Dylan Goes Magenta -- John Olson

Tarantula is my favorite Bob Dylan album. It has the essence of Dylan without the distractions of the music. It is a distillation of Dylan's verve and wit and imaginative energy. It explodes with verbal pandemonium: words come spilling out of it like the stateroom scene in the Marx brothers' movie A Night At The Opera when Groucho's tiny room on an ocean liner is crammed with an assortment of people; two maids come in to make the bed, followed by an engineer, a manicurist (Manicurist: "Do you want your nails long or short?" Groucho: "You better make 'em short. It's getting a little crowded in here"), followed by at least eight more people. When the door opens, they all come tumbling out. The same hilarious, maniacal energy fills the pages of Tarantula, and it is that wacky, amphetamine-driven, boisterous dynamic of sheer outrageousness, of giddy midnight cablegrams and hysterical Houdini diving boards, of words tumbling and somersaulting over the paper like lush blue coins of extraterrestrial Rilke that has so galvanized and entertained me all these years. Yet, ironically, no one, including its author, has ever taken the book seriously. No one, that is, until the French. You know, those fussy, inexplicable people on the other side of the Atlantic that eat snails and dazzle the tourists with lethal, unpronounceable vowels and got all weird and sensitive about us bombing Baghdad and drowning the world in corporation T-shirts.

Well, we all know about the French. They think Jerry Lewis is a genius. They gave us Dada, Surrealism, and escargot. They gave us Proust, wine, and the Statue of Liberty. They gave us André Breton, Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Luc Godard. They gave us farce truffé, François Truffaut, silk stockings and stiletto heels. The abysmally failed production made by the blind director in Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending is a succès fou in France. So what do they know? I, for one, have a great deal of respect for them. The overwhelming number of literary influences on me, if not arguably on the whole of contemporary American poetry, come from France: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Appollinaire. Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars. Jacques Roubaud, Emmanuel Hocquard, Anne-Marie Albiach. Not to mention the pivotal importance of philosophers and literary theorists such as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. So if the French happen to like and respect something produced here in the United States, I tend to take notice.

I began reading Dylan sometime in 1966. It wasn't much: mainly the liner notes printed on the back of his electric and wildly surreal album, Bringing It All Back Home. This is the record that featured such Dylan classics as "She Belongs To Me," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Hey Tambourine Man" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Classic Dylan lines like "She's got everything she needs/ She's an artist, she don't look back," and "he not busy being born/ Is busy dying." Songs I'd be humming for the next thirty odd years of my life, and then some. Lines I'd be quoting in conversations, singing in the shower, or playing privately in my head during the long dreary hours of mind-deadening shit jobs. These songs were more than songs; they became a significant part of the landscape of my life. And the music was tremendous. I don't mean to diminish the music: the rudimentary guitar ostinato with its pentatonic falling third augmenting the last lines in "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," or the tonal ambiguity of "Hey Tambourine Man," that makes the mutability of its hallucinatory images float with such mesmerizing authority through the dreamy melody, were absolutely thrilling. The music knocked me out. The music - and I haven't even mentioned some of the brilliant musicians accompanying Dylan, Bobby Gregg, Paul Griffin, John Hammond, Jr., Bruce Longhorne, Kenny Rankin and John Sebastian - the music was passionate, driving, galvanic. The music was fierce and ornery as a one-eyed polar bear tap dancing on a Polaroid of Marlon Brando imitating the present tense of a naked commitment. But the liner notes, the liner notes were pure lightning. I was thunderstruck. All the excitement I discovered in Dylan's lyrics and music was condensed into that text. The essence of Dylan's bluesy, mesmerizing, feisty sensibility was not in a harmonica but in the high-powered, high-strung, hijacking of the English language on the back of the album. With language like that, I didn't need a record player. I needed a book. Where can I get more of this stuff, I wondered. There must be a book. There has to be a book.

