THE BEAT GENERATION BOB DYLAN AND ALLEN GINSBERG
Bob Dylan Plays Concert for One Insanely Lucky Superfan
“I was smiling so much it was like I was on ecstasy,” says Fredrik Wikingsson. “My jaw hurt for hours”
| November 24, 2014
Yesterday afternoon around 3:00 p.m. 41-year-old Bob Dylan superfan Fredrik Wikingsson walked into the Philadelphia Academy of music took a seat in the second row and prepared to watch his hero play a concert just for him. “At this point I still thought I was about to get Punk’d,” he says. “I thought some asshole would walk onstage and just laugh at me. I just couldn’t fathom that Dylan would actually do this.”
This wasn’t Punk’d, and within 10 minutes of Wikingsson taking his seat, the lights dimmed and Dylan took the stage alongside his touring band. Playing to an audience of one, they abandoned their usual repertoire and played Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat,” Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” Chuck Willis’ “It’s Too Late (She’s Gone)” and a blues jam that Wikingsson has been unable to identify. “I was smiling so much it was like I was on ecstasy,” he says. “My jaw hurt for hours afterwards because I couldn’t stop smiling.”
The incredible concert was part of an ongoing Swedish film series Experiment Ensam (Experiment Alone), where people experience things completely alone that are usually reserved for large crowds. Past films focused on lone people at comedy clubs or karaoke bars. The filmmakers thought a lot bigger for this one and made arrangements with Dylan’s camp for the private show, paying him an undisclosed amount of money. “I have no idea how much it was,” says Wikingsson. “But it was probably more than he gets for a normal gig.”
Wikingsson’s friend Anders Helgeson is the director of Experiment Ensam, and when he told him about the Dylan concept he begged to be the subject. “I had an endless series of meetings where I managed to convince people my extreme fandom made me the best candidate for the enviable task,” he says. “I’m very passive and I always picture myself as the guy that wouldn’t be able to save himself on a sinking ship. I’d just lay down and die. I have no real ability to grab the moment, but when I heard about this I thought, ‘For once, I have to stop everything in my life and go for something.'”
The day before the show, Wikingsson, a popular TV personality who lives in Stockholm, walked around New York’s Greenwich Village with a camera crew and visited famous Dylan landmarks. On show day, he found himself so nervous he wasn’t able to eat. “I was a fucking wreck,” he says. “Part of me was thinking, ‘Maybe this won’t happen and it’ll be for the best. I don’t want to impose on Mr. Dylan. I don’t want him to stand there and be grouchy, just hating it.'”
When he walked into the theater, he had the surreal experience of being able to pick any seat in the house. He went with a seat in the middle of the second row. “I thought the first row might freak him out,” Wikingsson says. “I was like a guy picking the next-to-most expensive bottle of wine in a restaurant, which is a very Swedish thing to do. I figured the second row would be ideal. Malcolm Gladwell would probably have all sorts of theories about this.”
The light dimmed 10 incredibly anxious minutes after he walked in. “It was completely dark and empty,” Wikingsson says. “Then a guy walks onstage and started talking to the lighting guy. Turns out it was Dylan and he nodded at me. There wasn’t any ceremony at all. He just started talking to his bassist and drummer about how they were going to start the first song.”
Dylan’s set list has been remarkably rigid over the past year, centering largely around songs released in the past 15 years. Covers are extremely rare, so Wikingsson was delighted when the show began with “Heartbeat.” “I liked Buddy Holly before I liked Dylan,” he says. “I felt like Christmas morning.”
He broke out into applause when the song finished. “Nobody took notice of me,” he says. “I figured that maybe it just sounded phony or weird. During the second song, ‘Blueberry Hill,’ I realized I had to say something. It was just too weird. I screamed out, ‘You guys sound great!’ That caused Dylan to burst out laughing. Now, I have two kids and their births were great, but him laughing onstage at some lousy fucking comment of mine was unbelievable.”
At the end of “It’s Too Late (She’s Gone)” Dylan performed a harmonica solo. “I always detest people that automatically holler and applaud every time he breaks out the harmonica,” says Wikingsson. “But I found myself almost weeping when he played the solo. He could have just ended the song without the solo, he wanted it to be great.”
The show wrapped up with a blues song. “It’s still a big mystery to me,” says Wikingsson. “This will probably be a embarrassing for me because it might be a well-known blues song. I’m sure when I get the tapes I can figure out what it was. When the show ended Dylan said, ‘Swing by anytime.’ He was highlighting the fact this was a weird thing that will never happen again. It was just so fucking great.”
Dylan played a public show that night, but Wikingsson decided to not go. “It would be weird and nothing could top this,” he says. “To be honest, I went to a karaoke bar with the production guys and sang my throat out. I selected all Dylan songs, but they just had these crappy Byrds versions.”
Wikingsson’s private Dylan show was filmed by eight cameras, and a 15-minute documentary of the event will hit YouTube on December 15th. “Fans might detest the fact that I’m sitting there,” he says. “But it’s going to be really cool and great looking. The sound was just incredible.”
He’s also going to talk at great length about the experience on his popular English language podcast, Philadelphia Academy of music
Now that the whole experience is behind him, Wikingsson has one final dream: “I want Dylan to release an official Columbia EP of the concert called Songs for Fredrick.”
In August, a Bob Dylan album may well arrive in stores concrete and virtual. It may be called Shadows in the Night. It may have a song called “Full Moon & Empty Arms” on it; a stream of the tune was released without comment on his website a couple of months ago. Why Dylan chose to record a cover of an old Sinatra track isn’t clear; it may, or may not, be a clue that the purported album will consist of covers. Dylan has just finished shows in Japan, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia; will head next to Australia and New Zealand; and may or may not be preparing for a swing through the U.S. in the fall.
We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.
You have to start by disregarding the well-told narrative: The soi-disant vagabond’s rise through folk music to a place of utter domination at the highest level of literate, passionate, and difficult pop and rock music, all by 1966; a retreat and Gethsemane until 1974, when he came back, roaring and vengeful, more passionately focused than before, adding a remarkable personal dimension to his ’60s work. After that, depending on how generously you view his career, there has been either a long decline or decades of remarkable and kaleidoscopic creativity, culminating in the triumphs, late in life, of his five most recent albums.
