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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the February
9, 2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In Search of Bob Dylan, 1964
It was Halloween night, 1964, and 13-year-old Sean Wilentz should have
been out trick-or-treating with his friends. Instead he boarded the
subway from his home in Brooklyn and headed uptown along with an
expectant crowd to the recently opened Lincoln Center and the brand
new Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher) to hear Bob Dylan sing. It
was an unusually warm evening for October, he remembers, and
everything seemed to be cast in a golden glow. "It was a big deal for
me to be going. It was my father who somehow got me the tickets, and
to a kid this was high culture, very impressive."
Wilentz was an early fan of the great American balladeer who had
recently burst onto the music scene. This would be his first Bob Dylan
concert, a milestone of sorts in his life as well as a turning point
in the 23-year-old Dylan’s own musical journey. "I don’t think anybody
knew what was to come. There would be a big change in his style, and
there were already premonitions of that." It would also turn out to be
one of those moments in history that one only realizes when looking
back, a time that Wilentz says existed before the larger-than-life
stadium spectacles that pop concerts have become, a time when there
was a magical link between performer and listener, often punctuated
with spontaneous banter, an intimacy that is rare today.
It was also a time when America was still innocent and a little lost,
according to Wilentz, in shock and recovering from the Kennedy
assassination, and on the brink of the escalation of the war in
Vietnam and the next major wave of the Civil Rights movement.
Wilentz’s documentation of that long ago Halloween night concert –
part personal diary, part historical and critical essay included in
the album notes of the 52-page booklet that accompanies a new two-CD
set, "Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall" – has been nominated
for a Grammy Award. Dylan sang 17 songs on that night to a rapt
audience. He also sang three duets with Joan Baez and obliged his fans
with an encore. All of it would be captured on bootlegged tapes that
would circulate among Dylan fans but not be released officially until
almost 40 years later, in the spring of 2004.
The teenaged Bob Dylan fan grew up to become Dr. Sean Wilentz, an
esteemed history professor at Princeton University and chair of the
American Studies program. Along the way he collected a BA from
Columbia in 1972, a BA from Oxford in 1974, two masters degrees from
Yale in 1975 and 1976, and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1980. Wilentz is
modest about the nomination, not so much blase‚ as matter-of-fact and
aware of the certain irony of an Ivy League professor receiving this
kind of recognition in the pop culture arena.
This is a man who sat unblinking in the national spotlight during the
Clinton impeachment proceedings, when he argued against a House vote
for impeachment, warning it would go down in history with "zealots and
fanatics" if it did. His bold and colorful words are featured in such
publications as the New York Times and the New Republic and he has
written a number of scholarly books. Now, his prose could win him one
of the music world’s highest honors.
"Will it change my life? Come on. It’s not going to change my life.
It’ll change my weekend. I want to win. Of course I want to win. I
don’t want to travel 3,000 miles and lose. I’d love to have that
trophy on my shelf. So maybe it will change my shelf if I win. But it
won’t change my life."
Given today’s technology, it isn’t surprising that he received the big
news by E-mail. "I had been in New York, really busy, so I hadn’t
heard the nominations. When I came back I had two days’ worth of
E-mails to catch up with. I guess the nominations had come out that
Tuesday morning. I got home Tuesday night and there was an E-mail from
someone that I work with at Sony. The subject line said
The awards ceremony will be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles
on Sunday, February 13. At this point, Wilentz is planning to fly out
alone, somewhat to the chagrin of his Princeton-based family – his
wife, Princeton professor and historian Christine Stansell, a
24-year-old son who works at Christie’s in New York, and a 15-year-old
daughter who is a sophomore at the Lawrenceville School. "They’re
really not huge Bob Dylan fans, and I’m not sure it will be as much
fun as they might think. There are a number of receptions, events, and
meetings I have to attend. I suppose there will be parties for the
record industry but it’s not my party, and I don’t think I’ll have
much down time. I’ll fly out late Friday and I have to be back
sometime Monday to teach."
Unlike the higher-profile awards, the album notes category is not
televised, but it promises to be an evening full of fun and glitterati
anyway. Wilentz, dressed in the casual flannel-shirt-corduroy-pants
attire of the university academic, chuckles when asked if he is
planning to wear a tux. "I don’t have a tux for anything. I certainly
won’t break any fashion rules but I haven’t decided what to wear."
How does a Princeton professor get a gig that lands him in the middle
of an event with scheduled appearances by Jennifer Lopez and Marc
Anthony, Alicia Keys, and U2? Wilentz had written a number of essays
about Dylan, including a piece in a 1998 issue of Dissent Magazine. In
2001 he says he received a phone call from "Dylan’s people" who asked
him to write notes for an album coming out later that year. "They
told me he was going to release it that fall, and I told them that I
hadn’t heard it yet and I couldn’t guarantee I would write something
good about it. I didn’t want to compromise my integrity. And they said
that was okay. Well, I heard the record and I loved it and I wrote
about it. Maybe that was my audition." Wilentz is the
"historian-in-residence" for Dylan’s official web site,
www.BobDylan.com. When they needed album notes for the new release of
the historic 1964 concert, he was the obvious choice.
