Showing posts with label community. Show all posts
Showing posts with label community. Show all posts

Monday, July 01, 2019





Bob Dylan’s Eyes


The films by or about Bob Dylan are every bit as strange, unique, intimate & evasive, as he is and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story, streaming now on Netflix, is no exception, blending documentary footage Dylan had taken during the famous 1974-6 tour with more than a few fictional add-ons from the likes of Sharon Stone, Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, and studio exec (just not that studio nor that exec) Jim Gianapolus. But as somebody who has been listening to, close-reading and watching the troubadour of Hibbing for at least 57 years, the real stars of this paradocumentary are Bob Dylan’s eyes. They are luminous, blue and often (in the faux Noh white paint that turns up pretty much everywhere on Dylan, violinist Scarlet Rivera, and even for a bit Joan Baez, during the tour) green.[i] Most importantly, they are searching, making contact, commenting on the action we see and the inner workings behind the mask that are not given to us during the two-hour, twenty minutes of the film.

In 1974, Bob Dylan had largely been off the road for the previous eight years following a motorcycle accident before returning to do a series of stadium and arena-sized shows with The Band, the legendary backup quintet once known as Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks. During the interim, Dylan and the Band  had  been down in the basement making some glorious music, the group had become nearly as famous as their front man, and the stadium shows reflected this with alternating sets. It was a format that had become standard in the post-Woodstock era, one that lives on today all over the globe, from Coachella to K-Pop[ii]. But it is also the form that drove the Beatles into retirement from live performance in 1967 and its fundamental inhumanness is its basic truth. Rolling Thunder Review repeatedly returns to the fact that the smaller venues Dylan chose for the three-year traveling carnival he had created to succeed the gigs with the band ensured that it would never succeed financially.

But touring is an essential economic truth in the music business, where record companies were sucking up vast portions of any performer’s earnings long before the rise of the net and the cloud put control of the product into serious doubt. After a five-year touring career in the early 1960s and a six-month return before screaming masses of adoring ants, Dylan was searching for something different. Rolling Thunder was the result.

With the stadium shows, Dylan had begun rolling out his new strategy of reworking some of his standards, often quite dramatically, and the Rolling Thunder performances show Dylan’s passion for these new versions of what had already become familiar classics as well as more recent fare from the records released during the eight years away from touring. But what is really most notable are Dylan’s facial expressions, his directness with the audience, eyes rolling when Baez transposes a phrase, eyebrows arching, registering emotion. It’s not just that Dylan is having fun, although how often  have you seen him acknowledge that, but that he’s communicating and collaborating with his expressions in ways I had not seen during his folk and earlier rock periods and never in the course of his Never-Ending Tour that has gone on now for over 31 years.[iii] Like, say, Miles Davis (a performer whom at times reminds me of Dylan in his obsessional focus on the piece at hand), who seldom if ever interacted with audiences, Dylan often feels onstage is if he were alone with his band. Not so in these performances.

Which is what gives these shows & this film an intensity Dylan seldom approaches elsewhere.

Rolling Thunder was also Dylan’s attempt to create an alternative to the isolating realities of fame and travel that can bedevil musicians. Anyone who has seen Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley arriving for a concert with some backup band he has never met, let alone with whom he has practiced, or heard the exhaustion in the voice of a solo artist like Eric Andersen (who has a bit role in this film), or who can count the number of musicians who have died on the road, will sympathize. Dylan’s idea was to put together a small community of first-rate artists and take them all along for the ride. While the film returns repeatedly to the figure of the carnival, it’s really the pilgrimages of, say, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that echo most loudly here. The film’s second billing goes to Allen Ginsberg, labeled in the credits as (Dylan’s phrase) the Oracle of Delphi, who begins the tour as a central obsession for Dylan (“absolutely not a father figure” Bob insists as Ginsberg leads him to the grave of Jack Kerouac, footage everyone has seen before but given new poignancy by the context offered here ) but concludes it sharing roadie duties with Peter Orlovsky. Others in the mix include Patti Smith, Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell. Oddly missing from the interviews are most of the musicians who back Dylan up, particularly Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan’s close friend who served as the functional producer of much that ensued musically on the tour and who proves a reasonable successor to the great lead guitarists Dylan has had going back to the late Mike Bloomfield.

