The mystery of “America” has consumed and eluded generations of creators in equal measure; a mutable national identity haunts the very people who claim it. Born in the prosperous Jazz Age and coming of age in the throes of the Depression, the writers of the Beat Generation began to proffer new definitions of identity amid the social upheaval following World War II. Jack Kerouac brought the group to national attention with his 1957 novel On the Road, signifying a shift in attitudes that set the tone for the turbulent decade to come; he sustained it with a string of novels, including The Dharma Bums (1958) and Big Sur (1962) and the poetry collection Mexico City Blues (1959). These works, alongside those of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others comprised a theory of America through a lens of addiction, isolation, disaffect, injustice, yearning, and above all rootlessness.
The voices of these writers would find new purchase in that of a musician, not quite their contemporary, who further developed the new idea of “America” for his audience. Among the first and most avid readers of Mexico City Blues, a young Robert Allen Zimmerman had established himself in the New York folk scene and was cultivating the persona of Bob Dylan by the time he met and befriended Allen Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bookstore in 1963. They would share in collaboration, meditation, and admiration of Kerouac until Ginsberg’s death over three decades later. The intervening years Dylan filled with groundbreaking, controversial, cryptic work, inspired by the lyrical and emotional work of Kerouac’s generation. Although the Beats’ social justice commentaries informed the protest songs of Dylan’s breakout period, few examples demonstrate the influence as starkly as the seminal trilogy of mid-’60s albums: Bringing it All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). From song titles that borrow from and pay homage to Kerouac (“On the Road Again,” “Visions of Johanna”) to the poetic intensity and imagistic saturation of pieces like “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and “Desolation Row,” these albums draw deeply from the wordplay of the Mexico City Blues choruses. Here we will examine Dylan’s instrumental role in keeping Beat literature alive as (and after) its fathers died out.
Relocating from his native Minnesota to the Village in 1961, Dylan was exposed to the folk revival—larger and more alive than his pioneer-hero Woody Guthrie, whom he found wasting away from Huntington’s disease in a New Jersey hospital. He had recently changed his legal name in honor of the late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whom Kenneth Rexroth had eulogized eight years earlier in the long poem “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and whose poetry featured the type of ethereal imagery that would stamp Dylan’s songs. Scores of artists, bohemians, and progressive thinkers called the Village home and the array of characters who lent the young songwriter their couches before he settled on West 4th Street aided in his self-mythmaking, which in turn won him the community’s notice and approval. His memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, echoes On the Road in its descriptions of these friends, helpers, and heroes:
Folk songs transcended the immediate experience. Before I moved into a place of my own, I’d stayed pretty much all over the Village. Sometimes for a night or two, sometimes for weeks or more. I stayed a lot at [Dave] Van Ronk’s, I probably stayed at Vestry Street on and off longer than anywhere. I liked it at Ray and Chloe’s. I felt comfortable there. (27)
and later, more directly:
One night a guy named Bobby Neuwirth came through the door [of the Kettle of Fish] with a couple of friends and caused a lot of commotion… Right from the start, you could tell that Neuwirth had a taste for provocation and that nothing was going to restrict his freedom. He was in a mad revolt against something. You had to brace yourself when you talked to him… Like Kerouac had immortalized Neal Cassady in On the Road, somebody should have immortalized Neuwirth. He was that kind of character. (47-8)
As he attempted to ingratiate himself with the scene’s elders, including Dave Van Ronk, who all but presided over MacDougal Street’s Café Wha? and the famous Gaslight, Dylan lived the hand-to-mouth existence that permeates Kerouac’s novels, especially On the Road and Big Sur. While his search may not have been fraught with quite the same existential crises, or the same sheer physical, emotional, or financial exhaustion, Dylan was possessed of a similar creative ambition and an urgent social message.
