Review of new books on Bob Dylan & Allen Ginsberg

Review of new books about Bob Dylan & Allen Ginsberg

Reviewed by David Daniel

[This article originally appeared in Arts Fuse.]

Books reviewed: Material Wealth: Mining the Personal Archive of Allen Ginsberg compiled and annotated by Pat Thomas. Powerhouse Books. 256 pages. $58.  And: Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine written and edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel. Callaway Books. 607 pages. $100.


Several years after Allen Ginsberg’s death in 1997, through a friend of Bob Rosenthal, the poet’s executor, I was invited to visit Ginsberg’s apartment at 437 East 12th Street in the  East Village. While not lavish, it was high-ceilinged and spacious, and as I meandered through the branching rooms I had a sense of being on hallowed ground, eager to find some essence of the literary lion who had lived there for the last two decades of his peripatetic life. The décor was surprisingly scant: some of his paintings; a selection of his black and white images shot on a Kodak Retina bought secondhand in a Bowery junk shop; tchotchkes acquired in his world-wandering. Nowhere was there an intimation of archives lurking. But archives there were.

Ginsberg, it happens, owned three units in the building, one for working, a second reserved for visiting guests . . . the other (perhaps?) for stockpiling history. He long served as an unofficial Clerk of the Works for his friends, keeping track of careers: who was writing what and submitting where, who giving readings and performances, who was being honored, busted—this along with squirreling away journals, photos, posters, and manifestos for what became an expansive network of people. It was a golden age of letter writing (something hard to grok now) and Ginsberg’s correspondence was voluminous, encompassing all the usual Beat suspects, as well as musicians, filmmakers, actors, editors, critics, public figures, politicians, and fans.

Among Baby Boomers, “Swedish death cleaning” is a thing, a method of decluttering one’s life so it doesn’t fall to others to have to after we’re gone. For most this is simple practicality; when someone is a landmark figure, however, an icon, this load becomes “worldly goods” and the stuff of which archives and libraries (and tax write offs) are made. Material Wealth: Mining the Personal Archive of Allen Ginberg (a title with interesting crosscurrents given the poet’s cling-free ethos), measuring 12” x 10,” weighing several pounds, and bound so as to suggest a boxed manuscript, is something between a book and a happening. From its cover, bearded and behatted in a stars-and-stripes top hat, Ginsberg  peers with owl-eyed invitation. Inside is an omnium gatherum of the poet’s ink scribbles, snapshot photos, drafts, broadsides, newspaper clippings, political manifestos, and more. There’s a poster announcing Patti Smith’s first poetry reading, a handbill from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, even a 32-page insert of previously unpublished Ginsberg writings. With its riot of full color images and a hundred kinds of typography—like a flashback of acid rock posters—the volume is a festive grab bag of ephemera.

But before rushing to cue up the Classics IV (“Faded photographs, covered now with lines and creases / Tickets torn in half, memories in bits and pieces…”) for a jaunt down memory lane, there’s more. Divvied up by years that correspond with historical and creative periods of Ginsberg’s life (Columbia days; Beat travels; Howl; 1968 Democratic convention; punk rock), and including commentary by the book’s compiler and others, it is a  guided journey through the momentous, often-chaotic times of a full and purposeful life. A kind of Zelig/Forrest Gump mashup, when things were happening, the Jersey-born poet was on the scene. The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, the Summer of Love, the 1968 Democratic Convention and subsequent trial, protests against the Vietnam War—he was there. That he earned stature as a major poet, occupied the role of energetic goodwill ambassador for peace, human rights, and spiritual tolerance, and all the while maintained his street cred with multiple generations is an achievement celebrated in this book.

Material Wealth opens with an epigraph: “Seeing Ginsberg was like going to see the Oracle of Delphi. He didn’t care about material wealth or political power. He was his own kind of king.” So saith Bob Dylan, subject of his own new large format treatment.

Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine is likewise an assemblage of images, graphics, and text. The subtitle, Treasures from the Bob Dylan Center, locates it squarely in the archival realm and gives it context. Located in Tulsa, Oklahoma (not coincidentally close by the Woody Guthrie archives) the Center is the official and ever-expanding locus for all things Dylan. According to its website, it seeks to “educate, motivate and inspire visitors to engage their own capacity as creators.” This book is a lovingly culled representation of some of what’s to be found there.

