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Dylan at 24, on Ginsberg’s typewriter.

Happy birthday to a great American poet. I wish I time for more than just providing a few links, but there will be no shortage of Dylan commentary today.

Here are a few Dylan-related things we’ve done over the last few years: A post noting the death of William Zantzinger; a pointer toward my thoughts on Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. I thought I had posted about the New York Times discussion in December 1965 of whether Dylan was America’s Public writer no. 1? [subs req], but I guess I never managed to.

Some stuff on the Web and around town in honor of this auspicious occasion: Rolling Stone has a bundle of goodies, including Rob Sheffield’s list of overlooked classics; HuffPo readers are compiling their favorite tunes as a digital birthday card; Radio Free Europe is playing Dylan in multiple languages; WBAI will air 23 hours of Dylan material, including rare recordings; Film Forum is screening two classic films this week.

Plenty more to be had out there. Do you have links to suggest? The song that’s stuck in my mind for this occasion is, perhaps, a little perverse, considering it comes from Born Again Bob. But it’s a gospel gem from an underappreciated album. Since Dylan’s literally not there when you look for his music on YouTube, I’ll use Christian Bale lip-synching to John Doe’s rendition:


Music Monday

I finally saw Scorsese’s No Direction Home last week. Picked up the incredible soundtrack, too. What took me so long on both counts? There’s no adequate explanation.

No time today to say much about the film or the music, either, other than that the clip below left me feeling like punk rock was born in 1966.

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When I first thought of teaching an intensive summer seminar on New York’s downtown scenes — which I just wrapped up last Friday — I planned only to teach the 1970s. Gearing up to write my 33 1/3 volume on Television’s Marquee Moon, I wanted to immerse myself in a broad range of materials from the period detailing a number of overlapping downtown arts scenes.

I quickly realized, though, that much of what I wanted to do with the 70s in class required some understanding of the area’s arts scenes in the 1960s, and so I decided to expand the timeframe to 1960-80. When the final reading list was drawn up, I’d reached back even further: I had a hunch that the work of some particular downtown arts pioneers who created seminal works in the 1950s — Allen Ginsberg and John Cage, especially — would become threads that would weave through the entire course.

Turns out I was right in both cases, but especially in Ginsberg’s. (Other people whose work proved to have lasting effects on the downtown scenes we discussed include O’Hara and Warhol.) Almost without fail, Ginsberg turned up in every day’s discussion over the course of our two weeks, either as a direct influence, a character, a mentor, or a commentator. His appearances ranged from the goofy parka-wearing, pot-smoking version of himself in Pull My Daisy to the author of Howl (which in turn authorized The Fugs’ memorable “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rock”) to the prophet wandering in the background of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back. Jonas Mekas captured him plotting with Barbara Rudin and other LES lefties in the 1960s (we watched the second reel of Walden) and as a fixture on the LES poetry scene he popped up in several of the pieces we read by our friend Daniel Kane. Ginsberg offered astute commentary on Dylan’s lyrics in a PBS documentary on the history of rock and roll. He provided a very memorable scene in Jim Carroll’s memoir Forced Entries, worked with — and claimed to deflower — the downtown composer and scene-crosser Arthur Russell, and befriended Patti Smith. He lived in the same building as both Russell and the members of Television. (Richard Hell still lives there.) In Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which was the very last thing, along with Smith’s Just Kids, that we considered for this course, we see Patti’s very emotional reading at a Ginsberg memorial; later in the film she chants the “Footnote to Howl,” offering all the evidence anyone should need that even Ginsberg’s most idiosyncratic work holds up under someone else’s voice.

I’m still trying to work out exactly what it was that made Ginsberg’s legacy so unique in the materials we discussed. Although I opted not to show it to the class, I privately viewed a late-1980s odd-ball documentary on East Side poetry, Maria Beatty’s Gang of Souls: A Generation of Beat Poets, in which nearly every poet interviewed, including younger writers and musicians such as Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, and Jim Carroll, singles out Ginsberg as the towering figure of twentieth-century New York writing. Cage’s influence on musicians and artists, by contrast, was subtle, almost imperceptible, though still very much in place. Perhaps Ginsberg seemed to matter because he offered such a clear model for how to make a scene and how to canonize one’s comrades. But he also seemed to matter because he was, quite simply, on the scene for so long, taking an interest in younger writers’ work (and more), offering advice, continuing to read in public. O’Hara mattered as an icon in his early death (and a pioneer of a poetics that clearly took hold among other New York School poets); O’Hara also drew young, aspiring poets to the city, but that hands-on influence was cut short. Warhol mattered as a media mastermind and behind-the-scenes manipulator. But Ginsberg just seemed to be there wherever we turned, presiding, prodding, provoking. In the history of late-twentieth-century New York writing it’s difficult, I’m finding, to come up with someone whose life and work had broader impact.

