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It Was 60 Years Ago Today, Side Two: Dylan

Updated: Apr 3

The purpose of art is to stop time.

— Bob Dylan

Earl Fowler

Like Please Please Me, which showcases Angus McBean’s classic photo of the Beatles staring down a stairwell at EMI’s London headquarters in Manchester Square, the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is a cultural marker instantly recognized by millions in my g-g-g-g-generation. It was snapped by CBS staff photographer Don Hunstein as Dylan and then girlfriend Suze Rotolo strolled arm in arm down Jones Street in New York’s West Village in February of 1963, the month the Please Please Me cover was also shot.

(An unused photo from the Please Please Me photo shoot was used, along with a 1969 re-creation by McBean and the lads, for the 1973 Beatles retrospective albums, 1962-1966 and 1967-70.)

Rotolo, an activist and artist whose parents were members of the American Communist Party, helped twig Dylan to the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements that feature in his early songs. Leaning in toward her in the photo, the 21-year-old wunderkind was obviously putting on his best James Dean. New York Times film and literary critic Janet Maslin aptly described the cover as “a photograph that inspired countless young men to hunch their shoulders, look distant, and let the girl do the clinging.”

It certainly inspired rock journalist turned director Cameron Crowe to recreate it for his 2001 sci-fi thriller Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz. Todd Haynes did the same in his Dylan biopic I’m Not There six years later, and you’ll also find a clever nod to it in the Coen Brother’s under-appreciated 2013 — um, what to call it — period-musical drama-black comedy Inside Llewyn Davis, a breakthrough role for Oscar Isaac.

Image isn’t everything, Andre Agassi notwithstanding, but it does matter. And the point is that like the Beatles, Dylan quickly found himself at the centre of a cottage industry of photographs, films and biographies ranging from idolatrous to scandalously thin.

For my money, the best of the bios was the scholarly 2010 effort Bob Dylan in America by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, whose family owned the progressive, Beat-promoting 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village when he was growing up in the 1950s and early sixties.

The book offers a more comprehensive guide to Aaron Copland’s America and the direct influence of the Beat Generation on the young Bobby Zimmerman’s development than you’ll find in any of Dylan’s books — the stream-of-consciousness Tarantula, the scintillating memoir Chronicles: Volume One or last year’s scattershot, sentimental-old-fart-at-a-bar-reminiscing, one-more-hit-of-hash pipe-’fore-I-go music-appreciation course that is The Philosophy of Modern Song.

To the valley below.

Wilentz, who was 12 when Freewheelin’ came out, remembers the cover as being “more arousing than anything I’d glimpsed in furtive schoolboy copies of Playboy.”

(Easy, tiger. Just wait till he feasts those randy eyeballs on the cover of 1965’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights album by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.)

Sometime late in 1963, in Wilentz’s uncle’s apartment above the the bookstore, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, then 37, first laid equally concupiscent eyeballs on Dylan, then 22 and already being hailed as the Voice of a Generation, a title he never sought and grew to loathe. (“The press never let up,” Dylan complains in Chronicles. “Once in a while I would have to rise up and offer myself for an interview so they wouldn’t beat the door down. Later an article would hit the streets with the headline Spokesman Denies That He’s A Spokesman. I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.”)

According to Al Aronowitz, a rock journalist who was at that fateful meeting in Wilentz’s uncle’s apartment and was best known for introducing Dylan to the Beatles the next year, Ginsberg came on to Dylan sexually and was gently rebuffed. The two remained friends and sometime collaborators until Ginsberg’s death at age 70 in 1997.

Wilentz picks up the story: “Weeks earlier, at a party in Bolinas, California, Ginsberg, on his way back to New York from India, had heard Dylan on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan singing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” — and, he later said, wept with illuminated joy at what he sensed was a passing of the bohemian tradition to a younger generation.”

While the Beatles at this point were churning out silly love songs, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” — employing a lyrical structure modelled after traditional question-and-answer ballads and filled with symbolist imagery à la Arthur Rimbaud — is about suffering, pollution and warfare.

Former Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff quoted Dylan in his liner notes for Freewheelin’ as saying he wrote the song on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and it certainly evokes the spectre of nuclear war with its eerie refrain:

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

But the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature winner has pushed back on that interpretation through the years, and offers a broader explanation in Chronicles: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”

Whatever it was, it was genius. As are pretty much all of the songs on Freewheelin’, whose 11 original compositions (out of 13 on the record) include Blowin’ in the Wind (turned by Peter, Paul and Mary into a sweeping sixties anthem), “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, “Girl from the North Country”, “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and “Masters of War.”

If there is a contemporary album more relevant to the current mess in which we find ourselves — a black branch with blood that keeps dripping — I certainly haven’t heard of it. Dylan even anticipates the internet in “Hard Rain”: “I saw 10,000 talkers whose tongues were all broken.”