For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him. First, you have to appreciate the many layers that make up his peculiar but unmistakable aesthetic. His work is grounded in acoustic folk-blues—ballads, chants, and love stories, populated with mystical or just plain weird meanings and themes, rattling and farting around like tetched uncles in the attic of our American psyche. To this add the dread-filled dreamscapes—unexplainable, unnerving—of French Surrealism, and then, arrestingly, the punchy patois of the Beats, who originally intuited the substratum of social stresses that would whipcrack across the ’60s and into the ’70s. Then factor in personal songwriting, a strain of pop he basically invented, doled out first with obfuscations, payback, tall tales, and lies—some by design, some on general principle, some just to be an asshole—and then the signs, here and there (and then everywhere, the more you look), of autobiographical happenstance and deeply felt emotion.
And remember that some of his narratives are fractured. Time and focus shift; first person can become third; sometimes more than one story seems to be being told at the same time (“Tangled Up in Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower” are two good examples). And then there’s plain sonic impact: Even his earliest important songs have a cerebral and reverberating authority in the recording, his voice sometimes filling the speakers, his primitive but blistering guitar work adding confrontation, ease, humor, anger, and contrariness, presenting all but the most unwilling listeners with moment after moment of incandescence.
And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks,which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I mightbe somewhere by now.”
He came to New York in early 1961, telling anyone who’d listen he’d ridden the rails, played with Buddy Holly, all sorts of nonsense. In reality, he was a fairly middle-class kid who’d hitchhiked, in winter, from the far north of Minnesota; in a way, this single act of propulsion toward reinvention by a 19-year-old is braver and more interesting than all his later tall tales of travel. He arrived in New York on the coldest day the city had seen in many years.
He was a prodigy, with a natural affinity for a medium that would, unexpectedly, afford a few people like him international acclaim and a permanent place in the cultural firmament, and lots of money too. His uncanny musicianship—producing enduring melodies and lovely harmonica solos—included an ability to effortlessly transpose keys that would impress professionals throughout his career. He also had a first-class mind, quick (almost too quick) of wit and relaxed enough to let inspiration flow without forcing it, yet also wiry, retaining permanently the complex wording of many hundreds of tunes. He soaked up the songs and the lore of folk and blues, cobbling together a shtick—an Okie patois, a shambling affect, and a fixation with Woody Guthrie, the socialist troubadour of the ’30s and ’40s and the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” who at the time was dying in a New Jersey hospital. It all served to disguise, at first, a mysterious charisma—with eyes, as Joan Baez remembered them later, “bluer than robin’s eggs”—and an apparent ambition that left a few damaged friendships, and egos, in its wake.
Baez, stentorian and humorless, recorded her first album in 1960 and was a star the next year. (She moved to Carmel and bought a Jaguar.) Dylan got an early rave in the New York Times, which led to his record contract. His second album contained several tracks that became standards. One, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” was a strikingly imagistic portrait of a child returning from a journey to impart wisdom to an older generation. It’s the place where Dylan’s self-definition begins to merge with his songs. On his third and fourth albums, Dylan showed he was capable of increasing nuance. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the compellingly told true story of a barmaid carelessly killed by a moneyed young drunk, still able to make one’s blood boil, never mentions Carroll’s race.
At the same time, his mash-up of influences was creating deeper, subtler work, producing mysterious moments like the end of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The song, spare and lulling, is a dialogue between the singer and his lover, who’s going on a journey. The woman wants to bring the guy back a present; the guy keeps saying he wants nothing besides her return. She finally says she won’t be coming back for a while—at which point the guy asks for a gift: some “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” It’s not clear why the word Spanish is repeated. Maybe the guy’s heart was broken, or maybe the woman was right—he did just want something from her. But there’s a self-referential meaning to the song as well: Dylan’s own journey. Stars, after all, promise devotion to their fans and then disappear, leaving a simulacrum of their former selves that fans can never get something authentic from.
Beginning in 1965, in a 14-month rush, Dylan released three albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde—each with two or three (very) major songs, three or four relatively minor (but still mind-blowing) efforts, and some doggerel and fun for leavening, all in a great spew of poetic verbiage. Dylan’s voice had deepened and matured; it rang with clarity, snickered with derision, led us compellingly, at its best hypnotically, through nightmares and fever dreams. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” introduced a modern, rock-and-roll Dylan, blasting off political aphorisms softened with absurdities—“Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters.” Lacerating new epics made his old epics seem trite. Take “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”; the title, and a potent Cold War reference in the first line, fixes our narrator seemingly as a wounded soldier, who then spends the rest of a very long song reflecting on the society he’s dying for. “Like a Rolling Stone” captured the second half of the decade in advance, a Scud missile of mockery directed at an entire pampered generation adrift. When Dylan howled the words “no direction home,” it was hard to tell if his tone was exultant or pained; it was a conundrum he and his audience have gnawed at ever since. In a telling example of how Dylan’s words can leapfrog meanings across decades, the song’s final silky lines—“You’re invisible now / You’ve got no secrets to conceal”—capture precisely the predicament of a new generation paradoxically rendered faceless by electronic connectivity and yet entirely without privacy.
Dylan’s remarkable work from this period is sometimes trivialized by stories about how he freaked everyone out by “going electric.” In I’m Not There, his cubistic cinematic portrait of Dylan, Todd Haynes represents the moment with the singer and his band mowing the crowd down with machine guns. Please. There were some boos at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan and his electric band played there. But at least some of the reaction came from the high volume and poor sound quality of the performance, which was, after all, at a folk festival. Meanwhile, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was Dylan’s first Top 40 hit, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” an unprecedented six minutes long, went to No. 2. Dylan’s move to electric is of course a key moment in his musical growth, and an interesting footnote in the history of 1960s American folk; but it was not a thumb in the eye of propriety. Everyone liked it!
Dylan is intensely private. More than almost any star I can think of, our understanding of his personal life is occluded and disjointed. His first wife was Sara Dylan, née Sara Lownds, née Shirley Noznisky. When they met, she was married to a guy in publishing in New York; early in their relationship, Dylan mentioned to an interviewer that he’d met a woman named Sara and that she was one of only two truly “holy people” he had ever met. (The other was Allen Ginsberg, though Ginsberg had never done a stint as a Playboy bunny.) “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is widely seen as a tribute to Sara; it has a title that suggests the name Lownds and other lyrical hints (“Your magazine husband / Who one day just had to go”) and is placed ostentatiously to fill up the entire final side of Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, some of which may be true, is at its most dyspeptic when the singer describes the hordes of hippies impinging on his and his family’s life by the mid-’60s. Using a motorcycle accident as an excuse, Dylan retreated in 1966 and began releasing country-flavored albums at long intervals to dampen his celebrity. In the meantime, he and Sara raised an eventual family of five in peace. The names and number of his children were widely misunderstood until the publication ofDown the Highway, a powerful, definitive biography by Howard Sounes, in 2001. (The children are Maria, from Sara’s first marriage; Jakob, whom you know from the Wallflowers; Jesse, a Hollywood and new-media guy, director of Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” Obama music video; Anna, an artist who stays out of sight; and Samuel, a photographer who keeps a low profile as well. This is not to mention his second, secret wife and at least one other acknowledged child, but that’s a tale for another time.)
