- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine

by Bob Fletcher


Travel, it is said, broadens ones horizons. Alarmingly, it also costs a lot of money and adds a high number of miles to an already beleaguered engine. Like many of my fellow Freewheelin’ contributors I have recently returned from a break. Whilst away I spent time with Dewey Fontain and Ducky Braxton (of whom, more later). I also took the chance to listen to much of the music I have been meaning to. This, of course, meant a decision to leave Bob at home (well that was the aim). My best intentions however remained just that. As previously noted, I am not the best sailor in the world. In order to counteract bitter memories of crossing the Irish sea in a force nine gale I have since convinced myself that a combination of Sea Legs, Valium, and Blood on the Tracks will ease my passage. Or Desire, or maybe a couple of my favourite bootlegs. 

As with many things, fear remains a terrifying adversary whilst unchallenged. The most recent was my third crossing to France and despite my determination to catastrophise the journey, it was actually very enjoyable. Therefore, the medication remained unused and Bob fell silent. Which left me with the problem of knowing he was around whilst reminding myself that I was committed to an aural exploration. To encourage me further I had taken, as my holiday paperback, Brian Hinton’s ‘Country Roads: How Country Came To Nashville’. Although I only managed about 100 pages (it is not an easy read but it is thoroughly enjoyable and very illuminating) I found myself searching for some of the music related to the text (not easy in the middle of the Loire valley). By a very strange coincidence I discovered that I had packed some for the journey so I went back to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and the Carter Family with a smug enthusiasm and, I might add, a psychopathic determination to work my way through the Harry Smith anthology. I also discovered the probable source of the term ‘hillbilly’. Furthermore, I found myself thinking about CP Lee (not necessarily something that encourages tranquillity). In 1993, at the John Green Convention, CP shared his thoughts on the origins of Dylan’s decision to re-record parts of Freewheelin’, suggesting that Dylan’s first visit to England inspired the change (which was, in effect, a move from ‘American’ music to a more globally influenced sound). With this in mind I would recommend the book to Mr Lee, safe in the knowledge that if he enjoys it, no doubt the rest of us will benefit at some point in the future should he decide to include further observations on Cecil Sharp during one of his streams of consciousness. 

It was with a sense of melancholy that I returned to England (I find the night prior to departure particularly difficult, quite possibly due to the fact that anxieties related to crossing the channel resurface and days spent discovering myself inevitably become distant memories). Stress knocks at the door and the madness of a White Anglo-Saxon Work Ethic seems to undo everything I have fought so hard to switch off from. Of most importance the wife I have fallen so helplessly in love with again over the last two weeks is lost, once again, in the reality of everyday survival. 

As I had hoped, Freewheelin’ (226) awaited me. Mark Carter’s emotional turmoil and, more importantly, his underlying unhappiness took me by surprise. Sadly I cannot help Mark through this. As he rightly points out, he will have to make the decision on his own. All I can offer are the following thoughts: ‘Father and Son’ as sung by Johnny Cash perfectly captures a performing artist nearing the end (as, in fact, does much of ‘Unearthed’). However, his voice retains such warmth and passion that the song in itself becomes secondary and his failure to attain the note he is searching for is of little importance. Think back to 1993 Mark. The shows at Hammersmith saw fans leaving and vowing never to see a Dylan show again. Clinton Heylin conceded that Dylan’s voice was ‘going’ but added that “There are still moments in his shows that no-one else can touch……In many ways, his vocal problems make his command of phrasing more miraculous than it was when he was at his peak. But the price you pay is consistency”. 

Peter Doggett, author of the brilliant ‘Are You ready For The Country’ reviewed four of the six nights for Record Collector noting that “Dylan’s live performances are as much a quest for inspiration for him as they are for his audience. We want him to achieve it; he wants to achieve it. But like anything that rests on being inspired, rather than manufactured, sometimes it just doesn’t happen……Dylan is no longer interested in competence: he needs magic. And at times, even in the direst show, he finds it…..Dylan is one of the few people prepared to dirty his hands in search of the moment which transcends everything”. 

I agree with you Mark, there is so much music to listen to and much of it is worth the time invested. But it shouldn’t be seen as a competition. By listening to Johnny Cash (or for that matter, in no order of merit, Lucinda Williams, Carole King, The Handsome Family, Lambchop, Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Soloman Burke, and Mahalia Jackson) it does not mean that I have to dispense with Dylan. Conversely, if I am listening to Dylan it doesn’t mean that I am somehow missing out on the others. They go hand in hand and each undoubtedly owes a debt of sorts to one or more of the others. 

