Dylan and the Beats: A Dutch take
Tulsa hosted a recent conference on Bob Dylan & the Beat Generation. The event's title is shared by a book which came out in the Netherlands in 2018. Rock & the Beat Generation chats to its author
MOST OF THOSE who visit this site inhabit the open prisons of Anglo-America, confined by our determined monolingualism, complacently riding our own Medusa raft while the seas of Babel swell around us, taking all too little notice of the Beats’ international influence, in other places, in other tongues.
There are millions of non-Anglophone followers of the Beat buzz, reading the original texts or in translation, and Rock and the Beat Generation has been endeavouring, in recent months, to draw attention to that diversity and bring some fresh global angles to the conversation.
For example, Matias Carnevale’s musings from Argentina, on both rock and film, have been a pleasure to include. So have the German reflections shared by Nicola Bardola, Kerouac biographer, and musician and writer Roland Heinrich on the state of the Beat nation within their own borders.
Now we had add to our cosmopolitan roll call with Tom Willems from the Netherlands joining this digital panel. He has produced a book in Dutch on Dylan and the Beats and our dialogue was actually prompted by the recent US conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the very subject his own volume addresses.
Born in 1973, Willems has been writing about Bob Dylan on various weblogs since 2008. In 2011, he published the first of 15 books about the singer-songwriter. The focus of those titles is mainly on the reception of Dylan in the Netherlands.
When was your book issued and who published it?
Dylan & de Beats was published in 2018 by Brave New Books, a print on demand publisher. In the book I write about the influence of the writers of the Beat Generation on the writing of Bob Dylan and vice versa. I focus mainly on Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Gregory Corso. In addition, the book pays attention to Bob Dylan and other Beats, such as LeRoi Jones, Anne Waldman, Richard Brautigan and Bob Kaufman.
Does it only exist in a Dutch edition? Might it ever appear in English translation?
At the moment, there is indeed only a Dutch edition. I have been making plans to update and translate Dylan & de Beats for a while now. This is interspersed with plans to write new essays (maybe in English) using the information collected in the book, for example about Dylan & Ferlinghetti, Dylan & Ginsberg or the influence of the Beats on Dylan's album Bringing It All Back Home.
The problem is that there is quite a world between making plans and carrying them out! Lack of time is the main reason for putting things off. Besides that, I am currently working on several other books about Dylan.
How did you come to this topic as a writer? Are you a journalist or historian or an academic?
I am not a journalist or a historian. I am a lover of Bob Dylan's music who was annoyed by the fact that there was hardly any serious writing about him in Dutch. That is why I started a weblog about Dylan in 2008, which resulted in a series of books about Bob Dylan in general and the relationship with the Netherlands in particular.
The main reason for writing Dylan & de Beats was that I noticed that the relationship between Bob Dylan and writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac was written about regularly (in English), but, first of all, I missed a Dutch book on the subject and, secondly, I noticed that I had found some connections between Dylan and the Beats that were often underexposed.
That was the main reason for me to want to write Dylan & de Beats. An additional advantage was that it gave me a good excuse to expand my Beat library and read everything again, this time with Bob Dylan in mind.
Pictured above: The cover of Dylan & de Beats (2018)
What drew you to the subject of Dylan and the Beats? Were you a fan of the singer first and the writers later, or was it vice versa?
I discovered Bob Dylan by chance, in the second half of the 80s. I was 15 years old. ‘Blowin' In The Wind' came on the radio and I was hooked because of his voice. Soon after that I noticed the beauty of his lyrics. In the decades that followed, Dylan's music became a daily feature in my life.
Three years after discovering Bob Dylan, someone advised me to read On The Road. I bought Kerouac's classic in a Dutch translation, curled up on the back seat of the car to read it on the way home. I never put the book down until I had finished it.
On the cover of On the Road it said that this is 'the Bible of the Beat Generation' and that Kerouac, together with Ginsberg and Burroughs, are the most important representatives of that generation. At the time, I had never heard of the Beats, Ginsberg or Burroughs, but my curiosity was piqued.
Shortly afterwards, I found a book in an antiquarian bookshop with translations of poems by Allen Ginsberg. On the back of the book, translator Simon Vinkenoog quoted a line from Dylan's 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue', which made me aware of the connection between Bob Dylan and the Beats.
Which Beat works caught your attention and how?
It started with On the Road and a book from 1966 with translations of poems by Allen Ginsberg. After that it went fast. More books by Kerouac followed, although it was not always easy to find them in the Netherlands. More Ginsberg and a first book by Burroughs. As always, reading one book provokes the purchase of at least three, four others.
A very small number of the Beats' books have been translated into Dutch, so I quickly switched to reading them in English. The well-known titles like The Subterraneans and Naked Lunch are still fairly easy to find in the Netherlands, but for many of the Beats' works, I had to go to a lot of trouble to get hold of them. Coney Island Of The Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a real eye-opener for me. After reading that one, I had to read everything by Ferlinghetti.
I aim to read Coney Island Of The Mind at least once a year, just like Bob Dylan's book Tarantula. Lack of time sometimes gets in the way. The poetry and short stories of Richard Brautigan, brilliant. Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness by Bob Kaufman. The list of notable Beat books is endless.
In which Dylan songs do you feel there is the best evidence of Beat influence?
