Archives For March 2011

Happy Birthday, Gregory Corso!

Okay, we admit it. We forgot his birthday. This post has been backdated to make it look like we remembered, but we won’t lie… We forgot.


Oh well, better late than never. Which was okay with Corso, himself. He was the youngest of the Beats but he is one of the best remembered – up there alongside Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs.

So let’s wish him a belated happy birthday.

Loneliness and Waitresses: Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski

By Ardin Lalui

Imagine a world without waitresses. Who’d want it? There’s some men have no use for a world like that. For them a life without waitresses is no life at all, no life worth living.

Take Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski. Waitresses have left a deep mark on the art of both and have helped shape and add meaning to some of their best work. They have both drawn waitresses as romantic and mysterious. Waitresses have altered the landscape of their worlds, made it a wistful place, and full of longing. Maybe it’s because they’re lonely, but it’s a certain kind of loneliness, beautiful and tragic and poignant. It’s a strange loneliness comes through in their lyrics and poetry.

Closing Time, Waits’ first album, talks about this loneliness in track nine, “Lonely.” It’s a short song, a lament, it doesn’t say much but it says lonely like no other. “Lonely eyes, lonely face, lonely lonely in your place.” It’s a loneliness that’s unexpected, “I thought that I knew all that there was to,” and it’s unfair, “Melanie Jane, won’t feel the pain,” but mostly it’s just inevitable, self-inflicted, and almost welcome because its your own refusal to let go that drives it, “I still love you, I still love you, lonely, lonely….”

It’s a very specific loneliness of which Waits sings.  It doesn’t depend who you’re with, it’s carried on the inside, and its reasons can only be found on the inside. It might be the most beautiful of human emotions. It doesn’t come without sadness. For every real thing there’s proof, and the proof the human heart is made to love is loneliness. There’s not always a girl in mind, maybe there’s no girl at all, but there he is, loneliest living man in the world. That’s the loneliness that has a man walking into a diner at 2 a.m. looking for a waitress.

This longing for a waitress has nothing to do with looks. That’s not to say there’s any problem with a pretty waitress, nothing in the world like a pretty waitress, but that’s gravy, a bonus, like having a pretty mom or sister.

Bukowski had no problem with pretty waitresses. He once had an affair with a cocktail waitress, name of Pamela Miller. He said, “she’ll be the death of me but it’s worth it.” She was a knockout, red hair, Miss Pussycat 1973. They called her Cupcakes because of her 38D chest and Bukowski said “each time I see her she looks better and better, 200 years ago they would have burned her at the stake.” That’s a pretty waitress. She worked at The Alpine Inn.

But this waitress thing isn’t about sex. It’s more important, and fills a more basic, innocent need. An old, 300-pound waitress has the magic soon as she puts on that dress. She’s apart from other women. Don’t underestimate the dress. In Septuagenarian Stew Bukowski says:

“I should not have blamed only my father, but,

he was the first to introduce me to

raw and stupid hatred.

he was really the best at it…

…when I left that … “home” … I found his


everywhere …

I was simply the target to their discontent

some old fat waitress bringing me a cup of coffee

is in comparison

like a fresh wild wind blowing.”

He’s talking about his father and growing up and being unhappy and all it takes is a waitress and bang, “fresh wild wind blowing.” And Bukowski is not exactly given to looking on the softer side of life.

That’s waitressing. That’s why waitresses are important. They’re a fresh wild wind to every afflicted soul. You need a waitress sometimes and they’re always there. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and most importantly, whatever you’ve done, they’ll be there waiting for you. A waitress has got no place else to go. She’ll listen to you, whatever lame joke, lame compliment. She’s waiting for your order, doesn’t know what you’re going to say, she’s got to be there. That’s part of the beauty of it. Nine times out of ten, only reason she’s free to be nice to you is because it’s her job. If it wasn’t her job she couldn’t do it. Her husband wouldn’t let her. It wouldn’t be appropriate. That’s why no other woman will do.

