Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan – a critical comparison – Heathcote Amory

Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan – a critical comparison – Heathcote Amory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Post-Blog

It’s not often that you read a profoundly brilliant and
moving essay such as that by Heathcote Amory.  Musically Bob Dylan is one
of my favourite heroes but, as the essay below shows, he is also a deeply flawed
hero.   Dylan is accused of plagiarism,
not I think always fairly, given it is well known that he takes as his
inspiration many influences.  Folk music
has always been a progressive development resting on the output and memory of
previous generations.
However the accusation that he has sold out politically and
prostituted himself to commercial and right-wing political interests is spot
on.  His earlier support, which he never
disavowed, for the Jewish  Nazi Rabbi
Meir Kahane of the Kach party, was and is unforgiveable.  His playing in Israel and  his atrocious song Neighbourhood Bully on the
Infidels album, which portrayed Israel as the victim of bullying by its
neighbourhood, is racist nonsense. 
Perhaps the Lebanese, who saw 20,000 die and a further 100,000 wounded,
in addition to mass devastation in 1982, had also been guilty of this crime.
Dylan’s comparison between the poetic genius Dylan Thomas
and himself, the person who stole Thomas’s name, by suggesting that he had done
more for Dylan Thomas than the other way round, was as absurd as it was
offensive.  It was Dylan who had filched
Thomas’s poetry for his songs as well as his persona.  Given Dylan Thomas had died in 1953 it is
difficult to understand how he could have benefited from Dylan.  A combination of egomania and narcissism.
Tony Greenstein
Dylan Thomas ©Jeff Towns/DBC
As a
reward for my having learnt William Blake’s poem ‘Tyger, Tyger’ and for having
precociously recited it to him without stumbling, my father promised to take me
to hear Dylan Thomas reading at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I was
nine. “Your treat,” he said. “He’s a poet. He’s Welsh.”
He was in
the habit of taking me to things that he considered to be “improving” events
such as Emlyn Williams’ one-man show based on Charles’ Dickens’ public
readings; or to Shakespeare plays at the Old Vic, and from my earliest
childhood my father encouraged me to learn and recite poems.
At his
behest I was urged to learn a lot of Blake off by heart and most of Kipling’s
‘If’.  I learned one of W.S. Gilbert’s ‘Bab Ballads’ (the one about
cannibalism), Gray’s Elegy, W. E, Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and a few scraps from the
Welsh epic, The Mabinogion, of which my father had a fine copy with a gold
embossed cover.
He’d also
demand that I’d join him in reciting the seasonal, “It was Christmas Day in the
workhouse/the one day of the year/In came the workhouse master/his belly full
of beer…” as well as that lengthy music-hall standard ‘Albert and the Lion’, a
narrative poem that ends in tragedy thanks to a small boy at Blackpool Zoo
having been somewhat too curious about the Zoo’s star attraction, an elderly
lion called Wallace.
Henley’s
‘Invictus’ begins: ‘Out of the night that covers me, /Black as the Pit from
pole to pole, /I thank whatever gods may be /For my unconquerable soul.” And my
father would boom it out whenever he felt disheartened or blown off course and
he encouraged me to copy him, line by line.
My father
had a small study off the landing in our house and as I ran up and downstairs
I’d sometimes hear him regale himself with the poem as a tonic to bolster up
his spirits. ‘Black as the pit from pole to pole, I am the master of my fate.”
he’d roar with a thundering Welsh undulation, “I am the captain of my
soul.’  He seemed to feel that the poem was an indispensible remedy for
all spiritual ailments and he consequently insisted on my committing it to
memory.
“In the
fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud./Under the
bludgeonings of chance /My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
Henley’s
poem was essentially a high-minded precursor of that now ubiquitous and
mawkishly self-regarding song, ‘I did it my way’ but my father was passionate
about it and when I knew all the verses, he’d poultice them out of me on the
mystifying walks he took me  on; mystifying because when I asked, “Where
are we going?” his unvarying response would be, “There and back.”
With his
children he was largely silent save for this  enthusiasm for poetry. The
walks were conducted with his being entirely lost in thought except for
recitations of a poem by him or by me at his prodding.  He’d say, ‘Give us
the tiger,’  and so I’d do Blake’s ‘Tyger’ which, due to his insistence,
had been burning brightly in my mind since I was more or less out of a
high-chair.
My father
had been badly injured in a training exercise in the First World War and to him
poetry was a painkiller. “Poetry can stop you feeling ill,” he’d say simply.
England
in the late forties and early fifties was a world without television; a world
where visits to the cinema were a rarity and where the radio was a cumbersome
mahogany box with a forbidding grille: unfriendly, dusty and predominantly
silent due to its aggregation of valves overheating whereupon the whole
contraption would black out with a sorry ‘phut!’.  I associate childhood
radio with a distinctive smell of burning dust as much as with entertainment.
There was
a prevailing quiet if not gloom in those early post-war years. My father, born
in Queen Victoria’s reign, once persuaded me with dark whimsy that there was a
government institution called The Ministry of Silence which was capable of
meting out stern punishments to those who offended against its precepts. I half
believed him. Books, and particularly poems, were therefore the media of
choice, and an escape hatch.
William Ernest Henley
By
coincidence, my mother’s maiden name was Henley and it happened that William
Ernest Henley, the author of ‘Invictus’ was, in fact, a cousin at several
removes. Henley had come from Bristol and he’d had tuberculosis of the bone as
a child which resulted in one of his legs being amputated. He became a friend
of Robert Louis Stevenson and as such was thought to have been the inspiration
for Stevenson’s portrait of the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver.
 Judging
from a description of Henley by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s
imaginative leap hadn’t been too hard to make:
“… a
great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a   big red beard and a
crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever,   and with a laugh that rolled like
music; he had an   unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s
 feet”.
Stevenson
would later acknowledge the connection in a letter to Henley:
“I will
now make a confession: It was the sight of your   maimed strength and
masterfulness that begot Long   John Silver … the idea of the maimed man,
ruling and   dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”
Striking
as Henley’s verses were it was Henley’s piratical connection that caught my
imagination, rather more than Henley himself or indeed the poem which found
such favour with my father.
Although
Henley’s paean to self-mastery was popular as a fireside morale-booster,
Henley’s part in bringing Long John Silver into existence (albeit through a
childhood illness rather than through actual piracy) weighed with me much more.
It was like a feather in the genetic cap from which I derived a quiet glow,
believing it to bestow outsider, if not outlaw, status.
The
promised outing to see another poet – who also had what my father hinted was a
slightly outlaw-like reputation – took place on Saturday, 11th
August, 1951 in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Lecture Hall. It was part of a
Festival of Books that the Museum had been mounting in association with the
Festival of Britain.
My father
and I found our way to the front of the audience and we sat down directly
beneath a small, plump man with curly auburn hair, a raffish bow-tie, loud
checkered tweeds and a shining face who stood patiently behind a wooden lectern
a few feet above us.
I
remember that he seemed not to be able to hold himself still and he swayed
gently from side to side as if caught by a rough sea-breeze. I was almost
immediately below him. From my perspective, he was spasmodically hidden behind
a large pint glass of amber-colored liquid from where he would tantalizingly
slide in and out of view.
This
human metronome, seemingly set to some slow internal beat, shuffled his
slightly soggy handwritten papers and then, after a brief introduction from the
Museum’s Curator, Dylan Thomas sprang to life.
He pitched
into a series of unstoppable recitations. His eyes bulged and his voice
resonated, boomingly and rhythmically with a series of florid arias spilling
out of his diminutive frame (A phenomenon which was accompanied by misty sprays
of saliva that I remember my father found hard to forgive.)
Dylan was
so possessed that I thought he might go off like a bomb with his fizzing and
surging. I’d not seen anyone drunk before and he was clearly drunk but he was
also a phenomenon, as drunk on language as on alcohol. He was caught up by
great muscular waves of language – anthemic, torrential and spell-binding 
– whose meaning was lost on me but whose effect was hypnotic.
