Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg’s America
“Dylan’s continuing link to the Beat generation, though, came chiefly through his friend and sometime mentor Allen Ginsberg. Dylan’s link with Ginsberg dated back to the end of 1963, a pivotal moment in the lives and careers of both men. Thereafter, in the mid-1960s, the two would complete important artistic transitions, each touched and supported by the other. On and off, their rapport lasted for decades. And in 1997, in New Brunswick, Canada, Dylan would dedicate a concert performance of “Desolation Row” to Ginsberg, his longtime comrade, telling the audience it was Allen’s favorite of his songs, on the evening after Ginsberg died.
As with Dylan’s connection to New York’s Popular Front folk-music world, his connection with the Beats had a complicated backstory. The origins of the Beat impulse, like those of the folk revival, dated back much further than the 1950s, let alone the 1960s, to the days of Dylan’s childhood in Duluth and Hibbing. For all the obvious differences between the Beats and the folk-music crowd—the Beats’ affinities were with the arts of Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake, and Charlie Parker, and not Anglo-American backwoods balladry—the Beat writers found themselves, early, locked in conflict with some of the same liberal critical circles around Partisan Review that decried, for different reasons, the folksy leftism of the Popular Front, including its high-or middlebrow version in Aaron Copland’s music. Out of that conflict emerged Beat artistic ideas that Dylan admired, remembered, and later seized upon when he moved beyond the folk revival. Even though Dylan invented himself within one current of musical populism that came out of the 1930s and 1940s, he escaped that current in the 1960s—without ever completely rejecting it—by embracing anew some of the spirit and imagery of the Beat generation’s entirely different rebellious disaffiliation and poetic transcendence. Dylan in turn would make an enormous difference to the surviving, transformed Beats, especially Ginsberg, each influencing the other while their admirers forged the counterculture that profoundly affected American life at the end of the twentieth century.
Dylan had given Ginsberg a gift of six hundred dollars, enough to purchase a state-of-the-art, portable Uher tape recorder. (Ginsberg, in gratitude, taped one of Dylan’s concerts in Berkeley, as well as approving members of the audience, to show Dylan that the hostility his new electric music had received from reviewers was undeserved. Rebutting charges that Dylan had sold out his fans, Ginsberg later remarked: “Dylan has sold out to God. That is to say, his command was to spread his beauty as widely as possible. It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox.”) Dylan also presented McClure with an Autoharp, on which the poet would soon be composing in what was, for him, an entirely new kind of sung verse.”
“Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg visited Kerouac’s grave, trailed by a reporter, a photographer, a film crew, and various others (including the young playwright Sam Shepard). Dylan had performed the night before at the University of Lowell, on a tour of New England with a thrown-together troupe of new friends and old, including Ginsberg, which called itself the Rolling Thunder Revue. Ginsberg, who became excited when the tour buses reached the city, met up with some of Kerouac’s relatives and drinking buddies and tried to immerse Dylan’s entourage in Kerouacian lore. Shepard, who had joined the troupe ostensibly to write the screenplay for a movie Dylan planned to make of the tour, duly recorded in his travel log the names of real-life Lowell sites described in the Duluoz Legend—Kerouac’s collective, Faulknerian name for the autobiographical novels, revolving around his fictional alter ego Jack Duluoz, that constituted the main body of his work. But at Edson Cemetery, Ginsberg recited not from Kerouac’s prose but from poetry out of Mexico City Blues, including “54th Chorus”— invoking specters, fatigue, mortality, Mexico, and John Steinbeck’s boxcar America, while he and Dylan contemplated Kerouac’s headstone. And when Dylan included footage of the event in the film he made in and about the Rolling Thunder tour, yet another complicated cultural circuit closed, linking Kerouac listening to Copland and watching Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1940 with the scene at Kerouac’s grave in Renaldo and Clara in 1977.”
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg – Jerry Aronson