Such a message would strike with full force across his first three releases on Columbia Records: Bob Dylan (1962), The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), and The Times They Are A-Changing (1964). Beat scholar Ann Charters cites songs from these albums like “The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” alongside poetic selections from Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, and Rexroth as equally pointed in their critique and equally pertinent to their first audiences:
Dylan continued to be influenced by the Beats—through his reading, through his association… and by his vision of himself as a solitary creative artist in the rebellious and liberating atmosphere of the 1960s, which the Beats partly inspired and helped sustain… Dylan’s early lyrics [were] developed to express a vivid and personal apocalyptic vision. As he says, “Not protest for protest’s sake but always in the struggle for people’s freedom, individual or otherwise. I hate oppression.” (Charters 370-1)
And while the Beats had been entrenched in their lifestyle for almost two decades before finding themselves in the national spotlight, people were talking about Dylan right away, thanks to his singular lyrics and stage presence combined with some prominent connections, not least of whom was Joan Baez. Village crowds, accustomed to socially conscious material, were stunned by his wordy anti-capitalist polemics and roused by his calls to action—he said, “Come gather round, people, wherever you roam,” and they did. Amidst these “message” songs on every album, he would add a dash of personal reflection, sparing yet memorable, like “Bob Dylan’s Dream” on Freewheelin’. The autobiographical moments hinted at the deep-seated impact of Kerouac’s introspective style, and there would soon be more where they came from.
All this said, let us put Dylan’s early period aside for a moment and suppose that neither it nor the experimental period that followed signifies the truest “beat” expression of Dylan’s career. Let us say there is a line separating these two periods, a perfect axis balancing the Dylan persona and the Beat philosophy. Let us argue that this axis is the song “My Back Pages” from Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in August 1964. Compared to its predecessors, the album noticeably lacked protest pieces, opting for intimate sketches of domestic life and relationship troubles over judgments on national crises. Here there was no wondering whose side God was on, no attacking the masters of war, no condemning the privileged William Zantzingers of the world who assaulted the defenseless Hattie Carrolls. The illustrations of interpersonal drama (“Ballad in Plain D”) and the playful satiric yarns (“Motorpsycho Nitemare”) could be standout passages from a Kerouac novel; even Burroughs could have written about driving “ten thousand miles” to a farmhouse only to be chased out for voicing support of Castro. But many of these songs were shot through with distorted images and downright illogical turns of phrase. What was a hardcore folkie to make of the detached imagery of “Chimes of Freedom”? Dylan was pushing the envelope, and although nearly another year would pass before he incited undeniable outrage, the people who would express that outrage might have taken the time to see the fallout coming, foreshadowed in the lyrics of this album. If nothing else, they might have turned to the refrain of the grammatically meandering “My Back Pages”:
But I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.
Dylan had rarely referred explicitly to himself in his songs up to now, aside from as an American citizen troubled, threatened, and victimized by the system. Was he about to become confessional?
Not quite. Even later Dylan has never been conventionally confessional in the style of the singer-songwriter dynasty he co-founded. Joni Mitchell and James Taylor wrote about their lives in ways he never would. And even if he had, this couplet symbolizes a much larger lens change. The inversion of standard chronology, older then versus younger now, in the context of a song that is essentially a jumble of pictures (“My existence led by confusion boats / Mutiny from stern to bow”), indicates a break with tradition and the forging of a new ideology that echoes Gary Snyder’s adoption of Buddhist tenets and parallels the struggle of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums alter-ego, Ray Smith, to keep up with Japhy Ryder’s spiritual enlightenment. Long before his own spiritual discoveries and rediscoveries, Dylan recognized a futility in trying to make sense of the world.
So began a retreat into the dream-world. The subsequent trilogy of records most fully reflects the Beats’ influence on Dylan. Bringing It All Back Home, released in March 1965, openly flouted every folk convention to which he had previously subscribed: the entire first side featured an electric band, to the disbelief and chagrin of his purist fan base. It recalls On the Road in its themes of wandering, meeting people who leave an impression along the way, but invariably returning to solitude, and it arguably sparked as much controversy among listeners as the novel behind it did among readers. The opening track, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a grocery-list notation of life and politics, pays titular tribute to Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans, and spills over with images of alleyways, vandals, leaders who are not to be followed, and a “man in the coonskin cap… [who] wants eleven dollar bills and you only got ten.” This was no heroic defense of the everyman’s struggle for justice in an unjust world but a stream-of-consciousness recap of that everyman’s topsy-turvy day. Another such song, “On the Road Again,” is even more overt in its reference and contains a plausible tagline for the novel: “And you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, how come you don’t move?” It is a bird’s-eye view of a household overrun by paranoia; the images have the potential to be quite distressing on the page, but Dylan’s delivery makes for a very funny track. A similar wry humor pervades its namesake; the characters surrounding Sal Paradise and his various reincarnations seem perpetually high on life, in a state of indefinite delirious wonder, while he can do little more than watch in horror. The seldom-discussed song follows the Kerouac formula almost to a T.
