Don's diary: bringing it all back home

November 21, 2003

Week One

I am sitting in Madison Square Garden for the first of two Bob Dylan concerts at the start of a research trip to complete a book on him and Leonard Cohen. Both are hailed as spokesmen for their generation and as poets of rock and roll, yet they are very different: the one filled with anger, the other with angst.

I am looking at their work using three theories of aesthetics to develop a vocabulary with which to compare their songs in the context of the political movements and musical styles that influenced them.

It is Veteran's Day, and Dylan is dressed in a paramilitary-style civil-war suit, not unlike a Chelsea Pensioner's uniform but black. He pointedly sings Masters of War and It's Alright Ma to loud cheers as the words "and I hope that you die" and "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" are spat out. Masters of War is dropped from Wednesday's concert, emphasising its appropriateness for Monday's performance, when those who fought against terrorism were commemorated.

There is a strong political import to both concerts, demonstrating that Dylan still has a political conscience and a continuing ability to touch the political sensibilities of his audience.

Over the next few days, I walk around Greenwich Village to gather research materials and get a feel for the ambience of what was America's equivalent of Liverpool in the early 1960s. There's not much evidence of that vibrancy these days.

I have lunch in The White Horse, where many of the Chelsea Hotel crowd gather. Dylan Thomas had his last few drinks here, and his photographs adorn the walls of the back room. More pertinently for me, Bob Dylan and Richard Farina used to hold court here in the early 1960s. (Interestingly, Farina would have been the first folkie to go electric at the famous 1965 Newport Folk Festival if it hadn't been for a rain storm that made it unsafe to switch on the amps.) The bookshops and record stores have a wealth of material that I've never even heard of, let alone seen. One book I find, called Hoot , is going to be invaluable. It includes extensive interviews with the Greenwich Village singers and café owners who knew Dylan and Cohen.

Week Two

The contrast in weather between New York and Toronto is severe.

I walk across town to the Thomas Fischer Library of Rare Books to read Cohen's papers. What emerges is the contrast with Dylan in self-disclosure.

Cohen is self-effacing and disarmingly honest in talking about his lack of success with publishers. Despite his bohemian image, he was a good Jewish boy, regularly writing to his mother and sister from Hydra, where he wrote Beautiful Losers .

I read about Cohen's encounters with Alexander Trocchi, the out-of-control Glaswegian beat writer (of the recently filmed Young Adam , among other things) and pornographer. You certainly get a sense of what "running for the money and the flesh" meant in practical terms.

The papers show how meticulously Cohen crafted his poems, rewriting them over and again, whereas Dylan spewed out a stream of consciousness that was emotionally evocative but random in its technical accomplishment.

I accidentally come across "The Bob Dylan Experience" in the sleaziest basement bar in Toronto, on the other side of the Chinese quarter. It is certainly an experience, but not one I would like to repeat. Dylan is perfectly capable of ruining his own songs without having someone else do it for him.

David Boucher is professorial fellow, Cardiff University.

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