Bob Dylan’s Birthday – 3 – (Stadium Poetry)

Alan Ziegler’s moving account of his visit with Allen and his father,published in The Village Voice in July of 1976, shortly before the latter’s death, is one of the most touching and heart-breaking of accounts. We strongly advise you to read it.

Today, as part of our 75-year-birthday celebrations of Bob Dylan, we’re (re)publishing the “out-takes” (they first appeared in “Poets on Stage”, a special issue of Some magazine, edited by Ziegler, Harry Greenberg, and Larry Zirlin, and in “The Best American Poetry” blog in June of last year).  Ziegler briefly explains – “During my June 4, 1976 visit with Allen and Louis Ginsberg for The Village Voice, Allen mentioned that he had just recorded an album of his songs and had been on tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. The ensuing conversation (with footnotes added by Allen upon reading the transcript) was not included in the Voice piece..”   On the occasion of Bob’s 75th, it’s (re-)presented here:

AZ: Did Dylan let you do any singing on the tour?

AG: Actually he’s done me a favor, he was dubious about my singing but he kept pushing me to recite poetry, till finally in Fort Collins [AG’s first annotation – Fort Collins Colo., Site of Hard Rain concert, May 23,1976″], I did, and in Salt Lake.

AZ: Why did he have to talk you into it?

AG: I sort of had this fatuous – [AG’s second annotation – “Actually I was kidding. By June 3, 1976 I had finished recording First Blues album under direction of jazz historian John Hammond Sr., with musicians I’d worked with since late 60’s Blake Songs album, and the 19 yr old cherubic David Mansfield of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder group”] – idea of myself as a singer, they have enough singers and musicians and rock and roll stars there. He was interested in the poetry part—I was shy about that, partly scared, I couldn’t figure what you could say to 27,000 people, what could engage the minds of that many people in the hysteria of a giant rock and roll thing. One day in Fort Collins as Dylan came off in the intermission, casually over the shoulder he said, “Why don’t you go out there and read a poem?” So I went out there and read a very brief poem called, “On Neal Cassidy’s Ashes” because that’s Denver area (half the audience did know who Cassidy was)—seven lines, one exact, clear, sharp, solid, brilliant image, in the middle of this rock and roll hysteria saying, “All ashes, all ashes again.” – “On Neal’s Ashes” – “Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies all ash/nipples, Ribs I touched w/my thumb are ash/mouth my tongue touched once or twice all ash/bony cheeks soft on my belly are cinder, ash/ earlobes & eyelids, youthful cock tip, curly pubis/breast warmth, man palm, high school thigh,/baseball bicep arm, asshole anneal’d to silken skin/all ashes, all ashes again.”

AZ: How did the audience react?

AG: Well, cheers. I couldn’t tell whether cheers of recognition, derision, or just to have somebody talking. I wasn’t announced, I just went out and bellowed words out over a microphone and when I got off Roger McGuinn shouted my name and then the band went into their thing.

AZ: I think it would be entirely appropriate to read poetry in that setting.

AG: It turned out to be—Dylan’s imagination was just right, I hadn’t realized. Then I read again in Salt Lake, a poem which was just right for a Mormon, mystic town – “Holy Ghost On The Nod Over The Body of Bliss” – [AG’s third annotation – “Read at Salt Lake May 19,1976, Rolling Thunder Revue. This version as altered for Mormon Salt Lake Context—Urim & Thummim are Mormon revelatory gold plated artifacts.”] – Is this the God of Gods, the one I heard about/in memorized language Universities murmur?/Dollar bills can buy it! the great substance/exchanges itself freely through all the world’s/poetry money, past and future gold plated currencies/translated by the mind’s Urim & Thummim into/owl eyes identical on every one of 90 Billion Dollarbill vibrating/to the pyramid-top in the United States of Heaven—Aye aye Sir Owl Oh say can you see in the dark you/observe Minerva nerveless in Nirvana because/Zeus rides reindeer thru Bethlehem’s blue sky/It’s Buddha sits in Mary’s belly waving KuanYin’s white hand at the Yang-tze that Mao sees,/tongue of Kali licking Krishna’s soft blue lips./Chango holds Shiva’s prick, Ouroboros eats th’ cobalt bomb/Parvati on YOD’s perfumed knee cries Aum/ & Santa Barbara rejoices in the alleyways of Brindaban/La Illah El (lill) Allah Who—Allah Akbar!/Goliath struck down by kidneystone, Golgothas grow old,/ All these wonders are crowded in the Mind’s Eye/Superman & Batman race forward, Zarathustra on Coyote’s ass,/Lao tzu disappearing at the gate, God mocks God,/ Job sits bewildered that Ramakrishna is Satan/and Bodhidharma forgot to bring Nothing.” –  But it had to be fast, sharp. And there was no announcement (before or after) who I was or anything, I just went out and knocked that language out. So the review in the paper said that a gentleman in a tuxedo got up and recited a poem in the intermission. I had gotten a five buck shantung silk tuxedo from Salt Lake Salvation Army and wore it on stage.

