One hundred ten years after Moby-Dick broke the surface of the inchoate, if not placid, American scene, another leviathan broke the surface of American somnambulance, making waves near the port of New York, which have yet to crest, five dozen years later.
Of all the literary links and/or melding metaphors available for an epistle addressed to Bob Dylan’s audience, Herman Melville/Moby-Dick seems suitable because Dylan’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech is loaded with 78 sentences about Moby-Dick, a new world record!
Also, because the public transformed Dylan into a veritable white whale, a thing great enough to support generations of barnacles right across the pecuniary spectrum, but especially in the book business and in the academy.
Not only that, but Bob Dylan channeled Herman Melville during an impromptu tête à tête with his erstwhile muse, Joan Baez. The exchange was recorded because it took place in the midst of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and is included in the movie based on it by Martin Scorsese.
Dylan and his traveling circus enjoy a rare day off in the Berkshire woods, between a double-header the previous day in Springfield and a show the next day in Vermont. They have the run of Mama Frasca’s Dream Away Lodge in Becket, which happens to be a favorite haunt of Arlo Guthrie, who lives nearby and who had been invited to join the troupe for the Springfield shows.
In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is nearly blissed out – “as the morning of the third day dawned fair and fresh.”
“Here’s food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; THAT’S tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that.”
The decidedly unschooled Bob Dylan also is near bliss, a decade and a half since he weighed the anchor of his mind in the shallow harbor of Hibbing, Minnesota, now early in the most storied tour in the annals of American popular music.
I attended the Springfield shows, and about twenty years later, I became friends with a guy who had been both neighbor and friend of Mama Frasca.* Not only did he attend the all-day party, but he was with Mama Frasca when Arlo called to make arrangements for the party.
Apparently, the name of Joan Baez came up during the conversation, because as my friend tells the story, when Mama Frasca hung up the phone, she was overcome with joy, “Joan Baez is coming, Joan Baez is coming.” So profound was Mama’s affection for the counter-culture chanteuse that, when she arrived decked-out in dungaree, Mama whisked her upstairs and gave her a pretty white dress to put on.
With the party in full-swing throughout the lodge and environs, Dylan and Baez have a moment alone together at the bar. The former lovers chide each other on their recent marriages:
“It really displeases me that you ran off and got married.”
“You got married first and didn’t tell me.”
“Yeah, but I married the woman I loved.”
“Yeah, that’s true – and I married the man I thought I loved.”
“See, that’s what thought has to do with it – thought will fuck you up!”
“You’re right, I agree with that.
“It’s heart, it’s not head.”
It is unlikely that Mr. Dylan, in the hemisemidemiquaver that precedes his reply, scanned memory for a stored phrase to use. There is a chance, however, that Revue poet Alan Ginsberg happened to be on Chapter 135 at that moment, as he recited from Moby-Dick all day, delighted to be within a dozen miles of Melville’s Arrowhead home, where the book was written.
My thesis is that great minds think alike – and not infrequently they think about the very nature of thought. For artists such as Melville and Dylan, it’s never enough to become masters of their craft; every sunrise illuminates a new horizon, and new horizons exert a force on them that we ordinary sailors are lucky just to read about, or listen to.
by Dave Read
p.s. “Oh! time was, as when the sunrise nobly spurred me…” Captain Ahab, chapter 37.
“New Morning,” Bob Dylan, LP #12
*Interview from the Rolling Thunder Revue party at Mama Frasca’s.