But a book would not appear for another five years. My first look at Tarantula was a bootlegged sheaf of paper stapled together. My ex- wife gave it to me as a birthday present. I can't even remember where she got it. In fact, I wasn't even entirely sure it was something genuinely penned by Bob Dylan. Was it a hoax? It sure sounded like Bob Dylan. Whatever it was, I liked it. I more than liked it. It knocked me out. It was rock and roll on paper. This was the kind of language I'd been laboring hard to produce since - at age 18 - discovering Rimbaud for the first time. And here it was, at long last: words so autonomous they made rubber look stiff.

Macmillan came out with the first perfect-bound Tarantula in May, 1971. A close friend gave me a copy for my birthday that following August. The Dylan on the cover was the prototypical Dylan, the Dylan of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. The pre-motorcycle accident, pre-Nashville Skyline Dylan. He wears a dark blazer, a white shirt buttoned to the top, a tousle of hair that seems to be exploding out of his head, half his face in shadow, hidden like the dark side of the moon, and the other side in full light, sharply delineated, knowing, confident, and tough. Without doubt, this is the guy that sang "Dr. Filth, he keeps his world/ Inside of a leather cup/ But all his sexless patients/ They're trying to blow it up." In 1994, St. Martin's Press came out with another copy. This edition has the respectable, arty feel of a small press publication. It's a handsome book. It could be a book by Clark Coolidge, or Michael Palmer, or Michael McClure. Even the figure on the cover is a slightly more mature Dylan: Dylan as he appeared in his early thirties, right around the time he produced New Morning, and is sitting at a desk, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, as he gazes down with intense concentration at a piece of writing. His shirt and striped blazer look like they've been slept in. There is an atmosphere of deep thought in the room. This is decidedly not the mid- 60s Dylan, but the "Time passes slowly up here in the mountains Dylan." The "Day of the Locusts" Dylan. Definitely not the Tarantula Dylan. Dylan had lost interest in Tarantula as early as 1966, when Macmillan's editor, Bob Markel, brought the galleys to Dylan at his home in Woodstock. The galleys would remain untouched for years.

It struck me as odd that as late as 1994 Tarantula was being treated seriously by someone. Was it simply because Dylan was still enough of a rock star that a publishing company could make some money from it yet, or was something else going on? Was it because L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry had arrived on the scene, radically challenging the communicative transparency of language and thereby making it possible for a tiny segment of American literary culture to be more receptive to it? I doubt it. The culture of language poetry is too lettered, too heavily invested in literary theory to accommodate the malapert, carnivalesque language of Tarantula. Nor have I seen it discussed in any literary journal friendly to innovative writing of any ilk. Nevertheless, the republication by St. Martins Press made it apparent that Tarantula had, in some measure, been included in American literary culture. Tarantula had evolved from the whimsical indulgence of a pop star to become a genuine literary creation, but its status was very uncertain. In 1992, Sun and Moon published a collection of poetry by Bruce Andrews that bore a remarkably similar voice and stylistic panache: I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) was an arachnid of very similar coloring and behavior to Dylan's Tarantula. It was full of mocking, trenchant, derisive lines like "identity, the couple happy in liquid manure," and wacky, insurrectional wordblobs like "broken english rubber body seltzer paste." I Don't Have Any Paper was a Tarantulawith literary cachet and ejaculatory sonar. So why wasn't Dylan's Tarantulaon the Radical Artifice Radar Screen?

In the summer of 2002 I began listening to an online French radio program called "Poesie sur Parole" (www.radiofrance.fr/chaines/france/france-culture2/poesie/). This was a half hour program devoted to readings and discussions of prominent European and American authors, such as William Carlos Williams, Paul Celan, Michel Butor, W. H. Auden, Jules Laforgue, Samuel Beckett, Francis Picabia and Jean Genet. Much to my amazed enjoyment, the program devoted not one but four separate productions of Dylan's Tarantula translated into French by Daniel Bismuth and published, in 2001, by Hachette Littératures. This I had to see. I ordered a copy.