Besides Mark, old age comes to us all. And with old age things change. So celebrate, in the words of Aidan day, the fact that “At the heart of his work are the discrepancies between the conscious, socialized self, born of language, and those potencies of personality that lie outside rational formulation. For Dylan, identity is multiform and bizarre, resisting attempts to resolve the disjunction between conscious and unconscious dimensions of mind or to distinguish absolutely between light and dark forces in the personality”. Ronan Keeting can’t do that. 

As I am wont to do, I have digressed. 

Before we left for France I was talking with Gavin who recently took a three-month, novel completing sabbatical (he, like me, currently works with a Drug and Alcohol Service). We were colleagues for a while until two ill feted relationships turned sour and he decided to leave (‘I’m gonna get my coat, I feel the breath of a storm’). We talked about many things including writing whilst the senses are disordered and agreed that ultimately it is an insightful, productive, and highly enjoyable experience (however Verlaine and Rimbaud we are not). Following our conversation I met John, a fascinating man, who trusted me enough to tell me his story.  It involved a painful journey accompanied by a succession of illicit substances (Heroin at 13, LSD and Amphetamines at 15, Crack Cocaine at 17). Sadly, there was a moment when I drifted and found myself thinking, (god help us all), ‘that reminds me of Dylan’. It’s happening more often. I converse with people but seem somehow dislocated. Frighteningly I am able to add a line from a Dylan song to the end of their sentences. They aren’t aware that I’m doing it, as I don’t voice my thoughts. Well, most of the time anyway. 

In 1971 Bob Shelton met with Dylan and during the conversation asked if he would like to comment on drugs. Dylan replied “What sort of drugs? I never had anything to do with glamourising the drug thing. That was the beat thing, not me….. But you have to realise that junk is not the problem in and of itself. Junk is the symptom, not the problem…..” In the context of the Beats, and in particular William Burroughs (author of ‘Junkie’) it is nigh on impossible not to conclude that, when referring to junk, Dylan was alluding to Heroin.  He has never attempted to hide his love of, or debt to, the beats poets. Understandably however, Dylan has yet to confess to a history of problematic substance use. According to some, the two remained inextricably linked. 

During 1976 author Sam Kashner became the first pupil at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and recalls having to finish Ginsberg’s poems as homework and baby sit Burroughs’ ‘drug addled’ son. He notes that “Buddhists, Bob Dylan and various mysterious hippie women float about, more interested in sex and narcotics than literature”. (Such behaviour holds no surprises for me - Dylan follows his muse wherever it leads him). Interestingly, narcotics and literature have been willing bedfellows since the very beginning. Martin Booth (Opium: a history) notes that “Around 3400 BC, the opium poppy was being cultivated in the Tigris-Euphrates river systems of lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians, the world’s first civilisation and agriculturists, used the ideograms hul and gil for the poppy – this translating as the ‘joy plant’. Their invention of writing spread gradually to other societies and it is from them the Egyptians probably learnt the skill: it follows they may also have learnt of opium. It may be reasoned, therefore, that the Sumerians not only gave humankind literacy, but one of its greatest problems”. 

Like the Sumerians it seems that Bob Dylan, in whichever guise he appears, has been subject to interpretation since the dawn of civilisation. It follows, therefore, that his lyrics have been scrutinised. I am as guilty of misinterpretation as the next person and for that reason I have ceased searching. 

Scott Waldman (PopMatters Music Review) apparently hasn’t: “Now ‘Visions of Johanna’, that was a drug song…..Was Johanna really blood and freshly cooked heroin mixing in a needle and then flowing in a vein? Was this what salvation was like after a while……..” John Leonard (New York Review of Books) introduces the theory that “I Want You from Blonde on Blonde was about heroin rather than a woman”. 

John Metzger (when reviewing Tim Riley’s Hard Rain) suggests that, according to Riley, “the ‘rain’ that Louise holds out in the third line is double talk for heroin……the first verse describes a drug den”. By the time the listener encounters the final verse “the protagonist is now ‘the peddler’…who fesses up to his dependency whilst defending it (everybody is parasitic he says). Louise…. mocks the protagonists innocence toward either sex or the next fix, or both”. And herein lies the paradox. I have yet to meet an innocent opiate dependent client. Most have had to work hard to achieve physical dependence as it is not something which develops after a few doses. Users, of course, vary considerably in their vulnerability but 2-3 weeks of daily use (increasing in volume as tolerance levels rise) will usually be needed. The usual pattern, and I apologise if I am destroying the myth, is of intermittent use over a period of months. Oh, and dependent users aren’t very interested in pursuing things of a carnal nature. Hormones controlling the sex drive function at a greatly reduced level, blood pressure falls, the gut relaxes, muscles loosen, and the sphincter tightens. In short, the organism slows up and a state akin to hibernation ensues. 

