Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): I’ve heard through the grapevine that you have certain powers Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Oh no, that’s not me but I know who you mean Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): You’re not the alchemist? Alchemist (Bob Dylan): No, but I’ve seen him come through here, carrying his bags full of bottles. We talk now and then. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): What’s he tell you? Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Nothing special. I’ve seen him perform certain mysterious gestures though. I never say nothing’ about it. I just watch. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): What does he do? Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Sometimes very small things and sometimes very big ones. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): Like what? Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Well, I’ve seen him touch fire to ice one time. That was interesting, The whole place melted. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): You were right there? Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Right in the middle of it. I stood very still so as not to disturb his activity. Most people ran out of the joint but I stood right there watching. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): What happened then? Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Well next thing I knew we were rolling on ice. Well that was some dance he was doing. He showed me other stuff too but I ain’t tellin’. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): How come? Alchemist (Bob Dylan): ‘Cause I want him to come back and show me some more. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): Well, the reason I’m asking is because I’m a little concerned for the Empire. Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Why is that? Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): Everyone’s going bankrupt, and seeing as I’m the Emperor. I feel it’s my duty to bail them out in some way Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Well I could maybe talk to him for ya. You need gold or lightning? Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): Something that’s going to pay off the bills Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Well, who do you owe? Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): Certain invisible ones. Nobody’s sure. Alchemist (Bob Dylan): How did you get yourself into this situation? Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): I inherited it. Alchemist (Bob Dylan): Well, I’ll see what I can do for ya, but like I say, I’m not the one. Emperor (Allen Ginsberg): I’d certainly appreciate it. – The Alchemist Scene (Sam Shepherd from The Rolling Thunder Logbook)
Lay down Lay down yr Mountain Lay down God
Lay down Lay down yr music Love Lay down
Lay down Lay down yr hatred Lay yrself down
Lay down Lay down yr Nation Lay yr foot on the Rock
Lay down yr whole Creation Lay yr Mind down
Lay down Lay down yr Magic Hey Alchemist Lay it down Clear
Lay down yr Practice precisely Lay down yr Wisdom dear
Lay down Lay down yr Camera Lay down yr Image right
Yea Lay down yr Image Lay down Light.
Nov. 1, 1975
PBC: Is Dylan the “Alchemist” in those lines?
AG: Yeah, the poem is directed to him, because we were considering the nature of the movie we were making, which will be a nice thing, a sort of “dharma movie,” hopefully, depending on how it’s edited. The movie, made along the Rolling Thunder tour (one hundred and twenty hours of film which will have to be reduced to three) [the movie, after editing was released as Renaldo and Clara (1978)], has many “dharma” scenes. It was like a Buddhist conspiracy on the part of some of the directors and film cameramen; the director [producer – sic] Mel Howard was out at Naropa last year. In every scene that I played I used the Milarepa mantra “Ah” and kept trying to lay it on Dylan or the audience or the film men.
PBC: Much of Dylan’s music, even from the middle, electric period of his career, has impressed me as being very Zen-like in a lot of its imagery. Knowing him well as you do, do you think he has been influenced by Zen or Buddhism?
AG: I don’t know him because I don’t think there is any him, I don’t think he’s got a self!
PBC: He’s ever-changing.
AG: Yeah. He’s said some very beautiful, Buddha-like things. One thing, very important, was I asked him whether he was having pleasure on the tour, and he said, “Pleasure, Pleasure, what’s that? I never touch the stuff.” And then he went on to explain that at one time he had had a lot of pain and sought a lot of pleasure, but found that there was a subtle relationship between pleasure and pain. His words were, “They’re in the same framework.” So now, as in the Bhagavad Gita, he does what it is necessary to do without consideration of “pleasure,” not being a pleasure-junkie, which is good advice for anyone coming from the top-most pleasure-possible man in the world. He also said he believed in God. That’s why I wrote “Lay Down yr Mountain Lay down God.” Dylan said that where he was, “on top of the Mountain,” he had a choice whether to stay or to come down. He said, God told him, “All right, you’ve been on the Mountain, I’m busy, go down, you’re on your own. Check in later.” (laughs) And then Dylan said, “Anybody that’s busy making elephants and putting camels through needles’ eyes is too busy to answer my questions, so I came down the Mountain.”
PBC: Several of his albums have shown his interest in God, especiallyNew Morning.
AG: “Father of Night”, yeah. I think that is, in a sense, a penultimate stage. It’s not his final stage of awareness. I was kidding him on the tour, I said, “I used to believe in God.” So he said, “Well, I used to believe in God, too.” (laughs) And then he said, “You’d write better poetry if you believed in God.”
PBC: You’ve been fairly close to Dylan for a number of years now . . .
AG: No, I didn’t see him for four years. He just called me up at four a.m. and said, “What are you writing, sing it to me on the telephone.” And then said, “O.K., let’s go out on the road.”
