Friday, May 24, 2013

On Bob Dylan's Birthday

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg inside the kitchen of Dylan’s Woodstock home in 1964
[Bob Dylan and  Allen Ginsberg in Albert Grossman's kitchen, photo: c. Douglas Gilbert] 

Raymond Foye has generously provided us with this account (that first appeared in the 1990 Dylan anthology, Wanted Man (edited by John Bauldie). The Allen Ginsberg Project today celebrates Bob Dylan's 72nd birthday 

The Night Bob Came Around 

Late one night I sat in Allen Ginsberg's East 12th Street apartment with Allen and Harry Smith, the eminent ethnomusicologist and folklorist. We were looking at a new batch of photographic prints delivered that day by Brian Graham, a freelance printer who had been working for Robert Frank. I had proposed editing a volume of Allen's photographs for the  publisher Twelvetrees Press, and we had set about making an initial selection.

Allen proudly displayed a recent portrait of Harry. "You know you're a real menace with that camera," Harry whined in his nasal drawl, and then announced that, as it was 11 o'clock, he was going to bed. Allen and I resumed work, though we were interrupted a few minutes later when the telephone rang. It was Bob Dylan. Could he come over and play Allen the tape of his new album? Of course, Allen replied, and repeated the address, instructing Dylan to yell up from the street, as the doorbells were all out of order. About 20 minutes later, Dylan stood in the street, shouting Allen's name, as a yellow taxi sped off into the darkness. Allen opened the window and dropped down the keys tied up in an old sock. Dylan let himself in and walked up four flights to the tenement apartment. "Is this sock clean?" he asked in italics.

Dylan carried a six-pack of beer under his arm, and was accompanied by an attractive middle-aged black woman who spoke only with her eyes. Dylan was wearing black jeans and motorcycle boots, black vest and a half-unbuttoned shirt which showed off a pot belly that Allen saw fit to remark upon — a remark that Dylan saw fit to ignore. Fingerless motorcycle gloves, grey in his hair and beard, yellow nicotine-stained fingers with long nails; shabby, unkempt and very edgy, shifting his feet and carefully scanning all of the books, records, and tapes, on the shelves throughout the apartment. This was the same apartment where 10 years previously he had brought the Renaldo & Clara film crew for a pre-road run-through. At that time Dylan was accompanied by a few musicians, and his then-girlfriend Denise Mercedes. Allen had invited some neighborhood poets — Gerard Malanga and Rene Ricard. The poet Robert Creeley, in town from Bolinas, had spent the evening sitting at the kitchen table drinking Scotch whiskey and chatting with Rene, spurning Allen's subtle attempts to lure him in the bedroom where Dylan was hoping to meet a poet whose work he held in great esteem. Creeley's ignoring Allen was perhaps due to the fact that Allen never explicitly stated that Dylan was present. Creeley thought that the sounds emanating from the bedroom were Bob Dylan records, and it was not until Dylan was departing that Creeley realized what had been going down, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all

"So where's the tape?" Allen asked excitedly. Dylan reached in his shirt pocket and took out a cassette in a plastic case. We sat in the living room, Dylan sprawled on a low couch, as Allen cued up the tape. "I was hoping you could give me an idea for a title," Dylan said. "I never had a problem with album titles. They always just came to me."

File:Bob Dylan - Empire Burlesque.jpg

The band kicked in with "Tight Connection". Allen leaned forward, trying to catch the words. "I can't understand the words," Allen complained. "What are the words?" he quizzed Dylan. "Ya have to lissen," Dylan replied with a surly scowl. Allen shook his head. "I am listening. I can't get the words. Can you repeat them for me?" By now Dylan was obviously perturbed. "I'm sorry but I just can't hear them," Allen repeated. So we played the song over again and Dylan began feeding Allen the lyrics, with a particularly pained expression on his face; slightly embarrassed, almost. Next song. Next song. At one point Allen remarked, "Fancy arrangements."
At another point Ginsberg thought he detected a quasi-religious overtone. "Aha!" he said sarcastically, "I see you still have the judgment of Jehovah hanging over our heads!" "You just don't know God," Dylan replied, twice as sarcastic. "Yeah, I never met the guy," Allen said, ending the exchange. Dylan opened his second beer.
Suddenly Harry Smith was yelling from his room off the kitchen: "Turn down that music! Don't you understand I'm trying to sleep!" I have always known Harry to be a quintessentially perverse character, but this went beyond anything I'd ever thought him capable of. Allen didn't turn the music down, but agreed to switch off the set of speakers in the kitchen.'

[Harry Smith in Allen's 437 East 12th Street Apartment - Photo c. Brian Graham]

Soon Dylan stopped repeating the lyrics and Allen began to catch the words, occasionally interjecting his admiration for a particularly well-turned phrase. I continued to sit in a state of paralysis, which only heightened when "Dark Eyes" came on, its melody turned inside out, all structure, no surfeit, no embellishment. To hear "Dark Eyes" for the first time — one of the greatest listening experiences one is ever likely to have in life anyway — with Dylan sitting there, averting his glance, shifting his weight nervously, made me aware of just how rare, how painful it is for him to lay his heart bare this way. The tape ended and there was a long silence as we all stared at our feet.

"What were you thinking of calling the album?" Ginsberg asked at last. "Empire Burlesque," Dylan said, somewhat emphatically. Allen nodded. "That was the name of a burlesque club I used to go to when I first came to New York, down on Delancey Street," Dylan volunteered, as if to explain away the obvious political content. "Yeah," Allen replied, "I think that's a good title." Dylan looked rather surprised, and then slightly pleased at being confirmed in his hunch. Nothing more was said about the matter. I had my eye on the tape and so did Dylan. He guardedly put it back in his pocket.

