Dylan by A. Fortier
Portrait  by  A. Fortier


by Michael Crimmins

Last Thoughts on “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”

Losses of creativity, inspiration, disappointment, disillusionment, failure to truth, artistic uncertainty, fear of scrutiny and rejection, suspicion of praise. The need to find something special, the need for a solid rock! The need to develop that brave intelligence capable of rejecting materialism, with the knowledge of life’s falseness. To realize that our heroes are not our saviours. If one can have an awareness of all the aforementioned, then this surely would be the awareness brought about by experience. Voiced perhaps by some wise old sage. Amazingly this awareness sprang from the pen of one not yet twenty two years old, in the form of “Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie”. Bob Dylan very bravely chose to wind up his first major New York concert at the town hall on April 12th 1963 with an eight minute poetry recital.

In last month's Freewheelin’ I blathered on about “Dylan’s inner struggle” in relation to his 1964 ‘Halloween’ concert, and as to how I perceived him to be almost, although his performance were beyond excellence, embarrassed by his own songs. “Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie” is a poem sure enough, but it is much more than that. In the light of Dylan’s brilliant career in song writing and performance, I see the poem as an avowal to be true to his muse. I see it like that now with the knowledge of that wondrous thing that we call hindsight, but the absolutely amazing thing is that he saw it then!

In this, Dylan’s first major concert performance, he seems to know instinctively of his own success, that his destiny, and up to a point ours, are of his own making. “Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie” foreshadows his eventual Christian conversion, and states categorically that there are only two roads in life, only two choices. It says farewell to the Guthrie imitator acknowledges the arrival of the likes of P.F. Sloan and knows that to walk in a straight line while being faithful to oneself is the way to enlightenment. How many people have called Dylan a genius? Well he knows his onions, is all I can say! The poem also goes a long way to explain certain Dylan actions down the years. For example after the conclusion of the English tour in 1965, Dylan announced his “I quit” decision. We now know the reason behind this, and also for his quick reversal of that decision .To my mind the tour, though a huge success, was a fall from grace in Dylan’s eyes, and one which he compounded intentionally and with irony in the title of D.A. Penebaker’s documentary film ‘Don’t Look Back’. Though Dylan’s performances of this time in 1965, would have been thoroughly satisfying to a member of the audience, and after all they should have been, the artist was giving more than an adequate account of himself, they were not great performances, his grasp of “that evenings empire” that he tells us of in song, in other words that something special from somewhere special was just beyond him.

The restlessness that makes Bob Dylan such a great artist was beginning to show the previous October of 1964 with his hugely successful New York Philharmonic Hall appearance - still enough! If you are even slightly interested in my babblings about that performance, and if you haven’t already read them, you will have to do your own backtracking to last month's Freewheelin’. By the time Bob Dylan showcased his fabulous catalogue of songs in England in 1965, the fire, the drive to perform, the “one hand waving free” was missing. I don’t believe for one minute that Dylan ever doubted the worth of his material. He was, as we now know, becoming bored with the mode of delivery, he now wanted and needed something new (and not necessarily a band) to achieve full expression.

The outcome of 1965, with the success of the tour and five hit singles in Great Britain, will have been little consolation to Dylan, the same Dylan that was only a dawn away from “Like a Rolling Stone” and the breath taking charge of those 1966 performances, where he did indeed “Dance beneath the diamond sky”. Those achievements of 1965 would have been little consolation to Dylan, who knew and anticipated the pitfalls of any complacency. To Dylan who knew contentment is not a condition in which great art is usually created.

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl or life’s busy race
No matter what yer doing if you start givin’up
If the wine don’t come to the top of your cup
If the wind’s go you sideways with one hand holdin’on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood’s easy findin’ but yer too lazy to fetch it
And yer sidewalk starts curlin’ and the street gets too long
And you start walkin’ backwards though you know that it’s wrong….

It might seem totally ridiculous to some that I seem to be equating one of Dylan’s most successful periods with words like complacency. Of course I am not, Dylan has never been complacent. His greatest fear is boredom and thankfully he uses that fear as a constant springboard to new creativity. Dylan’s startling ability to deal with his own creative process, while furthering it’s cause, is nothing short of amazing. In ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’ he faces up to life’s challenges by challenging himself. It is a great work! Another instance of this is “Mr Tambourine Man” where Dylan faces his muse head on. The moment that he is at truth with himself “Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand, vanished from my hand, Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping” is the moment that he is without sin, in sublime creation, in other words, the moment of his confession is the moment of his reconciliation, this is spiritual stuff! Dylan is talking to no other than himself in “Mr Tambourine Man”. The moment Dylan found the words “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” was the moment that he was actually dancing under it, revelling in his creativity! Could that place beneath the hard imagery of a diamond sky be the very place where “that thin wild mercury music” first crystallized in Dylan’s brain? Listening to “Mr Tambourine Man” on “Bringing It all back home” this seems to me to be the pivotal moment, the quantum leap into the bright hard world of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and Dylan is an artist who lets his work speak for him. Little wonder that he is loathe to explain further what he has already laid out for us so eloquently. These are my thoughts linking what I consider to be some of Dylan’s best works. I get to thinking all sorts of crackpot stuff now and again, but generally there is no harm to me.

For information on Michael's band "Dylanesque", including a gigs guide, go to his website.