A waitress is always your chance to talk to another human soul, a woman’s, however brief. She’ll hear it. That’s enough. Maybe she liked it. Maybe she liked you.

And of course, maybe she didn’t like you. That’s ok. She doesn’t have to like you. She doesn’t have to be nice. She doesn’t owe you anything. She’s not your girlfriend. There’s a certain guy goes into a diner and thinks the girl in the dress is in love with him. I’ve got nothing to say about guys like that. That’s not what I’m talking about here. That’s a different thing. It’s sad but it’s a different sad. And it can be uncomfortable for the waitress because maybe she’s got a man. She’s not hustling, she’s just smiling when she gives you your coffee. A waitress doesn’t want a guy to get the wrong idea.

No matter how nice a waitress and how much you think you need her, you’ve got to remember your place, who you are, and who she is. Waits wrote about it on Small Change, track six, “Invitation to the Blues”.

“Well she’s up against the register with an apron and a spatula,

Yesterday’s deliveries, tickets for the bachelors

She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her shoes,

Well, it’s just an invitation to the blues.”

You watch a waitress and a customer, you’re watching life. And all life’s got rules. You play by the rules, don’t overstep, and don’t let your mind run away, you’ll do just fine with waitresses, and the cup of coffee they serve is better than a cup of gold. But you let your mind run you’re just asking for blues.

And no waitress wants to be an invitation to the blues. They don’t want to torment a man so lonely he’s getting designs on the first woman he’s spoken to all day.

But you know, even when that happens, who’s to say it’s so bad? A guy gets the wrong idea once in a while, but if that waitress’s smile is the best thing he’s seen all day, the only smile he got, well thank god she was there. There are worse things than the blues.

The tie between the lonely soul and the waitress runs deeper than smiles. Waits had no problem with an unfriendly waitress. On track five of Small Change, “The Piano has been Drinking (Not Me)”, the waitress doesn’t smile. Song says,

“you can’t find your waitress with a Geiger counter

And she hates you and your friends and you just can’t get served without her.”

She doesn’t love him, she’s at work, but she’s still his waitress.

Waitresses are good for art, and for some art they’re crucial. The reason waitresses don’t kill the art they inspire, like some other women, is because no matter how nice they are, they never really cure the loneliness. They can’t, and thank god. Sometimes they ease it. That’s what has you coming in every night. Even a mean waitress eases loneliness. But they also prolong it. And the prettier the waitress the further she invites you into the blues. And that’s the invitation feeds good music and poetry.

America, beat art, Waits songs and Bukowski poems are all populated by men on the road. Drifter men with homeless minds. They don’t have a woman to go home to. They don’t want one. They don’t know what they want. And anyway they can’t find it. There’s a searching, a yearning, and there are a lot of greyhound buses and railway boxcars. Here’s an excerpt from Bukowski’s poem, “where was I?” from his collection, Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way.

I always seemed to be

on a cross-country




looking out a dirty

window at

nothing at


I always knew exactly how much

money I was


for example:

a five and two ones

in my wallet

and a nickel, a dime and

two pennies in my right

front pocket.

I had no desire to speak

to anybody nor to be

spoken to.

I don’t know what it is keeps these men moving. It’s a by-product of their loneliness but also a cause. And it wouldn’t survive without waitresses. They wouldn’t. The men. The men of Bukowski poems, the Henry Chinaskis of a thousand small towns, stumbling from bar to bar, wouldn’t last without waitresses. The men in Waits’ songs, curious and varied, would perish. Without waitresses the world would be too cruel for them, they would die, the art they inspire would die, and the world would lose something beautiful.

I don’t know what it is that waitresses have, especially the old fat ones and the ones that hate you, but they have something, every one of them. It’s undeniable. All the late night diners of the world are full of men and cigarette smoke and day old newspapers, and they’re irrefutable proof of something important. Think about it. What are those men there for? Some of them are on a shift, killing time, waiting, would rather be at home in bed, but some of them, the ones we’re interested in, couldn’t be anywhere else. They’ve got no place else to go and even if they had they wouldn’t be there.