PBC: He was encouraged by a letter you’d written him about your appreciation of his song “Idiot Wind”?
AG:Denise Mercedes, a guitarist whom Dylan admires, was talking to Dylan, and he mentioned to her that he was tickled. I had written a long letter to him demanding two hundred thousand dollars for Naropa Institute, to sustain the whole Trungpa scene, just a big long kidding letter, hoping that he’d respond. He liked the letter, he just skipped over the part about money. (He doesn’t read anything like that, I knew, anyway.) But then I also explained what was going on at Naropa with all the poets. I said also that I had dug the great line in the song “Idiot Wind,” which I thought was one of Dylan’s great great prophetic national songs, with one rhyme that took in the whole nation, I said it was a “national rhyme”:
Blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Dylan told Denise that nobody else had noticed it or mentioned it to him; that the line had knocked him out, too. He thought it was an interesting creation, however he had arrived at it. And I thought it was absolutely a height of Hart Crane-type poetics. I was talking earlier about resentment. “Idiot Wind” is like Dylan acknowledging the vast resentments, angers and ill-temper on the Left and the Right all through America during the ‘Sixties, calling it an “idiot wind” and saying “it’s a wonder we can even breathe” or “it’s a wonder we can even eat!” [ Editorial note – “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”..”it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”]
PBC: Right, and directing it at himself, as well.
AG: Yeah, talking about it within himself, but also declaring his independence from it. There’s a great line in which he says, “I’ve been double-crossed now for the very last time, and now I’m finally free,” recognizing and exorcising the monster [“the howling beast’] “on the borderline between you and me.” [“which separated you from me”].
PBC: You’ve obviously been impressed by Dylan and his music during the last decade.
AG: He’s a great poet.
PBC: Is it possible for you to verbalize what kinds of influence he’s had on your own style of poetry?
AG: I’ve done that at great length in the preface to a new book, First Blues, which has just been published in only 1,500 copies , so it’s relatively rare. I wrote a long preface tracing all the musical influences I’ve had, including Dylan’s, because I dedicated the book to him. He taught me three chords so I got down to blues. Right after Trungpa suggested I begin improvising, I began improvising and Dylan heard it, and encouraged it even more. We went into a studio in (19)71 and improvised a whole album.
PBC: Which has never been released. Do you think it ever will be?
PBC: Back to the Rolling Thunder Tour. Perhaps you can place it in the context of the Beat movement of the fifties and the consciousness expansion of the sixties. Something you said while on the tour indicated that you saw it as being perhaps that important; you said that “the Rolling Thunder Revue will be one of the signal gestures characterizing the working cultural community that will make the ‘Seventies.”
AG: Wishful thinking, probably, but at the same time wishful thinking is also prophesy. It seemed to me like the first bud of spring. I thought that the gesture toward communalism — almost like a traveling rock-family-commune that Dylan organized, with poets and musicians all traveling together, with the musicians all calling each other “poet” – “sing me a song, poet” – was a good sign. The fact that he brought his mother along – the “mysterious” Dylan had a chicken-soup, Yiddish Mama, who even got on stage at one point…
AG: Sara came, and his children came. And Sara met Joan Baez and they all acted in the movie together, and Joan Baez brought her mother and her children, andRamblin’ Jack Elliott had his daughter. So there was a lot of jumping family.
PBC: Sounds like Dylan tying up a lot of loose karmic ends.
AG: Right. As he says in the jacket notes to theDesire album, “We’ve got a lot of karma to burn.” To deal with or get rid of, I think he means.
PBC: It was really a unique tour, bringing you primarily to small towns and colleges in New England…
AG: He was very open and very tender, he gave a lot of himself there. We stood at Kerouac’s grave and read a little section on the nature of self-selflessness, fromMexico City Blues. Then we sat down on the grave and Dylan took up my harmonium and made up a little tune. Then he picked up his guitar and started a slow blues, so I improvised into a sort of exalted style, images about Kerouac’s empty skull looking down at us over the trees and clouds while we sat there, empty-mouthed, chanting the blues. Suddenly, Dylan interrupted the guitar while I continued singing the verses (making them up as I went along so it was like the triumph of the Milarepa style) and he picked up a Kerouac-ian October-brown autumn leaf from the grass above his grave and stuck it in his breast pocket and then picked up the guitar again and came down at the beat just as I did, too, and we continued for another couple of verses before ending. So it was very detached and surrendered; it didn’t even make a difference if he played the guitar or not. It was like the old blues guitarists who singa cappellafor a couple of bars.
PBC: Has Dylan ever acknowledged to you that Kerouac was an influence on him or that he’s familiar with his work?
