Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Devil and Bob Dylan, by A.J. Weberman (review)

WEBERMAN: And here I am a Dylanologist.
DYLAN: A Dylanologist pig man.
WEBERMAN: In a certain position, in a certain position where I can do a number on a cat who’s become a pig man who’s become a fucking sell out ‘ya dig? Like that’s the way it goes man. You write all these songs some jerk is gonna fucking believe them man and he’s gonna get pissed off when finds out you didn’t believe ‘em or don’t believe them anymore.

DYLAN: I believe ‘em. …
--The Dylan/Weberman tapes, January 1971.
As more than a few observers have noted over the decades, to be a Bob Dylan fan is to hate writer/Yippie activist/researcher/chronicler A.J. Weberman. No one likes the bearer of bad news which is human folly. In the nearly four decades that I’ve been aware of the pioneering sing-songwriter there hasn’t been one moment that the cult surrounding the folk singer didn’t seem detached from reality, unhinged from the facts, even after numerous admissions by their icon of his fallibility never mind what the detractors have unearthed over the years. When did I first notice cracks in the edifice? It was in the early 1980s when I saw D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on Dylan, Don’t Look Back (1969) which painted a portrait of a pompous, arrogant nihilist who didn’t appear to believe in anything but money and fame, a real asshole.
Dylan shot a hole through the Elvis print that Andy Warhol gave to him and gave it away thoughtlessly during that period. This guy was a real creep, yet so many idiots I knew loved this prick ignoring what was obvious. Others took note though early on, one of them was in the film, John Lennon, who needs no introduction.
Weberman was no stranger to either man having spent considerable time getting Lennon’s ear as well into Dylan’s garbage, speaking with him on the phone and so on. His foray into “garbology” of the latter apparently began in the fall of 1970 (he has the pictures and the trash to prove it). Weberman and Dylan had many friends in common at the time as he recounts in the new text. In the case of Dylan, there was physical contact when the folk singer rode up on a bicycle behind the then young writer and punched him in the back of the head, yelling at him to keep out of his garbage. The Yippie had pushed it too far after bringing literally hundreds of protesters of the DLF to the front door of his Greenwich Village apartment on Dylan’s birthday demanding he get involved in the politics of the day. As his account goes, he took his licks feeling that he’d earned them. Fair enough. Some of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Indeed, Weberman cites literary history going back to the French novelists and poets of the 19th century, drawing a parallel that’s spot-on. The Yippies have often been called “proto-punks” (or, as the saying went, “A Yippie is a Hippie who got beaten by the cops.”). Looking at Weberman’s actions directed at Bob Dylan it’s hard to argue against it. This is cultural history at its best and the author has made a good contribution to chronicling a lost time in American countercultural history. Dylan’s trash became grist for his mill, say what you want. His fallen idol also earned his licks. You really don’t want to sell a mythology of being a social rebel, a progressive when you’re not willing to live up to, when you only do it for money, something he admitted he was doing to folksinger Joan Baez in the sixties.
Sometimes people like Mr. Weberman—or Baez--will come after you with everything they’ve got once the scales have fallen from their eyes. Hell hath no fury. Dylan is a lie, a Shibboleth for lost people, an ingenuine creature in a false reality in a construct of democracy within an oligarchy, a sick, twisted version of the American dream that’s been copied ad infinitum. This is the horrible truth at the heart of the Dylan myth: Rather than being a genuine radical as Woody Guthrie had been, he was literally the opposite while contending that he was like some kind of dustbowl minstrel, a fabrication.
Ultimately, this was never about money for the author, it was another quest for the truth on his part (with some exceptions that go into the personal). While I and many may not agree with all of his analysis of Dylan’s lyrics his central contentions are rock solid: Bob Dylan has been a fraud the entire span of his career and his fans are delusional people who have projected their wishes onto him. That’s a religion, not unlike Christianity, that Judaic faith created by Jews and appropriated by Anglo-Saxons and other groupings, then perverted as the messages got into the wrong hands. Would you know it, somehow, Weberman was able to obtain mimeographed copies (there had been under 100 copies made, a small run for a select few) of Dylan’s awful unpublished experimental novel, Tarantula which he’d written in 1965-66. Rather than being a sycophantic biographer like so many others, Weberman has taken the path towards uncovering the truth, or his version of it, which has been found to be surprisingly accurate over the intervening years.