“Gypsy hacks and insomniacs”, that’s what Waits calls them in “Eggs & Sausage (In a Cadillac With Susan Michelson)”, track six on Nighthawks at the Diner. Here’s an album devoted almost entirely to those men and those waitresses, keeping watch while the rest of the world sleeps. An entire album exploring that feeling, that place, the diner late at night and the coffee and cigarettes and waitresses, the men in there looking for something nameless. He describes the waitress in verse two of “Eggs & Sausage”.

“In a graveyard charade, a late shift masquerade

2 for a quarter, dime for a dance

with Woolworth rhinestone diamond

earrings, and a sideway’s glance

now the register rings

and now the waitress sings.”

Who knows what has those places full so late? You don’t see too many women in there. And what would happen to them, those men, and the poetry and music, without the waitresses?

There’s one last poem by Bukowski I want to finish with. It’s not necessarily about a waitress or about the loneliness, but they’re in there. They have to be. The poem was recorded by Waits in 2006 on Orphans (Bastards), track eleven. It shows they were on the same page. Maybe it even has an answer.


Not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose,

He was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina on the way to


And it began to snow.

And the bus stopped at a little café in the hills and the passengers entered.

And he sat at the counter with the others, and he ordered, the food arrived.

And the meal was particularly good.

And the coffee.

The waitress was unlike the women he had known.

She was unaffected, and there was a natural humor which came from her.

And the fry cook said crazy things.

And the dishwasher in back laughed a good clean pleasant laugh.

And the young man watched the snow through the window.

And he wanted to stay in that café forever.

The curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.

And it would always stay beautiful there.

And then the bus driver told the passengers that it was time to board.

And the young man thought: “I’ll just stay here, I’ll just stay here.”

And then he rose and he followed the others into the bus.

He found his seat and looked at the café through the window.

And then the bus moved off, down a curve, downward, out of the hills.

And the young man looked straight forward.

And he heard the other passengers speaking of other things,

or they were reading or trying to sleep.

And they hadn’t noticed the magic.

And the young man put his head to one side,

closed his eyes, and pretended to sleep.

There was nothing else to do,

just listen to the sound of the engine,

and the sound of the tires

in the snow.

The Whole Shot: Collected Interviews With Gregory Corso

Rick Schober of Vox Redux Press is attempting to publish a collection of  interviews with the late Gregory Corso. The collection currently features eight interviews from the 1970s and 80s, and has a cover photo by legendary photographer, Hank O’Neal.

As with many other start-up projects these days, Rick is using Kickstarter to help cover some of the initial costs of the project. If you donate, you will not only be helping put a great book into publication, you will be earning yourself a copy of that book, along with other Corso memorabilia.

Please take a look at the Kickstarter page:

As well as the publisher’s website:

Happy Birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the owner of City Lights Bookstores & Publishers of San Francisco. As the publisher of some of the most important works in Beat (and literary) history, as well as a great poet in his own right, Ferlinghetti holds a special place in the hearts of all of us here at Beatdom. He has made tremendous contributions to the world of literature and to the city of San Francisco.

Let’s all wish him a happy 92nd birthday.

Happy Fear and Loathing Day

It was forty years ago today that Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta set out on the journey that became one of the 20th century’s greatest novels.

Read more at The Millions.

Happy Birthday, Jack Kerouac!

Jack Kerouac, legendary author of On the Road, would’ve been 89 yrs old today. He was born March 12th, 1922.

Go, Man, Go!

Check it out: Two Beat souls performing on stage for Kerouac’s 89th birthday. More at TNB.

Poetess and Patriarch

An exploration of female Beat writers and their involvement with the second-wave feminist movement

‘American literature is male. Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate… It is not surprising that in it the experience of being American is equated with the experience of being male.’