Dylan emerged in the mid-’70s to tour with the Band, release two of his strongest albums (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), and embark on a nutty and hilarious gypsy-caravan tour dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue. His relationship with Sara was strained at this point, though she came along on the tour and even starred in his bizarre four-hour movie, Renaldo & Clara. But in the end, Dylan’s womanizing fueled what became a bitter divorce. His most plainly personal album is Blood on the Tracks, a lancing portrait of a romantic death spiral. (Jakob has said he gets no pleasure from listening to it: “When I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.”) Among (many) other things, Blood on the Tracks is an exercise in emotional intensity, from self-pity and anger to ruefulness. There are obvious references to his wife in the wrenching “Idiot Wind” and also at the beginning of “Tangled Up in Blue” (“She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced”). Blood on the Trackswas recorded in bizarre circumstances, first in New York and then more than half of it rerecorded in Minneapolis with a pickup band; yet its shuddering atmospherics and controlled, specific writing combined to make it the most organic and emotionally fulfilling work in Dylan’s canon.
The Rolling Thunder Revue saw the return of the lovely Baez; she sang “Diamonds & Rust,” her greatest song, a poison-pen love letter to Dylan, and did the frug behind Roger McGuinn during “Eight Miles High.” A decade on, in the ’80s, she and Dylan toured again, this time in Japan, with what was supposed to have been shared star billing. Baez inevitably became an opening act and eventually told the tour to fuck off, as she later told the story. Granted an exit audience with Dylan, she found him an aged version of the immature ragamuffin. He was tired but slipped his hand up her skirt for old times’ sake.
The next two decades were tough for him artistically; as Greil Marcus has put it, Dylan was essentially committing a “public disappearance.” Beginning in 1979, he tested his audience’s expectations and goodwill more tellingly than any punk by releasing three albums of unimaginative Christian-themed songs, along with two tours in which he plowed stolidly through this material. The problem was not Dylan’s beliefs, though they leaned to the crackpot; lots of acts had religious leanings—Van Morrison among them. It was how Dylan articulated those beliefs. To listen to the albums today is to enter a (not very) fun house of mediocrity and intolerance.
Dylan began to produce his own albums. He wasn’t dogmatic about it; he would once in a while bring in an outside producer—Mark Knopfler helped on Infidels, and Daniel Lanois superimposed a decent setting (and demanded a suite of coherent songs) for Oh Mercy. Other albums from the ’80s and ’90s were weirdly inconsistent in the quality of both the songs and the production values. Even weirder is the fact that Dylan was actually writing and recording some of his best work during this time. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, “Blind Willie McTell,” “Caribbean Wind,” “Foot of Pride,” “Series of Dreams” … Authoritative and undeniable, they were better than anything his contemporaries were then releasing. Unfortunately, they were also better than anything Dylan was releasing and only turned up later on compilations albums.
In 1997, Lanois returned for Time Out of Mind. The critics went nuts over this work and the four regular releases since. I think these albums are woefully overrated, but they have sold well, and with the critics behind them, too, I’m willing to acknowledge the disconnect may be mine. But deep down I know that it’s hard to find, over the past ten or 15 years, more than three or four songs you’d stick on a mix tape to try to convince someone of this singer-songwriter’s greatness. Too many of his recent songs start with a pleasant-enough (or, more often, serviceable) riff—which is then beaten into the ground by his backing band. My hunch is that Dylan, producing in the studio, nods in inscrutable approval when he hears something he likes. The band, nervous but eager to please, obliges and starts playing the damn riff continuously. There’s no outsider around to tweak it or vary it or add dynamics.
In the folk-blues tradition, older songs were reappropriated and built upon; in his later years, Dylan has played with this tradition and found himself in mini-controversies when researchers find that some words in his songs first appeared somewhere else. Amateur sleuths discovered that his album “Love and Theft” had a pattern of lines seemingly taken from a fairly obscure Japanese writer, Junichi Saga. More recently, some obsessives started looking at passages in Chronicles and found lines taken from an astonishing variety of places, from self-help books to The Great Gatsby. The pickings seem to be phrases bouncing around the ragged mind of a guy with a photographic memory. On the other hand, some of the inner workings are plainly mischievous, like an in-passing list of news stories; the headlines were all from a mocking take on the press in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.
To tweak the purists again, he’ll once in a while appear in a TV commercial—distracting from the subtle attention he pays to how posterity will see his work. He goes out of his away to appear on awards shows when they beckon; he’s shown his artwork and sells it online; his memoir, while odd, was nonetheless transfixing and reminded us that he was once a young man groping for a future and placing his bets on a very long shot indeed. The Dylan camp is readying an extraordinary digital archive of his songs, recordings, and paraphernalia. Dylan owns a coffeehouse, it’s said, in Santa Monica; unprepossessing and iconoclastic, it has an extremely friendly staff and no Wi-Fi. There’s not much on the walls, but you notice the references contained in what’s there: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Leonardo da Vinci. There’s one big oil painting behind the counter, one that looks a lot like Dylan’s own work, silent and content in the company it keeps.
And then there’s the touring. In Chronicles, Dylan details, with seeming frankness, the aimlessness that brought him to a slough of despond at the end of the ’80s. He may have been facing what all rock stars who survive face, which is how to grow old gracefully in a medium cruelly tied to youthfulness. He resolved to get out and play his songs—and went back on the road in 1988 with a small, seldom-changing backing ensemble, with whom he delved into his back pages, including many songs he’d never played live before.