I’d been
to the Albert Hall once and I’d heard that building’s enormous organ with its
golden pipes that so dominate the Hall’s interior and I remember that I’d
compared Dylan Thomas’ voice to the sound of it when my father asked me
afterwards what I ‘d thought of Dylan’s performance.
I can
only recall one line from the reading with any certainty, “I see the boys of
summer in their ruin…” I particularly remembered it because my father would
repeat it over the years. Whenever it looked to him as if I was going off the
rails, he’d trot out this line, to my chagrin as he’d quite spoil it by giving
it a stern, judgmental almost taunting edge.
After
Thomas’ reading was over my father and I filed out of the auditorium and my
father brought me home, announcing to my mother, in a matter-of-fact fashion,
that “The boy was hypnotized” which was true. I still cherish a vivid, dreamy
sense of having been entranced. Rhapsodically entranced.
Evidently
I’d not kicked my feet in the air out of boredom once and so, to my father’s
relief, I’d needed no chastening, but instead I seem to have surrendered myself
to that great organ of a voice which Dylan possessed and I’d remained entirely
still throughout.  There’d been no microphone in the venue. It was just
Dylan’s voice from a few feet away.
It was
not a wholly Welsh voice. It was certainly Welsh in its impassioned soaring,
but it was a voice that had by now mutated into a highly stylized theatrical
projection housed within what’s called ‘Received Pronunciation’, or more
frequently ‘BBC English’.
Thomas
was certainly aware of his slightly managed magniloquence and he was happy to
milk it to maximum effect, whilst at the same time poking fun at himself:
deprecating what was something of an assumed, actor-ish persona with the
sobriquet,  “Lord Cut-Glass.”
My father
also apparently told my mother (my mother would later tell me) that although I
was “hypnotized” I couldn’t possibly have understood a word of what Dylan
Thomas had been “on about” since my father hadn’t understood much, if indeed
anything at all. He’d say gruffly, “none of it meant much to me.”
He was
aware that Dylan was in some way “modern” but I think that he may also have had
an uneasy feeling that his fellow Welshman was letting the side down by being,
as he clearly thought, quite so wilfully obscure. However my father’s
strictures were of no avail, the damage was done, and a potent seed was
planted.
Although
my father’s feelings about Thomas’ poetry were dismissive, it turned out that
he, in fact, possessed a copy of Thomas’ ‘Eighteen Poems’, a slim volume
published when Thomas was just 20, and after the reading my father, an avid
book-collector, gave it to me, taking some pride in his foresight, and I was
grateful as I could then start to familiarize myself with some of the poems
that I’d just heard Dylan perform.
“Should
lanterns shine this holy face caught in an octagon of unaccustomed light would
wither up…” was one of them. I didn’t pretend to understand it either, but
nonetheless I persuaded myself that, unlike my father, I knew what the lines
meant since they carried the sound of sense and also because, when I
read them aloud, I was able to relive that trance-like state in the Victoria
and Albert Museum.
The
reading in the Museum had been an entirely new kind of pleasure, different from
anything I’d previously experienced. It was even quite close to what would
later be described as ‘psychedelic’. Words, thanks to Dylan, were now things,
things that could affect your metabolism.  “Love the words,” Dylan
was to say to the cast of his play ‘Under Milk Wood’ when it was performed in
New York at the end of the decade:  “Love the words” and, when I
heard them as a child from Dylan Thomas himself, I certainly had.
Years
later I went to a lecture that Robert Graves gave at the Taylorian Institute in
Oxford, and afterwards (Thomas now having become an enduring affection) I asked
Graves what he thought of Thomas’ work. He looked down his nose  – a large
nose unevenly broken while playing Rugby into the impressive shape of a Roman
Emperor’s nose – and he said just one word: “The hwyl.
In that
almost untranslatable, portmanteau Welsh word, Graves had uttered the most
useful clue to Dylan: the hwyl, a word whose meaning can range from
spirit possession, to health, and also, very simply, to just ‘hello’,
As
Dylan’s Swansea friend, Leon Atkin, would explain to me years later, the
hwyl
(pronounced ‘Hoil’) was that ecstatic peroration which occurs at the
end of an old-fashioned Welsh sermon in order to stoke up an surge of
spirituality in dissenter congregations and Thomas, with his juicy, neo-pagan
psalms celebrating nature combined with a subversive politics, had the hwyl
in spades and he used it to great effect.
When I’d
grown up my mother would often tell people about the Victoria and Albert visit
as if this was the place where I’d contracted “the bug” – the bug which, by her
lights, had taught me to behave oddly and to be determined to earn no money and
thus be off the grid.
By her
lights the germ of what she regarded as a kind of euphoric fecklessness had
evidently been contracted in the Victoria and Albert Museum all those years ago
and she used it to explain to herself why I wouldn’t be going in for the church
as a priest as she’d not so secretly desired. She certainly never countenanced
the idea that poetry could be another kind of priestly vocation and, being
devout and quite strait-laced, viewed such a notion as being close to
blasphemy.
Major
events were few and far between in London in the late forties and fifties. The
city was a bleak wasteland. Every other block in the street in which we lived
was a bombsite, and the whole city was to remain a malingering bombsite for
years during my childhood whilst a bankrupt England paid off its war debt to
its wartime benefactor and now demanding creditor, America.
Highlights
were rare. There was the soaring and futuristic Skylon at the Festival of
Britain; there was the Big Dipper at Battersea Fun Fair; the Model Railway
Exhibition at the Horticultural Hall; Maskelyne and Devant’s Magic Show at the
Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street and the Crazy Gang at the Victoria Palace.
There
must have been other high points in that flattened and flat decade, the
nineteen fifties, but those are the only ones that I remember and so hearing
Dylan Thomas’ reading was a peak event, if only because my father would go out
of his way to make anything remotely cultural seem special.
My father
was Welsh and Thomas was Welsh and, without his ever saying much about it, my
father must, at some point, have infected me with some native pride. Neither
he, nor indeed Thomas, spoke any Welsh although both their fathers had. My
grandfather Joe, who made stained glass windows in Covent Garden, spoke it and,
as my father was fond of boasting, Welsh was Britain’s first language,
although, somewhat hypocritically, he’d never bothered to give the language the
time of day by learning much more than a syllable or two, although I do
remember his teaching me what he claimed had been the Druids’ motto, Y gywr
yn erbyn y bwd
– the truth against the world. He’d remind me of it if I was
being less than direct, and he’d accompany his delivery of this ancient edict
with a forbidding stare.
Although
he’d made the forthcoming occasion seem special my father could have had no
idea quite how seminal the reading was to prove. As a result of being bitten by
this “bug”, as my mother put it, I was shortly to collect all the recordings of
Dylan Thomas that I could lay my hands on. Recordings of Dylan’s reading tours,
had been made by two stalwart American girls lugging primitive and, in those
days, punitively heavy equipment in Dylan’s footsteps.
The
recordings included not only Thomas reading his own work but also poems by
other authors whom Dylan had liked and admired and had chosen to read. There
were poems by Auden, Yeats and D. H. Lawrence; by Thomas Hardy, and Walter De
La Mare. Dylan read “The Three Bushes” by Yeats, “Whales Weep Not” by Lawrence,
“Broken Appointment” by Hardy, “At the Keyhole” and the comically touching,
‘The Bards’ by De La Mare about Wordsworth and Coleridge in old age.
Through
the miracle of this pioneering piece of recorded speech published by Caedmon
(named after Caedmon the seventh century monk who dreamt his poems and woke up
singing them) it seemed that all of these poetic spirits had been made
immortal. It was as if the recordings were able to punch holes in time.
I was to
leave school under a slight cloud. I’d entered into a brief correspondence with
the junior branch of the Communist party on King Street, in Covent Garden –
more out of a mischievous curiosity than from any strong political commitment.
Communism during the Cold War was taboo. My schoolboy correspondence was
discovered through my mail having been opened and since in the late fifties
anti-Soviet propaganda and spy paranoia was all-pervasive and since Communist
Russia had succeeded Nazi Germany as “the enemy” it was thought ill-considered.