Judith Fetterley – The Resisting Reader (1978)

This introductory quote by Judith Fetterley has been chosen for its boldness and will hopefully set the pace for some of the topics I am going to cover in this article. Through much of the twentieth century, women – as academics, scholars, feminist theorists, leaders of political groups – have sought to challenge what it means to be female and to fundamentally confront the supposed innate and biological factions against those which are socially formed in a political spectrum that undervalues women as creative, artistic and intelligent members of the human race. So how do the women of the Beat Generation fit into this? Firstly, it has been suggested that women members of the Beat Generation lived an emancipated existence that found its routes within the Beat ideals themselves – the freedom of expression, the resistance to mundanity, the sexual freedom – all of which became adopted towards the end of the 1960s when the countercultural revolution and the feminist movement were in full-swing. Secondly, we can derive from the literature produced that the women Beats felt a strong sense of self, a sense of one’s own place within, what was mainly, a male-dominated, male-orientated body of commercial literature; as Ronna C. Johnson tells us; ‘all women Beat writers express a rebellious, anti-establishment critique of women’s assigned place and value in patriarchy, and this gendered emphasis is the radical distinction by which beat literature is amended by its female practitioners.’

Allen Ginsberg, on the topic of female writers within the Beat generation, was once quoted as saying, ‘Among the group of people we knew at the time, who were the [women] writers of such power as Kerouac or Burroughs? Were there any? I don’t think so.’ In this statement Ginsberg tells us how he failed to recognise the contribution of literature by women of the Beat generation that equalled in quality to that of its contemporaries.  Much has been said about this quote. From a feminist-literary perspective this quote embodies what many women feel as patriarchal hegemony, meaning that within the forces of the industry and in culture generally, women are considered the subaltern – the undervalued.  Later in this article I will discuss the writings of the women who contributed so greatly to the Beat Generation. But first I want to place feminism in its true historical context.

Being Beat and Being Woman

American feminism tends to be split into two categories; first-wave and second-wave movements. First wave, as Valarie Sanders tells us, began as early as 1848 with revolutionaries such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Early campaigns were an attempt mainly to change ‘divorce laws, married women’s property rights, and the vote.’ Despite motivated campaigns the ability to vote spread over several decades – firstly being lifted in Wyoming, in 1869, and then in Utah, in 1870. Almost five decades later, by the 1920s, most of the northern states had also abolished this out-dated exclusionary practice. The second- wave feminist movement, as Sue Thornham describes, is often associated with the 1960s countercultural revolutions. In 1966, Betty Friedan founded NOW (national organisation for women). This organisation arose out of the ineffectiveness of government bodies to promote equality within the work place. Also during this time the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ began; ‘Unlike NOW, these groups had no national organisation; instead they drew on the infrastructure of the radical community, the underground press, and the free universities.’ An action which is often synonymous with feminists of the 1960s – the burning of the bra – was in fact true to a certain extent, in that at some demonstrations a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ was set alight, where women could dispose of items which oppressed them as women – ‘dishcloths, high-heels, bras and girdles.’

The counterculture itself – a period usually coupled with freedom and liberation – is often criticized for its attitudes towards women. Rochelle Gatlin, in her book American Women Since 1945, tells us how she feels the counterculture was a male led movement; ‘Men were willing to become more “feminised” but they did not encourage women to assume traditional masculine characteristics.’ She goes on to say, ‘The model for sexual liberation was a masculine one.’ Many women felt that the removal of ‘sex’ from ‘feeling’ was advantageous to men in that it led to sexual promiscuity. The media at this time only seemed to re-enforce the notion of women as objects for male attraction; the magazine Cosmopolitan, started in 1965 by Helen Gurley Brown, was targeted commercially at the single girl, who took the pill and who lived alone. In the magazine emphasis was placed solely on fashion, beauty and sex serving only to place women into the category of ‘male-lust-objects’. In a similar way the magazine Seventeen, ‘designed for teenage girls, emphasised physical attractiveness. Advertising showed models in postures of sexual surrender to men and in competition with each other.’