Here’s the odd thing—26 years on, he hasn’t stopped. He’s been playing about 100 shows annually ever since, growling through a set of songs old and new with a small band. It’s an endeavor that for a good chunk of each year keeps him on a private bus and, in the U.S. at least, in relatively crummy hotel and motel rooms. (He’s said to prefer places that have windows that open and allow him to sleep with his pet mastiffs. Beyond that, they are places fans wouldn’t expect to find him.) The shows at first may have been a tonic, but over time they revealed themselves to be a panacea. It must have struck Dylan: How could he look foolish if he just kept doing the same thing? If he were an artist, he would continue to create and show his art publicly. If he were a celebrity, he would appear in public. And if he were a seer, a prophet, or even a god, well, he would let folks pay and see for themselves how mortal such figures actually were. And far from saturating the market, he has created a new industry for himself as a touring artist. On a good night he makes some of his best-known songs unrecognizable, and on a bad one you come out wondering what it was, exactly, you’ve just seen. So far this year, the 73-year-old has played in Japan (17 shows), Hawaii (two), Ireland, Turkey, and nearly 20 other cities in the hinterlands of Europe; he’s headed now to more than a dozen shows in eight different cities in Australia and New Zealand—and this is before what should be a fall run through the States. Robert Shelton, the New York Times writer who first noticed Dylan, labored on a biography for more than 20 years; seeing the star’s unstable arc on its publication in 1986, he titled it, grandly, No Direction Home. Dylan hadn’t even begun not to go home.
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from. The exultant cry of “no direction home” derived its power from the fact that, in the end, any place new was better than where we’d come from. In that context, not remembering what you left originally is a remarkable statement of anomie.
Still, we might have focused over the years too much on the word direction, as in “heading toward.”
Maybe “no direction home” means that there’s no guidance home, that you have to figure it out for yourself.
If Bob Dylan is a question, maybe this is the answer. Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be. Even his remoteness is a by-product; it’s what he deserves after having given his all. Call the work art, call it crap, call it Spanish boots of Spanish leather, but in the end it’s the creation of an artist who defies us to ask for something more.
*This article appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
The identity of the buyer was not released, but the purchase price bested the previous record of $1.2 million paid in 2010 for John Lennon’s lyrics to “A Day in the Life” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Lyrics to another Dylan classic, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” sold for $485,000, according to Reuters, at Sotheby’s first dedicated music history sale in more than a decade.
Other items in the sale included memorabilia from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley, with pre-auction estimates ranging from as little as $200 to $300 to $1 million to $2 million for the draft of “Like A Rolling Stone” that Dylan wrote on stationery from the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington.
According to Sotheby’s, the lyrics were put up for auction by a man identified only as a fan from California “who met his hero in a non-rock context and bought [the lyrics] directly from Dylan.”
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The critic Greil Marcus once told an interviewer that, among musicians, Bob Dylan had the stupidest fans. “I think it’s because something in Dylan’s writing leads people to believe that there is a secret behind every song. And if you unlock that secret then you’ll understand the meaning of life,” he said. Dylan himself seems to agree. In 2001, forty years into his career, Dylan said, “These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music, I don’t feel they know a thing, or have any inkling of who I am and what I’m about. I know they think they do, and yet it’s ludicrous, it’s humorous, and sad.” A decade later, Dylan told an interviewer for Rolling Stone, “Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy? What the fuck is the matter with them? … May the Lord have mercy on them. They are lost souls.”
David Kinney’s new book, “The Dylanologists,” is a journey among these so-called lost souls. Kinney is a newspaper journalist and a Dylan fan; his first book, “The Big One,” from 2009, was about a different set of obsessives: the anglers who compete in an annual fishing derby on Martha’s Vineyard. Here, he travels to a Dylan-themed diner in the singer’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, which catered to visiting fans. (It recently closed, after losing its liquor license; the executive chef explained to the local paper that “people from Hibbing don’t like Bob Dylan as much as people not from Hibbing like Bob Dylan.”) He stands in line in the cold among a group of Dylan’s late-career tour regulars in order to get a prime spot in the front row. And he introduces a cast of Dylan disciples: circumspect keepers of secret bootleg recordings, feuding editors of Dylan zines and Web sites, literary detectives sourcing allusions in his lyrics, and a guy who owns Dylan’s childhood high chair.
There are plenty of creeps. In the mid-sixties, perhaps unnerved by his influence over his fans, Dylan fled upstate to Woodstock, where hopeful acolytes showed up at his house. One guy sneaked into Dylan’s bedroom to watch him and his wife sleep. Later, Dylan recalled thinking, “Now wait, these people can’t be my fans. They just can’t be.” Devotion can turn strange, and sour. After Dylan moved back to New York City, in the late sixties, he was dogged by a man named A. J. Weberman, who created a peculiar translation system to “decode” Dylan’s lyrics—“in Dylan’s language Texas might mean ‘Europe’ ”—and even went through his trash. Years later, still preoccupied by bizarre theories about Dylan, Weberman tells Kinney, “I wasted my fucking life on this shit.” Another parser of Dylan’s songs became convinced that his album “Time Out of Mind,” from 1997, foretold the death of Princess Diana. As Kinney writes, “Any fool could find whatever he wanted inside the vast Dylan songbook: drugs, Jesus, Joan Baez.”
Yet, despite these unnerving examples, most of the fans that Kinney talks to aren’t fools or stalkers. They have simply developed an usually strong affinity for an artist and his music. And though their ardor seems to make the artist himself uncomfortable, Kinney suggests that Dylan might be partially to blame for it—that his own aloofness and self-made mythologies have deepened his fans’ thralldom. “Dylan created personas and then demolished them, denied they had ever existed, and scorned the people who still clung to them,” Kinney writes. Political folkie, country farmer, travelling gypsy, born-again Christian, rustic dandy—Dylan has cycled through a series of musical characters as if playing all the parts in a one-man vaudeville act. It’s been thrilling and curious, and also—most of the time, at least—deeply persuasive. Can fans be blamed for coming under one of these spells—for believing that Dylan meant what he sang at the March on Washington, or wasn’t just messing around when he recorded “Self Portrait,” or for preferring one incarnation above the others and lamenting or resenting that version’s demolition by Dylan’s own revisionism? Kinney’s own fandom seems to have lapsed a bit into skepticism, yet he never mocks the continued devotion of those who still believe. By getting his subjects to talk about the moment, often years past, in which they were swayed by Dylan’s music, Kinney humanizes the archetype of the pop junkie.