Out of
the blue, my father received a letter from the school authorities which
mentioned my Communist associations with disapproval and they suggested that I
was, in the housemaster’s words, “no longer benefiting from the elitist
education which the school prided itself on being able to offer”. Clearly, the
housemaster said, no purpose was to be served by my remaining there any
further.
My father
was incandescent, and it was his cue for Dylan’s line about “the boys in summer
in their ruin” to be invoked, but I was happy to leave both school and home
and, after a brief spell in a Franciscan monastery in Dorset helping to look
after their bees, I took to the road.
I’d read
the poet W.H. Davies’ ‘Autobiography of a Super-Tramp’ and I fondly imagined,
along with this Welsh proto-Beat, (“What is life if full of care/There is no
time to stop and stare”) that, were you resourceful enough, you could survive
on little to nothing. For no reason other than the germinative Victoria and
Albert Museum reading, I’d set my sights on Swansea, thinking and hoping that
this might be somewhere to find a different kind of spiritual sustenance, given
the poet whom Swansea had spawned.
I had
another book that I took with me: ‘The Campers and Trampers Weekend Book’ by
Showell Styles which extolled the virtue of “just living for the next bend in
the road”. It was full of handy survival tips although I’d soon find that
living for the ‘next bend in the highways and by-ways’ wasn’t as romantic as
I’d been imagining in my teenage dreams.
I naively
thought that I’d be falling into a ready-made camaraderie of gentlemen of the
road, a collection of gypsy encampments even, straight out of George Borrow,
and that perhaps there’d be the ‘spikes’ that had housed the unemployed of
Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ positioned at convenient places
along the route.  But this was a fantasy; such places no longer existed
although there were a couple of Salvation Army Hostels en route and I’d
set off from a Rowton House at the Elephant and Castle where I’d holed up for a
bit.
I made it
to Swansea mainly by walking and hitching, and, after a tip from an elderly
vagrant in the centre of town, I found my way to a Crypt below St Paul’s Church
in St Helen’s Road, Swansea, where, just as this providential gentleman of the
road had indicated, “the Reverend Leon Atkin will see you right.”
The Crypt
turned out to contain an assortment of refugees: there was a man who’d kept a
collection of telescopes in a tent on Mumbles Bay but who had, inexplicably,
“to bring them in for the winter.” His huge brass tubes were accordingly piled
up in leather boxes beneath a Church trestle table upon which Leon Atkin would daily
place a great spread of food for the Crypt’s transient residents.
In
addition to this roving astronomer, there was a pair of petty criminals who
were apparently wanted by the police for some nefarious dealings “in the
smoke”, i.e. up in London.  There was a prickly bare-knuckle boxer whom
you had to be careful to skirt around especially when he was in his cups. 
Others drifted in and out. There were unemployed casual laborers and those
simply unable to fend for themselves – people the French call les marginales.
As far as
I could gather, thanks to the benignly anarchic sense of community established
by Leon, you could come and go as you pleased. When this white-maned and burly
figure appeared in the Crypt’s combined dormitory and living space, as he did daily,
he’d greet everyone warmly and make sure that they had enough to eat and were
supplied with proper bedding from the vestry where there were about forty camp
beds. Each morning Leon would seize hold of a huge industrial-sized coal
scuttle and fill it up from the bunker outside, then he’d ensure that the stove
was generously topped up and that the radiators in the Crypt were in good
working order, slapping them approvingly if they were.
All were
invited, in a casual fashion, to attend Leon’s church upstairs, in the main
body of the building, but no one was ever expected to. Board and lodging was
free and came with no strings attached. It was the closest thing to
unconditional love that I’d ever experienced and it was always understated.
Leon gave off a kind of quiet, selfless radiance. There was no subtext, just a
feeling of benign transcendence; grace even.
When I
got to know him and when I told him that I’d seen Dylan Thomas reading a few
years before and that I’d come to Swansea hoping to find people who knew him,
Leon’s smile broadened and he told me that he’d known Dylan well, “since he was
a lad”, and he missed him sorely, although, “The only time I saw Dylan in a
church was when his coffin was taken in for the funeral service”.
“Like to
hear a story about him?” Leon enquired.  I nodded enthusiastically, “You
ever hear of the Blackshirts?” I said that I had. ”Well, they tried to hold a
rally here, in the Plaza Cinema in ’34.  Dylan and I went to it, along
with Dylan’s communist friend Bert Trick, and did we give them what for? We
did. We did,” He twinkled in anticipation of reliving the story.
“The
British Union of Fascists they called themselves and the leader of the
Blackshirts was an Englishman called Sir Oswald Mosley. He was a fierce man for
attacking the Jews was this Mosley – Sir Oswald if you please – and all
of Swansea knew of him in advance and of his horrid foulness, you see?” I
nodded.
“Now” –
Leon leant forward conspiratorially –  “their modus operandi was to
invite questions from the audience which were to be written down and then
they’d pass them up to this Mosley creature for him to answer.
“I wrote
down, “I work for a Jew. Do you think I should change my employer?”
“Well, at
this Mosley curled his thin lip and expressed disgust that anyone should work
for a Jew, and then he said that “surely the questioner would be certain to
find someone more reliable to work for, amongst Swansea’s Gentiles?” and then
this Mosley looked about him and he said to the audience, “Now, who asked this?
My advice to you is that you should find a new employer.”
“They’d
always ask this, see? ‘Who asked this question?’ and if was a question that
they didn’t like then their thugs and their bully boys would escort the
questioner outside and they’d more than likely duff him up, but this time, of
course, it was their undoing because I stood up and, of course, when I stood up
then I exposed my clerical collar.”
At this
Leon chuckled, “Thus revealing who it was that I worked for. The penny dropped.
Quite loudly. The audience got it.  ‘That’s Reverend Leon!’ they cried.
All hell broke loose. The Plaza held three thousand people. Three thousand
people up in arms!
“Well,
they had to squirrel Mosley out through the back door, didn’t they? He was
ranting and squawking “Blasphemy! Blasphemy!” and then the audience weighed in.
They attacked the Blackshirts. Dylan and Bert and I, we were all pretty handy
with our fists.” Leon looked up at me, and then added, slightly apologetically,
“To do good, you know, in this life you must sometimes use your fists. Bit
shocking but there we are. ‘What weapon has the lion but himself?’ Know that
line? It’s John Keats.
“Oh yes,”
he continued, “Dylan was spot on about the Blackshirts. He’d talk about their
‘curdled patriotism’ – that was his phrase  – and then he’d describe that
scrawny old demagogue, Mosley, as suffering  ‘From an elephantiasis of the
soul’. Quite a juxtaposition that, eh?” and Leon laughed in a great rumbling
peal as he recollected “the great Plaza Cinema rout! Yes.  Just down the
road from here, you know. It’s there still. It survived the bombing, but Mosley
hasn’t though.  He’s completely discredited now.”
Leon
Atkin described himself as a “minister of the Social Gospel.” He’d started the
refuge in the nineteen thirties, and in the bitter winter of 1947 his Crypt
became a friendly oasis for dozens of men who might otherwise have died. On
every Friday evening for decades Leon would visit every public house in Swansea
to collect money for the hostel and to enable Swansea’s children to enjoy a Guy
Fawkes’ night with a stupendous firework display on the beach, and they’d also
be taken by him in three huge parties to the circus.
Disillusioned
with political parties and regarding them as being inept in their ability to
deal with the underprivileged, Leon was to stand as a ‘People’s Party’
candidate and he heroically polled over two thousand votes.
When
Dylan was alive, Dylan would always make a point of seeing Leon, referring to
him as “my priest”, and when Leon was asked by David Thomas, the local Swansea
historian, for his memories of Dylan, it was always Dylan’s spiritual virtues
that were in the forefront of Leon’s recollection:
“He
[Dylan Thomas] lived, I suppose, more on faith than most parsons ever have
tried to do. And no one could ever accuse him of daring to submit his talent to
commercial interest. In fact, there were times when he looked like a tramp, and
I suppose he didn’t eat much more than a tramp. He always struck me as a man
whose soul was so much alive that he suffered. He suffered a lot, I think. But
every action he seemed to make was, according to my unorthodox view, a
religious action. It was an attempt to evaluate and appreciate and express
beauty and something that was lovely… He was a perfectionist… poor old Dylan,
he did just explode… you could almost say that he died in childbirth.”