The Beat Generation found itself in between the two periods of feminist discourse. The period prior to the second-wave movement is often termed ‘protofeminist’. Ronna C. Johnson tells us how female Beat writers were an integral element to this protofeminist period; their work tends to ‘challenge and interrogate assumptions about women, gender, and relations between the sexes, and asserts a corrected version.’ Sex for the Beats is commonly cited as one of the boundary-breaking taboos to which they discussed, admired and used in a multitude of ways (see: tantric sex). The idea was freedom and an expression of one’s true natural being (be it male or female); as Clinton Starr notes: ‘the Beat Generation was intricately intertwined, discursively but also materially, with sexuality, race relations, and gender roles in the post-war decades. The Beat lifestyle offered an escape from the sultry American role as homemaker; as Brenda Knight tells us; ‘Being beat was far more attractive than staying chained to a brand-new kitchen appliance.’ The conservatism of 1950s America aimed to instil a sense of national pride in a time fraught with cold-war panic, inadvertently placing women under the thumb of men and depicting them as either ‘wives…’ or ‘mothers…’ What is evident in the writing of female Beat writers is trueness to self and an accurate perception of the realities faced by women within the 1950s and 1960s. Beat poetess, Anne Waldman tells us how women were ‘driven, despite, fighting against the constraints of culture, family, education… often dwelling in the twilight of a “great” man’s personality or career.’

The Women of the Beat Generation

Anne Waldman, perhaps one of the most prolific of female beat writers, played a role in bringing the issues that women face into a public sphere – in both her essays and prose. The writings of Anne Waldman, as Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace tell us, ‘not only incorporate beat perspectives but [also] extend through and beyond beat into a women-centred, countercultural idiom.’ On the recovery of women Beat writers Anne Waldman tells us how ‘it is necessary to bring the female persona, the feminine principle, feminist concerns, the sense of the women’s struggle as wives, lovers, mothers, artists, breadwinners… into the whole macrocosm that is the beat literary movement.’

The Waldman poem Fast Speaking Woman, from the collection of the same name, is a chant-based mantra that’s primary focus is to speak to everywoman; she states, ‘I had in my head that I would do a list-chant telling all the kinds of women there are to be.’ The poem begins with the citation, ‘“I is another “- Rimbaud. The poem itself is an impassioned monologue using mainly the prefix ‘I am the/a…’ used to denote the different characters of women; ‘I’m the abandoned woman… the absinthe women… I’m the girl under an old fashioned duress.’ The Beat life she led inevitably led to her realisation of the issues faced by women. In an interview Waldman speaks about the many ‘interesting creative women’ she knew ‘who become junkies for their boyfriends, who stole for their boyfriends, who concealed their poetry and artistic aspirations, who slept around to be popular, who had serious eating disorders, who concealed their unwanted pregnancies raising money for abortions.’

Beat author Diane Di Prima was heavily involved with the iconic Beat figures. She first moved to the lower east side, New York in 1953 where she began a relationship with Ezra Pound. In 1957 she first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and other of Beat’s iconic figures. Memoirs of a Beatnik is a biographical novelette depicting a seventeen-year old Di Prima’s coming of age in the midst of the 1950s Beat revolution. In this account, emphasis is placed on the ever relinquishing sexual oppression that was felt by American youth. Di Prima discusses both sexual encounters with men and women; chapter two, for example, details how she came to lose her virginity on a one-night-stand. The novelette is written with coarse, descriptive sexual imagery; ‘afterwards there was blood on his cock, and when I could move again I licked it off, swallowing my childhood, entering the world of the living… He was on me now, bucking and straining like an animal. A faun. But it was too much. My small tight cunt couldn’t take in his huge cock.’ She also makes reference to sexual promiscuity; ‘I had forgotten the name of the man whose hand was in my cunt.’ Further in, and she describes to us her experience of lesbianism; ‘Five or six girls had gathered in one room. One had been chosen and ritually stripped, and the rest, posted at different parts of her anatomy, sought to arouse her while she lay naked on the bed.’ Di Prima here is confronting, within a literary exercise, her experiences as a young woman who fought for self-realisation and freedom; allowing herself to express and fulfil her sexual desires without fear of social persecution from an American mainstream based on oppression.