From across the span of years, more than eighty now, from Zimmerman to Dylan, Hibbing to the world, there are photographs, paintings, posters, film stills, letters, handwritten drafts of lyrics, some of the material never before circulated. There are interviews, bios of figures from Baez to Lenny Bruce, Johnny Cash to Huey Newton, and more. In a point of mutual connection (appearing in both books), there is the iconic photograph of Dylan and Ginsberg sitting cross-legged at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell in November of 1975 when the Rolling Thunder Review came to town. Intermixed with the book’s pictorial content are essays by a sweep of contributors, some three dozen in all, including Joy Harjo, Greil Marcus, Michael Ondaatje, and the ubiquitous Douglas Brinkley. These commentaries become a Rosetta Stone by which to make fuller sense of the accompanying trove and of Dylan’s life and times and music, fifty albums and counting.

In their being masters of performance, metamorphosis, and movement—of “containing multitudes”— Ginsberg and Dylan are the closest peers to Whitman America has produced. Taken together these meticulously curated volumes celebrate that, and exemplify creative bookmaking in a post print-exclusive age. Priced at $58 and $100 respectively, with an impressive coffee-table gloss, we can ask: Are they retailing nostalgia? Of course. And they will appeal to completists and collectors, who may never crack the spines. But for the many readers whose emotional equity in the second half of the 20th century continues to accrue, these books (along with the recent and similarly hefty collection of Paul McCartney’s photographs—1964: Eyes of the Storm) will hold appeal. For anyone wanting to relive—or engage with for the first time—the cultural landscape in the post-World War years on to the century’s end and beyond, Material Wealth and Mixing Up the Medicine give good weight. They go beyond cold print and straight biography to offer new focal angles to ideas and artists whose outsized impact continues to be felt.

5 Responses to Review of new books on Bob Dylan & Allen Ginsberg

  1. Ed DeJesus says:

    Great job rolling together thunderous reviews of books that capture the behind-the-scenes stories of two incredible ‘Hip’ icons joined together at the hip. By pure coincidence, I was doing research earlier today for my own book and had read about Dylan’s ‘Mixing Up the Medicine’ at his Tulsa Museum. The fact that he located it there speaks volumes about his respect for his earlier influences of Woodie Guthrie.

    I was mesmerized by your vivid description of Ginsberg’s East Village units. Were you in town on other business or made a special trip you couldn’t pass on after the invite? Either way, it was an honor bestowed upon The White Rabbit author. Looking back, I bet you wished they had iPhones at that time to capture the Mother Lode of Ginsberg’s material wealth.

    Ginsberg was a goodwill ambassador for peace then, so many artists gravitated toward him. His storage apartment sounds like a time capsule that, if Hollywood got to it, would produce enough movies to last until the next generation of entertainment technology replaces streaming.

    I can never get enough of reading snippets about the ’68 convention and the Summer of Love, probably because I wasn’t old enough to vote then, yet stuck on active duty with my M16. Four years later, I married a young girl who went to Woodstock, and I easily convinced her to open a record store with me while I kept my day job. Your review rocked me back to those days again.

    Far out, Man. Thanks!

  2. David Daniel says:

    Ed, a pleasure to read your voice (in your comment and in your recent posts on this site).

    You remind me of an irony of those times I’d forgotten. Until 1971 the voting age was 21; which meant a huge number of people serving in the U.S. military during the time had no formal voice. Our surrogate spokesmen were the poets like Ginsberg, Dylan, Baez, Phil Ochs, CSN, Country Joe, et al.

    Far out, yourself. I’d love to hear more about the project you’re working on.

    And thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

  3. Louise Peloquin says:

    Thank you David for these two eagle-eyed reviews. You demonstrate how “creative bookmaking” and “an assemblage of images, graphics, texts” can hurl our heads into a far out trip like no other in today’s “post print-exclusive age.”

  4. Steve O'Connor says:

    A smart and perfectly written pair of reviews on these two cultural icons. Reminds all of us of a certain age what fascinating times we lived through, and as Daniel says, the “outized impacts” of these figures.

  5. Jim Provencher says:

    Daniel’s gathering of Whitman, Ginsberg, & Dylan into an Americana nexus yields great insight into the riches of our cultural heritage. I can still see Bob & Allen together at Jack’s Lowell grave…singing Walt’s Song of the Open Road.

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