Hachette's Tarantulais a bright, electric magenta. There is no picture of Dylan. The word TARANTULA spreads across the cover in bold white letters. It bears no similarity whatever to its American counterparts. It does, however, contain the original Macmillan preface, titled Ci-gît Tarantula [Here Lies Tarantula] echoing a similar title by Antonin Artaud, Ci- Gît. Whether the author (it is signed, simply, "the publisher") had Artaud in mind or not I don't know. The preface is apologetic, more of a disclaimer than an introduction. "We weren't quite sure what to make of the book -- except money," the publisher writes. "Robert Lowell talks about 'free- lancing out along the razor's edge,' and we thought Bob was doing some of that." If this were not so pathetic, it would be laughable. What this openly confesses is: if this guy weren't so famous, we wouldn't touch this book with a ten- foot pole. Such was the narrow-minded orthodoxy of the publishing world then. But things have not improved. In fact, they've gone from bad to worse. The publishing world is now so entrenched in its venal, timorous decisions about what to publish, even Robert Lowell wouldn't stand a chance. Poetry, unless it comes under the more marketable guise of 'slam' or 'rap,' is utterly unpublishable. Any writing that doesn't conform to a predictable, literary norm is doomed to scorn and indifference. A book on the order of Walden Pond or Moby Dick would not make it out of the slush pile. Tarantula- were it authored by someone totally anonymous - would fare a little better in the small press world. Perhaps. I suspect even there it would be casually dismissed as an oddity. It's just too weird. Too hairy. Too goofy.

It is strange and wonderful to see the highly idiomatic language of Tarantula transformed into French. French is an elegant, exceptionally eloquent language, but it doesn't have quite the same plasticity as English. English is a hodgepodge of other languages, French is not. There is a purity to French that makes it ideally suited for analytical thought. Common, insignificant objects are elevated in French: ham and eggs become oeufs au jambon. Strawberry shortcake becomes tarte sablée aux fraises. "The dada weatherman comes out of the library after being beaten up by a bunch of hoods inside" becomes "le météorologiste dada sort de la bibliothèque après s'y être fait rosser par une bande de loubards."

I can't begin to imagine the difficulties in translating a book like Tarantula. The only other book I can think of offhand that approaches the same level of difficulty is Finnegans Wake. But in many ways Tarantula presents even more formidable challenges because its neologisms, wisecracks and puns are deeply embedded in the American idiom. It is full of wacky expressions only an American could truly understand; things like "crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him" and "St. Crockasheet said abracadabra." Daniel Bismuth has done a laudable job transforming Dylan's zany idioms into French. In "Prelude to the Flatpick," for instance, Bismuth searches for the most appropriate equivalents he can find for items such as a "tinker toy" (ferblantier), in the sentence "i play no more with my soul like a tinker toy" [je ne joue plus avec mon âme comme un petit ferblantier]. Ferblantier refers to thin sheets of metal, usually coated in tin, from which many toys are made: electric trains, trucks, merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels and tin soldiers. It's not quite the same as our "tinker toys," which as I remember were essentially small wooden dowels that fitted together via circular pieces of wood perforated with holes, but the essential idea is retained: the soul as a toy, a miniature construction.

Added to the difficulties of the idiomatic language, Dylan's syntax is extremely accelerated. He claims to have used William Burroughs and Brian Gysin's cut-up technique in writing Tarantula, though Dylan's biographers give a different impression, that of someone whose life is being lived as though it were a cut-up, constantly on the go, constantly surrounded by crowds of people, grabbing whatever moments he can to sit down and plunk out a few words on the typewriter. Whatever the actual circumstances of its production may have been, Tarantula does bear a remarkable affinity to the giddy, turbulent, phantasmagoric precincts of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. Burroughs' cut-up technique had both an aesthetic and a political purpose: as a literary device, it volatilizes the language, disrupts normative patterns of thought, and creates strange, unexpected ideas and images. The intent was also to break up language and image as devices of political control, an idea certainly consistent with the defiant Dylan of the mid-60s.

