The prophet of the counterculture, six years older than me. In l967 I was twenty years old and in my last year of Harvard, studying poetry composition with Robert Lowell, who had inherited the mantle of greatest living poet in the great English tradition after the death of Robert Frost. I had studied ancient Greek for eight years and was writing my undergraduate thesis on Chapman’s translation of Homer, and was planning to become the next T.S. Eliot, at whose altar the English department was still worshiping. Academe being thirty years behind the time, Eliot was still the prophet. Then one night in a farmhouse in the New Hampshire woods, which belonged to one of my classmate’s father– we would go up there for the weekend and smoke dope and listen to records– somebody put on Another Side of Bob Dylan, and I realized that Dylan was the prophet of our age, and overnight he became my role model. I had been laboring on a long poem called “The Notice of a Lady Pruning,” which was full of classical references, like Eliot and Pound, now I started to write songs. I had already met the Reverend Gary Davis, who was living with his wife Annie in a shack behind a row of condemned buildings in South Bronx, in l963. Davis was considered by white folkies in Greenwich Village, including Dylan, to be the ultimate, the great wizard of southern country blues fingerpicking with a lacerated voice coming from the aloneness of being blind like Ray Charles. Davis became not only my guitar teacher but my guru, he touched a lot of middleclass white boys who were to some degree alienated themselves from the mainstream American dream of the golden Eisenhower years, a t.v. a washing machine and all the appliances and two cars in the garage, dad commuting to work while mom kept the home fires burning.
In l970, my first magazine piece, about Reverend Davis, came out in Rolling Stone, and Manny Greenhill, the manager of Davis, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Doc Watson, et al, bought my songs. I was supposed to perform at the Gaslight and other clubs in the Village and become the next Dylan, but never did. The songs were good, but I didn’t have the self-confidence to put them over on strange urban audiences. Some of them were heavily influenced by the young Dylan, particularly one called “The Blind Wandering Prophet of Old,” as you can see from the lyrics.
In some houses there’s no laughter
In some houses there’s no clock
In some houses there’s no food to eat
In some houses there’s no lock.
Some people are crazy about guilt
They want to be forgiven cuz flowers wilt
Milk is spilt, men are kilt
They like to see everything at a guilty tilt
Let me tell you about class cuz I been there
Sitting in the lap of luxury
Shaking my head when the beggars dropped dead
I used to beautiful down to a t
Come to me you weary souls
And all your secrets will be foretold
Your old will be young, your song will be sung
By the blind wandering prophet of old
Some want to see the Eiffel Tower
Others want to see the Golden Gate Bridge
Some want to see the Statue of Liberty
But how many just want to see ?
Some people will tell you this place is no good
Others will allow that it’s fair
But don’t you believe a word they say
Cuz the good life is everywhere
Yes, everybody’s got a homing device
Dogs and dolphins, men and mice
And every soul has a river
That leads to Paradise
Well I’ve sung my way through different scenes
I can operate a few machines
In winter I put up the storm windows
In summer I take out the screens
Four score and twenty ears ago
The pilgrims made their landing
Are we ever going to find the peace
That passeth understanding ?
If you want to hear the song and others I wrote in the Sixties, go to http://www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com/suitcase-on-the-loose/
The album it is on, Suitcase on the Loose, was produced by the late great Kate McGarrigle, sister of Anna, who was married to Loudon Wainwright III, another Dylan-influenced songwriter and underappreciated voice of the Sixties, who grew up across the street from me in the Cheeveresque exurban enclave of Bedford, New York. Their kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright, are keeping up the family tradition. Dylan was the prophet of the countercultural revolution in America mainly, and the next prophet, of the whole world still grappling with the trauma of colonialism and racism, was another Bob– Bob Marley. His words came, like the young Dylan’s, and Rimbaud’s, from a very deep place, “fire-baptized and Holy Ghost-filled,” as Rev Davis would have put it, that only the greatest poets and artists have been able to access.