Leon had
much more in common with the early, and resolutely pacifist, Christian church
rather than with the established church and, despite their both being quick
with their fists, he and Dylan were in fact staunch pacifists. Dylan was not
averse to firing off letters to the Swansea and West Wales Guardian in
which he railed against “the obscene hypocrisy of those war-mongers who
venerate Christ’s name and void their contagious rheum upon the first principle
of his Gospel.”
Dylan’s
radicalism is overlooked but Caitlin, his wife, once observed that the sight of
a uniform made him “physically sick” and in the same year that Leon, Dylan and
Bert Trick made Mosley’s Blackshirts a laughing stock and caused the Blackshirt
fascists to be banned from holding meetings in Neath, Llanelli, and Cardiff as
well as in Swansea, Dylan was writing in ‘New Verse’:
“I take
my stand with any revolutionary body that asserts it to be the right of all men
to share, equally and impartially, every production of man from man and from
the sources of production at man’s disposal, for only through such an
essentially revolutionary body can there be the possibility of a communal art.”
The two
film scripts Dylan produced, though never filmed, also reveal his radical
concerns: The Doctor and the Devils was based on the adventures of the
body-snatchers, Burke and Hare, and showed how there is one law for the poor
and another for the rich; and Rebecca’s Daughters, based on the
toll-gate riots in Wales in 1843, exposed governments only bringing in reforms
when they were fearful of revolution.
At the
time Dylan wrote his revolutionary manifesto for ‘New Verse’ a quarter of the
population of Swansea was out of work. In January 1934 Dylan wrote to his
friend Trevor Tregaskis Hughes, a short story writer from Swansea who worked
for British Rail at Euston Station, that “society to adjust itself has to break
itself; society… has grown up rotten with its capitalist child, and only revolutionary
socialism can clean it up”. He concluded, “Capitalism is a system made for a
time of scarcity.”
In
November 1933 when Dylan was just 19, he was writing to Pamela Hansford Johnson
of “an outgrown and decaying system” in which “light is being turned into
darkness by the capitalists and industrialists… There is only one thing you and
I, who are of this generation, must look forward to, must work for and pray for
and, because, as we fondly hope, we are poets and voicers not only of our
personal selves but of our social selves, we must pray for it all the more
vehemently. It is the Revolution.”
Dylan
promises her that, when he’s outlined the political facts to her in greater
detail, she’ll want to “don your scarlet tie…” as he puts it, and then he adds,
“The precious seeds of revolution must not be wasted”.
Dylan
would later extol what he came to call ‘Functional Anarchy’ (and indeed his
great friend Vernon Watkins said of him, “None has ever worn more brilliantly
the mask of anarchy” and his revolutionary ideals were influencing his
poetic output.
“Remember
the procession of the old-young men,” Dylan Thomas would write of his pressing
social concerns and he would choose to write of them in what was, for him, an
unusually plain and accessible style:
“From
dole queue to corner and back again,
From the
pinched, packed streets to the peak of slag
In the
bite of the winters with shovel and bag,
With a
drooping fag [cigarette] and a turned up collar,
Stamping
for the cold at the ill lit corner
Dragging
through the squalor with their hearts like lead
Staring
at the hunger and the shut pit-head
Nothing
in their pockets, nothing home to eat.
Lagging
from the slagheap to the pinched, packed street.
Remember
the procession of the old-young men,
It shall
never happen again.”
After the
Reichstag fire, Hitler’s false flag operation, and the Vienna massacre which
followed it, Dylan’s poem ‘My world is pyramid’ would appear in New Verse in
December 1934 and in it he mourns the death of the hopes embodied in the
socialism of ‘Red Vienna’ and Dylan describes the city’s being ravaged by
vengeful Nazis as a crucifixion. It’s a poetic version of Picasso’s Guernica,
and his “Red in an Austrian volley,” contains the lines:
“I hear,
through dead men’s drums, the riddled lads,
Strewing
their bowels from a hill of bones,
Cry Eloi
to the guns…”
The
persistent caricature of Dylan (created in large part by the American media’s
response to him on his final US tour) as an apolitical self-destructive
bohemian drunk was misguided and when, in one of the first books to appear in
which he was mentioned, Dylan’s work was described as “apolitical” Dylan wrote
challengingly to its author, Henry Treece, to say,
“Surely
it is evasive to say my poetry has no social awareness – no evidence of contact
with society; actually, ‘seeking kinship’ with everything… is exactly what I do
do”.
Dylan was
to make his opinion of Treece’s book even more clear when a friend asked him to
inscribe a copy for him, and Dylan wrote in it ‘to hell with this stinking
book’.
One day
during my stay in the Crypt, Leon told me that he’d had a word with Dylan’s
closest friend, Vernon Watkins, and said that he’d persuaded Vernon to agree to
see me for lunch to talk about Dylan. “He was interested to know you’d heard
Dylan.”
Leon
prepared me for the meeting by saying, “You have to be a bit careful. He’s very
religious is Vernon. He once leapt from a window in Cambridge to see if angels
would save him. Unfortunately, he was met by a sudden rush of gravity. Made a
full recovery though. Likes tennis very much, does Vernon. Tennis and the sea.
“But
you’d be interested because Dylan would always show Vernon his poems before
he’d show them to anyone else. Trusted him. Vernon has a tendency to quote
Blake all the time, “prayer is the study of art.” That’s the sort of thing he
comes out with. Had a breakdown once and got God.”
This was
slightly disturbing, but Leon quickly corrected the impression he’d given by
saying that although Vernon had been “playing the mad hatter for a bit” he was
now “quite stable” adding, “you have to be really, don’t you, if you’re a bank
clerk.”
When the
time of the appointment which Leon kindly made for me had arrived, Leon picked
me up from the Crypt and led me across St Helen’s Road towards the rendezvous.
Detecting my adolescent apprehension (I was then just seventeen) he put his
hand on my shoulder and said reassuringly, “No need to be nervous. It’s an
article of faith with Vernon that he never thinks badly of anyone. You’ll be in
compassionate hands.”
Vernon Watkins
He led me
into a tiny Italian restaurant next to the branch of Lloyds bank where Vernon
Watkins had worked for most of his life and where he was now the oldest serving
cashier. I got the impression that he ate here every day. Vernon was a shy,
elf-like man with pointed ears, at once jerkily spry and then quite immobile
like a lizard.
He told
me that he had been under the spell of Yeats’s poetry all his life and that
he’d met Yeats and that he’d then written a poem about him into which he put
all the things that Yeats had said. Yeats had told him, Vernon said, that all
poems were “a piece of luck.”
I asked
Vernon how Dylan had thought of his own poems and he said that Dylan had called
his own poems “statements on the way to the grave.” There was a doleful pause.
His remembering this seemed to trigger him off emotionally and his eyes welled
up. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. I think it was the first time I’d seen a
grown man weep.
It had
only been seven years, in fact, since Dylan had died and while Vernon was
obviously pleased to talk enthusiastically about Dylan’s work, Dylan’s being
snatched away so dramatically and so many thousands of miles away at the age of
just 39 obviously still grieved him dreadfully. At what I imagined to be a
welter of unspoken memories pumping through his head he’d suddenly look
transfixed; hollow eyed and shattered. Then he’d press a napkin to his eyes,
dab his face and recover.  He went on quietly:
“Dead
poets can be your contemporaries you know, that’s if the whole of the past is a
simultaneous experience, and it is. In which case…” He studied me closely,
“Dylan’s right here now, you see. He’s sat at this table. Not dead.” And then
he repeated it, quite insistently, as if it was a phenomenon that he often
experienced, “Not dead.”
All of a
sudden we seemed to be having a kind of impromptu séance until he emerged from
it and was able to concentrate on his spaghetti and then on his lychees.