Other songs on side one are bound with this same thread, however tangentially, from the otherworldly “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” to the zany “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” whose title corresponds to the numbered choruses of Mexico City Blues. But the connection among the four mammoth tracks that constitute side two shifts away from the topical and toward the lyrical. Lines from “Mr. Tambourine Man” could pass for components of Big Sur’s concluding poem “Sea”:
No human words bespeak
the token sorrow older
than old this wave
becrashing smarts this
sand with plosh
of twirled sandy
the world? (223)
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
Scholars ponder the significance of both these passages and their larger works, but whatever meaning there may be takes a backseat to rhythm and sheer phonetic comfort. Dylan is younger now, he tells us, and we feel younger absorbing the lullaby-like mood; upon finishing the song, we feel at one with the sea, philosophically at rest if not enlightened, as we do upon finishing Big Sur.
“Gates of Eden,” the next track, sustains the philosophical thread, each verse ending with a practice that applies “inside the gates of Eden.” The last verse bears a striking resemblance to the 113th Chorus of Mexico City Blues:
Yet everything is perfect
Because it is empty
Because it is perfect
Because it’s not even happening (113)
At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the gates of Eden
The verses’ concluding statements are moral judgments, edicts on what this paradise permits and forbids; together they form a sort of structure by which one might live, not far from the balance of bred Catholicism and acquired Mahayana Buddhism that Kerouac sought to strike throughout his life (and illustrates in The Dharma Bums).
The album’s penultimate song made an entrance not entirely unlike that of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” When Dylan premiered “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on Halloween night 1964, he sequenced it directly after a number that had the crowd in stitches (“If You Gotta Go, Go Now”), exacerbating the cold shock of the seven-minute hailstorm. Its lyrics portray isolation on a frightening level, greed and duplicity at their most insidious:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life and life only
Toward the end of Big Sur, Jack Duluoz very nearly loses his mind and collapses in a hallucinatory haze until “Suddenly as clear as anything I ever saw in my life, I see the Cross” (204). The almost frantic rate at which the song’s images pass by, and even the murmuring melody, keeps pace with the delusions of an addled brain. Like Kerouac, Dylan knew the danger of revealing what he was revealing and knew how to evince a response. The impact of the studio version is still more menacing. Perhaps no one tried it for obscenity, as with “Howl,” but it achieved a like goal: it put into its hearers the fear of themselves.
In a disorienting transition, the melodic final track not only closes the album fittingly but plausibly embodies the essence of Kerouac’s catalog. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is a bittersweet farewell, a poignant return to the road. We may travel with companions, but in the end we are all vagabonds at the door and orphans with guns, left no choice but to “strike another match, go start anew.”
Which is precisely what Dylan did with his next, most ambitious project to date, Highway 61 Revisited. The sneer he had tried on tracks like “It’s Alright Ma” arrived fully grown on “Like a Rolling Stone,” the song Bruce Springsteen famously described as “like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Emotions run high on this album, particularly disdain for the disconnected and ignorant—“Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” most aggressively. And the imagery intensifies alongside it: “the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” in “Tombstone Blues,” the “junkyard angel [who] always gives me bread” in “From a Buick 6,” the Dharma Bums-esque train conceit of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Notably, the eleven-minute odyssey “Desolation Row” guides the listener from the end of the album into the great unknown. This latest titular homage is to Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, a novel written shortly after On the Road but first published during the genesis of Highway 61. (Its central character is Jack Duluoz, also the hero of Big Sur.) A beauty parlor filled with sailors, a group of insurance agents and “the superhuman crew,” Casanova, the Phantom of the Opera (“in a perfect image of a priest,” a quote Dylan lifted from the novel), Ophelia wearing an iron vest, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood—one stanza after another evokes recognizable characters in fantastic situations, all orbiting the barren place called Desolation Row.
