When Ramblin’ Jack Elliott met Jack Kerouac in the village in 1953 or thereabouts, the novelist remarked, ‘I like the language of bums.’ Elliott took out his guitar and played some Woody Guthrie songs. Kerouac responded – or retaliated – by reading the entire manuscript of On the Road aloud over three consecutive nights. Some of it, Ramblin’ Jack would say many years later, ‘seemed like my own experiences’. And some of it wasn’t so close. Sometimes things only seem to connect.
Jack Elliott had imitated Woody to the point of impersonation. Lacking the real, functioning thing for the purposes of study, Dylan had then imitated Jack imitating the man they both wanted to be. Like some bohemian sequential movie franchise, ‘son of’ had bred ‘son of son of’. Among the records Dylan had stolen from Jon Pankake back in Minneapolis in 1960 were albums Elliott had made in London in the mid-to-late 1950s, records full of Guthrie songs and Guthrie- sounding songs that helped to cure the young Zimmerman of his On the Road fever. Among the records Ramblin’ Jack would later make, by no coincidence, was one he called Kerouac’s Last Dream. When first released there was a photograph on its cover of a lost American highway touching the blue horizon’s vanishing point, and it relied heavily, as ever, on Woody Guthrie songs . . .
For all his talk, Dylan had never been on the road in Kerouac’s sense, far less in the sense understood by Guthrie. Student dropout jaunts and a professional folk singer’s itineraries had allowed only brushes with the mythos of hard travel and self-discovery, never mind the grubby reality. The voice of his generation didn’t actually know his country well. As 1964 began he could count one trip to Colorado, the excursion to Mississippi, a few gigs in the Chicago area, and a couple of recent flights to California: beyond the eastern seaboard and the North Country vast tracts of the United States were mysterious to him. Inevitably, he wanted to know more. It was almost his last chance to ramble, and his first real chance to give substance to all those ‘Bob Dylan’ tales. Almost exactly three years after blowing into New York, he decided to trace a few footsteps.
On a cold, dry, late Monday afternoon at the beginning of February 1964, Dylan headed out onto the New Jersey Turnpike and found the endless highway. Moriarty and Paradise and the rest were not in the car, not even in restless spirit, though they were probably invoked by someone. Instead, there was a ‘road manager’, Victor Maymudes, and a couple of selected accomplices, Paul Clayton and Pete Karman. The three hipsters might have been mistaken for retainers. Each would certainly come to know his place. If they needed to, the trio would also learn that Dylan was no longer the mimetic shadow of all his old heroes, or even the almost-famous Newport protest singer. People said he was a poet in his own right. He was certainly the presence around whom all else now revolved. This new star held lesser bodies in his orbit.
The car the group drove is usually described as a Ford station wagon, probably a Country Squire, of powder blue. In the back, along with the luggage, ‘was used clothing that Dylan had collected for the striking miners in Kentucky’. The vehicle would carry the quartet all the way to California, where a concert at the Berkeley Community Theater was scheduled for 22 February. Along the way, on a route that would trace wide circles on the map, Dylan would perform in Atlanta, Georgia, in Tougaloo, Mississippi, and in Denver, Colorado.
Robert Shelton would afterwards do his reliable best to endow this eccentric vacation with the quality of legend. Amid ‘detours to see embattled miners in Kentucky, a father-poet, Mardi Gras, and southern civil rights fighters’, Dylan ‘rolled like thunder across America’s landscape, right through Whitman’s “Open Road”, Guthrie’s Hard Travellin’, Kerouac’s On the Road, Hopper and Fonda’s Easy Rider, and Kesey’s Acid Test. Reality was a little less cooperative than all the famous fables.
It was a weird trip nevertheless: one folk messiah, three not-so-wise men, a car, a typewriter, a guitar, booze, the lesser drugs and whatever else each individual could bring to the expedition. Amidst it all Dylan would write himself towards new kinds of song.
The country he was about to traverse was still deep in profound, near- physical shock: the usual word is trauma. The Kennedy killing and four days of national mourning had sent America into a fit of recrimination and self-interrogation. Those who celebrated the slaughter – and there were some – did so discreetly. The rest wondered: what kind of a nation could do this to its democracy, to its leader, to itself? The JFK myth of sacrifice, a bigger thing than mere reality could sustain, had already begun to form. Dylan had discovered as much, to his cost, during the fiasco of the Tom Paine Award ceremonials.
Kennedy’s best recent biographer can fairly state that had his subject ‘never become president, it is doubtful that biographers, historians and the mass public would have had a lot of interest in him’. The Dallas killing, that ‘death in the American family’, had changed everything. In the estimation of the Nielsen ratings agency 93 per cent of the TV sets in the United States had been tuned to the funeral coverage. ‘Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in the Nation’, a doleful subheading on the front page of the New York Times had said. The paper’s editorial on 23 November had called the loss to the country and the world ‘historic and overpowering’.
In 1964 no one wanted the truth about Kennedy’s behaviour during the red scare or the civil-rights struggle. No one wanted to hear about the calculating private man. Above all, his compulsive sexual excesses were a well-kept secret, in the public sphere at least. In a society that separated church and state, murdered John Kennedy had become sacred. The sin was on his country. It was making the country as strange as any car full of beatnik types loaded with grass, speed, ideas, wine and song.
Old and new were overlapping in peculiar ways. Regarded superficially, America could still seem like the big, bold, energised country of cliché and saturated colours, the one fixated with modernity and trips to the moon, a country that discarded its past as easily as it demolished old buildings. Appearances were deceitful. The America of progress and hustle possessed a stubbornly conservative heart, always nearer to God – well over 40 per cent of citizens were attending church each week – than to the latest urban Gomorrah. Thanks to Lyndon Johnson, the war in Vietnam was escalating early in 1964; protests against the war were not. The people Richard Nixon would one day claim for his silent majority were perplexed instead by fads and frenzies among the young. Those people were worried, too, by foreign ideas, and disturbed by foreign threats. They feared the erosion of essential American values. They didn’t like long hair much, either. They were beginning to stir.
Adapted from "Once Upon a Time: The lives of Bob Dylan" by Ian Bell. Copyright 2013 Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.