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is by no means his best work. The Times They are a-Changin’ would come out in February 1964, with a title track that encapsulates the social upheaval that characterized the decade better than anything else I can think of.

That August, almost a full year before the infamous Newport Folk Festival show where he went electric to a chorus of shouts, boos and rumours of an axe-wielding Pete Seeger determined to cut power lines, Another Side of Bob Dylan marked an artistic breakthrough and discomBobulated folkies with its deviation from the socially conscious style of the earlier records.

Wilentz has it exactly right, I think:

In their finished form, the album’s simpler songs of love and anti-love — sung to the cracked-lipped Ramona, to the gypsy fortune-teller of Spanish Harlem, and about the unnamed watery-mouthed lover who turns him into a one-night stand — shows an inventiveness in language, narration, and characters far more sophisticated than anything on Freewheelin’.

Using ideas as our maps but with no direction home, we could debate the rest of Dylan’s uneven and unbelievably extensive discography with half-wracked prejudice leaping forth ad nauseam. In such discussions, I generally start out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff. “Rip down all hate!” I scream, just before someone smokes my eyelids and punches my cigarette.

But to return to the spring of 1963: Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was actually his second studio album. Based on the reception of his first, the self-titled Bob Dylan released on March 19, 1962, which failed to hit the U.S. charts and sold only 2,500 copies, Columbia executives didn’t have high hopes for the second effort by the man initially derided in record company circles as “Hammond’s Folly.”

That would be John Hammond, the producer and civil rights activist then working as a Columbia talent scout, who had signed him to a record contract. Having discovered and promoted, as Dylan writes in his Chronicles, “monumental artists, imposing figures in the history of recorded music — Billie Holliday, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton,” Hammond knew a thing or two about his trade.

Bob Dylan is mostly an album of folk standards, but one of its two original recordings hinted at the greatness to come: his touching ode to Woody Guthrie, “Song to Woody.” Even that one, though, makes use of an existing melody from Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.”

Neither Hammond nor anyone else could have foreseen the massive impact of Freewheelin’, which was recorded over eight sessions at Columbia Record Studio A from April 1962 through April 1963.

While I grow back some eyelids and roll another number for the road (thanks Neil), let’s dip into the Wikipedia entry about the LP. I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more:

The album secured for Dylan an “unstoppable cult following” of fans who preferred the harshness of his performances to the softer cover versions released by other singers. (Music journalist) Richard Williams has suggested that the richness of the imagery in Freewheelin’ transformed Dylan into a key performer for a burgeoning college audience hungry for a new cultural complexity: “For students whose exam courses included Eliot and Yeats, here was something that flattered their expanding intellect while appealing to the teenage rebel in their early-sixties souls. James Dean had walked around reading James Joyce; here were both in a single package, the words and the attitude set to music.”

(English musician and record producer) Andy Gill adds that in the few months between the release of Freewheelin’ in May 1963, and Dylan's next album The Times They Are A-Changin’ in January 1964, Dylan became the hottest property in American music, stretching the boundaries of what had been previously viewed as a collegiate folk music audience.

Critical opinion about Freewheelin' has been consistently favourable in the years since its release. Dylan biographer Howard Sounes called it “Bob Dylan's first great album.” In a survey of Dylan's work published by Q magazine in 2000, the Freewheelin' album was described as “easily the best of (Dylan’s) acoustic albums and a quantum leap from his debut —which shows the frantic pace at which Dylan’s mind was moving.” The magazine went on to comment, “You can see why this album got The Beatles listening. The songs at its core must have sounded like communiqués from another plane.”

OK, I’m back now, and that last point is certainly true. The book released as part of the Beatles Anthology retrospective project in 2000 includes this quote from John Lennon: “In Paris in 1964 was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all. Paul got the record (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) from a French DJ. For three weeks in Paris we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.”

The album transformed the group’s approach to songwriting. Goodbye “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Hello “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “A Day in the Life.” Hello, goodbye.

The flamboyant andrew loog oldham, who managed the Rolling Stones in the mid-sixties and has never been big on capital letters (talk about a NEVER TRUMPER), describes that period thus in his liner notes to the soundtrack released to accompany Martin Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan documentary No Direction Home:

in england and france, better known as europe, there was dylan before there were beatles and stones. and just as the beatles were taking america and the stones were standing in the wings faking it, “freewheelin” was cracking the UK top 20 and dylan already knew how many holes it took in filling the festival hall. c’mon, cor blimey, england may have been swinging but dylan took us over with words. this was above cult, this was mass status, a strange merging of the two worlds of fame allowed in europe, but as apart in the US as two versions of the same song by fats domino/little richard and pat boone,

so the beatles kicked in america with “i want to hold your hand”; a year and some change later the stones got the job done with “satisfaction,” then mr. z. changed all that with “like a rolling stone” … brilliant nerve was what it was, check mate was the name of the game. dylan made us better and our world grew up to every competitive word.

