essential thoughts, in an America capable of starting the world again.”

But if one were to experience the performance of the song itself, he or she would feel the ambiance of the work which “is unmistakably that of early dawn, the hour of the wolf, when all hangs in an eerie balance, as at the end of a long and difficult LSD trip.” (Lee 135-136) The listener then becomes a partner with the singer on “a mystical journey through “the foggy ruins of time.” (Lee 135-136) The song, magically, had become the (drug) experience itself for both listener and performer.

Dylan also was able to achieve something similar in his live performances during 1966. His delivery of “She Belongs to Me” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall exactly suits the entrancement he is describing and experiencing. The listener is there with him, feeling what he is feeling as he looks on in rapt awe and wonderment as the woman in the song wreaks her particular brand of havoc and pain upon all those who adore her. “And everything about his singing is then complemented in turn by the long, drawn-out harmonica passage that ends the song.”

Obviously there is much more that can be said about this in regard to dDylan's mid 60s work and others working in that period as well, and I would enjoy discussing that with anyone interested.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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This Way Out

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Ringfinger was nervous
Pinky terrified
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.



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