It is risky to be an earnest Bob Dylan fan—the kind of person who is inclined to follow him around on his Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988 and hasn’t stopped, as Dylan plays on past his seventy-second birthday. Or someone like the music critic Lester Bangs, who found himself, in the seventies, using Dylan’s album “Blood on the Tracks” as “an instrument of self abuse”—something he put on after every heartbreak, a personal soundtrack of misery. Dylan might very well sneer at one of the hardcore fans whom Kinney talks to, who describes what he feels when he watches the singer onstage: “I just wanted him to know that I existed and that I loved what he did. But it goes deeper than that. I don’t know why, but if Bob is sad, or his music is sad, I feel sad, and I feel sad for him. When he’s singing and he’s hurting, it hurts me, too.” Another fan, who followed the tour as a young woman, told Kinney that she went out of her way not to meet Dylan on the road; she’d heard about his mercurial, often prickly personality, and couldn’t imagine how she could go on listening to his music if he were to shoot her an icy, dismissive stare.
Like a disappointed father—or an angry God—Dylan seems to lament the foibles of his followers. But Kinney argues that Dylan may have more in common with his obsessive fans than he might think. Like them, he is a collector of cultural ephemera, a hoarder of odd texts and phrases, and an avid, idiosyncratic student of the past.
In the summer of 2003, a schoolteacher from Minnesota was travelling in Japan and happened to pick up a book about the world of Japanese organized crime called “Confessions of a Yakuza.” On the book’s first page, he read a line, about a man sitting like a “feudal lord,” that stood out. He realized that it echoed a line from one of Dylan’s songs from the album “Love and Theft,” which was released in 2001. He brought the book home and found a handful of other, unmistakably reused phrases. Dylan had not credited his strange source, which seemed to have been selected almost at random. In the years since, with the help of Google Books, Scott Warmuth, a fan from New Mexico, has been delving deeper into Dylan’s recent writing and finding all kinds of odd, uncredited borrowings. Passages from Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One” (2004), were taken from disparate sources: from H. G. Wells, Jack London, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald; from Tony Horowitz’s nonfiction book “Confederates in the Attic,” a travel guide about New Orleans, and an issue of Time, from 1961. Listeners of Dylan’s album “Modern Times” (from 2006) found lyrics that came from the work of an unremembered Civil War poet named Henry Timrod. Some have called these plain cases of plagiarism; others have suggested that they diminish or else entirely scuttle the idea of Dylan as an original American voice.
But Kinney takes a different view of these discoveries. Warmuth’s reading of Dylan’s memoir has revealed that Dylan’s “appropriations were not random. They were deliberate. When Scott delved into them, he found cleverness, wordplay, jokes, and subtexts.” The thefts that Dylan made were part of the story—he had, as Kinney writes, “hidden another book between the lines.” Kinney remarks on an especially intriguing section of “Chronicles,” in which Dylan seems to be explaining the method behind his guitar playing. Dylan writes, mysteriously, “You gain power with the least amount of effort, trust the listeners to make their own connections, and it’s very seldom that they don’t.” If this sounds inscrutable as musical technique, that’s because it is lifted from a self-help book about gaining influence over others called “The 48 Laws of Power,” by Robert Greene. This, then, is a cunning bit of dark humor: Dylan purports to explain the magic behind his music, but he’s really just revealing how susceptible devoted fans are to this kind of florid nonsense.
This unpacking of Dylan’s memoir, and the increased scrutiny given to his recent albums, is a reminder that Dylan’s work has always been spurred on by his own fannish, idiosyncratic obsessions. Michael Gray, who has written extensively about Dylan’s songwriting, tells Kinney, “You want him to be this lone genius who came from another planet. He never pretended to be. He’s created something out of something else.” Dylan’s earliest songs borrowed chords and lyrics from traditional folk songs; he has lifted lines and licks from the blues; he has repurposed and reassembled the Bible, press clippings, English poetry, the American songbook, and a half century of cultural comings and goings to create a kind of ongoing, evolving musical collage. Dylan is an archivist and a librarian in addition to being an artist.
Before Robert Zimmerman was Bob Dylan, he was an eager music fan. As a young man, he couldn’t wait to blow out of Minnesota and meet his idol, Woody Guthrie. He was, Kinney writes, “earnest, embarrassingly so. He would talk and talk and talk about traveling east, meeting Woody, making it big.” Dylan, just nineteen years old, visited Guthrie at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, in New Jersey, where Guthrie, suffering from Huntington’s disease, had been committed. Guthrie was debilitated by the illness—there wasn’t much he could teach Dylan. Perhaps Dylan learned that idols never live up to a fan’s expectations, and so it’s silly to expect otherwise. But Dylan had been a musical pilgrim long before he inspired others to make pilgrimages in his footsteps. Kinney tells another story, of the time when Dylan, years later, in 2009, showed up for a tour at John Lennon’s childhood home. Or the year before, in Winnipeg, when he was spotted at the house where Neil Young grew up. Another time, he was seen at Sun Studios, in Memphis, where Elvis had cut his first records. Someone stopped him and told Dylan what his music had meant to him. Dylan responded, “Well son, we all have our heroes.”
Credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty.
The wildest people from David Kinney’s new ‘The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob’
May 16, 2014 2:00 PM ET
The body of scholarship on Bob Dylan rivals that on Shakespeare or James Joyce. Literary critics like Christopher Ricks have written a books about him, Rolling Stone’s first reviews editor, Greil Marcus, has added three of his own and Princeton professor Sean Wilentz has served as the “historian in residence” at bobdylan.com.
And then there are the real fanatics – the Dylan obsessives who dig in the singer’s trash, buy the high chair he used as a baby and crash his sons’ bar mitzvahs. It’s those devotees who are the subject of The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob, a new book by Pulitzer Prize–winner David Kinney examining the well worn legacy of rock & roll’s biggest enigma through the theories and fixations of his most devoted zealots. Here are 10 of the weirder episodes in the long, not-so-distinguished history of extreme Dylanology.
20 Overlooked Dylan Classics
- Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?
Recent owners of Dylan’s boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota, replaced 19 windows and gave the old ones to various fans (including one guy who named his sons Bob and Dylan). “It’s like the 4,000 fragments of the true cross,” said one recipient.
A.J. Weberman, the man Rolling Stone once called the “king of all Dylan nuts,” is notorious for digging in Dylan’s garbage. Dylan reportedly once roughed him up on the street, tore off Weberman’s “DLF” – Dylan Liberation Front – button and rode away on his bicycle.
In the Kitchen With the Tombstone Blues
A tape of Dylan made in St. Paul in 1960, then thought to be the earliest recording of him performing, surfaced in 1978. When fanzine writer Brian Stibal asked for a listen, the owner’s husband insisted on doing the dishes as they played it. As the husband suspected, the writer had hidden a tape recorder in his jacket. The subsequent bootleg became known as the “armpit tape” for its awful sound quality.
