Above you can watch a rare 1975 meeting, of sorts, of three hugely influential twentieth-century cultural minds: Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and — in spirit, anyway — Jack Kerouac, who died ten years before. This clip, though brief, would be fascinating enough by itself, but Sean Wilentz provides extensive backstory in “Penetrating Aether: The Beat Generation and Allen Ginsberg’s America,” an essay fron the New Yorker. “On a crisp scarlet-ocher November afternoon at Edson Cemetery in Lowell,” as he describes it, “Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg visited Kerouac’s grave, trailed by a reporter, a photographer, a film crew, and various others (including the young playwright Sam Shepard).” There “Ginsberg recited not from Kerouac’s prose but from poetry out of Mexico City Blues [ … ] invoking specters, fatigue, mortality, Mexico, and John Steinbeck’s boxcar America, while he and Dylan contemplated Kerouac’s headstone.” Why that particular collection? “Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959,” Wilentz quotes Dylan as having told Ginsberg. “It blew my mind.”
In the piece, which comes adapted from his book Bob Dylan in America, Wilentz goes into great detail describing Dylan as a link between two sometimes compatible and sometimes antagonistic subcultures in midcentury America: the folk music movement and the Beat generation. “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was all pretty much connected,” Wilentz quotes Dylan as saying in 1985. “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti … I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic … it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.” Wilentz describes Dylan relating to Kerouac as “a young man from a small declining industrial town who had come to New York as a cultural outsider more than twenty years earlier—an unknown bursting with ideas and whom the insiders proceeded either to lionize or to condemn, and, in any case, badly misconstrue.” The Beats showed Dylan a path to maintaining his cultural relevance, a trick he’s managed over and over again in the decades since. “Even though Dylan invented himself within one current of musical populism that came out of the 1930s and 1940s,” Wilentz writes, “he escaped that current in the 1960s—without ever completely rejecting it—by embracing anew some of the spirit and imagery of the Beat generation’s entirely different rebellious disaffiliation and poetic transcendence.”
Note: Do you want to hear Sean Wilentz read Bob Dylan in America for free? (Find an audio sample here.) Just head over to Audible.com and register for a 30-day free trial. You can download any audiobook for free. Then, when the trial is over, you can continue your Audible subscription, or cancel it, and still keep the audio book. The choice is entirely yours. And, in full disclosure, let me tell you that we have a nice arrangement with Audible. Whenever someone signs up for a free trial, it helps support Open Culture.