Even the title - Tarantula - has a Burroughsian ring to it. Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin suggests it may have been inspired by a chapter in Fredreich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra: "Behold, this is the hole of the tarantula. Do you want to see the tarantula itself? Here hangs its web; touch it, that it tremble! There it comes willingly; welcome tarantula! Your triangle and symbol sits black on your back; and I know also what sits in your soul. Revenge sits in your soul: whenever you bite, black scabs grow. Your poison makes the soul whirl with revenge... therefore I tear at your webs that your rage may lure you out of your lie-holes and your revenge may leap out from behind your word justice. For that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms."

The prose poems in Tarantula also bear a compelling affinity to the bop spontaneity of Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. Kerouac's musical affinities - the syncopations and polyrhthms, minor thirds and sevenths he mimicked in the cadences and improvisational energy of his writing - were with be bop: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus. Dylan's musical affinities are various: rock and roll, rockabilly, country western, folk, blues, and a soupçon of jazz. Dylan's sound at the time of Tarantula's composition, however, was purely electric; I don't just mean electrically amplified, I mean galvanic. Dylan described that sound in a 1978 interview: "the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on Blonde On Blonde. It's that thin, wild mercury sound. Its metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That's my particular sound."

The anarchic splendor that is Tarantula was more than a fillip at stodgy, ingrained convention. John Lennon's A Spaniard in the Works, which appeared in bookstores at the approximate time of Tarantula's sporadic composition, was a jovial satire of smug orthodoxy. Tarantula went much further. Tarantula not only reflected the madcap, topsy-turvy world of the 60s, it followed Burroughs' example and ruptured the linguistic systems that controlled conceptions of reality. If language is a virus, then the venom of Tarantula was a viable antidote. Which is not to say it is in any way an affirmative, optimistic book. It is not. Its humor is the kind of drollery fueled by despair, the mordant jokes of King Lear's fool. It is a violent book, full of verbal pyrotechnics, jabs, jibes, jolts and impenitent jubilation. It is the product of a Cheyenne Contrary, a Zuni Sacred Clown. It anticipated the experiments of the Language poets, who were also to be heavily influenced by Burroughs, but it had nothing whatever to do with literary theory. There is nothing remotely highbrow about it. It is pure eruption. It has the raw swagger of Patti Smith, the acrid, shattered- glass syntax of Kathy Acker and the pharmacology of a hemorrhaging locomotive. It quibbles with borders like a subterranean Idaho.

Reading Dylan in French—or any foreign language for that matter— forces a slower, more concentrated reading. That "thin, wild mercury sound" is stilled long enough to get a really close look at it as it exists in its purity, as a mental phenomenon abstracted from the material components of the music. Altered, transformed, remolded in French, the macabre, feverish equations of the text appear all the more spectacular: "...& nourrissent leurs étés en devisant avec les ombres de pauvres & autres ambulanciers" ["...& feeding their summers by conversing with poor people's shadows & other ambulance drivers"] "qui débarque d'une vie antérieure de binette de jardinier" ["reincarnated from a garden hoe"] "le camionneur arrive avec un balai mécanique sous les yeux" ["the truck driver coming in with a carpet sweeper under his eyes"] "en un acte avec des moteurs V-8 le tout balancé à la baille & conjugué en un miroir volé" ["... in one act plays with V- eight engines all being tossed in the river & combined in a stolen mirror"] "tu dessineras une bouche sur l'ampoule électrique afin qu'elle puisse rire plus librement" ["... you will draw a mouth on the lightbulb so it can laugh more freely"].