One More Cup of Coffee
Concert tapers have used many innovative methods to smuggle recording equipment into Dylan shows, with one obsessive who stuffed his gear inside a pillow, strapping it to his “pregnant” girlfriend’s belly. Another created a coffee thermos with a false bottom that would hide his video camera lens.
Dylan fanatic Robin Titus made her son a sweatshirt that read “Bob Dylan” on the front and “Won’t Let Go Can’t Let Go” (from his born-again song “Solid Rock”) on the back. The kid ended up wearing it in all his class pictures – she made bigger versions for him every few years.
Throw Your Panties Overboard
On one of the rare occasions when Dylan approached fans outside a venue, he bantered with a woman who claimed she’d brought red lacy underwear embroidered with the name Bob. The pleasantries ended abruptly when another female fan asked whether Dylan had been breast-fed as a boy.
No Secrets to Conceal
After confirming that chunks of Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, were cribbed from other sources, Edward Cook told no one for a week. He wanted to feel like he had “a secret with Dylan.”
You Cut Me Like a Jigsaw Puzzle
Well-known fan and blogger Scott Warmuth, who decodes the sources of Dylan’s lyrics has studied puzzles, circus sideshows, magicians and cryptography to gain more insight. One description in Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, was drawn from The 48 Laws of Power, Warmuth discovered: from a section called “The Science of Charlatanism, or How to Create a Cult in Five Easy Steps.”
The Psychiatric Couch
Fanzine editor Andy Muir spent his weekends in the office of his employer, British Telecom, photocopying 35,000 pages for his 750 subscribers. Running out of room for his vast collection of concert tapes, he hollowed out his couch for more storage space. It collapsed.
Like a Complete Unknown
One woman might have spoken for all Dylan freaks when she explained her lifelong dream to meet the man. “He and I have been through a lot together and he doesn’t know it,” she told the author. “I just think it’s not fair that it’s a one-way relationship.”
The 10 Best Bob Dylan Bootlegs
Bob Dylan Releases Frank Sinatra Cover, Plans New Album
Quiz: Do You Know Your Dylan?
Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/bob-dylans-10-craziest-fans-20140516#ixzz31zPUdfdd
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I Have Nothing to Offer Anybody
Jean-Louis “Jack” Lebris de Kerouac (play /ˈkɛruːæk/ or /ˈkɛrɵæk/; March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. His writings have inspired other writers, including Ken Kesey, Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, Lester Bangs, Tom Robbins and Will Clarke. Kerouac became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the Hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward it. In 1969, at age 47, Kerouac died from internal bleeding due to long-standing abuse of alcohol. Since his death Kerouac’s literary prestige has grown and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, among them: On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody and Big Sur.
- See more at: http://thosenotcomplicatedneednotapply.blogspot.com/2013/08/i-have-nothing-to-offer-anybody.html#sthash.MDz1lp6T.dpuf
Counterculture of the 1960’s
Express Your Inner Hippie;
the Art, Fashion and Music of the 1960’s
The counterculture of the United States brought on a new sense and philosophy of life and along with this, different and new ways of expression. The counterculture youth of the nation utilized their first Amendment rights to their full advantage in terms of protest, music, literature and art. The freedom of expression was the main attribute to the carefree, hippie lifestyle. The youth expressed their beliefs through freedom of expression by dawning eccentric clothing, creating new artwork and literature, and expressing themselves through song.
With new ideas about life came new designs for clothing and trends in the 1960’s. Designers fashioned new clothing for the expanding hippie culture whom were attracted to the bright, psychedelic colors and patterns. The drug culture and massive quantities of LSD being consumed fed the appeal of such bizarre fashion. “‘With acid, there was an emergence of young people dressed to die for’ –Christopher Gibbs,” (Miles 255). Designers purposefully created patterns and colors that imitated an “acid trip”.
“The patterns, suitably enough, were created by the burning of acetate colored slides with acid…Colors and materials floated, crossed over into one another and seemed to expand and blur as the wearer danced,” (Miles 255).
People made statements with their outlandish attire and attitudes. The clothing was a way in which the youth could express themselves to the public as free individuals who had no regard for what people had to say about them or how they dressed. Some hippies did not feel the need for such expensive, outrageous clothing. Some were content with less expensive or home-made clothing.
“The 1960’s describes hippies wearing flowers in their hair, dressing in second-hand clothes from thrift and army surplus stores. They wore ponchos, bell-bottoms decorated with patches and embroidered tie-dye shirts, leather sandals, bright colors, and intricate patterns…Women wore men’s clothes and ‘granny dresses’ without bras because they found them too restricting,” (Hoy 1).
Some hippies did not feel the need to spend so much money on the highest and fashionable trends of the era. Instead, they kept their attire simple and used what money they made for essential living and most times drugs.
The fundamental origin of the 1960’s hippie culture was derived from the “Beat Generation” of the late 1950’s. Generally known as “Beatniks”, these people started to really experiment in the field of art, namely poetry.
“Beatniks frequently rejected middle-class American values, customs, and tastes in favor of radical politics and exotic jazz, art and literature,” (‘Beatnick’ 1).
The “New Beats” developed into the Hippie Generation in the 1960’s as the culture in popularity and exposure increased dramatically. Beatniks were struggling artists, trying to find new ways to express themselves and quickly found an outlet in poetry. Aside from new literature which fed the public alternate ways of life and philosophies, the psychedelic poster business took form and exploded onto the scene. Bold, fluorescent colors and intricate patterns were also reflected in the art of poster making. The fascination with such bizarre patterns and colors was apparent through both the clothing and the posters.
“1966 was the year that psychedelic posters really took off…The letters were often so distorted that they were very difficult to decipher-unless you were stoned. This made the posters and the events they were advertising more appealing,” (Miles 100).
People would design these posters such as fashion designers created clothes and outfits for the hippie generation to wear. People of the generation were highly attracted to them, just as much as they were attracted to the drug culture that was thriving in the nation. Andy Warhol, a famous artist of the era, designed album covers for bands as well as works of art. He is known for many works, among them the psychedelic four-frame portrait of Marylyn Monroe and the can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Busses that transported hippies to the West Coast, such as San Francisco, were painted with similar designs and plenty of bright colors. Bright colors and intricate patterns, as well as deep thought were methods of effective expression during the counterculture era.