If the tour was, as everyone insists – from Gianapolus as producer to the jowly Dylan of just last year – a failure, it wasn’t financially[iv] so much as socially. The dynamics of the road are relentless – Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover from the sixties quits the tour & her absence as a grounding is noticeable[v]. What does it mean to have a roving commune in a world so hungry for roots? You can run away to join the circus, but the circus itself turns out to be a very circumscribed home. The commune movement, from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters forward, was as much a seventies’ phenomenon as a holdover from the sixties, and as the sometimes incoherent pacing of appearances from Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter[vi], reflects, the failure of the revolution of ’68 left everyone not already bunkered down in the counterculture without many alternatives. The power imbalance between Dylan and everyone else is something nobody can get past – even Baez, here as elsewhere a snarky skeptic unafraid of being incorrect, concedes to it. Bob is Bob, but unlike Charlie, he doesn’t want a harem to kill for him, or – a la Baker-roshi – to ensconce him in wealth and pussy. Dylan profoundly distrusts power, but his followers are like iron filings to his magnetic presence. It’s the Gordian knot he will never cut.

Much, too much in fact, is made of the question of masks as Dylan’s only plausible defense to this conundrum, and when you hear Hurricane Carter’s snappy, upbeat chatter about how Dylan is still searching regardless of his claim to have already found some inner peace, you remember that Rolling Thunder was Dylan’s last stop before the Bible[vii]. In one sense, this is where Scorsese – Dylan’s friend since at least The Last Waltz – fails as a filmmaker. A director with some critical distance might have looked with a more jaundiced eye at the wall Dylan hits at the end of this tour, aesthetically, spiritually, intellectually. Good intentions will only get you so far. There’s a reason even Ringling Bros. gave it up in 2017, and why so many other performers have retreated to Nashville, Branson or Vegas, why the Blue Man Group or Cirque de Soleil don’t do the road. At 78, Dylan still performs at 100-plus venues per year, compared with the Stones who do 30 once every five years, and McCartney something comparable to that. Dylan is driven, albeit not by fame, fortune nor glory – his fumbling of the Nobel Prize should tell us that. In a sense, he’s like the secret cylons in Battlestar Gallactica, who know who they are by the song they can’t get out of their head, written as it was by Bob Dylan.





[i] It probably says hazel on his driver’s ID.

[ii] Incommensurable, I know.

[iii] The credit roll lists every show from 1974 through 2018 and we are talking thousands.

[iv] Billionaire Sir Paul McCartney and maybe the Gershwins must be the only other people to come close to Dylan in revenue from covers of their music.

[v] Their discussion of their marriages, Dylan to the “woman I love” in Sara (not always present on the tour and not visible here), Baez to Stanford anti-war activist David Harris (“the man I thought I loved”), is a level of intimacy nowhere available elsewhere in any film of Dylan I’ve ever seen.

[vi] How many of today’s audiences will recognize a dazed Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme being arrested after her attempt to shoot Ford at the Sacramento state capitol, or even know that Ford was the target of two assassination attempts in one month? If Scorsese had been making a film about the period, rather than the tour, he’d have noted the arrest of Patty Hearst and her SLA compatriots that same month, prompting one of the network news broadcasts to project its coverage over the background of the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

[vii] Where is T-Bone Burnett whose presence on the tour is sometimes credited with Dylan’s religious conversion? Or David Bromberg? Didn’t he get together with his wife, artist and Santeria practitioner Nancy Josephson, on the tour? So many great musicians Scorsese could have talked to and did not. Indeed, there would seem to be a documentary waiting to be made of Scarlet Rivera’s presence throughout. Having been “discovered” by Dylan walking down the street in New York – an event as improbable as Trungpa’s famous cab ride with Ginsberg – everyone seems terrified of her.  Next to Dylan, Ginsberg & maybe Baez, she’s the most visible person here, still making use of the musical career that apparently fell from the sky.



Monday, February 18, 2013

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On numerous occasions, I’ve made the point that the recognition of community – starting implicitly with the Black Mountain poets & the New York School and continuing explicitly with Langpo – is exactly that which distinguishes the post-avant from its predecessor, the avant-gardist late modern. Having taken community as an antidote to individualism, it is disconcerting to see the category figured negatively either by one’s peers who are not reactionaries (Johanna Drucker is one of writing’s most positive forces, for example) & by those who come immediately thereafter (as were the “new coast” poets of the O●bl─ôk Anthology). What third term might exist that would untie the knot created by conflict between the endless competition that is the hallmark of individualism & the social elitism of inside-vs.-outside of any community? If I have a frustration with the post-Langpo / pre-Conceptual poets of the past few decades, it is largely that no such third term has been forthcoming, merely a sense of alienation toward the two pre-existing alternatives.
Listening to the talks of Poetry Communities and Individual Talent, I’m struck not just by John Paetsch’s use of “ collectivity” or “collective” as a potential third term, but even more profoundly by just how much this conference is not about community so much as it is about credentialing and canonization: credentialing the speakers – all intelligent & well-intended in their work – and canonization of the figures of their work, most often by foregrounding a previously overlooked, misunderstood or controversial aspect of the writing itself. But the core fact of the conference was that of younger academics talking on panels moderated by their elders. Of 22 speakers who presented papers (the one on Prynne is mysteriously absent from the PennSound record), only a few – Damon, Dworkin, Karasick & Schultz – are known primarily as poets. Only a few – Paetsch, Jessyka Finley, Kaplan Harris – fully address the construction of community itself (or, in the case of Spicer, the refusal of same). None of the speakers, moderators included, is him- or herself free of an academic context.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wise Guys Meet in La Jolla
Clockwise from RS at rear of table:
Rae Armantrout, John Granger, Ted Pearson, Dustin Leavitt
(photo by TC Marshall)

