“The idea that poetry was spoken in the streets and spoken publicly, you couldn’t help but be excited by that,” he [Dylan] says. “There would always be a poet in the clubs and you’d hear the hymes, and [Allen] Ginsberg and [Gregory] Corso — those guys were highly influential.”
– from an interview with Robert Hilburn in the LA Times – Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door 04/04/04
Bringing It All Back Home established Dylan as one of the great figures in the history of popular music. If he had stopped recording after Another Side, or simply had continued to produce works in the same vein, he would be remembered as one of the best singer-songwriters of the sixties, something akin to Donovan’s much better older brother. But this recording, together with his next two, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde and Blonde, catapulted Dylan not only way beyond the reach of his contemporaries but also beyond those who have come along since. Bringing is one of the special recordings in popular music. Tim Riley, the author of Hard Rain, put it well: “It’s gut-charged music-making without a net”.
But what makes it so special? It’s hard to describe really. You can’t just point a finger at one aspect of the recording and say ‘that’s why it’s so great.’ It’s not just the prominence of the electric instruments, although they were a new element in Dylan’s art. It’s just not his singing, although it did become even more powerful and imaginative. It’s not just the lyrics, although they did become much more surreal and outrageous. It’s not the politics, since Dylan was political before. It’s not any one thing. It’s a whole bunch of things, each of which had been done at least on some level by other artists. However, Dylan put them all together in a new and unique way. Seth Kulick, writing on rec.music.dylan, summed it up nicely:
He [Dylan] brought together lots of different stuff and mashed it all into one.
Although Dylan had dabbled with electronic instruments during the Freewheelin’ and Another Side sessions, electric guitars and amplified drum kits made their first serious impact on this recording. And what an impact they had! First of all, the new songs Dylan had written cried out for a loud rock band. It’s hard to imagine Subterranean Homesick Blues and Maggie’s Farm without the band. Listen to the non-electric demo of Subterranean Homesick Blues, available on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, and you can hear the difference first-hand.
There was also a dramatic and profound change in Dylan’s lyrics starting with Bringing and continuing through Blonde on Blonde. The style of Dylan’s lyrics before this recording was the result of some literary influences, such as the French Symbolists, William Blake, Carl Sandburg, among others. But the songs, with a few exceptions, were still based heavily on the influence of the blues, traditional folk songs, and Woody Guthrie.
Bringing was heavily influenced by the Beat poets. For those unfamiliar with their work, the Beats were a group of young writers in the early 1950s, mostly poets, who developed a unique style. It was characterized by a very anti-establishment social outlook and a reckless, highly imaginative, and impressionistic style of writing. Taboo subjects, such as homosexuality and drugs, were a frequent focus of their work. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and William Boroughs’ Naked Lunch are probably the most well-known Beat works. Gregory Corso’s Gasoline and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind are also popular.
Dylan has said that he discovered the Beats when he was eighteen years old and then went on to their precursors, the French Symbolists, primarily Rimbaud and Villon. He mentions Ginsberg, among others, in his liner notes for both Times and Another Side. He says in the liner notes of Bringing that he can’t imagine why Ginsberg hasn’t been invited to read poetry at the presidential inauguration (I can!).
Although he may have been aware of the Beats earlier, it seems that they had their strongest impact in the mid-sixties. The lyrics of Bringing directly inherit from their works. I can see him pouring over On the Road, Naked Lunch, Howl, and Gasoline late into the night, bowled over by their unique and forceful language.
Dylan socialized with many of the Beats. He was present at a large, historical gathering of the most prominent Beats in San Francisco that Lawrence Ferlinghetti had arranged. Ferlinghetti wanted to document the Beats generation in the spirit of the early 20th century classic photographs of the Bohemian artists. Dylan was present, he declined to be included in the well-known group photo of the event.
In the booklet included in the Biograph collection, Dylan speaks of the influence of the Beats on his work and specifically mentions a relatively obscure work of Burroughs, Nova Express.