He was
like a slightly damaged schoolmaster, looking at you quite abstractly one
moment as if you weren’t there, and then examining you closely on your
knowledge of all the poets in Elysium; on all his personal familiars, on
Swinburne, on Milton, on Hopkins, and now on Thomas – all of whom he clearly
had intense relationships with. A kind of poets’ club, unconstrained by time;
all united in poetic ecstasies on Mount Parnassus.
Although
Vernon obviously kept some daunting imaginary company, I steeled myself and
passed him a poem that I’d written about the old man from the Gower Peninsula
and his rusting brass telescopes who was living in Leon’s Crypt. Vernon
unfolded it carefully, scrutinized it and then folded it back up and passed it
back without a word.
He ate
another lychee, mixing it with a half teaspoonful of vanilla ice cream. He then
gently intimated that the purpose of poetry was “to set up a vibration” but he
left me in suspense as to whether I’d done such a thing with the poem I’d just
been so forward in showing him and I was too shy to enquire any further.
After all
with Dylan Thomas and all the other luminaries as Vernon’s benchmarks I thought
I was unlikely to match his high standards. I also got the feeling that there
might never again be room in Vernon’s brain for any other poets ever, given the
huge crater left by Dylan’s absence, still evidently causing him such anguish.
However he did allow himself to say rather obliquely, “any poet passing
judgment on a living contemporary is damned.”
I then
asked him what Dylan was like. Vernon said wistfully, “He was a born clown” and
added, “he was so magnanimous.” There was a pause then he amended what he’d
just said with a kind of desperate, rueful ache, “reputation is the enemy of
poetry.”  He didn’t say much more but it was clear that he meant Dylan’s
notoriety had swamped a proper recognition of his talent and Vernon was clearly
pained by this and he evidently blamed the Americans for having indulged Dylan
on tour and then for exaggerating his behavior as it made good journalistic
copy.
I
mentioned how I’d loved to listen to the recordings of Dylan and he told me
that “the two ladies from Caedmon”, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, had asked
him to choose a suitable monument with which to honour Dylan in his home town
and how they’d said that they would pay all the expenses and had generously
sent Vernon fifty pounds.
Vernon
said he’d chosen lines for it from Dylan’s poem ‘Fern Hill’ and they’d been
carved by a local sculptor Roland Cour on a block of Pennant Sandstone from
Cwmrhydyceirw Quarry. The lines were, “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy
of his means time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the
sea.”  Vernon’s recitation of Dylan’s lines prompted another silent tear.
Richard
Burton would say that “Only Dylan could read his own stuff” and that was
perhaps true, but Dylan’s poetic spirit suddenly became audible to me again
through Vernon Watkins’ quiet and infinitely sad evocation.
Leon now
appeared at the entrance to the little restaurant and Vernon invited him to
join us for a cup of coffee before we all left.
As we got
outside, Leon and I watched Vernon slip back into Lloyds bank a few doors up.
He seemed to hop into the building like an elderly, wounded seabird, there to
spend the rest of that Friday afternoon behind his hatch.
“Poor
man,” said Leon, as Vernon vanished,  “I always get the feeling that he
was someone who was hit by a tornado when he was with Dylan and now… well, look
at him. Flattened by bloody Dylan altogether.
“That Yankee
fellow, Brinnin, wrote a mischievous book about Dylan in New York. Mostly
lies.  He wanted to use some of Dylan’s letters to poor Vernon in his
book.  But Vernon got his measure. Wouldn’t let the bastard use a single
one. Very, very, very protective of Dylan is Vernon.”
I told
Leon that Vernon had told me in the course of lunch that Dylan often talked to
him in his dreams.
“Oh yes.
The poor bugger suffers, doesn’t he? Dylan suffered too, you know. Had a very
angry wife, did Dylan. Ever heard of Blodeuwedd? the woman made of flowers?
Mythical Welsh beauty. Well,” he paused, “Dylan’s wife, Caitlin, wasn’t her
although she was beautiful. Mostly Dylan saw the flowers. Good on him for that.
Fair play. But speaking for myself, I could only see the thorns.”
“Poor
Vernon. A good man. The bank clerk who dreams of being a fisherman and of
catching mermaids. That’s how Dylan described him. Now, you don’t ordinarily
think of bankers as being unworldly, do you?”
At this,
Leon stopped still in the street, put his hands behind his back, and
recited,  “I know the weight of unspoken words, of speech that cannot
be drawn. I crouch and my life returns to the sea. It trembles, then it is
gone.”
That’s one of Vernon’s for you. Did he recite any of his poems to
you? He’s not really as shy as he makes out. He stopped me once outside the
bank and he exclaimed, ‘Leon, the world’s mysterious! Woven in light!’
“There.
Been quite overshadowed by Dylan of course.”
Although
Leon was large of stature and heavily built he seemed to become light-footed
whenever he sang or recited. He’d often so unselfconsciously pepper his
conversation with snatches of poetry that he made me wonder if everyone in
Swansea had their heads filled with it, like biblical poet-prophets.
Dylan’s
namesake, R. S. Thomas, was to pay Vernon Watkins a tribute in a poem called
‘The Bank Clerk’: “It was not the shillings he heard,/But the clinking of the
waves in the gullies of /Pwll Du. Turning them over/To the customers at the
counter/He offered them the rich change/Of his mind, the real coinage/Of
language for their dry cheques.”
Philip
Larkin also paid Vernon Watkins a visit once and commented, “In Vernon’s
presence poetry seemed like a living stream, in which one had only to dip the
vessel of one’s devotion. He made it clear how one could, in fact, ‘live by
poetry’; it was a vocation, at once difficult as sainthood and easy as
breathing.”
Vernon
Watkins died playing tennis. The lines on his memorial stone are thought to
reflect his feelings towards Dylan: “Death cannot steal the light /Which love
has kindled/ Nor the years change it”
Leon Atkin and Dylan
In
October, 1953 a picture appeared in the South Wales Evening Post of Leon
Atkin and Dylan together in the Bush Hotel in the High Street. It was to be
Dylan’s last drink in Swansea. He was on his way to catch the train at the
start of his final journey to America for a fourth tour. This time it was
apparently to write an opera with Stravinsky in California which Boston
University might be commissioning. Stravinsky had already set a sonnet of
Dylan’s to music and the opera’s formidable theme, as proposed by Dylan, was to
be the rediscovery of the planet following an atomic misadventure for which the
forging of a whole new language was required.  Stravinsky had said of
Dylan, “As soon as I met him, I knew the only thing to do was to love him.”
Dylan had
also been obliged to go in order to earn sufficient money through public
readings to pay an outstanding tax bill. He would never return alive.
Not so
long beforehand he’d written a poem on his birthday. Its prophetic last line
was “As I sail out to die.”
The
received wisdom is that Dylan died as a result of a drinking bout in the White
Horse Tavern in New York but the story’s authenticity has lately been
undermined. For a start, the post-mortem revealed no signs of alcoholic damage
to the brain and nor was there any cirrhosis of the liver. It now seems likely
that the real cause of Dylan’s death was medical negligence. Four days prior to
his death a New York doctor, a Dr. Feltenstein, gave Dylan an unusually high
dose of morphine as a sedative.
Although,
while he was staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, Dylan had boasted to his
last lover, Liz Reitell (an assistant at the Poetry Centre in New York who’d
helped to stage the first performance of ‘Under Milk Wood’), “I’ve had eighteen
straight whiskies. I think that’s a record”, it turned out that Dylan had, in
fact, drunk nothing like that amount and that, rather than his suffering from a
colossal alcoholic assault on the brain as the legend favors, he was actually
suffering from a severe chest infection, probably bronchial pneumonia, possibly
undiagnosed diabetes, and he was experiencing extreme breathing difficulties as
a result of one or other of these two conditions rather than from an alcoholic
stroke, the received wisdom.
Dylan had
suffered from bronchitis and asthma since childhood and his Chelsea Hotel
crisis required to be treated with antibiotics rather than with the
paralysingly high doses of morphine that Feltenstein would give him on three
visits. Feltenstein injected 30mg of morphine, three times the normal dose for
pain relief.