Because I was in California for half of April, I missed the Poetry Communities & Individual Talent conference that took place at Kelly Writers House while I was gone. But the relationship of poetry & community was constantly on my mind, reading at UC (which still fails to treat me to the usual glut of alma mater literature, a mistake that SF State never makes, tho in fact I never actually received a degree from either), going past the house I grew up, the house eight blocks away that I owned prior to the move to Pennsylvania, visiting dear friends, including David Melnick in San Francisco & Cecelia Bromige in Sebastopol. I’m co-editing collected poems for both Melnick & David Bromige and had things I needed & wanted to discuss with each. Plus the primal pleasure of visiting dear friends. I was amazed, at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, to see that Steve Fama has a pretty good collection of my writings on prisons from my days with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), which is to say 1977 & before. Later in the week, Kathleen Frumkin & I sorted through the NY Times to find the crossword puzzle that listed “Pulitzer Prize Poet Armantrout & others” on April 13 (Rae’s birthday – did they know that?), plus the solution the following day, which was “Raes.” It was one of those deeply satisfying psychic journeys in which I traveled more than just geographical distance.

My first event on the West Coast was at the Center for Psychoanalysis in San Francisco, an interesting blend of resonances in my life given just how many psychoanalysts I know, how many therapists & the number of decades I’ve been in therapy of one sort or another. One of the first questions in that informal give & take setting was did I still think of myself as a Language Poet and had my sense of Language Poetry changed since the 1970s. My response was to begin with something I’d written in the foreword to in In The American Tree, that I understood Language Writing as a moment more than a movement, which was true in the early 1980s when I first penned that sentence, and is even truer today, when that moment seems to me clearly past.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Returning to the Bay Area after a gap of a few years away & just under 17 since I moved to Chester County, PA, is a complex, often bittersweet experience. When I left in 1995 UC Berkeley, where I’d once studied poetry with Robert Grenier, James EB Breslin, Jonas Barish, Ed Snow & Dick Bridgman, had yet to invite me to give a reading, so I recall being quite amazed when both Temple & Penn asked me within six weeks of arriving in the Philadelphia region. Not quite two decades later, Berkeley finally caught up, thanks to CS Giscombe, with the aid of co-curator Rosa Martinez, my co-reader Jill Richards (who, as I noticed & several people in the audience made a point of reiterating for me, gave a terrific performance), Claire Marie Stancek (who gave me a generous introduction) & some others (David Brazil in absentia even). Wheeler Hall had not changed all that much in the 41 years since I last took a class there, tho what they now call the Maud Fife Room was a warren of grad student offices back then.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

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Bob Perelman: The Trouble with Community

From Poetry Communities & Individual Talent Kelly Writers House, April 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

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Communities of Print Culture
with Sarah Stone, Josh Schneiderman & Kaplan Harris
moderated by Alan Golding

From Poetry Communities & Individual Talent Kelly Writers House, April 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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Complicating Post-War Reputations
with Hannah Baker Saltmarsh, Piotr Gwiazda, Stefania Heim
moderated by Sarah Dowling

From Poetry Communities & Individual Talent Kelly Writers House, April 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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Othering Self-Construction
with Juliana Leslie, John Paetsch & Maude Emerson
moderated by Max Cavitch

From Poetry Communities & Individual Talent Kelly Writers House, April 2012

Monday, May 21, 2012

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Resisting Communities
with Jessyka Finley, Tom Fisher & Joshua Kotin
moderated by Charles Bernstein

From Poetry Communities & Individual Talent Kelly Writers House, April 2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

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Revising Historical Trajectories
with Kathy Lou Schultz, Andrea Actis & Rebecca Gaydos
moderated by Michael Golston

From Poetry Communities & Individual Talent Kelly Writers House, April 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012

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The Theory & Practice of Community with Adeena Karasick, Al Filreis & Jacob Edmond moderated by Katie Price

From Poetry Communities & Individual Talent Kelly Writers House, April 2012