More Dharma Bums to be seen here: the title suggests a warped extension of the American wilderness myth. But unlike in Kerouac’s Buddhist-exploration novel, this wild terrain appears to be a condemnation from which the characters seek escape, as opposed to a haven in which they seek refuge. “[N]obody has to think too much about Desolation Row,” one verse concludes; lack of thought is a privilege for which people will go to great lengths. Willfully blind though we may be, we are all trapped in our own Desolation Row, haunted by unpleasant memories and unfulfilled desires. Provided that one recognizes the indicators and knows where to look, the lyrics even point to The Dharma Bums as a potential antidote to such dilemmas. (Side note: the line “they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words” has the extraordinary breadth to apply to any of Kerouac’s narrators at virtually any point in their respective journeys.)
Just as Kerouac’s novels grew more personal, Dylan’s lyrical crisis turns further inward, threatening consumption, on 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, widely acknowledged as pop music’s first double album. These are the songs of a man who by now spends entirely too much time inside his head, fueling his imagination with assistance alluded to by the drunkenly lurching opener “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (another Mexico City Blues shout-out): “Everybody must get stoned.” While Highway 61 features narratives within narratives, cohesive through-lines are a rarity on this record: even the ones with recurring characters, like the vignette “Just Like a Woman” or the paean “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” are so densely intertwined with a dreamlike procession of ideas that a story with a beginning or end is not easily distinguished. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” continues to celebrate and bemoan the nomadic lifestyle so prized by the Beats; “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” jabs at the foils of pop culture that pepper Kerouac’s novels; “Pledging My Time,” “Temporary Like Achilles,” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie” lament failed connections, which is Jack Duluoz’s modus operandi.
But the Beat-inspired centerpiece of the LP is a song originally called “Seems Like a Freeze-Out,” ultimately “Visions of Johanna” after Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard. Both works concentrate on an unattainable, idealized figure: for Kerouac, his sickly, saintly elder brother; for Dylan, the elusive woman whose absence is accentuated by the presence of the other, Louise. The scene comes in and out of focus on a sultry New York night, drifting through “escapades out on the D train,” “the museums [where] infinity goes up on trial,” and “the back of the fish truck that loads while my conscience explodes”; and yet its sole constant is a person who is not there, who may not exist. The mere idea of her obsesses the narrator. It is a tale of a blurred boundary between fact and fiction. According to scholar Laurence Coupe, both the song and the novel
would seem to be about the hunger for beatific experience—the hope that the sacred realm might yet be glimpsed within the profane. Johanna, like Gerard, represents the salvation that comes out of suffering. But unlike Kerouac, Dylan depicts this possibility as tauntingly remote—a cause of suffering in itself.
What basis, if any, the song has in personal experience has long been up for debate. Kerouac’s parallel is more transparent, detailing life in the shadow of a boy specially chosen by God, or so it seemed.
This music constituted only the beginning of a career that spoke both the “Dylan language” and the Beat language—that is to say, the American language. As a 2010 New Yorker article put it,
Dylan’s involvement with the writings of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and the rest of the Beat generation is nearly as essential to Dylan’s biography as his immersion in rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and then Woody Guthrie… “I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic…”
Dylan’s output, specifically up through the mid-’60s, harnesses the magic. Public regard for the Beats’ work has been in flux since its heyday; the distinctive touch Dylan applied in interpreting their uniquely American stories did much to bridge the gap for older generations and to introduce younger generations to the Beats. If nothing else, these creators had an intuitive musicality in common, and Dylan demonstrated the enduring power of stories set to music.
Charters, Ann, ed. “Bob Dylan.” From The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Viking Press, 1992. Print. pp. 370-9.
Coupe, Laurence. “‘Vision music’: Bob Dylan via Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg” in Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester University Press 2012). Quoted in “Same Song Different Readings: Bob Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’” by Laurence Coupe, Pop Matters. 15 June 2022. Web.
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume One. London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2004. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1959. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. New York: McGraw Hill, 1962. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: 40th Anniversary Edition. New York: Penguin, 1957. Print.
The New Yorker (staff). “Bob Dylan, The Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg’s America.” August 13, 2010. Web.
Wilentz, Sean. “Penetrating Aether: The Beat Generation and Allen Ginsberg’s America.” From Bob Dylan in America. New York: Doubleday, 2010. Web.
Cover photo by Elsa Dorfman