“On the Road”: A Bard and His Entourage

July 23, 2019

Allen Ginsberg’s role as a “supporting actor” in Martin Scorsese’s documentary-style, cinematic memoir of Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour proved to be more illuminating than I expected. The scene in which Dylan and Ginsberg visited Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, MA, in particular, had an undercurrent of generational tension. Holding a copy of Mexico City Blues as if he were about to commence a lecture, Ginsberg seems skeptical about his companion’s claim to have read the book when it was first published. There is no outright challenge to Dylan’s claim, but one can hear it in Ginsberg’s voice, and it appears that Dylan caught that grace note of skepticism, too, for he doesn’t let the slightly dismissive tone of Ginsberg’s reaction go unchallenged. Quickly scanning the mosaic of his life-long self-mythologizing, Dylan names the person who turned him on to Mexico City Blues, as if to say I have a witness who can couch for my familiarity with the book back then. It’s hard to account for Ginsberg’s impudence, since Dylan would have been 19 years old when the first printing of Mexico City Blues was being stocked in bookstores and libraries. He would hardly have been the youngest person in the country to be reading Kerouac’s poetry, or Ginsberg’s for that matter.

If anyone can be said to have chosen a life that undertakes the Beat quest of being “on the road,” Dylan is that bard. That the roadmap is often only visible to him seems reflected in the “terrifying clairvoyance” of his eyes, which roam within the performance of his songs like a voyant who indeed sees the colors of every vowel his voice caresses.

As for Ginsberg, who was then approaching 50 years of age, perhaps he is finally coming to terms with the limitations of being his generation’s poetic tour master. In subordinating himself within show business to the extent that he is willing to do entry level work in order to stay in Dylan’s entourage, Ginsberg reveals himself as obsequious a servant to “Fame” as anyone who has ever fantasized about Tinsel Town. It was extraordinarily dismaying to see a poet of Ginsberg’s stature have so little respect for the integrity of his accomplishments.

Nor is Ginsberg the only one who comes off as possessing less than whole-hearted equanimity. Patti Smith tries far too hard to impress Dylan with a poetic monologue that comes across as a juvenile fantasy. In contrast, the scene in which she shifts from spoken word recital to singing her lyrics catches the punk music chrysalis splitting open in full-throated commitment to her peculiar, enchanting domain.

Joni Mitchell is one of the most imaginative songwriters of her generation, but one would hardly know it from the conversations that ensue when that craft and artistry get discussed at length. Martin Scorsese’s film gives Ms. Mitchell the chance to object to how she is not ranked alongside the great songwriters of her generation. She is not imagining the sleight. Show business is just as patriarchal as politics. Mitchell’s gift for figurative language, however, will ultimately be accorded the praise it is due.

In thinking of “Rolling Thunder Revue,” I began considering alternative tours that were the products of retrospective fantasy: what if Joni Mitchell had toured and had as one of the opening acts Michael McClure performing with Ray Manzarek? If I am granted headphone privileges when I get too old to do more than sit in a rocking chair, that’s the ensemble I would like to hear.