Suzie Rotolo, a girlfriend of mine in New York, later turned me on to all the French poets but for then it was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti – Gasoline, Coney Island of the Mind… oh man, it was wild – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” – that said more to me than any of the stuff I’d been raised on. On The Road, Dean Moriarty, this made perfect sense to me… anyway the whole scene was an unforgettable one, guys and girls some of whom reminded me of saints, some people had odd jobs – bus boy, bartender, exterminator, stuff like that but I don’t think working was on most people’s minds – just to make enough to eat, you know. Most of everybody, anyway, you had the feeling that they’d just been kicked out of something. It was outside, there was no formula, never was ‘main stream’ or ‘the thing to do’ in any sense. America was still very ‘straight’, ‘post-war’ and sortof into a gray-flannel suit thing, McCarthy, commies, puritanical, very claustrophobic and what ever was happening of any real value was happening away from that and sort of hidden from view and it would be years before the media would be able to recognise it, and choke-hold it and reduce it to silliness. Anyway, I got in at the tail-end of that and it was magic…everyday was like Sunday, it’s like it was waiting for me, it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley, Pound, Camus, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, mostly expatriate Americans who were off in Paris and Tangiers. Burroughs, Nova Express, John Rechy, Gary Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Pictures From The Gone World, the newer poets and folk music, jazz, Monk, Coltrane, Sonny and Brownie, Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Christian… it all left the rest ofeverything in the dust… I there knew I had to get to New York though, I’d been dreaming about that for a long time.
He developed a long-term friendship with Ginsberg, played on his recordings, and invited him on his Rolling Thunder Revue tours in the late seventies. The Beat influence began to wane after Highway 61, but did reappear briefly in his liner notes to Planet Waves and World Gone Wrong.
Melding the work of the Beats into the world of rock and roll worked. The outrageous lyrics – full of rebellion, sex, drugs, and anti-establishment rhetoric – were a natural fit with the world of rock. As much as I admire much of the Beat works it be repetitive. Did anybody really enjoy On the Road all the way through? Yes, it’s fascinating for a while, but for two hundred pages? But the style really works in a five-minute rock song.
Typical of all of Dylan’s work, Bringing was more influential than it was commercial: It only reached number six on the album charts, but it rocked the entire world of popular music. Even the Beatles were in awe. The title of an article in Melody Maker Magazine: “Beatles Say Dylan Shows the Way”.
Bringing has an interesting album cover. A well-dressed, unsmiling, and somewhat threatening-looking Dylan leans forward towards the viewer. He’s holding a gray-black cat (which is the father of a cat given to Edie Sedgwick, a model, Warhol hanger-on, and now viewed as an iconic figure of the time). An elegant and beautiful woman (the wife of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman) sits behind him smoking a cigarette. A pile of records sits on a table next to Dylan. One of the records is Lotte Lenya sings the Songs of Kurt Weill. Lenya was actually the wife of the famous playwright and songwriter. She later played the villain in a James Bond movie, From Russia with Love. Other records on the cover (identified by Peter Stone Brown and posted on rec.music.dylan):
Robert Johnson, the Impressions, Eric Von Schmidt, and Lord Buckley. Clearly Dylan was giving his listeners a clue about his influences. If you’re not familiar with the comic styling of Buckley, well, you should get familiar right away. According to the photographer Daniel Kramer, the little clown on the mantle was made by Dylan out of little pieces of colored glass.
The inside cover has a picture of Allen Ginsberg in a top hat. There’s also a picture of Dylan wearing the same hat. These pictures were taken shortly after Ginsberg and Dylan had met backstage at a concert at Princeton. There’s also a picture of Dylan and Joan Baez playing a song together.
There’s a picture of Barbara Rubin massaging Dylan’s head. Rubin was a documentary filmmaker and one-time lover of Ginsberg. According to Ginsberg’s biographer Barry Miles, Rubin frequently took enormous quantities of acid. When Rubin met Ginsberg, she took Allen to see her experimental film, Christmas on Earth. An impressed Ginsberg said:
It was a lot of porn, beauty, in which she made an art object out of her vagina. I thought that was in the right spirit.
According to Miles, her method of film-making consisted largely of swinging the camera around her head. She superimposed the film strips on each other to make flowing, abstract art.
The album was produced by Tom Wilson, like much of Freewheeling and all of Another Side. He must be given kudos for putting together a group of musicians capable of creating some incredibly powerful music. The musicians include Robert Gregg on drums, Joseph Macho Jr, William E. Lee (filmmaker Spike Lee’s father), John Sebastian (of the Loving Spoonful fame), Bruce Langhorne, Al Gorgoni, Kenneth J. Rankin, and Paul L. Griffin.
Not a lot of unreleased material from the recording sessions for this album has surfaced so far, but what has is great. If You Gotta Go, Go Now was released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 and was also released as a single in Europe. The beautiful I’ll Keep It with Mine was released on Biograph. Farewell Angelina was also released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. There’s also the intriguingly titled Bending Down on My Stomick Lookin’ West, which unfortunately I’ve never heard.