"I wrote the notes out of interest, love, curiosity, and it didn’t
take me very long. To me it was a writing assignment, the kind I get
all the time, but this was fun going back in time to do it. It was a
challenge because I wanted to evoke memories without being coy or
boring or pedantic. It was fun, so it’s odd that I should get all this
attention for something I did for fun. There was a lot I had
forgotten, a lot that I had repressed, and listening to the recording
brings it all back."
Wilentz wrote from his own memories of that night and from memories
rekindled by listening to the recording again. He then put it all into
a historical and cultural context begotton from four decades of
hindsight and perspective. In his notes he remembers specific songs
Dylan started the concert with, as he usually did – "The Times They
are A-Changin’," a song that was worn and familiar, then moving onto
new works, confusing and provoking, "a weird lullaby in D minor," and
then introducing the audience to new masterpieces, "Gates of Eden" and
"It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). There is the controversial "Who
Killed Davey Moore?" about the death of a young featherweight boxer
who falls into a coma and dies after losing to Sugar Ramos in 1963. It
is greeted by the audience with cheers and later with scattered
applause for a political message about Fidel Castro’s Cuba. There are
cultural references to the Kennedys’ Camelot, to the Ed Sullivan Show,
and to the Beatles.
"A year after that," writes Wilentz, "with the Vietnam War tearing the
country apart, urban ghettos beset by arson and riots, and
conservative backlash coming on strong, Dylan would suffer his famous
motorcycle accident, concluding the wild period when he pushed his
innovations to the limit…Live 1964 brings back a Bob Dylan on the
cusp of that turmoil. It brings back something that Pete Hamill (on
the liner notes to Blood On the Tracks) called ‘the plague’ that
infected so many hopes, and destroyed an older America sung of by
Guthrie and, in prose, by Jack Kerouac – and by Dylan as well, who
Bob Dylan’s works have a Grammy track record. Pete Hamill, the noted
New York newspaperman and author, won a Grammy for his notes for
"Blood on the Tracks," released in 1975. "Album notes help enhance a
work of art by putting it into historical context." says Wilentz. "I
think of Dylan as a real writer, a great lyricist and a poet."
Wilentz knows something about poetry, and he also knows something
about Bob Dylan. The professor grew up in the heart of Greenwich
Village in the middle of a literary and social storm that would become
known as the Beat Movement. The 8th Street BookShop – owned by
Wilentz’s father, Elias Wilentz, with his brother – became a hub of
that movement, a gathering place where writers and intellectuals could
meet, write, and even collect mail. The store carried an eclectic
collection of books and poetry not found anywhere else. Elias Wilentz
hired poets from time to time, giving them odd jobs so they would have
money to eat. He was also a wordsmith in his own right, who edited and
wrote an introduction for "The Beat Scene," a collection of
photographs by Fred McDarrah that came out in 1960.
The young Wilentz grew up around such beat giants as Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Ted Joans, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, who were
not only household names but often a household presence. He has hazy
childhood memories of Bob Dylan who also wove in and out of this
scene. "In fact, Dylan met the poet Ginsberg in my uncle’s apartment
above the bookstore," says Wilentz. "This was my world, I didn’t know
Though his younger brother went into publishing and a younger sister
became a veterinarian, it was this intellectual hothouse of his
childhood that made Wilentz into the man he is today, a lover of the
written word, a student of American history, and an observer and
chronicler of American culture. He believes that in a country like
ours that is constantly remaking itself, there is no way to separate
pop culture from history.
"The American music I listen to is so much a part of history. One of
the problems with American culture is that it tries to separate the
past from the present. History is not dead. The past is not dead. It’s
very much alive. When I read dead people’s mail in my research, to me
it’s as current as reading E-mail. In my mind, there are ghosts
Wilentz again saw Dylan when he performed on campus in 2000. He won’t
say whether he has directly communicated with Dylan about the
nomination, only that everybody at Dylan’s office and his recording
label are very excited.
He scoffs at the idea of newfound celebrity status. "There’s a
celebrity buzz, a glow in our culture, a bubble. I’ve been around
presidents, so I’ve been around that bubble, especially at the Clinton
impeachment proceedings. While it’s calm inside that bubble, it’s
chaos around it. We’ve become fascinated by the spectacle presented by
television, the movies. My sense of music doesn’t have anything to do
with that. I’m not so interested in what is fashionable. I’m doing
what I want to do and to have fun. I can’t sing, I can’t rap, and I
have no pretensions that I can."
Has the nomination raised his stock among his students and colleagues
on campus? "Princeton students are a cool bunch so they don’t let on
too much," says Wilentz. "They are not treating me any differently but
I have gotten some nice remarks, ‘that’s cool,’ comments like that. My
colleagues have been nice, friendly. I’ve heard, ‘Isn’t that great?’
When you have tenure at a place like Princeton, there’s no more
prestigious or wonderful place you can be. It was an honor to be asked
to do this, and it’s certainly a kick, but no one’s taking bets on
who’s going to win. It’s album notes, let’s put this in perspective,
I’m not that megalomaniacal!" he says.
But he sounds so low-key and nonchalant, surely he is excited about
going to Hollywood? "I’d like to meet Alison Krause," he admits.
"Unfortunately, many of my heroes are dead. I would have loved to meet
Johnny Cash. If I get to meet Dolly Parton out of this, I’d be a happy
Grammy Awards, telecast on CBS, Sunday, February 13, 8
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