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ABC news and others reported over the weekend the death, at age 69, of William Zantzinger, whose caning to death of “poor Hattie Carroll,” an African-American barmaid, provoked one of Dylan’s most memorable protest songs, released on his 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Zantzinger served six months for manslaughter and paid a $500 fine for the crime. He was sentenced on the same day Martin Luther King led his famous march on Washington. He later went into real estate and became a notorious slumlord.

These and other details I gleaned from a Mother Jones essay by Ian Frazier a couple years back, which contains background on the crime, the criminal, and the song:

The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator’s name, omitting the t — perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasize the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the zs.
Zantzinger’s actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the
song lets on. Police arrested Zantzinger at the ball for disorderly
conduct — he was wildly drunk — and for assaults on hotel employees
not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing
at the time. When Hattie Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following
morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical
examiner reported that Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, an
enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on
her; and that she died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by stress
caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After
the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the
homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that,
and of assault, but not of murder.

The judges probably thought they were being reasonable. They
rejected defense claims that Hattie Carroll’s precarious health made it
impossible to say whether her death had been caused, or had simply
occurred naturally. The judges considered Zantzinger an “immature”
young man who got drunk and carried away, but they nevertheless held
him responsible for her death, saying that neither her medical history
nor his ignorance of it was an excuse. His cane, though merely a toy
one he got at a farm fair, they considered a weapon capable of assault.
They kept the sentence to only six months because (according to the New York Herald Tribune)
a longer one would have required that he serve it in state prison, and
they feared the enmity of the largely black prison population would
mean death for him. Zantzinger served his six months in the comparative
safety of the Washington County Jail. The judges also let him wait a
couple of weeks before beginning his sentence, so he could bring in his
tobacco crop. Such dispensations were not uncommon, apparently, for
offenders who had farms.

Peter Eisenstadt, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York State (to which I contributed several pieces on 1790s New Yorkers some years ago) has what I found to be a moving response to Zantzinger’s death over on his Greater New York blog. I’ll let him have the final word:

If “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is not
Dylan’s best song–it would probably get my vote–it is certainly (IMHO)
his greatest protest song, a genre that he would abandon, more or less,
not that long after writing it. His later work, as great as it is,
traded the directness of “Hattie Carroll” for a certain willful poetic
obscurity, and in place of the keen sense of the interaction of the
personal and the public in “Hattie Carroll”, offered instead a long
series of brilliant songs on Dylan’s private woes and obsessions. And
unlike some of his other protest songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or
“Masters of War,” “Hattie Carroll” is descriptive, not prescriptive,
just a ballad, telling a story.

“Hattie Carroll” came out about the same time as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem,
which added the endlessly debated phrase “the banality of evil” to our
language. Whatever else you want to say about William Zantzinger, he
was no Adolf Eichmann, and perhaps he better illuminates how an evil
social order is more built upon myriad acts of relatively banal crimes
than great horrors, and how the system of racial and class oppression
that is central to the events of Dylan’s song are less the product of
calculated evil, than selfishness and greediness defended through a
series of endless rationalizations.

And finally it is a song about
the sadness and sorrow that is at the heart of all human history, the
great men and deeds which are built upon the trough of meanness and
pettiness, the unfairness, and the inequalities of every social order.

All of us, have from time to time, tried to “philosophize disgrace and
criticize all fears,” look at the public face of evil calmly and
rationally, and try to understand and deal with it. At other times, all
one can do, as the song finally recommends, “Bury the rag deep in your
face, For now’s the time for your tears.” When my brother died last
year, suddenly and tragically, it is this song, above all others, that
I found myself singing to myself, again and again. I’m not sure why. It
certainly was a time for my tears. And by making sure that the crimes
of one relatively unimportant unsung man would be sung about forever,
Dylan has rendered us all a service. Those of us who spend our lives
writing about history, the lives of others, need to study, to analyze,
to put things in proportion. We also need to remember, from time to
time, to bury our faces in our handkerchiefs, and let the tears flow,
and flow, and flow.

Photo credit: AP/Getty

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That’s how Dylan describes New York (recalling his entry into the Greenwich Village scene in the early 60s) in the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles.

Dylan will, no doubt, be a major character when I get around to writing about the downtown scene in the 60s.

For now I have some thoughts on Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There over at The Great Whatsit. According to the account in the New York Times Magazine a couple weeks ago, Haynes gives the impression he had to leave New York in order to keep his career alive; you get some of that antagonism in the way he’s chosen to represent Dylan’s many lives.

Then again, the shot of Moondog from the opening credits makes you wonder — where else could a career like this one have taken off?

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