The influence of the Beats on Bob Dylan is clearly visible in the cover of and the songs on Bringing It All Back Home (1965). If you look and listen carefully, you will find the influence of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Michael McClure and Lord Buckley on this album.
The Beats are emphatically found in Dylan's work from 1965 and 1966. Besides the previously mentioned Bringing It All Back Home, these include the songs on the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde and the book Tarantula. The films Dont [sic] Look Back and Eat The Document should also be mentioned.
A second period in which the Beats became part of Dylan's life and work, is during the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 and 1976. Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Anne Waldman were, if only briefly, part of Dylan's tour. Ginsberg wrote the liner notes for Dylan's album Desire (1976). In the film Renaldo & Clara, Dylan and Ginsberg visit the grave of Jack Kerouac.
More recently, Dylan's radio show Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-2009) features several Beats, the paintings of The Beaten Path (in the catalogue Dylan quotes Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, among others) and the song 'Key West' on Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020) in which Dylan mentions Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.
Do you believe that Dylan had an impact on the Beat writers, just as they did on him?
Absolutely. Unfortunately this is an all too often underexposed part of the relationship between Dylan and the Beats. Just as not all Beats have had an equal influence on Bob Dylan, obviously not all Beats have been influenced by Dylan.
First of all, Allen Ginsberg was strongly influenced by Bob Dylan. It starts quite simply: in late 1965, Bob Dylan gave Ginsberg money to buy a reel-to-reel tape recorder. This gave Ginsberg the opportunity to compose the poems for The Fall Of America while talking into the tape recorder. Bob Dylan was important for the records Allen Ginsberg made. Dylan taught Ginsberg some of the basic elements of music. Dylan also plays on some of the songs on Ginsberg's First Blues. Furthermore, Bob Dylan – and his music – can be found in many of Ginsberg's poems.
Bob Dylan can also be found several times in the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The influence of Dylan's early songs in particular can certainly be traced in Ferlinghetti's work. Michael McClure started writing about Bob Dylan for the rock magazine Rolling Stone in 1974. Anne Waldman wrote about her experiences with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Diane DiPrima dedicated her Revolutionary Letters to Bob Dylan, to name but a few.
Do you think Dylan retained a Beat mentality or had he largely cast it off by the mid-1970s?
A difficult question to answer! Bob Dylan is often said to be like a sponge, sucking up influences, making them his own and moving on. One of these influences is the Beat mentality. There is no breaking point in Dylan's career at which he consciously or unconsciously pushed that influence aside. That influence is there, although there are certainly periods when it is less visible, I think.
Where do you think the singer sits in relation to that literary movement in the 2020s? Are there still traces of that community of poets’ inspiration in his work today?
On the one hand, there is a respectful distance. Dylan, in the aforementioned broadcasts of Theme Time Radio Hour and in a song like 'Key West', seems to look back with respect at the Beats and the influence they had on him. But he has moved on.
On the other hand, there are definitely Beat influences in his later work. I'm thinking especially of William Burroughs' cut-up technique. This technique was certainly used by Dylan for songwriting in the period 1964-1966 and for his book Tarantula. Although Dylan seems to have given the cut-up his own twist in which coincidence plays a less important role than in Burroughs' work.
This Dylan variant of the cut-up seems to be used to this day. Cutting up texts and pasting them back together again. Moving lines from one song to another, for instance when writing songs for Time Out Of Mind (1997) and cutting up elements from other writers' works and using them for his own lyrics, for instance on "Love And Theft" (2001).
What is the attitude to Dylan and the Beats in the Netherlands now? Do they still have meaning to various generations of readers and listeners?
There are certainly still readers for the works of the Beats in the Netherlands, but that group is dwindling. Bob Dylan still enjoys respect from the Dutch audience. In the Netherlands, Dylan keeps on attracting a new, young audience to his music. The group of Dylan fans is getting smaller over the years. For the Beats' books – with the exception of a classic like On the Road – there is less and less interest, unfortunately.
Also, if you could identify any texts in Dutch that appear to have a Beat tendency, please describe them. I do recall the writings of Jan Cremer.
I wouldn't call Jan Cremer a Beat. Ik, Jan Cremer was a shocking book in 1964, when it was published in 1964, particularly because of the explicit sex scenes. Ik, Jan Cremer is not a well-written book and Cremer's writing has not improved in subsequent years. In interviews, and in the third volume of Ik, Jan Cremer (2008), he makes all kinds of claims about his alleged friendship with Bob Dylan. What Robert Shelton writes about Jan Cremer in his Dylan biography makes clear how likely Cremer's claims about his friendship with Dylan are.
Simon Vinkenoog is probably the most important Dutch writer with a Beat connection. He was friends with and translated poems by Allen Ginsberg. He has written a lot about the Beats and with this writing he has contributed to the fame of the Beats in Holland. In June 1965, besides Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he was one of the poets reading at the poetry event at the Royal Albert Hall.
Not long afterwards, he organised a similar poetry reading with Dutch poets in Carré, Amsterdam. A Beat influence can certainly be detected in his books Wij Helden (1957) and Hoogseizoen (1962). He also wrote about Bob Dylan in Dutch magazines at a time when not many people had heard about Dylan or his music.
Peter H. van Lieshout translated several books by Jack Kerouac. He also wrote poetry and two novels: De Generalenrepetitie (1966) and Slow Motion (1974). In these books, the Beat influence is clearly present.