He also clearly enjoys elements of eye-popping surprises in his songs – Alicia Keys and Prince Philip being two marvellous examples. But he’s just as careful, as we all know, to use obfuscation whenever it suits him, which is often. Loves to befuddle us, does our Bobby.
The trick learned over the years is to accept it 100% - you would never, for example, ask him a question! – but try and work things out as best you can and discuss them for online fun like this. And that, surely, has been the main reason for the myriad of books on Dylan over the last 50 years, including the brilliantly titled Oh, No! Not Another Bob Dylan Book.
My own interest at this particular juncture is what appears to be a total lack of a nod to J.D. Salinger in books, YouTube press conferences, articles, blogs and what have you.
I could of course be wrong and would be happy to be corrected. Actually, there’s a dying voice within me saying that the young Dylan was once asked about/suggested for the role of Holden Caulfield in a stage/film version of The Catcher in the Rye.
I’m not a scholar, I’m from Catford, so please, if you know more about any of all this, just let me know and by all means spread the word. And before I try to bring Salinger into the fold, let’s have a closer look at some influences that Bobby has announced without having to be asked, starting of course with Woody Guthrie (Song to Woody). Some of the rest – and there are loads more - come more or less in any order – Buddy Holly, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake and Ovid among them.
Not all are singer-songwriters, so that doesn’t provide a reason to leave out Salinger. And part of my thinking is that the majority of them – certainly Ovid – made their splash well before Dylan made his, ie it’s easier and perhaps more comfortable to refer to someone who rode a freight train in the Fifties than someone sitting next to you metaphorically on 47 bus.
Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One is full of individual praise that you’d die for behind a title that’s typically vague (Volume Two being published for Christmas, folks! Joke.), and his Nobel Prize speech followed suit without accommodating a single Dylan song – not even Clothes Line Saga! - or any contemporary influences. Instead he waxed prosical about Moby Dick, All Quiet On The Western Front and The Odyssey.
The latter (and Ovid) brings in Professor Richard Thomas – who had the cheek to teach Dylan, amid much mumbling, as a freshman subject at Harvard University way before the Nobel gesture. We managed to snap up the Classics professor to speak at Greenwich Theatre on May 25, but unless Trump proves the virus is all fake news, sadly, we’ll have to postpone.
Richard’s book Why Dylan Matters is highly recommended. He has never met Dylan and his quote about that to the New York Times falls in line with much of what’s been written here: ‘Whatever I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me. Dylan is very careful at controlling what he gets asked.’
Exactly – and if you or I bumped into Bob in the nearest betting shop, the best move would be to thank him profusely, wish him well and (in my case) leave Salinger out of it. (I’d definitely risk a manly hug given the chance!)
That level of control that Dylan has and obviously needs to maintain his social distancing – ‘There’s not room enough to be anywhere’ – automatically affects him, in my opinion, in other ways. For example, on the plus side, how brave has he been just to be him since 1961? And the put-ons are used in virtually every interview.
So…to Salinger. I’ve suggested that Dylan prefers to praise predecessors to artists who were more or less his contemporaries. Apart from being amazed by I Want To Hold Your Hand and a self -conscious car ride with John Lennon, he hasn’t had that much to say about The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones come to that. Guitarist Mick Ronson was just wonderful on the Rolling Thunder Review but hardly had a conversation with the main man.
I think Salinger falls more or less into the same category, someone who was a tremendous influence on him without needing (or particularly wanting) to tick the box. The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951. So by 1961, when 19/20-year-old Dylan started taking New York by storm – the same year that Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, set in Manhattan, was published - there’s no way on earth that the Sponge Bob genius missed reading and absorbing the book that went on to sell 65,000,000 copies and still sells 250,000 copies a year.
The Catcher’s hero, Holden Caulfield , nailed “phoneys” once and for all for young people all over the world, in a book that takes on the system in a way that Dylan’s songs do. ‘Look out, kid, it’s something you did, God knows when but you’re doing it again’. Couldn’t that be Holden warning himself in the mirror against the daily forces lined up against him?
Surely Holden comes under ‘Every hung-up person in the whole wide universe’. And isn’t Salinger, through Holden, talking directly to the ‘countless confused, accused, misused, string-out ones and worse’, thanks to phoneys in a million guises.
In my opinion, the two albums – Another Side of Bob Dylan (August 8, 1964) and Bringing It All Back Home (March 22, 1965) have the feel of Salinger, The Catcher and Franny and Zooey all over them.
The latter novella is basically Zooey helping Franny through a breakdown. He finally achieves it with a wonderful piece of spiritual wisdom on the last few pages that’s totally moving and is there for everyone to use themselves when called for. In To Ramona on Another Side , Dylan ends by telling her: ‘Everything passes, everything changes/just do what you think you should do/And someday maybe, who knows, baby/I’ll come and be crying to you’. Same message really.
Earlier in the same song, it could have been (a slightly older?) Holden singing: ‘It’s all just a dream, babe/a vacuum, a scheme, babe/that sucks you into thinking like this’.
Similarly with Maggie’s Farm. I can almost hear Holden singing to Stradlater or, more likely, to his would-be soulmate, Jane: ‘I try my best to be just like I am/but everybody wants you to be just like them/they say sing while you slave/I just get bored/I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more!’
On the same album is the perfect description of a phoney: ‘One who sings with his tongue on fire, gargles in the rat race choir, bent out of shape from society’s pliers…’ Is there no Salinger in that?
And there’s one other big link too, imo. All of Salinger’s work has a spiritual dimension, mostly Buddhist although Franny and Zooey is designed beautifully around The Jesus Prayer. And the sublime moment in The Catcher in The Rye comes when Holden’s younger sister Phoebe finally gets him to talk about himself and who he actually wants to be.
He wants to be the catcher around a field of rye on top of a cliff so that none of the children hurt themselves. In other words, he wants to be Jesus. Some years later, Dylan sings to Jesus: What can I do for You?
Addendum…The Catcher gave rise to the expression ‘Crazy mixed-up kid’ and in November, 1962, Columbia inexplicably released an electric single, Mixed Up Confusion, eight months after Dylan’s first album of mainly folk covers was released and bombed.
Maybe I would just ask him one question:
“Excuse me, Bob, er, how highly do you rate Salinger?” ●