Metzger also cites the author of ‘Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan’ noting the following “Gray ……holds that if the ‘rain’ of verse one is indeed heroin, Louise’s gesture in ‘temptin’ you to defy it seems positive. But holding out a handful of heroin and tempting the addict (sic) to resist can hardly be called a ‘positive’ image. It’s almost like Dylan set out to write the darkest, most dissuasive ode to drug use imaginable, and then cloaked it in relationship metaphors”. 

In the spirit of conjecture (because ultimately the only person able to inform us of his meaning is Dylan) I set myself a task. Would it be possible to analyse something written about Dylan and speculate on the hidden meaning. Of course it would. Because (mis)interpretation knows no bounds. By taking Ginsberg’s poem ‘Blue Gossip’ (First Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium songs, 1971-74) I could argue that “I guess he got sick of having to get up and get scared of being shot down” refers to Dylan’s drug use: ‘up’ indicates methadrine, a stimulant, whilst ‘down’ suggests heroin, an opiate. ‘Shot’ speaks for itself, particularly as Dylan later uses the word in the context of medicinal use (‘Don’t need a shot of heroin to cure my disease’) and we know, don’t we, that stimulant and opiate users get ‘sick’ at some point during their using career. In the same stanza Ginsberg dispenses (a pharmaceutical pun) with metaphor and becomes specific, describing Dylan as a ‘methadrine clown’. 

(Those of a psychiatric bent will now have ‘hears Dylan’s lyrics whilst talking to others’ and ‘substance induced thought disorder’ as evidence of my decline or misplaced experimentation). 

It is highly probable that Bob Dylan and the Band used copious amounts of prescribed and non-prescribed pharmaceuticals throughout the 1960’s. During the 1965 leg of the tour the Hawks stayed in a property christened the Castle. By all accounts things were strange and, if Dylan had his way, they were about to get stranger still. Sandy Konikoff, quoted in Down The Highway, recalls Dylan wanting “to rent an elephant from a zoo”. Apparently Dylan intended to play the acoustic part of the concert with the elephant on stage. According to Konikoff “ he would just say to the elephant: ‘Give me a C harp’, and the elephant would reach out to the stool with his trunk and hand it to him. I tell you man, I thought that was just incredible”. A mind at the peak of its powers or a hallucinogenically fuelled brilliant idea? If further evidence were needed of Dylan’s experimentation it is worth noting that apparently the Eat The Document footage, featuring John ‘I never asked for your crutch, Now don’t ask for mine’ Lennon and the interior of a car was filmed on the day of the Royal Albert Hall concert, whence the ‘this is not a drug song’ communiqué comes. But it is important to remember that, with all substance induced episodes, 10% is pharmacology and 90% is psychology. Therefore, if Dylan believes himself to be spaced out he will ultimately appear so. Whilst we are on the subject, think back to the nervous giggles he used to throw into his early performances. They were a very useful tool when winning over an unenthusiastic audience. The same giggles appear when he is apparently stoned. Therefore, was he stoned from the beginning or has he always been a good showman. 

But a sense of perspective is required. During the 60’s everyone and his dog was using something. 

It is also possible that when reconvening in 1974 Dylan and The Band played music together in sobriety. It is inevitable that they got bored and used copious amounts of prescribed and non-prescribed pharmaceuticals. John Leonard (ibid) suggests that during the 1970’s experimentation was ongoing, noting that during filming of The Last Waltz “they even had a backstage snorting room, painted white and decorated with noses cut out of Groucho Marx masks, with a tape of sniffing noises”. This shouldn’t be seen in isolation. Substance use is akin to travelling the world: it is possible to keep on going until the six continents have been visited. 

Whilst musicians and performers are not above conjecture it would seem that those associated with Dylan during the 60’s ought to be the most reliable source regarding his drug use. Phil Ochs (singer-songwriter and Greenwich Village contemporary) initially held Dylan in high regard. When commenting on Highway 61 Revisited Ochs asked “How can a human mind do this?” He was equally erudite when remarking on Dylan’s 65/66 world tour, suggesting that Bob was “LSD on stage”. Without being a privileged member of the backstage entourage I suspect Ochs would have little evidence to support such a charge. Dylan may have appeared as quoted but he certainly wasn’t beyond a little performance to enhance proceedings. Levon Helm, when recalling the Hollywood Bowl concert, suggests that the audience were, in fact, quite friendly. He also records Dylan’s response: “I wish they had booed…..It’s good publicity. Sells tickets. Let ‘em boo all they want”. 