Milton
Feltenstein was Reitell’s family physician. She would later describe him as “a
wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything”  and it’s now
thought that Dylan’s mistreatment with morphine by an incompetent and
flamboyant doctor accentuated his respiratory problems and brought on the coma
from which he would never recover.
Shortly
after his seeing Dr. Feltenstein, on Tuesday, 3rd November, and after his being
misdiagnosed and then erroneously prescribed for, Dylan was overcome and
started to break down and weep in his bedroom at the Chelsea. He told Liz
Reitell that he wished to die and to “go to the garden of Eden”.
Seeing
himself on his own deathbed, he wrote his last poem. It was called ‘Elegy’ and
in it he holds his own hand:
“Veined
his poor hand I held, and I saw/
“Through
his unseeing eyes to the roots of the sea.”
He
records himself, “crying as he died. Fearing at last the spheres’ /Last sound,
the world going out without a breath.”
It was an
accurate thought. Dylan’s death was momentous. When Dylan died, Karl Shapiro
said, “it was as if there would never be any more youth in the world.”
Shapiro
noted that “everyone looked upon Thomas as the last of the young poets.”
Shapiro
was to go even further: “The death of Dylan Thomas in 1953 was the most
singular demonstration of suffering in modern literary history. One searches
his memory for any parallel to it. At thirty-nine Thomas had endeared himself
to the literary youth of England and America, to most of the poets who were his
contemporaries, and to many who were his elders; he was the master of a public
which he himself had brought out of nothingness; he was the idol of writers of
every description and the darling of the press. (The Press scented him early
and nosed him to the grave).”
Dylan
Thomas was radical and he had been attracting huge crowds. He’d recently been
invited to the Soviet Union and it’s even been suggested that, just as in the
case of Paul Robeson, a declared communist, there might have been something
more to Dylan’s death than what would come to be caricatured for decades as
simply the tragic self-destruction of a bohemian drunk.
But it
was 1953; it was then the height of the Cold War, and here was a crowd-puller
not averse to broaching revolutionary ideas in a US that was then so staid, so
stultifying, and so paranoid about Communism.  Mightn’t it be better if he
was disposed of?
Momentarily
intriguing as the notion is there’s no evidence for it but certainly several
other British writers have had a knack of being fatally consumed by America’s
kleptocratic and venal mindset.
Charles
Dickens was cheated out of his US royalties and, rather like Dylan Thomas, forced
to undertake a series of demanding readings to try to recoup his losses – an
ill-starred venture that accelerated Dickens’ demise. Dickens wrote to his
friend the actor Macready of his alarm at having his brand new coat torn off
his back by a grasping New York crowd eager for souvenirs. Several English
writers have trod the gilded path to Hollywood and drunk from its poisoned
chalice never to be heard of again and John Lennon was, of course, murdered
outright.
In the
case of Dylan Thomas, it can be said that he was to suffer no less than two
deaths at American hands. Less than a decade after his death, his identity was
eerily pilfered so that the Dylan Thomas that everyone had come to know and
love pre-1953 would be eclipsed by his name being borrowed, or more properly
stolen.
A then
unknown and insecure folk singer looking to forge an identity for himself
latched onto Dylan’s name and by assuming it, Robert Allen Zimmerman saw a way
of securing for himself an as yet unearned significance.
Robert
Allen Zimmerman had previously toyed with the idea of calling himself ‘Elston
Gunn’ and even ‘Jack Frost’ but, as soon as he was introduced to the work of
Dylan Thomas, he felt a compulsion to help himself to Dylan’s name in order to
further his career as poet-folksinger.
Dylan
Thomas had at this point achieved near-mythic status in New York’s bohemian and
literary circles and so Robert Zimmerman’s appropriation of his name was a
glaringly obvious way of his trying to pass himself off as a great poet before
he’d begun. As Joni Mitchell put it:
“Bob
[Dylan] is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are
fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and
I.”
Now that
the name ‘Dylan’ has become commonplace, Zimmerman’s identity theft may seem to
have little significance yet, when Dylan Thomas was born there was, in fact, no
one else alive who had Dylan as their first name.
The use
of the name was a unique coinage and especial to Dylan’s family.  Thomas’
father, David John Thomas, known as ‘D.J.’, had chosen it with a scholarly
care.  D.J. had noted his new-born son’s likeness to the Dylan ail Don,
the “curly-haired boy” mentioned in the epic poem, ‘Mabinogion’.  The
mother of the Dylan ail Don, Arianrhod, gives birth to Dylan through magical
means – through a wand that bestows life.
D.J. was,
in other words, giving his son a name that, outside its passing mention in an
obscure piece of 12th century Welsh literature, had, in fact, been
unused.
Florence
Thomas, Dylan’s mother, had her doubts about her husband’s choice since the
correct Welsh pronunciation of the name was “Dullan” and Florence was worried
that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.”
However, despite
his wife’s reservations, D.J. had had his way and the aptness of his choice was
later borne out in what Dylan Thomas referred to as “that bloody cherub
picture”, namely the curly-haired portrait of Dylan by Augustus John.
‘Dylan’,
D.J felt, was his son’s ‘soul-name’ – something that tied him to the soil of
Wales. It was what T. S. Eliot, in ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’,
called a “deep and inscrutable, singular Name”.
Dylan’s
father had read him poetry as a child – some said he’d even read it to him in
the womb – and two thirds of Dylan’s entire life-time’s output was written at
5, Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea the house which D.J. had purchased from his modest
earnings as a schoolteacher and to which Dylan would often return for the cwtch
(meaning his safe place; his place of affectionate hugs). Dylan’s soul-name
would, like a fairy blessing, serve to bestow upon him a kind of ancestral
familial magic.
The
reason that at the beginning of the 1960s Robert Allen Zimmerman decided to
adopt Dylan’s name was patently to help himself to some of Dylan Thomas’ poetic
stardust. No reason why not to, some might say, but in an astonishingly short
time, through a determined manipulation of the media, Robert Zimmerman aka Bob
Dylan was able to make certain that, by the end of the decade, it was he whom
people would think of at the mention of the name ‘Dylan’ and not Dylan Thomas.
Dylan
Thomas, his body barely cold, was to be pushed aside by Bob Dylan although Bob
Dylan’s chutzpah would be unable to save him from a satirical jibe from his
song-writing rival Paul Simon:
“I knew a
man, his brain so small/He couldn’t think of nothing at all/He’s not the same
as you and me/He doesn’t dig poetry. He’s so unhip that/When you say Dylan, he
thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas/Whoever he was/The man ain’t got no culture/But
it’s alright, ma/Everybody must get stoned.”
Obviously
anyone in the world of entertainment is at liberty to call themselves whatever
they wish and Penny Rimbaud of Crass and the Shakespeare Sisters, for example,
have hardly dented the significance of either the French poet nor of the
English bard but Bob Dylan’s case is perhaps different, if only because Robert
Zimmerman’s helping himself to Dylan’s name, and to something of his cachet,
has clearly sat so uneasily with the thief himself over the subsequent decades.
Furthermore,
fans of Dylan Thomas have found the purloining of their hero’s name galling
since there are several elements of Zimmerman-Dylan’s character that would make
Dylan Thomas, were he alive, squirm with  righteous revulsion.
When
Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York in January 1961 his driver’s license read
“Zimmerman.” His birth name was something that he was self-conscious about; he
didn’t want anyone to discover the truth. He was Bob Dylan. Nothing else. Once
when Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, was asked whether his assumed name was
pronounced in the same way as Dylan Thomas, he retorted, “no, like Bob Dylan.”
The
pilfering of the then much more famous poet’s name would bring Bob Dylan an
immediate benefit but there was also to be an unforeseen cost.
Bob Dylan
would find himself increasingly irritated by the amount of times Dylan Thomas’
name would be brought up by interviewers just as he was trying to build up his
career and to establish himself as the only person called ‘Dylan’ who mattered
– the only ‘Dylan’ whom, in Bob Dylan’s view, anyone should be paying any
attention to.