AG: Yes, oddly! I asked him if he had ever read any Kerouac. He answered, “Yeah, when I was young in Minneapolis.” Someone had given him Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. He said, “I didn’t understand the words then, I understand it better now, but it blew my mind.” So apparently Kerouac was more of an influence on him than I had realized. I think it was a nice influence on him.
PBC: Which poem was he reading from Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues?
AG: It’s one toward the end of the book, which he picked out at random. I had picked out something for him to read and, typical Dylan, he turned the page and read the other one on the opposite side of the page. (laughs)
PBC: Which one did you pick out for him to read?
AG: “The wheel of the quivering meat/ conception/ Turns in the void..” [211th Chorus] the one that, I think, ends, “Poor!/ I wish I were free/of that slaving meat wheel/ and safe in heaven, dead.” There was another one [230th Chous] I picked which lists all the sufferings of existence and ends, “like kissing my kitten in the belly/ The softness of our reward.”
PBC: Was it your suggestion that Rolling Thunder include Lowell on the tour?
AG: No, Dylan had chosen it himself. We did a lot of beautiful filming in Lowell — one of the scenes described by Kerouac is a grotto near an orphanage in the center of red brick Catholic Lowell near the Merrimac River. So we went there and spent part of the afternoon. There’s a giant statue of Christ described by Kerouac. Dylan got up near where the Christ statue was on top of an artificial hill-mound, and all of a sudden he got into this funny monologue, asking the man on the cross, “How does it feel to be up there?” There’s a possibility… everyone sees Dylan as a Christ-figure, too, but he doesn’t want to get crucified. He’s too smart, in a way. Talking to “the star” who made it up and then got crucified Dylan was almost mocking, like a good Jew might be to someone who insisted on being the messiah, against the wisdom of the rabbis, and getting himself nailed up for it. He turned to me and said, “What can you do for somebody in that situation?” I think he quoted Christ, “suffer the little children,” and I quoted “and always do for others and let others do for you,” which is Dylan’s hip, American-ese paraphrase of Christ’s “Do unto others . . .,” in “Forever Young”.So there was this brilliant, funny situation of Dylan talking to Christ, addressing this life-size statue of Christ, and allowing himself to be photographed with Christ. It was like Dylan humorously playing with the dreadful potential of his own mythological imagery, unafraid and confronting it, trying to deal with it in a sensible way. That seemed to be the characteristic of the tour: that Dylan was willing to shoulder the burden of the myth laid on him, or that he himself created, or the composite creation of himself and the nation, and use it as a workable situation; as Trungpa would say, “alchemize” it.
We had another funny little scene – I don’t know if these will ever be shown in the film, that’s why I’m describing them – with Dylan playing the Alchemist and me playing the Emperor, filmed in a diner outside of Falmouth, Massachusetts. I enter the diner and say, “I’m the emperor, I just woke up this morning and found out I inherited an empire, and it’s bankrupt. I hear from the apothecary across the street that you’re an alchemist. I need some help to straighten out karmic problems with my empire . . . I just sent for a shipload of tears from Indo-China but it didn’t seem to do any good. Can you help, do you have any magic formulae for alchemizing the situation?” Dylan kept denying that he was an alchemist. “I can’t help, what’re you asking me for? I don’t know anything about it.” I said, “You’ve got to, you’ve got to be a bodhisattva, you’ve got to take on the responsibility, you’re the alchemist, you know the secrets.” So he asked the counterman, who was a regular counterman at a regular diner, to bring him some Graham crackers and some Ritz crackers, ketchup, salt, pepper, sugar, milk, coffee, yogurt, and apple pie. He dumped them all in a big aluminum pot. Earlier, I had come in and lay down my calling card, which was an autumn leaf, just like the one Dylan pocketed in the graveyard – the leaf which runs through many of the scenes in the movie, representing, like in Kerouac’s work, transiency, poignancy, regret, acknowledgement of change, death. So I threw my calling card leaf in the pot and Dylan threw in a piece of cardboard, and then he fished out the leaf, all muddy, and slapped it down on the counter on top of my notebook, where I was taking down all the magical ingredients of his alchemical mixture. Then I said, “Oh, I see the secret of your alchemy – ordinary objects.” “Yes,” he said, “ordinary mind.” So that was the point of that. Next I said, “Come on, look at my kingdom,” and he said, “No, I don’t want anything to do with it” and he rushed out of the diner. I followed him out, like in a Groucho Marx movie, and stopped: turned to the camera, lifted my finger, and said, “I’ll find out the secret.” Then we re-did the scene and, coyote magician that he is, with no consistency, he suggested towards the end of the scene, “Well, why don’t we go look at your kingdom?” So he led the way out and we went to see the “empire.” He was completely unpredictable in the way he would improvise scenes. All the scenes were improvised.
It’s Bob Dylan’s 74th birthday today!Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!