Such responses, and indeed behaviour, hardly fall into the categories, as laid out by the Canadian Government’s LeDain Commission report, which, when related to heavy LSD use, can occur ‘in varying degrees, in sequence or simultaneously’ and are, in fact, termed as the opposite of psychosis, namely: the psychotic adverse reaction, the non-psychotic adverse reaction, the psychodynamic psychedelic experience, the cognitive psychedelic experience, the aesthetic psychedelic experience or, finally, the transcendental or mystical. Mind you, I would highly recommend Peter Higginson’s The Psychosis of Dreams (Isis Anthology) to those who suspect Dylan may have over egged the soufflé during his experimental phase. 

Loudon Wainwright, another unfortunate burdened with the ‘new Dylan’ label, described Blonde on Blonde as an album which has “a speedy feel to it, it has a cocaine feel to it to be honest. It feels that kind of brittle….it’s not flowers and strawberry fields, yellow submarines, and diamonds in the sky – it’s gritty, dirty streets and being up for five days”. Interestingly, Dylan has added his own thoughts: “At the time of Blonde on Blonde I was going at a tremendous speed”. 

It wasn’t just Dylan who was speeding. Those in his wake were required to keep up. Homer in black leather was, quite possibly, the sexiest man on the planet, the personification of everything it was to be impossibly cool. 

Between 1964 and 1966 Bob Dylan was not without female company when the mood took him. I suppose the same is probably true today, however I suspect that of all the admirers willing to oblige his every whim none can be said to possess a mercury mouth, eyes where the moonlight swims, or a voice like chimes. (I state this with a world-weary acceptance of the ageing process; mine included, and an acknowledgement that it may appear spiteful. It is not meant to be). 

Dana Gillespie, a long-time friend of Dylan’s, remembers their days together with fondness. “He’s amusing, he’s spiritual. As for the promiscuity, at least he’s honest. Women prefer to be seduced by a brain than a bollock. Brains go a helluva long way”. 

Despite protestations that she didn’t understand his music; “Twing, twang, twing, twang, baybee: that’s how it went”, Nico went with Dylan to Greece where he allegedly wrote ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ for her. She remembers him as “…so charming. I had not quite met someone like him – assertive and delightful, and young. He did not treat me very seriously, but at least he was interested in my story….” (Intriguingly, whilst Nico claimed to have been the first to perform the aforementioned song in public it would appear that it was actually Judy Collins). 

Marianne Faithfull, when recalling Dylan in 1965 offers the following thoughts: “..on 26 April God himself checked into the Savoy Hotel….Dylan was, at that moment in time, nothing less than the hippest person on earth. The Zeitgeist streamed through him like electricity. He was my existential hero, the jangling Rimbaud of rock, and I wanted to meet him more than any other living being. I wasn’t simply a fan; I worshipped him”. And meet him she did. However, it didn’t quite have the happy ending she had hoped for. All three women, and many more besides, were acquainted with Dylan during one of his most creative periods. His use of mind-altering chemicals would not have shocked them. In fact I would go as far to say that it may well have been one of the reasons they were attracted to Dylan. 

With this in mind, Gillespie’s thoughts regarding Dylan’s use of illicit substances are of interest. She has suggested that the Bob Dylan she knew at that time was simply a manifestation of the various pharmaceuticals in his system. Therefore, Blonde on Blonde, depending on your viewpoint, can be seen as a homage to narcotics. Whilst acknowledging the fact that stimulants, amongst other things, featured heavily throughout the recording process, I prefer Andy Gill’s overview: “the truth was that Dylan had devised an entirely new mode of expression which took his primary poetic influences – the Symbolist poetry of Rimbaud and Verlaine, the folk vernacular of Guthrie and the immediacy of beat writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg – lashed them all to a driving rock beat and blasted the results into the minds of an entire generation”. Not even heroin can do that. 

By way of conclusion I am throwing caution to the wind and asking the following: Would I have found the 1965/66 incarnation sexy? In truth, no (well maybe a little bit). Would I have been in awe of Dylan? Undoubtedly, very very undoubtedly. (In fact, and with Mark’s dilemma in mind, I confess to still being in awe. For the following reasons: Tambourine Man - Prague 1995, Don’t Think Twice - Woodstock 1994, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, and Hard Rain - Zurich 2002). And Mark, I just know that you are not really one of those who agree with the notion that all recent Dylan performances have been reduced to impotent versions of their former selves, redeemed only by the occasional highlight when Bob really puts his heart into it, giving a rendition that sounds just like the original. 

Enjoy the break Mark and trust me on this: Brixton 2003 was absolutely stunning. 

So my friends, if you got ‘em, smoke ‘em and, in the words of Harry Shapiro, “claims that all references to ‘railways’ and ‘tracks’ and capitalised H’s on lyric sheets demonstrate that Dylan was a heroin addict or that Blowin’ in the Wind’ was secretly a song about the wonders of cocaine are probably best left in the more extreme realms of Dylanology”.