It is also worth mentioning Hettie Jones and Joyce Johnson as two poets, who sought an ulterior existence in the Beat exterior; as Nancy M. Grace tells us, ‘As historians, Johnson and Jones embark on the formidable task of speaking as gendered beings, knowing full well that their lives in the Beat avant-garde broke many of the rules for “good girl” behaviour promulgated at mid-twentieth century.’ Johnson had a two year relationship with Kerouac. In her book Minor Characters, Johnson describes how she felt an otherness regarding her involvement in the Beat movement; ‘I ended up accidentally with Kerouac in the centre of the action, yet always felt myself on the periphery. I was much more of an observer than I wanted to be.’

The Power of the Pen

“When she is productive, active, she regains her transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject.’

Simone De Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1949)

Writing seemed to be somewhat of a catalyst for the second-wave feminist movement. This form of expression was paramount to the success of women’s rights; writing (particularly scholarly), allowed women to create concise and politically armed pieces of literature that could function as biblical rhetoric; as Cora Kaplan wrote, ‘defiance is a component of the act of writing for women.’ Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) is certainly considered a canonical piece of writing; the book deals principally with the ‘cultural construction of women as the Other,’ in similar ways in which Edward Said talks of the cultural construction of the Orient by the West in his book Orientalism (1978). Other works of interest through the 1960s/70s include Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970); (note: the publication of Diane Di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969)).

In the twentieth century much of the literary merit goes to the male writers. One possible reason for this, as Rita Felski points out, is the ‘many hurdles’ faced by women who wish to devote their lives to writing; ‘economic dependency, lack of time and space, the relentless intrusion of everyday life in the form of squalling infants or testy husbands [and] the disparagement faced by women who chose to remain single or childless.’ Women could not associate enough with the writings of men, and if they wished to read, they were expected to ‘read as men’. The problem was identity. A literature was required that related to women’s true sensibilities rather than those sensibilities being dramatised by male authors, as Judith Fetterley writes; ‘To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness.’

I feel that within the female Beat canon this sensibility is realised. By not only living but exhibiting – within their writing – their lives, these women could reach out to those disillusioned by American values, the American dream and misogyny. The ambition and drive these women had personified a message that was to become all too clear within the feminist movement that proceeded; as Anne Waldman petitioned, ‘We no longer have to be fetched up.’ Feminism is a movement with labyrinthine academic possibilities. In this article, I realise I have only scratched the dirt-sodden surface of women’s politics. Without further in-depth analysis of the role of the female Beats within the feminist movement, little in the way of a conclusion can be given. I would suggest, however, to anyone who has an appetite for Beat literature to visit (or revisit, as the case may be) the works of its female practitioners. It is in these works where we find true Emersonian-reliance upon the self; where we find a disparagement between media-representations of women and the lives of women; and most important of all, where we find intelligent, creative and articulate pieces of fiction and prose.

Romance & the Rolling Stone

by Michael Hendrick

As often as possible, I avoid getting into discussions about Bob Dylan and his body of work. There are a few people who have taken the time to listen and can hold an intelligent conversation but usually the subject either results in one more bad impersonation that is not even vaguely funny or in the implication that the man cannot carry a tune. A very frustrating situation.

Dylan was the closing act at Woodstock 1995. Since he avoided the first Woodstock on purpose, since it had been calculated to draw him out of hiding, give him an ‘A’ for irony on that one. Not having cash to attend and not being the type to go to such overblown extravaganzas, news came to me of a co-worker who had gone. He was a nice enough guy but it was his misfortune to be born with a cleft palate. Resultingly, his voice was a high-pitch and his words often broke at syllables.

At the printer during the week after the show, I asked him how it was and about Dylan, in particular. A recording of Jokerman from the festival had been circulating and sounded fine…a solid version of a favorite tune.

“So what about Bob Dylan,” I queried, while tugging at a sheet of paper that had mis-fed, “How was he, man?”

