Battle of the Titans:
The Dylan/Weberman Tapes
Every artist of worth at one time or another finds their work subject to a form of critical attention that gives them pause to reflect and wonder why they didn't do something else with their lives. Not surprisingly, one finds a lot of this in the realm of cinema (Robert Benayoun's obsession with Jerry Lewis, for example; or Peter Bogdanovich and his troubling pursuit of every washed-up movie director in America during the 1960s). In the main, these are not what one could safely call intellectual enterprises; they are, if anything, extravagant manifestations of hero worship given the lie of scholasticism, or journalism. As I say, you see a lot of this with film, but every now and again you find a case in another realm; which brings us to today's offering.
I guess you could call Alan J. Weberman a radical, given that his political stance has always been far to the left end of the spectrum. To read even his most recent writings . . . their breathless conclusions, grammatical pot-holes, their relentless surge of New Left argot . . . is to see all time stand still. If anyone can be called a veteran of the wresting social transformations of the 1960s it is he. And like many such children of its societal disorientation, Weberman found (or, that is to say, thought he'd found) much succor and perhaps the sign of a kindred spirit in the songs and recordings of Bob Dylan.
It was obvious. Surely the man penned hair-raisers of the Folk Revival such as Masters of War and Only a Pawn in Their Game, who joined hands on stage at Newport with the likes of Pete Seeger and the SNCC Glee Club, for God's sake, just had to be immersed in the cause of ending the blight and injustice his songs railed against as every other man of conscience, right? Who would dream of questioning it? He may have said odd, slightly negative things in interviews about songs not being able to change anything, but to jump from that and conclude that the only authentic element in his songs of social protest was their immense anger, why that was unthinkable. To merely conceive of something that cynical was to engage in it.
A lot of people got very angry at Dylan when he finally cast off all pretense, all that Folkie fraudulence, and made his great leap from writing broadsides about times a-changing to entering the marrow of the American soul itself with sublime, death-dealing emanations about brand new leopard-skin pill-box hats and a Buick 6. Chimes of Freedom gave way to Visions of Johanna . . . and it pissed a lot of people off mightily. One need only hear the hideous, impenetrably thick sonic roar that attended the second half of his performance at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium on August 28, 1965, or the rage he encountered night after night during his 1966 World Tour to gain small measure of the absolute sense of betrayal people felt. If you were a Dylan fan, it was a truly unenviable time for prioritizing. You either stayed behind, hungering for The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (which now . . . only two years past, seemed very very old), or you moved forward with him, swept into the true majesty of Queen Jane Approximately. It was your choice, and he really didn't give a rat's ass which way you chose.
But while most Dylan admirers went one way or the other, A.J. Weberman sought a middle path. He maintained that Dylan's new soul-stirring thunder was just a more densely poetic form of topical songwriting. Nothing had changed. Behind those fine black shades he'd traded in the latter-day Okie threads for, he was still a Protest Song racketeer, only now he was disguising the messages behind torrents of wordplay. To decipher the true socio-political dimensions in Dylan's art, Weberman developed his own species of scholarship, Dylanology.
While there is perhaps more than one grain of truth in Weberman's contention that Dylan hadn't changed . . . he'd merely gotten it backward: the topical songs were always the disguise; the rage and nihilism that render their power even today was more real and abiding, and cool, than what most artists have on offer, then or now . . . Dylanology was just plain nuts; academicism gone beserk. Weberman taught classes in it. Words were parsed; pronunciations analyzed; lyrics transformed anew. To hear him tell it, everything became clearer. Dylan was speaking to his audience directly; calling them to action . . . only he was using very indirect means. To prove his case for Dylan the Activist, Weberman went to such tortured interpretive lengths that one can only conclude the essential madness of it overtook him. And he soon began doing the strange and outlandish things that gave him his brief season of notoriety.
Bob Dylan, as we all know, disappeared from sight in the summer of 1966, began to raise a family of his own and remained in a semi-reclusive state for close to two years. By the time he returned to America's stereo cabinets with that wondrous creation, the timeless and beautiful LP John Wesley Harding, Dylanology itself, almost as a by-product of the souped-up trauma of '68, had taken on an activist edge. Rather than Dylan taking a few years off to live as a normal human being after the marginal achievement of bending American culture to his will, on his own terms, Weberman saw nothing but sinister implications both in Dylan's respite and return.
It all got very personal. Within a short span of time he had Dylan going from being the most Progressive voice since Christ (a prophet in winkle-picker shoes) to an agent of the oligarchy, a sell-out, a scag junkie, all kinds of horrors. He was a reactionary Pied Piper; leading the children of the 60s away from the barricades and into his own narcotized haze of blissful domesticity (yuck!). An album of lovely, if largely conventional songs, Nashville Skyline, seemed to convince Weberman that he was onto something. He had to nail this fraud down good and proper, so he sounded his own call to action. He formed the DLF (the Dylan Liberation Front), staged demonstrations outside Dylan's Greenwich Village abode, shouted through bull-horns, chanted, demanded negotiation, scared the bejesus out of the neighbors.
Then he started stealing, and analyzing, Dylan's garbage. Through a process he later termed Garbology, he claimed he could derive valuable insight and defining proof for his theses among the discarded cigarette butts, soup cans and Blimpie wrappers Dylan and his family consigned to oblivion. Their waste rendered unto A.J. Weberman his glory, as the national press began to take notice. Of course, they wrote it up as an amusing stunt pulled by some counter-culture fruitcake (these hippies . . . I tellya), but fame is fame, whatever its character. And who can say but that Weberman deserved it, much as he might have made a harassing pain-in-the-ass of himself to his one-time idol. After all, he did inspire the Washington D.C. columnist Jack Anderson to render a Garbological study of his own on the contents of J. Edgar Hoover's trashcan. True, Anderson didn't find very much other than a lot of empty Scotch bottles and Noxzema jars, but at least he proved the FBI Director was mortal (in case anyone was still wondering). If A.J. Weberman's ambitions had been more modest, he could have claimed a similar achievement with like justice.
Instead, he just kept hammering away. What he really wanted, at the bottom of it all, was for Bob Dylan to write protest songs again. Underneath the Dylanological theses and the Liberation campaigns, all that schoolboy vanguardism, he was just another one of those screaming fanatics at Forest Hills. He wanted Dylan to go forward . . . yes, please; forward . . . but into the past.
These recordings date from June of 1971 (not, by my understanding, January), just at the tail-end of Weberman's public campaign, and consist of two phone calls to Dylan he recorded and later issued as an LP on the Broadside label before a Mercury-swift Cease & Desist order pulled it off shelves. After this excessively long introduction (for which I apologize), I must confess I have not the talent, or the time, to do their contents much justice here. To listen is to believe.
Bob Dylan turns 65 today, and while that used to be the mandatory retirement age in this country, the favorite son of Hibbing, Minnesota endures as we all must; his larger tour as neverending as the Neverending Tour he's on now. We here at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger . . . extend to him our most sincere salutations and wishes on this auspicious day.
Introduction (A.J. Weberman)
First Phone Call (June 6, 1971)
Second Phone Call (June 9, 1971)