Despite the critical acclaim, Freewheelin’ never threatened to dislodge the Beatles and other pop groups from the summit of the American charts, topping out at No. 22 in the U.S. (eventually going platinum, with more than a million sales). It took longer to catch on in British record stores but soared to No. 1 for a stretch in 1965.

In 2002, the U.S. Library of Congress included Freewheelin’ among the first 50 recordings added to the National Recording Registry. The next year, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at No. 97 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

The magazine downgraded it to No. 255 in a revised list in 2020, but that’s because the young punks voting today don’t have the institutional memory of we walking antiques, who can turn back the clocks to when God and her were born. Oh what didn’t you see, my darling young ones?

Listen. Sometimes I think Peter Lorre’s character had it right in the 1953 John Huston adventure comedy Beat the Devil: “What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.”

Just because we g-g-g-got around, 60 years have vanished from right under our noses since the day the musical universe changed. Dylan riffs on this in his discussion of “My Generation,” the Who’s sneering, stammering, anthemic 1965 declaration of youthful defiance, in The Philosophy of Modern Song:

You’re looking down your nose at society and you have no use for it. You’re hoping to croak before senility sets in. You don’t want to be ancient and decrepit, no thank you. I’ll kick the bucket before that happens. You’re looking at the world mortified by the hopelessness of it all.

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. You say why don’t you all just fade away. You’re in your second childhood, can’t get a word out without stumbling and dribbling. You haven’t any aspirations to live in a fool’s paradise, you’re not looking forward to that, and you’ve got your fingers crossed that you don’t. Knock on wood. You’ll give up the ghost first.

We hoped we’d die before we got old, then waited too long. Whoo-ee, we’re gonna fly, down in the easy chair. I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still.

We also know that due to the usual human, all too human mixture of greed, sloth, self-destructive intoxication and sheer stupidity, the optimism of the mid-sixties had largely given way to despair as the seventies arrived. We started into dealing with slaves and something inside of us died. Altamont. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. Have you heard about the so-called hippies down on the far side of the tracks?

We were looking at Mother Nature on the run half a century ago. In 2023, it’s the other way around. As the Guess Who foresaw even in the seventies, it’s the new splendid lady come to call. It’s the new Mother Nature taking over. She’s gettin’ us all. She’s gettin’ us all.

And somebody spoke and I went into a hard rain:

We’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

We’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

We’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

Moreover, with the help of Big Brother and the Data-Holding Companies, the Blue Meanies and the Masters of War are more entrenched than ever here in Pepperland. The plastic revolutionaries have taken the money and run. They’re selling postcards of the hanging. They’re painting the passports brown.

Something is happening here but we’re not sure what it is, are we, Mr. Jones? We have wound up peeking through a keyhole down upon our knees. Let us not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?

On my good days, though, taking what I have gathered from coincidence, I’d still say that Lorre’s Beat the Devil character got it backward. That unless you’re really really sick or horrible things have happened to you, time is a jet plane; it moves too fast. That he not busy being born is busy dying.

It’s getting there, sure, but it’s not dark yet. There must be some way out of here, as a joker once said to a thief — a crook called time. And indeed there is. Yes, I believe it can be easily done. Just take everything down to Highway 61.

At the grand old age of 81, even as he’s knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door, living legend Bob Dylan — as poet-critic Dan Chiasson observes in “Road Maps for the Soul,” a review of The Philosophy of Modern Song last December in The New York Review of Books — is being wheeled around not by nurses in an assisted-living facility …

… but by buses, as he moves from town to town and continent to continent on his Never Ending Tour, which most observers date to 1988. He marked his three thousandth performance in 2019. That’s a hundred shows or so a year, going back thirty years. After a hiatus during Covid, Dylan is on the road again in support of his 2020 release Rough and Rowdy Ways, booked into at least 2024, when he will be eighty-three. “This song has a philosophical point of view,” Dylan writes in his chapter on Billy Joe Shaver’s “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me”: “Keep moving, it’s better, let the train keep on rolling. It’s better than drinking and crying in your beer. Let’s go. Let’s go forever. Let’s go till the glacial age returns.”

The two surviving Beatles, McCartney and Starr, have embraced the same philosophy and stayed just as busy with new songs and tours and sundry other pursuits. From June 28-Oct. 1 at London’s National Portrait Gallery, Paul, who will turn 81 in June, will be exhibiting photographs he took documenting the Beatles’ 1963-64 travels. Ringo will turn 83 in July, a month after wrapping his latest All-Starr Band tour along the U.S. West Coast.

Any day now. Any day now, they shall be released. But in the meantime, take these broken Wings and learn to fly.

For the most part, we coulda done better and we should mind. Most of us just kinda wasted our precious time. Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last.

But don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’.

Let’s go till the guilty undertaker sighs. Till the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of all our faces. Blowin’ through the curtains in your room. Blowin’ through the flowers on your tomb.

I see our light come shining from the west down to the east.

Don’t think twice, it’s all right.

Oh, time is short and the days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies.

A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes.

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