sketch of Bob Dylan at 19th Peoples’ Art Show, artist unknown â€“ foto by Smith
“Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” – Bob Dylan
Our main gringo friend and fellow marijuana / hashish / opium smoker down in Mexico was Mad Max, who had a young Bobby Dylan as a college roommate for 5 months just before Dylan exploded big time on the NYC folk scene in the early 1960s. He thought young Dylan a brash selfish unsharing arrogant man.
Max’s friend Stan also knew Dylan in college back then and told us a story of the night Dylan stopped by and was playing songs and kept bumming cigarettes. Finally Stan said he had to go out to get more cigarettes and reached for Dylan’s pea coat to wear. Dylan said don’t wear it because it wouldn’t fit. Stan put it on, said “see, it fits fine,” put his hands in the pockets and discovered an unopened pack of cigarettes. Stan also said he’s the one who got Dylan to start a journal after he showed him how other writers used journals to further their writing.
I happened to email Max the other day saying I thought Dylan our finest living poet and got this email reply:
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“I never much cared for Dylan’s songs. They seem to me to be pretensions and a little too precious. Dylan never learned to speak as well as he wrote. Which is a fault in a poet. Poetry needs to be spoken; written it is stiff and dead.
“When I first knew Bobby he was just plain Bob Zimmerman. He and I, Hugh Brown, Dave Morton, we, shared a house on 15th avenue in Minneapolis, near the University.
“Dylan was an asset because he was a chick magnate with his soulful eyes and his guitar ringing out old ballads. He was a very inwardly directed person, which is not a bad thing, I suppose. Having grown up and been educated in Hibbing, MN’s public schools he was dreadfully ignorant. He could read and write, do simple arithmetic and knew American history as then taught; a sort of ‘life of the saint’s’ including Washington’s hatchet and Jackson’s brilliant eradication of the Cherokees.
“He was beginning to figure out that this was deranged, but he didn’t quite know how. We talked a bit about this. I was fortunate in that I had been educated by cloistered Franciscan nuns. I was brought up in the old way, the trivium – grammar, rhetoric and logic, followed by the quadrivium: arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry.
“Bobby was, essentially a savage with a feeling for poetry but no acquaintance with its great lights. I gave him a copy of Dylan Thomas’ prose work ‘Adventures in the Skin Trade’ which he admired and from which he took his public nom de plume.
“I shall never be a great poet. But I shall do little works.”
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As for me, I believe Dylan to be the best singer/songwriter of our time. As for his fabled early arrogance, I’ve found extraordinarily talented folk to be arrogant in their youth – if they’re great, they grow out of it. Not knowing him, I’ve only his lyrics to go by, but I’d say such was the case.
Madmax was also on the bridge with poet John Berryman the night Berryman jumped to his death (January 7, 1972).
Max is still down in Mexico gleefully drinking and smoking himself to death, while I am up here in Cleveland doing neither.
Here’s one of his poems, to give you a feel for the man.
Drunk, Going Down, Looking at the Moon
To my friends the Smiths, and Oaxaca
In the dim Oaxacan nightâ€™s light, I stumble, tumbling â€“
dropping my cane, looking at the moon.
No harm, no fault. The beer didnâ€™t break, the pants never ripped.
Two beers, a joint? I was Li Po in that boat.
Looking, falling; he drowning, I bleeding a bit from the knee.
Same moon, same fall, same drunkâ€¦
“If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself.” – Bob Dylan
puppet of Bob Dylan at 19th Peoples’ Art Show, artist unknown â€“ foto by Smith