In 1966
he was so riled by it that he allowed himself the pronouncement, “I’ve done
more for Dylan Thomas than he ever did for me.”
It’s
unclear quite how he could have believed this to be true since, apart from the
fake Dylan’s stealing something of the real Dylan’s poetic kudos, the
light-fingered Bob had also been feeling entitled to make free with some of
Dylan Thomas’ actual lines. Dylan Thomas was doing rather more for Bob Dylan
than the other way round.
For
example the phrase, “the chains of the sea” in Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, ‘When the
Ship Comes In’, matches the last line of Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill: “I sang in
my chains like the sea”, and in an article  ‘How Dylan Thomas influenced
Bob Dylan’,  Alexander Poirer indicates other filchings and stylistic
pilferings. He suggests that, “Lines from Thomas like “Under the windings of
the sea/They lying long shall not die windily” sound like they could have been
pulled directly from one of Dylan’s songbooks.” And on a record by Steve
Goodman, Somebody Else’s Troubles, made in September 1972, Bob Dylan
contributes some harmony vocals under the pseudonym Robert Milkwood Thomas,
echoing the title of Dylan Thomas’s play. Bob Dylan’s parasitic relationship
with Thomas was being hidden in plain sight.
Bob
Dylan’s plagiarism is, of course, legendary: the melody for his winsome song
“Blowing in the Wind” came directly from an old spiritual “No More Auction
Block,” and the song’s central lyric notion was lifted from Shelley’s ‘Ode to
the West Wind’.
His
copyright infringements have been the subject of a remarkable number of
lawsuits. There have also been allegations of musical plagiarism and it’s long
been thought that Bob Dylan’s nasal twang was a pastiche of the great vocalist
Carter Stanley – of the 1940’s Stanley Brothers bluegrass duo.
When
challenged about plagiarism however Bob Dylan only says dismissively that
“Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”
But Bob
Dylan’s unrestrained kleptomania would prompt the folk singer Tim Hardin to say
of him:
“He’s a
cold motherfucker, man. He was thinking, he was listening to what everybody
said all the time and going, “Uh-hummm, yup,” and writing it
down in his little photo-fuckin-graphic memory, you know what I mean? Taking
pictures of everything and reproducing the whole lick for himself. Then he
learned to give somebody else a little credit, by having their picture on the
album or something. Fuck him.”
In the
case of his feeling free to dip into Dylan Thomas’ oeuvre in order to spice up
his own work, it occurs that Bob Dylan’s misplaced sense of entitlement may
stem from a kind of magical thinking: ‘I have a right to his work since
I’ve  taken over Dylan’s name.’
In an
early Playboy interview, where Bob is invited to discuss his
nomenclatural plagiarism, the freshly incarnated ‘Dylan’ lets slip a striking
admission:
“Sometimes
you are held back by your name. Sometimes there are advantages to having a certain
name. I wouldn’t pick a name unless I thought I was that person.”
When the
legendary Woody Guthrie was at death’s door, young folk musicians would make a
pilgrimage to see their hero and to sing with him before his death. Bob Dylan
was amongst them and it’s been suggested that he borrowed his vocal style from
the dying Guthrie – ghoulishly copying the singer’s slurred speech, the side
effect of the illness, Huntington’s disease, that was taking Guthrie’s life.
But
Sidney Carter (author of the cheerfully exuberant hymn ‘The Lord of the Dance’)
who met Bob Dylan in London, concluded that, “Dylan Thomas had more influence
on Bob Dylan than Woody Guthrie did, with an image of the bard who went forth
as a kind of romantic prophet, doomed to an early death.” And it’s worth noting
that Bob Dylan didn’t call himself Bob Guthrie and when he made his peculiar
statement, “I wouldn’t pick a name unless I thought I was that person” he can
only have been thinking of Dylan Thomas but did he really think that he was
Dylan Thomas?
The flak
which Bob Dylan has had to deal with on account of the name change could be
thought of as inevitable blowback or even karma. In order to deal with it he
has had to adopt a number of increasingly bizarre coping mechanisms.
He’s
tried, for example, to give the impression that he’s outgrown Dylan Thomas;
he’s implied that he’s a far greater poet than Dylan Thomas ever was, and then
confusingly, and almost in the same breath, he’s insisted that there is no
connection at all between him and Dylan Thomas. In one recorded comment he
seemingly wishes to write Dylan Thomas out of history altogether. Dylan Thomas
never existed. There was and there is only Bob Dylan.
In an
interview with the Chicago Daily News in November 1965 Bob is asked: 
“What about the story that you changed your name from Bob Zimmerman to Bob
Dylan because you admired the poetry of Dylan Thomas?”
“No, God,
no.” Bob Dylan says, “I took Dylan because I have an uncle called Dillion
[sic]. I changed the spelling, but only because it looked better. I’ve read
some of Dylan Thomas’ stuff and it’s not the same as mine.”
Like
other bogus attempts to romanticize his past, namely that he was an orphan,
that he jumped freight trains, that he was brought up on an Indian reservation,
this was a blatant attempt at deception:  There was no “Dillion” in the
Zimmerman family.
In a 1978
interview with Playboy magazine, Dylan repeatedly denied taking his stage name
from the poet only to be undermined by Paul McCartney. McCartney gives the lie
to Bob’s disingenuous denials that there was any connection between the two,
“We all used to like Dylan Thomas. I read him a lot. I think that John started
writing because of him. I am sure that the main influence on both (Bob) Dylan
and John was Dylan Thomas. That’s why Bob’s not Bob Zimmerman – his real name.”
Hardest
to swallow of all of Bob Dylan’s apologetics  and one that suggests that
his identity theft has unbalanced him altogether is his contention that his
original self (Robert Zimmerman) was actually killed thanks to a Hell’s
Angel  (coincidentally called Bobby Zimmerman) and who was, according to
Bob’s delusional narrative,  “transfigured in a religious way.”
In
September 1977 the Soviet Literature Gazette dismissed Bob as “nothing more
than a money-hungry capitalist” and when Bob Dylan displays his contempt for a
poet whom he says he’s outgrown, and when he happily does what Dylan Thomas
never did and that is to sell out to any and every commercial outfit and does
so on an industrial scale, then perhaps it’s tempting to recall Norman Mailer’s
harsh verdict on him: “If [Bob] Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.”
Joan
Baez’s reward for fostering Bob Dylan’s career was betrayal and ridicule. She
had introduced Dylan’s song “With God on Our Side,” into a performance of her
own and she’d then recorded it on her 1963 album, “Joan Baez in Concert, Part
2.”
Her
generous support gave him credibility in radical circles and the two of them
would sing his songs together at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963. Then in
July of that year, she’d invite him on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. His
biographer, Robert Shelton would write: “Baez, the reigning queen of folk
music, had made Dylan the crown prince”. Despite this, Bob Dylan refused to
allow her to appear on stage and cold-shouldered her out of his tour; and
dumped her during the filming of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about him,
“Don’t Look Back”.
Joan Baez
however was cut from a different cloth. When her debut at the Newport Folk
Festival in 1959 made her an overnight star, she would have the moral integrity
to turn down a $50,000 offer to advertise Coca-Cola. Bob Dylan by contrast was
eager to embrace every opportunity to sell out, to court American capital and
to have the troubadour bow to Mammon.
Unlike
Dylan Thomas who never once sold out – who never ‘shilled’ for anyone –his
deadly Doppelganger would prove as keen as mustard to have his voice serve any
and every American corporation.
Sidney
Carter once said, “The word poet means different things to different people.
Strange, you can talk about a commercial artist, but you can’t talk about a
commercial poet. A poet has to have something holy as well to have genius.”
Dylan
Thomas once said wistfully but cheerfully that he’d never earned enough from
poetry “to feed a goldfinch” and he hadn’t. He left just under a hundred pounds
upon his death. The fake Dylan has been voraciously, all-consumingly
commercial.