“Awww…Bah Dealwan…,” he frowned, showing me thumbs down, “He sth-ucked!”

“ He sucked? Come on, man,” I countered, “I heard him on the radio! What was wrong with him?” We had drank enough together that contention was allowed.

He looked at me, shaking his head, and sputtered, “Whe, nI couldunn unnastand na wo-irds!!” His voice rose, like he was dealing with an idiot.

There seemed to be no reply to that logic, framed in that voice, yet it is just a common aggravation that people who enjoy the whole Dylan catalogue endure. Everybody jokes about the voice. Some people will give him credit for being a great lyricist, while qualifying the statement with an off-comment regarding the voice.

What seems to be most widely ignored is his magical proficiency as a guitar player and his place in culture as a Romantic figure. Not being a musician and, so, not qualified to write about the technical process of the guitar, I look at who BD surrounds himself with and is caught hanging out with. Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Ron Wood, the late Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton – guitar heroes, all.

Romance and references to love, lost love, impossible love and wrong love all waft through the lyrics throughout his songs from 1962 to his most recent release Together Through Life. So much love, so many relationships, so many hopes dissolved; they present a daunting task when trying to string them all on one common thread of theme. As we have just seen the release of the Widmark Demos on Columbia Records, let us concentrate on his earlier songs, the blood of which he laid on the tracks from 1962-1964.

First, it is important to understand the romantic.

Merriam-Webster notes the romantic to be imaginary and visionary, having no basis in fact and impractical in conception or plan, marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized and by the expressions of love or affection. The definition says more but that much says what is needed.

An apt description of the 20-ish Robert Zimmerman, as he made his way through the snow banks and into Manhattan. He would seem to have come out of nowhere, obviously, his songs were visionary and were impractical since he did not play the game and write what the boss on Tin Pan Alley expected. At that time in America, originality evoked poison. Most striking, the five words – heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, idealized. What better description of the man, then and now? Remote and mysterious, perhaps a result his documented of Asperger’s Syndrome, or to protect the image and person behind it; idealized is certainly his status among fans and world leaders alike; heroic for speaking his mind in the face of goliath opposition, and any question about being adventurous not only points to his current tour schedule but for taking chances from the beginning – after all, he was the Lucky Wilbury.

A Jokerman ‘standing on the waters casting his bread’ as he entered NYC in the frozen winter, he literally stood on the frozen waters of oceans of snow and trudged through the icy gutters of the city. In school, he had mimicked the moves and speech of James Dean and Marlon Brandon, like many impressionable, sensitive teens. Now, like them, he was in Times Square hustling to stay alive, selling himself to men and women like Joe Buck wanted to do in Midnight Cowboy. Things went bad somewhere in this scenario, as can be expected, and he left the city hurriedly for reasons he has never explained. He returned because once he felt the force end energy of the community in Greenwich Village, stoked by emergence of ‘youth culture’, he knew he had to be there, drawn like a moth to flame.

We know he cast his bread and it came back to him and the city seems to be the place for such alchemy, as about ten years later, a waifish Patricia Lee Smith bought a ticket with found money and stepped off the bus to make her home on a favorite set of stone steps until Fortune found her there.

Falling in with the Beats and folkies of the East Village, he began stealing everything, songs, words, styles, licks, phrases, beats…from everyone he knew. His Twin Cities reputation of album thief, spawned by his penchant for ‘borrowing’ albums for extended periods of time, often without permission from the owner, had readied him for a higher sort of larceny. Recently, critics have derided him for appropriating ideas and passages from popular literature. Some things just don’t change.

Melodies lifted from tradional English and Celtic ballads framed the original thoughts and unlikely verbal synapses of the young man with the old voice. Maybe, in his relentless devouring of literature, he copped poet Arthur Rimbaud’s credo of the poet being a ‘thief of fire.’ Rimbaud references do not begin to appear in his songs until much later, on Blood On The Tracks. ‘Love and theft’ withstanding, the body of work created from 1962-64 mark the zenith of his creativity, as the artist himself admits.