In May of 2011, for example, the tapes of the late, sycophantic music critic Robert Shelton which were rummaged through after his death in 1995 yielded the final word on his heroin addiction. This suppressed passage was found in them: "I kicked a heroin habit in New York City. …I got very, very strung out for a while, I mean really, very strung out. And I kicked the habit. I had about a $25-a-day habit and I kicked it." This was recorded by Shelton in March 1966 at a tour stopover in Denver. His biography of Dylan, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, is silent on the subject. The music critic was one of the very first to notice the talent of Dylan in 1961. He promptly wrote a review of a performance in the Village and the singer-songwriter was just as quickly signed to a record contract with Colombia. The rest is false history written by liars.
In August 1962, the “schmuck” would sign with Albert Grossman to manage his career becoming one more willing victim of that deceased criminal. Grossman would become infamous as a con artist who ripped-off his talent roster but also for taking out a life insurance policy on Janis Joplin after he’d found she was injecting heroin. According to writer Ellis Amburn’s biography on the singer, Pearl, he’d told her and the rest of Big Brother & the Holding Company upon signing them in 1967 that he wouldn’t tolerate intravenous drug use. Where did he get that notion from? Because of Dylan? Weberman was the first to contend that Dylan was using heroin and has paid the price for telling this truth ever since 1971. Now he’s been proven correct. I believe that Grossman and Shelton constitute Weberman’s “Devil” in his text in an allegorical sense. This is a story about Jewish identity as well as one about the failure of the baby boomer generation to grasp their place in the world, in history, resorting to fraudulent lifestyles and voting accordingly. Many of these fools—too many of them American WASPs, banal reincarnations of conformist lynch mobs--will continue to ignore the truth about Dylan and America to the grave and to our collective peril. Weberman’s ability to grasp all of this underscores a powerful intellect that has yet to be even remotely appreciated, however rough the delivery might be, however painful. The truth is the truth that fools run away from. The Crowd delights in lies.
The Devil and Bob Dylan is interspersed with thematically-linked excerpts throughout from Tarantula and the legendary songs. According to Dylan biographer Bob Spitz, Weberman took the substantial proceeds from his bootlegging of the text and formed the “Dylan Liberation Front” in 1971, part of a multi-pronged assault to pressure the singer-songwriter into participating in progressive causes for a change. Considering the times, one can hardly blame him. Considering all of the lies, one can hardly blame him.
What he found in Dylan’s garbage went straight into the East Village Other and various underground publications during that painful transition from the sixties into the seventies, a time when so many illusions of the counterculture were being smashed. The reaction to Weberman’s revelations by 1971 ranged from explosive to utterly dismissive, and this is where some of the crux of the story comes into play: there are those who are capable of seeing the hard facts and those who are believers in the mythology of Dylan as an icon of an era. They buy into the lies on many fronts. The Yippies are also part of that iconography, albeit in a different sense, a far more transparent one. The main difference was in their sincerity proven by their adherence to social activism well into the 21st century, something the singer-songwriter ditched decades ago…if he ever truly believed in it at all. According to Weberman’s new book, he never did, a conclusion he seems to have reached before the legendary phone call between him and Dylan in January 1971. Legend has it that avante garde composer John Cage provided him with the means to tap and record the conversation. The entire operation to unmask Dylan should be regarded as an artistic work. The Devil and Bob Dylan is likely the bookending of it, the frame--a conclusion. Others were also ahead of the Crowd and were ignored.
By 1970 John Lennon had reached a point of maturity where he roundly rejected Dylan…as well as an addiction to heroin through snorting it, probably the method that his faltering hero had employed. George Harrison also battled this demon throughout the 1970s and Graham Nash was one more casualty. Harrison also snorted heroin. Was it thanks to Dylan’s influence over them? In his song “God,” Lennon roundly rejects Dylan as a weak man, not a man-god that others had made him and the Beatles into. Who would John Lennon, perhaps the most popular sing-songwriter of that era besides Zimmerman himself, have looked up to enough to have been persuaded to try heroin? That’s right, no one. The myth of Bob Dylan was founded on lies. The lies have begun to come crashing down for good. A.J. Weberman was right all along: you’ve been had and you wanted to be, the talent of the artist aside. Now grow up and get a life.