(Repost) Battle of the Titans:
The Bob Dylan-A.J. Weberman Tapes
The following recordings, as well as their somewhat attenuated introduction, were first posted on this blog exactly five years ago: the date on which one of its subjects turned 65. Since the age of 70 is no less a milestone than that of 65, I feel confident that this re-posting is warranted. There are few, if any, significant changes to the introduction, apart from a closing paragraph modified to accomodate this occasion.
Thank you, chil'rens,
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 to wonder why they didn't do something else with their lives. Not surprisingly, one finds many instances of this in the literary Third World of Film Criticism (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 easily call intellectual enterprises. No. They are extravagant manifestations of hero worship given the lie of scholasticism, or journalism; endless productions of Faust with both principals playing all the roles. 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 suppose you could call Alan J. Weberman a left-bent radical, given that his political stance has always been far on that end of the spectrum. To read even his most recent writings . . . their breathless, steam-roller 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 transformations of the 1960s it is he. And like many such children of its social 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.
What other conclusion was possible? Surely the man who had penned such hair-raisers of the Folk Revival as Masters of War and Only a Pawn in Their Game; who had joined hands on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with the likes of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and the SNCC Glee Club just . . . had to be struggling to end the blight and injustice his songs railed against as every other good and righteous man of conscience, no? Who would dream of questioning it? Sure, he may have said oddly negative things in interviews about songs not being able to change anything, but to pole vault from that point 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.
As you and I know, an awful lot of people got very angry at Dylan when he at last cast off all pretense, all that Folkie fraudulence that had put him on the map, and made his great leap from 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 people didn't like it; not a bit. One need only hear the hideous, impenetrable sonic roar that rose like the wrath of the undead during the second half of his concert at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium on August 28, 1965, or the unconcealed rage he encountered night after night during his 1966 World Tour, to gain small measure of the absolute sense of betrayal people were feeling. If you were a Dylan fan, it was a truly unenviable time. You had to make a choice: either stay behind, hungering for The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (which now . . . only two years later, seemed very very old), or you moved forward with him, swept into the true majesty of Queen Jane Approximately. It was your only choice, and he didn't give tuppence which way you chose.
Most Dylan admirers went one way or the other, but A.J. Weberman actually sought a middle path. He maintained, with what one might call partially-conscious sophistry, that Dylan's new, soul-stirring thunder was just a more densely poetic form of the topical songwriting which had got him over the wall, so to speak. Nothing had changed. Behind those fine black shades he'd traded in the latter-day Okie threads for, Bob Dylan was still a Protest Song racketeer, only now he was disguising the messages behind thick tangles of wordplay. To decipher the social dimensions in Dylan's art, Weberman developed his own species of scholarship. He called it Dylanology.
While there is perhaps more than one grain of truth in Weberman's contention that Dylan hadn't changed . . . Weberman had 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 than what most artists have on offer, then or now . . . Dylanology was just plain nuts; the academic enterprise gone completely berserk. Weberman taught classes in it. Words were parsed; pronunciations analyzed; lyrics transformed anew. Everything suddenly became clear, to hear him tell it: Dylan was speaking to his audience directly; calling them to action . . . he was simply using very indirect means. To establish the bona fides for this construction of Dylan the Perpetual Activist, Weberman went to such tortured interpretive lengths that one can only conclude the essential madness of the task overtook him; and soon he began doing the strange and outlandish things that gave him his brief season of notoriety.
Bob Dylan 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 at the close of 1967 with that wondrous creation, the timeless and beautiful LP John Wesley Harding, Dylanology itself, almost as an unwashed herald of the madness that was to be 1968, assumed an openly 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, A.J. Weberman saw nothing but sinister implications both in Dylan's respite and his slight return.
It got very personal. Within a short span of time he had Dylan going from the most Progressive voice since Christ (a prophet in winkle-picker shoes) to a wanton sell-out, an agent of the oligarchy, a hopeless skag junkie; all kinds of horrors. Weberman's new conception of Dylan was that of a reactionary Pied Piper; leading the children away from the barricades and into his own narcotized haze of blissful domesticity. 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), staging demonstrations outside the Dylan family's Greenwich Village abode, shouting through bull-horns, chanting, demanding negotiation, scaring the bejesus out of the neighbors.
Then he started stealing, and analyzing, Bob Dylan's garbage. Through a process he later termed Garbology . . . Scholarship living in the low-rent district of self-parody . . . Weberman claimed he could derive valuable insight and defining proof for his theses within the discarded cigarette butts, soup cans and Blimpie wrappers Dylan and his family consigned to oblivion.
Their waste rendered unto A.J. Weberman his hour of glory.
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 may have made a pain-in-the-ass of himself to his one-time idol. After all, he did inspire Washington D.C. columnist Jack Anderson to mount a Garbological study of his own on the contents of J. Edgar Hoover's trashcans . . . true, Anderson didn't find very much other than a lot of empty Scotch bottles and Noxzema jars, but at least he proved that the FBI Director was mortal (in case anyone was wondering). If A.J. Weberman's ambitions had been more modest, he could have claimed a similar achievement with full justice.
Instead, he just kept hammering away like an aspiring crank who never knows when to quit. What he really wanted, at the bottom of it all, was for Bob Dylan to write protest songs again. That was all. Underneath the Dylanological theses and the Liberation campaigns and all that schoolboy vanguardism he wasted so much of his life with, Webermen was just another one of those screaming fanatics at Forest Hills. He wanted Dylan to go forward . . . yes, please; forward . . . but only if it all ended up in 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-like Cease & Desist order pulled it from 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 70 today, and while that is often 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)