Throughout the decades of the 20th century, each has had their own label in terms of musical revolution. For example, swing was popular in the 1920’s, jazz and blues through the next two and a half decades, and rock ‘n’ roll in the conservative 1950’s. The 1960’s era is known for the emergence of psychedelic rock, a genre which hippies listened to when high on drugs, believing they could reach a higher place. The “British Invasion” of bands from England contributed to the explosion of this new rock genre in the United States. “Then came the Beatles, followed rapidly by the Stones and a whole explosion of beat groups that transformed rock ‘n’ roll, if not overnight, then in a year or so,” (Miles 76). The Beatles were a crazed sensation in the United States; they gained a solid fan base in the country amongst the youth. Amongst the most popular groups were the individuals who spoke out against issues with their music. People such as Bob Dylan expressed his protest point of view through acoustic singing and song-writing. He soon became “an electrified spokesperson for a generation in 1965.” (Miles 50). Artists such as Dylan were able to express their views on current issues of the country because they had a right to do so, and because they wanted to be heard. Janis Joplin, a female artistic activist, both for anti-war protest and feminisms in this era because she was able to express herself through music, much like the rest of the counterculture in the United States. The new-wave genre of psychedelic rock took firm hold on the nation and grew more defined as its popularity expanded and the hippie generation found another effective way to freely express themselves.
With a completely worry and carefree lifestyle, the people of the Hippie generation and counterculture used their rights as citizens of the United States to their advantage. They could outright ridicule America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and make statements against the restrictive society that possessed the previous decade. Counterculture youth made statements with their fashion sense, their creative and appealing artwork and through their own voice, either through poetry and literature or song. It was never uncommon to see people of this generation dressing bizarrely, or even simply, painting the flowers and peace signs on the side of an old bus in neon colors, and never without a guitar or flute. Through each of these means, the hippie generation effectively defines their views and purpose, and in turn, positively share it with the rest of society.
“Beatnik.” RetroGalaxy.Com. 2007. Online. Internet. 06.06.07. Available:
Hoy, Rosemary. “Flower Children Chose Alternative Lifestyle.” Borderlands.
Miles, Barry. Hippy. New York. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc, 2003.
For more than half a century, New York City’s historic Chelsea Hotel was a haven for writers, musicians and artists. Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Mark Rothko, Arthur C. Clarke and Bob Dylan are just a few of the scores of creative thinkers who spent time in the 12-story, West 23rd Street landmark.Bobbi Bowers/Flickr
The front entrance honors some of the hotel’s many well-known residents, including Dylan Thomas, James Schuyler, Brendan Behan, Thomas Wolfe and Leonard Cohen. “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,” Cohen wrote in his 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.”Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
The building was sold in May for more than $80 million to real estate developer Joseph Chetrit. Now, only long-term residents remain.Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Front desk manager Jerry Weinstein is shown on duty in June 2007. Since then, most of the Chelsea staff have been let go. “It was like we didn’t have family anymore,” says long-term resident Nicola L.Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
The Chelsea’s lobby, shown above in 2007, was once filled with the work of its residents.Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Former manager Stanley Bard, shown in his office in 2007, fostered the Chelsea’s artistic community for more than 50 years. “He was kind of like a huge leaf that kids could go under away from the storm,” says photographer turned bellman Timur Cimkentli. Bard was forced out by the hotel’s board of directors in 2007.Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Madonna lived in this room at the Chelsea after coming to New York in the early 1980s.Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Hamilton has lived at the Chelsea for 16 years. “I came here to be a writer, ’cause it seemed like the place to go,” he says.Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
A decorated stairway is just one of many art-adorned spaces at the hotel.Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Former manager Stanley Bard, standing in room 614, points out a photograph of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller, taken in that same room. Miller lived in 614 for several years during the 1960s.Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Renovations to the hotel will be subtle, says architect Gene Kaufman. Everyone working on the project realizes that the Chelsea is a rare and special thing, he says.Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Sherill Tippins has spent six years writing a book about the hotel. The Chelsea, she says, “has a spirit of its own. … I don’t think you can defeat this building.”Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
The fabled Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan was home to Mark Twain, Virgil Thomson and Brendan Behan. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, there. Jack Kerouac worked on On the Road. Bob Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Artists Larry Rivers and Mark Rothko, and scores of painters and photographers also spent creative time there. But now the future of the hotel is up in the air.
Multimedia and performance artist Nicola L. has been at the Chelsea some 30 years. She came, she returned to France, she rented another New York apartment, and then she returned. “You come back to Chelsea like you go to your mother when something is wrong,” she says.
But the building has been sold. Once filled with art by residents, the walls and stairwells are mostly bare now. Only the long-term residents remain. The staff — some of whom had been there for decades — have been let go. When the staff left, says Nicola L., “the bellman, the people at the desk — it was like we didn’t have family anymore and we were in an empty boat. “
The Chelsea Hotel is unlike any other in New York. It’s split between rental apartments, and tiny hotel rooms where people could stay for a night. Ed Hamilton, author of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, has lived there for 16 years. The first apartment he had cost him $500 a month.
hide captionA view from the room of 16-year resident and writer Ed Hamilton, who moved to the Chelsea in his mid-30s. “It seemed like the place to go,” he says.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
A view from the room of 16-year resident and writer Ed Hamilton, who moved to the Chelsea in his mid-30s. “It seemed like the place to go,” he says.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
“It must have been 100 square feet,” he says. Now he lives with his wife in a room that’s twice that size but seems minuscule: no kitchen, the bathroom is down the hall, clothes are hanging on the walls.
“I came here to be a writer because it seemed like the place to go,” he says. “I was in my mid-30s. We had always heard about this place because Thomas Wolfe had lived here, and the beat writers.”
The hotel is filled with ghosts. Not only those of Dylan Thomas, who drank himself to death at the Chelsea, or Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sid Vicious, who was stabbed to death in their room, but all kinds of ghosts. Sherill Tippins has spent six years writing a book on the Chelsea. She once brought a friend to the hotel who claimed she could see ghosts.
The friend was up all night, talking to the ghosts, Tippins reports. “She told me, ‘They’re everywhere — in the elevators and in the lobby, and they want attention so much.’ ” Larry Rivers, the “leading ghost,” told the friend: “It is not about the art, it is about the life. That is the important thing here.”
hide captionThe view from Madonna’s former room at the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived after coming to New York in the early 1980s.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
The view from Madonna’s former room at the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived after coming to New York in the early 1980s.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
And that’s what most residents will tell you. Scott Griffin, a theater producer, is head of the residents association. He has lived at the Chelsea for nearly 20 years. He says Arthur Miller and Robert Altman nurtured him at the Chelsea and made his career possible. “The core value of the Chelsea is not in steel or in bricks, but is in the life force that it has,” he adds.