Dylan never defines his songs and never did. Known as a purveyor of protest, he claims to never have written a protest song but rather a number of ‘finger pointing songs.’ Never claiming to know what “the answer” was, at least he pointed to the wind so we knew where it was blowing. It is hard to imagine writing a song like Blowin’ In The Wind or Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, songs which speak for a nation.

The Witmark Demos, forty-seven songs, can be fit roughly into general categories, like songs of universal appeal and triumph of spirit, such as  Blowin’ In The Wind, Walkin’ Down The Line, When The Ship Comes In, Let Me Die In My Footsteps, Paths Of Victory and The Times They Are A-Changin’; songs with romantic appeal, such as Quit Your Lowdown Ways, Baby I’m In The Mood For You, All Over You, I’ll Keep It With Mine, Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, Girl From The North Country and Boots of Spanish Leather, the novelty songs and finger pointers, such as Hard Times In New York Town, Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Oxford Town, Masters of War and songs which defy definition but are deep with feeling, such as Mr. Tambourine Man, Guess I’m Doing Fine and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

During the years the demos were records, the United States was primed for excitement and adventurous romanticism. The air was static with the electricity of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. Anything was possible, especially love. Around the world, the contagion of confidence spread by the media grew around the Arthurian magic of the White House. The death of JFK affected Dylan deeply. While the injustices visited upon Hollis Brown and Hattie Carroll were pointed out clearly, his first written reflections on the death resulted in a different style of phrasing, a more ‘rationally disorganized’ way, as resulted, in Chimes of Freedom (not on the demos). We also see this Rimbaudian crafting in Mr. Tambourine Man. This was the song that would change the charts forever, once the Byrds got a hold of it.

Regardless of what manner of song you call them, all are rife with classic romantic emotion and vision.

Stepping away from the demos, another Dylan irony lies in the fact that his two most popular love songs were recorded for other people. Just Like A Woman, which has turned into an annoying sing-a-long on the chorus at concerts in recent years, carries the legend of having been offered to Otis Redding, who decided not to record it because he thought it to be ‘too wordy.’

Lay Lady Lay charted along with three other Dylan songs which made it to Billboard’s top ten. It entered at song number seven, although it went to number five on UK charts. Also coming in at number seven a few years earlier was Positively Fourth Street; Like A Rolling Stone and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 both peaked at number two.Just Like A Woman came in at number 33, despite the strength of the song. To put it in context, Blowin’ In The Wind did not even chart in his version.

Lay Lady Lay proved to be fortuitous not only for Dylan. He had been asked to write a song for Midnight Cowboy and missed the deadline. This led to Harry Nilson recording a cover of folk sing Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talking At Me, which made it to number six in 1969.

It is interesting that folk chanteuse Maria Muldaur, who sang and played with Dylan in those early years in the Village (and is featured recounting their association during his most formative period in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home) released a collection of his love songs in 2006 and skipped that nostalgic time altogether. Instead, she chose to interpret more modern love classics, like Heart Of Mine, Make You Feel My Love (also a hit for Billy Joel and Garth Brooks ?!?!), Moonlight, Buckets of Rain, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, To Be Alone With You and a number of other post-village-years, latter-day standards.

Patti Smith, in December 2010’s Rolling Stone magazine, listed her top ten love songs by Dylan. Her picks? Among them reside One Too Many Mornings, Boots Of Spanish Leather, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Wedding Song, Dark Eyes, She Belongs To Me, Visions of Johanna and Dirge. The majority of these predate her pick of 1966’s Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands and the inclusion of songs like Isis, Not Dark Yet and Like A Rolling Stone on her list seem to skew the meaning of ‘love song,’ to a degree.

Then, again, where does the romance come from in Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right? This is not your usual hearts and flowers. The romance lies not in warm arms or dark eyes but in the quixotic notion of “a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road.” Going your own way, walking into the world, taking what you find on the journey, that is real romance.