AZ: Did the reviewer think it was just somebody from the audience?

AG: No, they understood it was part of the show, like “an interesting part of the show was when a guy in a tuxedo came out and recited a poem.”

AZ: Many years ago, Dylan read a poem to Woody Guthrie in the middle of a concert and the audience responded enthusiastically.

AG: Everybody wants to hear Dylan talk, anyway.

AZ: The spoken voice in the context of a music setting can be very startling.

AG: Well, I must say I was a little scared because I figure after all the rhythm and harmony and powerful enunciation of vowels and consonants on Dylan’s part, how talked poetry could engage people’s consciousness and rivet attention. At best, poetry is soft spoken actual speech like someone talking to himself very quietly, but saying things so clear that it is literally comprehensible and the sound is clear and the mind is clear. In rock and roll, the mind is not necessarily clear. So the poetry can have the clear mind talking directly, and not raising the voice. It would be interesting in the middle of Rolling Thunder to get to that. Another thing is the oratorical “Howl” or “Sunflower” like that “Holy Ghost” poem I did in Salt Lake—in an oratorical rock and rolling voice. But to do (Charles) Reznikoff or (William Carlos) Williams style work that doesn’t have rhyme, (Whitman is still oratorical)—it’s an open field for experiment, but Dylan seems to want experiment.

AZ: It’s such a great opportunity to get the work out there.

AG: And to develop a form, maybe there is no poetic form yet developed for an audience of 27,000 people. That’s a whole new physical setting: there’s the form of coffee house and there’s the form of the Greek amphitheatre, and there’s the form appropriate to the movie theatre, and there’s a form appropriate to vaudeville, a form appropriate to the YMHA hall, and a form appropriate to the university cafeteria, ballroom, auditorium, lounge or classroom, or a form appropriate to the Australian aborigine tribal community chanting led by the Songman with song sticks. So there’s all different forms appropriate to different situations. Now the situation of quiet speech—quiet, sensible non-manipulative speech to planet crowds is something that hasn’t been quite taken up yet. It’s been taken up on the radio with fireside chats or on television to a certain extent, but the in-person just-talk to so many people and without raising the voice has not yet been experimented with.

AZ: The closest we’ve had to large poetry readings has been when the Russian poets come to such places as Madison Square Garden, but they raise their voices.

AG: Yes. I’ve worked with them and I know them and I know their style. First of all, it’s only crowds of 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000, and they are people attuned to poetry. But here, it’s crowds not yet attuned to the tradition of spoken poetry in vast crowds. And it’s not crowds of five or ten thousand, it’s crowds of 20 and 30 or 40,000 people, a Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium crowd potentially, Astrodome crowds, Be-In crowds—events like Woodstock might be 100,000. I’ve been in front of 100,000 people, but in a foreign language—in Prague, May Day ’65. What I did there was chant, just reduce to pure sound, syllables of “Om” and “Ah” and that worked out. But to speak in America to large crowds is different. Dylan, I think, saw the space there before I did, and tried to encourage me to do it, which is an amazing piece of generosity on his part—intelligence—or just natural mind, Dylan has common sense—freedom—ease, ease. So, he’s talking about continuing working on that.

AZ: Is he going to keep on touring?

AG: Well, we talked about it a couple of weeks ago, he said he’s a gypsy and he wants to go on touring for the rest of his life, absolute wandering, and I said, “Well, I have to go home and take care of my father.” He said, “Listen, when you’re an old man, we’ll take care of you on your death bed.” He said, “We’re gonna be gypsies, go around the world and tour forever, never never never never come home again.” It was late at night, and we were all drinking.

AZ: Are you going to hold him to it?

AG: No, I’m sure he was just babbling poetry.

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