Originally built in the 1880s by Philip Hubert, it was a socialist utopian innovation with communal dining rooms, artists’ studios, even a hospital clinic; Tippins says it was the first cooperative to have a mix on every floor: “Large rooms that people with more money can afford, and people who are more successful mixed in with smaller rooms of aspirers and regular working people. That was a deliberate design,” she explains, “and I think it is the reason the Chelsea has managed to remain the way it is.”
The Chelsea was also unique because of its management. Everybody talks about Stanley Bard, the building’s former manager. Timur Cimkentli was a photographer who lived at the Chelsea, but in 1987, when he couldn’t pay his rent, he became the building’s bellman. Cimkentli says Bard told him: “Maybe you’re not a very good photographer, but I have a job for you.”
hide captionFormer Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard shows off a picture of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller taken in room 614 — where Miller lived during the 1960s. The artist community flourished under Bard’s leadership for 50 years, before he was ousted by the hotel’s board of directors in 2007.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Former Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard shows off a picture of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller taken in room 614 — where Miller lived during the 1960s. The artist community flourished under Bard’s leadership for 50 years, before he was ousted by the hotel’s board of directors in 2007.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Cimkentli says it was a sanctuary for the artists, for kids who really couldn’t pay their rent on time. “Any other hotel would have kicked them out,” he says. “Bard allowed that to flourish; he was kind of like a huge leaf that kids could go under away from the storm, and that was the rarity of this hotel, that he would keep you on, he would see you, and you would owe him two months’ rent and you would cry to him and he would say, ‘Don’t worry, keep painting, keep painting.’ “
Bard was ousted four years ago after conflicts with the minority shareholders. Managers came and went. Then, in May, real estate developer Joseph Chetrit bought the building for some $80 million. Architect Gene Kaufman is in charge of the renovations, which he says will be subtle. Tenants are scared it will become a condominium, but Kaufman and others say it will remain a hotel. The first priority is to preserve, he says; the second, to make it safe and functional — issues like fire safety are huge; and then there is an obligation to the current residents.
Kaufman calls the Chelsea a rare and special thing, and says everyone working on the project realizes that. “We don’t have a lot of answers yet,” he says. “We are still thinking. So I do think it is going to take some time, and we don’t even have a schedule yet.”
Chetrit, the Chelsea’s new owner, was called by the New York Observer “the most mysterious big shot in New York real estate.” He almost never talks to the media, and calls to his office were not returned. Many people say they wonder whether Chetrit will fall in love with the Chelsea or run out of there screaming. Those are the exact words several people used, including Sherill Tippins. “People have run screaming from it, over and over, in the past five years or so,” she says, adding, “I, too, have been tussling with the building for years now; it takes you over and you struggle with it; it has a spirit of its own.”
But that makes her optimistic about the future of the Chelsea. “I don’t think you can defeat this building,” she says. After all, as Kaufman put it, “if this was just a nice building of the period, with no serious history, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
57h. Flower Power
Make love, not war. Don’t trust anyone over 30. Turn on, tune in, and drop out. I am a human being — please do not fold, bend spindle, or mutilate.
These and many more became slogans for emerging youth culture — a counterculture — in the 1960s. The baby boom was entering its teen years, and in sheer numbers they represented a larger force than any prior generation in the history of the United States. As more and more children of middle-class Americans entered college, many rejected the suburban conformity designed by their parents.
Never more than a minority movement, the so-called “hippie” lifestyle became synonymous with American youth of the 1960s. Displaying frank new attitudes about drugs and sex, communal lifestyles, and innovations in food, fashion, and music, the counterculture youth of America broke profoundly with almost all values their parents held dear.
The sexual revolution was in full swing on American college campuses. Birth control and a rejection of traditional views of sexuality led to a more casual attitude toward sex. Displays of public nudity became commonplace. Living together outside marriage shattered old norms.
In addition to changes in sexual attitudes, many youths experimented with drugs. Marijuana and LSD were used most commonly, but experimentation with mushrooms and pills was common as well. A Harvard professor named Timothy Leary made headlines by openly promoting the use of LSD. There was a price to be paid for these new attitudes. With the new freedom came an upsurge of venereal diseases, bad trips, and drug addictions.
Like the utopian societies of the 1840s, over 2000 rural communes formed during these turbulent times. Completely rejecting the capitalist system, many communes rotated duties, made their own laws, and elected their own leaders. Some were philosophically based, but others were influenced by new religions. Earth-centered religions, astrological beliefs, and Eastern faiths proliferated across American campuses. Some scholars labeled this trend as the Third Great Awakening.
Most communes, however, faced fates similar to their 19th century forebears. A charismatic leader would leave or the funds would become exhausted, and the commune would gradually dissolve.
One lasting change from the countercultural movement was in American diet. Health food stores sold wheat germ, yogurt, and granola, products completely foreign to the 1950s America. Vegetarianism became popular among many youths. Changes in fashion proved more fleeting. Long hair on young men was standard, as were Afros. Women often wore flowers in their hair. Ethnic or peasant clothing was celebrated.. Beads, bellbottom jeans, and tie-dyed shirts became the rage, as each person tried to celebrate his or her own sense of individuality.
The common bond among many youths of the time was music. Centered in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, a new wave of psychedelic rock and roll became the music of choice. Bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Doors created new sounds with electrically enhanced guitars, subversive lyrics, and association with drugs.
Folk music was fused with rock, embodied by the best-known solo artist of the decade, Bob Dylan. When the popular Beatles went psychedelic with their landmark album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, counterculture music became mainstream.
It is important to note that the counterculture was probably no more than ten percent of the American youth population. Contrary to common belief, most young Americans sought careers and lifestyles similar to their parents. Young educated people actually supported the war in Vietnam in greater numbers than older, uneducated Americans. The counterculture was simply so outrageous that the media made their numbers seem larger than in reality. Nevertheless, this lifestyle made an indelible cultural impact on America for decades to come.
What happened to the ideals of the counterculture? Why weren’t they able to sustain their utopian views? In part there views were subsumed by the greater culture. Moreover, it’s one thing to say you want a revolution, quite another to try to affect one.