Bob Dylan
would sing “I Want You” for a commercial for Chobani yogurt; he would sing
“Love Sick” for a lingerie company, Victoria’s Secret; he’d appear in an ad for
the Cadillac Escalade and he’d be shown driving Cadillac’s gas-guzzling sport
utility vehicle as he strums, and he’d sing what had been, once upon a time, his
generational protest song, “The Times They Are A’Changin’” whilst the
advertising company that had hired him projected seductive images designed to
convey the virtues  of the Bank of Montreal. In Bob Dylan’s “Super Bowl
Sunday” advertisement for Chrysler watched by 100 million people the singer
rattles off an extraordinary concoction of jingoistic rhetoric devised to
promote Chrysler – a company noted for building the M1 Abrams tanks that were
used during the Vietnam war.
“So let
Germany brew your beer,” Dylan tells the world. “Let Switzerland make your
watch. Let Asia assemble your phone,” he pauses, “We will build your
car.”
With
stunningly meaningless gravitas he concludes, “Is there anything more American
than America?”
Bob
Dylan’s seemingly insatiable material appetite prompted Joan Baez, along with
Pete Seeger and Country Joe McDonald the musical bedrock of the US peace
movement – to enquire of him, “Have you forgotten what it’s like to be poor,
Bobby?”
When he
was fourteen Dylan Thomas wrote a poem entitled Clown in the Moon, “I think,
that if I touched the earth,/It would crumble;/It is so sad and beautiful,/So
tremulously like a dream.”
By
contrast, the raddled Bob Dylan in his ten-gallon cowboy hat and in his
open-topped Chrysler limo stuffed with cash gives the finger to climate change
and fondles Chrysler’s remunerative defense contracts as he rides roughshod
over that same shared earth, for money.
Aldous
Huxley once introduced a Stravinsky composition based on a poem of Dylan
Thomas’ by quoting a line from Mallarmé which says that “poets purify the
dialect of the tribe.”
Thomas’
namesake would seem now to be determined that poets should be desacralized and
that the language of the tribe be reduced to a money-grubbing sales pitch.
Robert
Zimmerman’s cultural theft is to be copyrighted: ‘Dylan’ is to become
a brand, set in Wall Street stone.
Goldman
Sachs, in association with a company called SESAC, have issued bonds in Dylan
Inc., bonds that are backed up by the artists’ royalties. You could hardly sell
out or be sold out more definitively.
Shares in
the megastar are to be quoted on the New York stock exchange – here is the
ultimate copper-bottomed proof surely that Bob Dylan writes blue-chip poetry.
He’s
established ‘Dylan’ as a brand and without a shred of irony, Bob Dylan even
took Apple to court over their projected use of the name ‘Dylan’ to indicate
dynamic language  (DYnamic LANguage).
Apple had
been devising DY-LAN as an application, or App, but Bob Dylan would have none
of it. The irony of Bob Dylan being upset by someone else adopting a name which
himself had purloined was not lost on the press and neither have rock critics
and fellow artists been slow in showing their contempt:
“After
decades of carefully manicured deification by Columbia Records,” wrote the
music critic Jonny Whiteside, the time has come “to flout indoctrination and
examine Dylan’s track record as a Grade-A phony.”
Further
disdain would come from his fellow songwriter, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground,
“Dylan’s songs are marijuana leftovers. Dylan is the type of person you’d want
to punch out at a party.”
Bob Dylan
started his career at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village; its Manager, Sam
Hood, a close friend of Phil Ochs, permitted himself the succinct: “He [Dylan]
was such a prick.”
Bob Dylan
assumed Dylan Thomas’s name but he took on nothing of Thomas’s character, and
far from his possessing Dylan Thomas’s magnanimity towards his fellow poets, as
attested by Vernon Watkins, it would seem that the fake Dylan was so envious of
his rock and roll rivals that, given the opportunity, he’d sadistically torment
them.
He once
reduced the emotionally fragile Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to tears in
Max’s Kansas City. Bob, backed up by his roadie, cornered Brian for Bob to tell
him that his voice was crap; that his band was no good and that Brian (who’d
admired Bob) had no musical talent.
When Bob
felt that his fellow folk singer Phil Ochs was threatening to overtake him
thanks to Phil Ochs’s rather more trenchant, more issue-based and more radical
songs such as ‘Draft Dodger Rag’ and ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore’, with lines
such as, “Even treason might be worth a try/The country is too young to die”,
Bob threw Phil Ochs out of his limo in a fit of pique saying ,” I can’t keep up
with Phil. He just gets better.” Happily for Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs’ suicide
would end the competition that was causing Bob such discomfort.
Did he
supply John Lennon with heroin out of a sadistic and envious desire to destroy
him? Who knows? But Bob Dylan’s coolness and hipsterism is surely no more than
a euphemism for a kind of grunting, self-regarding nihilism. Dylan Thomas was
most certainly more fun.
Years
later the myth of Bob Dylan as a counter-cultural icon would finally be
exploded. ‘The business of America is business’ declared US President Calvin
Coolidge and few would deny that the US’s most successful business is war.
Those
maintaining that the countercultural values of the sixties had something of the
eternal verities about them gulped to see Bob Dylan accepting the Congressional
Medal of Freedom from a drone-wielding President who’d just passed the largest
defense budget in US history, nay world history.
So much
for Dylan Thomas’s pacifism, Bob Dylan was now joining the Masters of War club
with all the imperial baubles to prove it: the medals and the money and the
share portfolios.
Such
misjudgments and sell-out moments can perhaps be attributed to excessive drug
use, and maybe that explains the weird paths that his endless identity quest
have led him on – a noted low point being his embracing of the racist
eliminationist murderer Rabbi Meir Kahane, and his telling Time magazine,
“He’s a really sincere guy. He’s really put it all together.”
Nonetheless
the trahison des clercs still does its best to establish this charlatan
grotesque as the US Empire’s national treasure. Here is the distinguished US
novelist Joyce Carol Oates on Bob Dylan at sixty:
“Dylan”
was a self-chosen name in homage to the great, legendarily self-destructive
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose lush, lyric, over-the-top poetry presumably
influenced many of Bob Dylan’s songs.”
Joyce
Carol Oates comments that it must have “seemed an act of extraordinary
chutzpah” for Robert Zimmerman “to anoint himself with the poet’s
internationally famous name” but now, forty years later,” Bob Dylan’s fellow
American declares with a triumphal and patriotic pride, “Dylan is an American
classic whose fame far surpasses that of his namesake, who seems to have entered
an eclipse.”
The
roaring sound of the sea as it rushes up the mouth of Afon Conwy, the River
Conway in North Wales, is known as “Dylan’s death-groan” and the name refers to
the hero of the Mabinogion who drowned, but for a while it could also be taken to
refer to the drowning out of Dylan Thomas,  “The boisterous broth of a
boy” with a voice of gold; the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”, Swansea’s “man of
words”.
It was
drowned out for several decades by a mercenary American: sneering, scowling,
spiteful, and self-regarding; a supreme sell-out with an ugly, grating,
amphetamine-fuelled voice and the values of Wall Street.
Now,
mercifully, things may have come full cycle.
During
Dylan Thomas’s centenary year it’s been proposed that, much like the Scottish
Burns’ Night, there should be a Dylan Day. Should that happen it will be Dylan
Thomas who’ll be associated with it rather than Bob Dylan.
Dylan
Thomas’s namesake was invited to Wales to join in the centenary celebrations
due to be held in the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Apparently Bob Dylan’s staff
expressed polite interest but then, for reasons best known to His Bobness, as
he’s known to his more devoted followers, the invitation was declined.
No reason
was given but Bob Dylan might have had a certain apprehension at the thought of
being overshadowed by an inconvenient revenant in the shape of Dylan Thomas,
given Thomas’ now revived and much enlarged stature.
There is
nothing so constant as change and who knows that it’s not Bob Dylan’s turn to
suffer an eclipse whilst Wales’s boy of summer steps back into the sunlight,
free from the irksome shackles of lladron enaidiau or soul stealers.
Heathcote
Williams
This was
first published in a limited edition of 36 copies by Gerard Bellaart of Cold
Turkey Press and as an e-book by Wales Arts Review, 2016.
Copyright ©2016 by Heathcote Williams 

 

 

 

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This