"So, Harry Smith is living with me," Allen proudly announced. Dylan looked genuinely amazed at this fact. "Harry Smith," he repeated the name slowly. "Now that's somebody I've always wanted to meet," Dylan said with enthusiasm. "I'll go get him," Allen said, hurrying out of the room. But Harry, having retired, simply refused to get out of bed. So Allen instead bummed a few cigarettes. When Allen came back and reported that Harry was not getting out of bed, Dylan looked disappointed but impressed.

<I>Howl'</I>s Echoes 2

"Let me show you what I'm working on," Allen said proudly, and we went into the kitchen. Allen handed Dylan a photograph of Kerouac standing in profile on a New York fire escape, railway brakeman's manual in pocket. "You took this photo?" Dylan said incredulously. "I've seen this photo for years, I never knew you took this. These are great." Dylan began shuffling through the new prints. "Man, you have to do an album cover for me sometime." "Great!" Allen replied. "What about this one?" pointing to the tape. "Nah, this one's already finished, but the next one," he promised. (The following year Allen turned up backstage at a gig in Kansas City, where they both happened to be performing. Allen took out his camera and began snapping pictures. "I'll pay you not to do that," Dylan pleaded. "But we have an agreement," Allen protested. "I'm supposed to photograph your next album!") Allen explained how we were putting together a book of photographs for a West Coast publisher, who had requested that Allen handwrite descriptive captions.
Suddenly Dylan became enthusiastic. "I got a great idea. Send me a bunch of photos and I'll write the captions. We can do this book together!" Allen looked surprised. "Yeah, sure," he said, a bit thrown off by the suggestion. "Yeah, man, I'll write little stories to these." (A week later Allen called Dylan's office to make the arrangements. "You realize you may never see these photos again?" Dylan's secretary warned. Allen reconsidered, and decided to ask Robert Frank's advice. "Sure, why not?" Frank replied. "It's worth the risk" A few months later Allen called the office and collected the photos. The package had not been opened.)

Allen Ginsberg, Francesco Clemente  White Shroud  1983 photo: Allen Ginsberg, Francesco Clemente  White Shroud  1983 AllenGinsbergFrancescoClementeWhiteShroud1983.jpg
[Francesco Clemente - Illustration from White Shroud - Allen Ginsberg & Francesco Clemente, Kalakshetra Publications Press, 1983]

Allen then displayed an edition of his poem White Shroud, illustrated by Francesco Clemente and hand-printed in India. Dylan looked it over carefully for a long time, impressed by the illuminated manuscript treatment. "How much does this cost?" he asked. As I had brought the book by, he referred the question to me. "Twenty dollars," I replied. "And how many of them do you make?" "We made a thousand." "How much does the artist get?" Dylan asked — not so much being crass as just wanting to know the practical, business side of the book. (After all, I thought later, I'd hardly expect him to stand there and discuss the aesthetics.) I gave a brief run down on the split.
Allen tried to interest Dylan in teaching songwriting at Naropa Institute in Boulder that summer. Dylan hedged, and walked into Allen's office, just off the kitchen. He looked at the desk. "Is this where you write your poems?" he asked. "No, I write most of my poems in notebooks. I type them up here." Dylan looked at a wall of books. "You still see Burroughs?" he asked. "I'm seeing him in Boulder next week," Allen responded. "Tell him... tell him I've been reading him," Dylan stammered. "And I believe every word he says."

It was about 2.30 in the morning and Dylan said goodnight. Allen walked him out into the hallway and bid him goodnight. The next day I phoned the apartment. Harry Smith answered. I asked why he hadn't got up the previous night and he mumbled some excuse, and I got the sense he was actually afraid to meet him. But Harry did remark that Dylan's speaking voice was much higher-pitched than he'd imagined. He also noted how human Dylan's voice had sounded.


  1. Wonderful tale vividly told. Thanks!

  2. Amazing story!

  3. Indeed a special insight on how these two poets, who admired each other so much, got along after Dylan had embraced the Christian faith in a manner that must have puzzled the omnivorous religious and anti fundamentalistic Ginsberg. What sends shivers down my spine though is the way Dylan apparently tried to find a way out of the tight corner he painted himself in those days and come to grasps with what he should have rejected in Ginsberg and still found himself entranced with. The most telling is his reaction on Burroughs, where he admits still reading him and even believing every word he wrote, which must have been the apocalyptic Cities of the Red Night at that moment and the beautiful The Place of the Dead Roads, which plays in the West Bob loves so much, both masterful books having much in common with his own visions, yet being very much distanced from Dylans literal conception of the Bible in those days. It moves me to the heart how he shows this affection for what he had learned to reject and it presages how in later years he found, like before his conversion, a much more mythical and broad perspective concerning his love for Jezus, which even made him admit that now he finds his faith in songs more than in the scripture...

  4. This is a beautiful account. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. There is great skill accruing all this work- thank you very much Ginsberg Project for bringing "peers and heroes" to us daily.

  6. El arte trascendente surge en medio de miserias humanas. Que patente es aquí el entre juego de los egos; como se tensan irónicos a la defensiva. Como molesta la petulancia intelectual, como algo totalmente prescindible. Que bueno que la edad pule como a las piedras el rio.

  7. I absolutely loved this riveting account of this meeting between these two genius poets, Dylan and Ginsberg.