Tarantula was produced at a time in Dylan's career when his literary leanings were as strong as his musical interests. In a 1985 interview, Dylan remarks that he "didn't start writing poetry until I was out of high school. I was eighteen or so when I discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Frank O'Hara and those guys. Then I went back and started reading the French guys, Rimbaud and François Villon." Dylan first met Ginsberg in December of 1963, shortly after the Kennedy assassination. His connection with Ginsberg brought him into contact with other pivotal American poets, such as Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anne Waldman and Michael McClure. One of my favorite photographs from the 60s is a shot of Dylan, Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Robbie Robertson standing in the alley in back of the City Lights bookstore. That picture, in fact, had been intended for the cover of the Blonde on Blonde album.

"In the fall of 1963, Dylan had met beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and discussed the possibility of producing a book for City Lights," writes Heylin. This attracted Dylan, as "a City Lights book carried a certain prestige." Albert Grossman, however, had different ideas. "Grossman was not about to sign his boy up to such a small operation. Grossman managed to convince senior editor Bob Markel to sign Dylan up for an unspecified project."

That "unspecified project" would remain forever "unspecified." Now being marketed as a collection of prose poems (the word 'poems' appears in the upper left corner of the St. Martins publication), Tarantula was originally conceived as a novel. Each section constitutes a wild narrative of some sort and concludes, enigmatically, with a brief letter penned by a random character with a silly name: Toby Celery, Oompa, Lazy Henry, Dunk, Corky, The Law. There is no correspondance between the letter and the previous narrative, which makes it all the more intriguing and hilarious. Tarantula does have an overriding structure, a very definite pattern, albeit not one that coheres into an ongoing narrative that develops characters and culminates in a satisfying epiphany or denouement. Tarantula eludes definition. Even Dylan found himself frustrated trying to figure out what it was he was doing: "it don't even tell a story," he wrote in a letter, "it's about a million scenes long/ an takes place on a billion scraps/ of paper."

A Billion Scraps Of Paper would have made a nice alternate title. It's unfortunate that no one had informed Dylan that there was a whole school of writing that did not conform to conventional narrative formulas. Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Joë Bousquet, Emmanuel Hocquard, E. M. Cioran, Georg Trakl, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, Fernando Pessoa. But certainly, being an avid reader, he must have been aware of these people. Perhaps if he hadn't become so famous, and City Lights had been the first to publish Tarantula, it would have been regarded with higher esteem and not merely been a pop novelty.

But who cares? If the book is here and available and I enjoy it, why make such an effort to champion it? In part, because something appears to have gone amiss in the literary community. So much of what I see now seems to have come out of a box. I'm convinced there is a Language Poetry Kit in all the nation's hobby stores. Hey Kids! You too can be a poet! Just follow these easy to read instructions and wow all your friends! Be the hit of parties! What we have are thousands and thousands of graduates from MFA programs, all writing competent, interesting poetry, but with no public, no audience other than their peers, fellow-competitors all schmoozing and jockeying for a position in the small press limelight. Lots of polished, erudite, sophisticated writing, but no real wildness and originality, no real drive or passion. Part of the problem is that so many writers and editors are unwilling to take a chance on anything truly new. "New" meaning, hard to define. "New" meaning risk and adventure. "New" meaning really beautiful eyebrows and a savage equation of jelly and rags. New meaning old. Old meaning river. River meaning river. The total freedom to be as stupid as you want to be. Dumb as a picnic. Silly as linen. Poetry has become a weird career that pays no money, offers no benefits or health plan, and requires no license. But the people involved with it are just as earnest when it comes to attending conferences and networking. Tarantula offers what a lot of recent poetry does not offer: the sheer joy of creation. The mad, giddy, crazy, exhilarating power of writing words off the top of your head and slapping them down on paper.

Perhaps that's what so attracts me to Tarantula. A book that, in more normal circumstances would never have been published, is published by a major New York publisher, and exists as solely what it is: ink and pedipalp, umbilical trombones, greasy quacks and vagabond balls, scoops of delicious logic and a sound like eight hairy legs scuttling across the floor.

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